Saturday
Apr152017

Me and sneaky the squirrel

 Sneaky the Squirrel challenges me to make him stop eating

Somehow I don't think I'm alone in my relationship with squirrels who want me to feed them. I love to feed the wild birds where we live in Santa Barbara. And I would love feeding our resident tree squirrel, who I call Sneaky, except that he's a two-fisted eater who shovels the bird feed into his mouth. It's not just that I don't want to spend our wild animal feed making Sneaky happy, it's that I worry for his gut. Btw, I say "he" because I'm convinced Sneaky is a he. I'm sorry if squirrel-gender-advocates are offended by my binary assignation of sex to Sneaky, but Sneaky seems fine with it. Sneaky has never taken a gender studies class.

Sneaky the Squirrel and Edgar our resident Raven square off over cheese and crackers

Sneaky depends on jumping from tree branch to tree branch, but lately I see him having a bit more trouble air-lifting his heft. So, okay, I use a Super Soaker to chase Sneaky away. It's only filled with water so please don't sic PETA on me. Besides, I'm doing Sneaky a favor by giving him some exercise. And Sneaky gets me exercising. I have a tendency to just sit while writing and drawing and creatively scheming and at least Sneaky gets me up and down as I chase him away. I do more squats getting up and down from the couch to chase him away than I do in my haha-three-times-a-week exercise routine. He gets to run around the yard and work off the calories before coming back to do more two-fisted bird seed hoovering. Seems like a relationship that could last.

Sneaky in the tree with Betty Davis rodent eyes

 

Wednesday
Mar222017

Buddhist meditation and political thinking right now

I recently read Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker," a book about the importance of combining psychoanalytic therapy with Buddhist meditation. It was a controversial book when it was first published in 1995 because Epstein argues that Western therapy can only take patients so far since it isn't grounded in a spiritual perspective (even though Epstein shows how Freud himself saw the virtue in Eastern meditation). Epstein was observing and experiencing the limitations of traditional talk therapy at that time.

I bought the book because I started practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation a year ago. I regularly do fifteen minutes a day, and though I struggle with the notorious meditation "monkey brain" where my thoughts often fly off in a million directions, I've felt the change from the practice in how I relate to my own perceptions of the world and to my own beliefs about myself. I see how my emotions are not reality. My emotions may guide me to reality, but they aren't in and of themselves reality. They're simply emotions.

I've gone through numerous guided meditations on YouTube, Jack Kornfield being one of the mindfulness practitioners I've found really helped. And Mark Epstein's book also helped me, because it laid out for me all the ways in which I'd often relied on Western therapy to "cure me."

Over the years I've gone to various therapists, from Freudian based ones to Jungian. They all had something to offer, but it wasn't until I went to a Gestalt therapist that I really felt I was doing therapy in the present tense, in the now so to speak, rather than dredging endlessly over past situations.

But while Gestalt helped me, what I've really found most helpful is therapy that combines meditation with traditional Western style talk therapy. That's what Mark Epstein lays out in "Thoughts Without a Thinker." I recommend the book to anyone who's going through therapy, or considering going into therapy.

Were anyone taking my advice, I really recommend "Thoughts Without a Thinker" to any of the liberals who are distraught right now about the current political situation. There is little objective thinking going on among a number of the Lib Left people I know. I find way too much attachment among Liberals to their emotions, as though their anxieties and depression over Trump constitute anything but bad feelings. I think this is why Liberals are engaging in so much projection right now. If you believe your emotions are reality, and you can't detach yourself from them, then you're caught in a hall of mirrors in which you see anyone who disagrees with you, or even questions anything you say, as being a traitor to the Liberal morally superior way.

I'd go further -- I'd say this is why too many liberals are going to spend the next few years massaging their distress about Trump rather than address the changes that need to be made in the Democratic Party (how about tossing it onto the fire and starting anew?).

It's very strange for me to be among lib friends right now. They'll spout about how upset they are with Trump in the White House and they tell me they attend all sorts of support groups on it where they weep and cry and wail about not knowing what they can do.

I've never experienced anything like this before. I don't know why liberals assume that I automatically agree with their ranting, or why they wouldn't stop for a moment and look at me (they never look at me in the eye while they're ranting, they just seem off in their own world) and actually ask me what think. How do they know I agree with them without asking my opinion? Mostly I try to change the subject because while I'm not a fan of Trump on some issues, I don't subscribe to the apocalyptic hysteria these people are spouting. I've found it's impossible to reason with crazy people, even if it's just temporary insanity induced by liberals reading only the NYT, the New Yorker or listening to too much NPR.

They seem to be seeking spiritual solice from politics and political leaders. I don't think that's a healthy relationship to have with government, which should, IMHO, divorced from religious fervor and should be regarded in an entirely pragmatic way.

Liberals will laugh at the Religious Right for their "kooky" beliefs, but I don't see any difference between the way Liberals see the impending doom from the Trump administration and the way in which Right Wing religious fanatics see God smiting all of us for allowing abortion. Because there's a complete lack of objective questioning or distance from their emotions in both these liberals and Right Wing Christians. They're both in full-on apocalyptic mode.

I've decided to stop talking politics with liberal friends who are that emotional. My current tactic for dealing with their ranting is simply to say "I think you need to start practicing Buddhist meditation. Just fifteen minutes a day for six months. Then come back to me and tell me what you think about the current political situation. Because then we'll actually be able to have a conversation." And I guide them to Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker."

Tuesday
Mar212017

potluck and the end of hospitality

Every time my husband Ray and I give one of our monthly lunch parties some guest will ask if I wouldn't rather hold a potluck party so I don't have to cook for the 30 to 40 people who show up. It's a sweetly intended suggestion, but my answer is always a firm "Absolutely not -- I consider potluck to be a major sign of the decline of hospitality."

People will respond with "But I like potluck." To which I always say, "Then you should hold one. And I won't come to it. But if you're invited to our place you don't have to bring anything but yourself."

You know what I mean by potluck I'm sure but if not: it's one of those parties where every guest brings a dish. And that's what I'm denouncing in this blog post.

Is my generation the first to take potluck -- something you were stuck with at church and school socials -- and elevate it to the status of home entertaining? I fear that's the case, but I never went along with my generation's trend. I always hated and dreaded potluck meals. It meant that everyone brought some gluey or overly starchy or gloppy dish or worse -- fluorescent-colored jello weirdness -- that they only made for potlucks and you knew they never actually ate themselves.

Yes, everyone has some memory of that neighbor woman Esther who brought the best brownies in the world to the church potluck. But aside from Esther, who ever brought something to a potluck you ate without worrying about the digestive consequences? Fortunately, early on in the history of potluck, most people learned not to bring potato salad or their own lethal canned green beans. But really, how good have you ever felt tummy-wise after a potluck dinner?

I saw the Decline of Hospitality beginning with parties where I was invited and then instructed to BYOB. Maybe I was born a food snob but even then I thought it was declasse to ask someone to bring their own booze to a party. I even thought it was declasse to ask people to bring their own drugs. Well, yeah, I wanted somebody else to pay the big bucks for the cocaine. But I thought that BYOB showed a lack of hospitality even when the party took place only in a hot tub.

BYOB was hospitality-wrecking enough, but after that I started getting invitations to potluck dinners. "You're invited to our place for a party! Bring something to nibble!" That really galled me at the time, but I chalked it up to my boho friends not having any money or sometimes even a decent kitchen where they lived. It usually meant that there were five of the exact same macaroni salads, and six of the same tofu mash that the local health food store carried, and twenty boxes of crackers and cookies because of course we were all going to get stoned and have serious carb munchies. And the real stars of the potluck were the people who brought the weed, of course. (Or any other assortment of drugs.)

I have some nostalgia for the rap fests that ensued at these parties. But I have no nostalgia for the egregious potluck food and even then I worried that it signalled the end of hospitality. My parents' and grandparents' generations gave real parties. None of this BYOB shit or "bring something for us all to nibble." No, they were very proud of the food they served at their parties, so proud that they would immortalize their dishes in Junior League and Art Docent cookbooks.

Potluck be damned, I say. However, potluck has continued and I won't say it's flourished because that's giving it too much respect. But it has definitely grown expotentially. And really, there's no excuse for some of the people who throw potluck dinner parties. I know people who live in lavish places with gorgeous kitchens who will invite people over for "potluck!" In other words, they're saying "I'd like to be fed by a bunch of friends because it's my personal chef's night off -- so please bring entrees and appetizers, desserts and booze." And these people don't mean some cheapo dish you might pick up at the supermarket. No, they expect you to go at the very least to Whole Foods and spend $50 on the food and also pick up some super bottles of wine.

OK. When we invite you to lunch at our place I make it clear that I don't want you bringing any of the meal. I'm touched and pleased when people bring wine, candies, jams and candies and pastries as presents. But they'd be just as welcome in our place if they only brought themselves. I believe that when you enter our place you're our guest and it's our pleasurable duty to make you feel well fed -- it's not your duty to make us feel well fed.

And if I go to your place? I don't care if all you have is a bottle of Chuck and a bowl of edamame, but it means something to me that you invited me into your home and you want to feed me. Yes, maybe I'll be starving when I leave your place and need to stop off at a steak house, but I'll feel the love of your hospitality. And that's something we should all feel when we're invited to a party.

Thursday
Mar162017

The difference between sewing for women and for men

My husband Ray wearing one of my shirts.
I pretty much design and sew my own clothes these days: most of my dresses, shirts, tops, pants and skirts. I've also designed and sewn most of my husband, Ray's shirts. The digital sewing machines and sergers (which bind material so it doesn't fray) make it easy and the range of fabrics you can find on the internet, if no longer in local fabric stores, gives you an endless range of creative possibilities.

My husband Ray and I get stopped a lot on the street by people who want to know where we bought our clothes. When they find out I made them, they ask if I'll sell what I create. I've seriously thought about selling my clothing but if I did, I'd only design shirts for men. Here's why -- AND WARNING! THIS POST MAY TRIGGER FEELINGS ABOUT GENDER GENERALIZATIONS:

Women will say they want what you're wearing but when they get down to it, what they really want is for you to make them look thinner than they actually are without them actually having to diet or work out.

Don't get me wrong -- I'd love to design clothes for women of all ages and sizes. In fact, I've made tops and pants for my 90-year-old mother because I hated the way that clothes for women of her age are almost always in drab stretch fabrics, as though older women should give up on looking sexy or glamorous in splashy colored patterns. There's a ton of gorgeous stretch jersey out there and I've made my mom stretch bell bottom pants in all sorts of colors and patterns that she loves being in, even if she's at home.

I feel the same about the plus size women -- they shouldn't be relegated to wearing all black, which I've never believed makes anyone look thinner, it just looks like you're on your way to a funeral or finally emerging from that punk club you went to twenty years ago.

But even if I feel that way about women's bodies, the truth is a surprising number of women have a love/hate relationship with clothing. They want the clothes they buy to magically transform them into runway gazelles and that ain't gonna happen unless you already are one. There's a reason models are skinny and tall, it's because they're walking clothes hangers that don't challenge the drape the designer made. Which doesn't mean a woman who's not skinny or six feet tall shouldn't wear those clothes, she just shouldn't expect to look the same as the models wearing them in fashion photos.

But some women will hurl all their fury about their feelings about their own bodies at the designer blaming them for their "bad self body esteem." If you don't believe me, read the customer reviews on any clothing company site.

Then there's the demand that women have for trends in what they wear. Women want constant novelty in what they wear. Women love seeing what the fashion designers have come up with for this season. Women will blame the fashion industry for making them buy a whole new wardrobe every season (the way they love to blame the chocolate industry for their chocoholism). But most women love any excuse to shop for something new. And it's not to please their husbands or boyfriends who usually don't care about women's fashion trends, let alone notice them unless it's, say, a season of butt crack exposing shorts on women. Women keep up with fashion tends and wear them to impress other women.

Women also buy clothes that are absurdly over-priced also in order to signal to other women how much their husbands/boyfriends love them, or just want to get them off their backs. Now, you might think that I'd love that aspect of designing for women, but I don't. Because the more expensive the dress or sweater, the more women feel entitled to complain about it and return it to the store, while often not even bothering to actually wear it more than once. You need to ask why? You can't possibly think women who are obsessed with high-end clothing can be seen in anything more than once, do you?

Women claim to be "concerned for the planet" so designers have to convince them that the clothing has been made in the most eco-friendly way while not exploiting women in other parts of the globe who actually sewed the garment they're wearing. Which basically means that clothing companies brag a lot about how much money they're donating from sales to good women's causes, while hiding how they keep their profit margins up by, yes, exploiting women in other parts of the world who sew the clothes for  nothing or next to nothing.

The only clothing items I've noticed that don't seem loaded for women are kimonos, scarves and aprons. Kimonos because they just flow around you, scarves because, unless a woman is obsessed with being able to do that French thing with it, don't have any stress factor. And aprons because they make women feel like they just cooked a meal and looked adorable doing it even if they just popped some frozen entree into the microwave.

All of this is in contrast to designing clothes for men. Men are, by and large, simple creature when it comes to what they wear. Like most things with men (such as sex and cracking jokes) if it works, why change it? Initially men can be picky -- my husband, Ray, for example hates the new tighter fitting shirts for men. And they can also have weirdnesses about their current physical state. In addition to making shirts for Ray I've also made a few shirts for guy friends. The hardest part of it was getting the guys to tell me if they wore small, medium, large or xxx-large. Instead of telling me, they'd say "I'll give that to you when I've gotten back from the gym." Or they'll claim that I made the front of the shirt shorter than the back of it. Sorry, dude, that's your stomach hiking it up in front.

But once happy with a shirt, guys see little reason to do anything but order ten more in the exact same style only in different colors. Which is great as far as I'm concerned.

However, when it comes to wearing colors or patterns, which is what I love working with, guys can be weird about venturing away from what they've always worn. But I've found with most men it just take some coaxing, as it did with Ray. He'd always worn solid color grays, faded blues or non-attention grabbing plaids. I begged him to let me make a shirt for him in a pattern of wolves. He was wary of "looking silly" but every time he's worn it women tell him how much they like it and even ask to touch it. And animal patterned shirts are now okay! He'd like ten more with different animals on them. Although he said no to a shirt with kitties on it. We shall see.

So if I do decide to venture into making and selling my clothing designs, I think it'll just be shirts for guys. However, the thing that stops me is that I'm only a fairly okay seamstress. If I were sentenced to work in an overseas sweat shop I'd routinely be taken into the corner and beaten for my uneven seams. And the idea of designing my clothing line and then producing it at a reasonable cost by forcing other people to sew my designs in those sweatshops is not so appealing. But if I figure out some way to make a profit without exploiting seamstresses or sending jobs overseas, I just might start a men's shirt line. And maybe aprons.
Monday
Mar132017

why i stopped giving dinner parties

For years I loved giving dinner parties. I liked making a three-course meal. My husband, Ray, and I have great friends and it was a blast to get a few of them together over a home-cooked meal at our place.

However, a year ago I stopped giving dinner parties. It was no longer fun. In fact, it had become incredibly stressful. Planning a menu that would suit everyone at the table became nearly impossible.

When I first started giving dinner parties there was a division between those who were carnivores and the vegetarians. I didn't mind that so much. I'd send out an invitation and ask who ate meat and who didn't. But about five years ago it started to be so much more complicated. When I'd send out a dinner invitation I'd get back a list of things each person didn't eat or want to eat along with their health reasons for it, which rarely amounted to life-threatening allergies. But as the host I certainly didn't want to be sabotaging anyone's "healthy eating" plan.

The last dinner party I gave left me so exhausted and stressed out I swore never again. One person didn't like meat but was okay with fish. I thought, great, I'll make a creamy pasta dish with mushrooms and have steamed mussels as the first course. But the next person was "dairy-free" and the third person was "off gluten." The fourth person said he ate everything. Phew. But the fifth said she absolutely hated shellfish. The sixth was a vegan. I did come up with a menu that suited everyone, which was oxtails in a tomato sauce and with a side of Italian braised beans for the vegan. The shellfish hater flaked out at the last minute, but the meal was a success. Like I said, we have great friends even if some of them are bat-shit about their diets.

Now, I'm very sympathetic to people with genuine allergies -- genuine celiac disease or life-threatening reactions to peanuts or shellfish or sesame. I don't want to send anyone to the ER from our dinner table, let alone kill them. However, it's hard to tell today whether someone really is allergic to say, wheat or just feeling trendy about being "gluten-free." Or whether they really can't eat carbs or they're just deluding themselves that they're on a low-carb diet.

The thing I truly can't deal with is when someone I've invited to dinner says they'll bring their own food to eat. WTF? I'm going to slave over making a meal and they're going to sit at the table and take out some bottle of a probiotic drink they picked up from Whole Foods? And no doubt as they open it they'll engage in a fascinating discussion of how their gut flora has prospered from drinking the stuff.

It's a wonder anyone gives dinner parties any longer. I see photos in food magazines like the one below and think, wow, everyone at the table is actually eating the same dish of food. Then I realize they're all models for the shoot and probably each one brought their own carton of "healthy" food. Probably the photo crew ate the food on the plates.

Dinner guests actually all eating the same entree -- hah!

Since I do love cooking for friends and having them over I thought about what to do instead.

I decided to start making buffet lunches. Ray and I began throwing monthly lunch parties for our friends. Between 30 to 40 people show up each time -- and I reconnected with the fun and pleasure I'd once had in cooking for friends. It's actually much, much easier to cook a buffet for several dozen people than it is to do a dinner party for eight.

You'd think it'd be a lot more work, but it's less. I make a meat or fish dish, a big salad or soup that qualifies as vegan (and gluten-free, dairy free, etc. etc.) and a lot of carb loaded stuff like bread and pasta and cakes and cookies. Sure you have to double and quadruple recipes, but I never ask people ahead of time what they eat. Instead I put out the buffet and let them figure it all out for themselves, although I do explain what's in each dish, since I'm sympathetic to real food allergies. But other than that, they're on their own!

Interestingly enough, I've noticed that people feel freer when they're in a crowd at a buffet than they do at an intimate dinner party. Suddenly all those dietary principles vanish. Or at least recede into sensible eating. I've seen people who tell me they avoid gluten be the biggest eaters of the breads and cakes ("but I'm just going off my diet today" they'll say). I've seen people who tell me they're "off sugar" have several pieces of cake. And I've seen people who proclaim being "off dairy" load up on cheese, because what they hell, cheese isn't really dairy, right?

I'm hoping one day to return to giving dinner parties, but I don't see it happening in the near future. America's becoming more and more of a special eating-interest country and much like the people who define themselves in special-interest political ways, people now extend self-definition to their diets. I'm not up for challenging that in the kitchen. And until things change I'm very happy cooking for a crowd.