Wednesday, January 15, 2020

This I Believe: 32

I believe in the power of home cooking. Even though we live in the most connected time in history, we’re lonely and anxious. Cooking became a way for me to fight those things. It allows my brain to rest after a day of monitoring social media for work. It allows me to experience the beginning and end of something in a world where things never feel like they stop. And it gives me a chance to connect with coworkers, friends, and family.

My new year’s resolution for 2019 was to cook 100 new recipes. It was originally an excuse to buy fancy ingredients and purchase some new kitchen supplies, but by the end, it didn’t feel like a resolution at all. It was something I needed to do on a regular basis.

More than once I chose to stay at home and cook over going out to a movie or binge-watching something while drinking beers. Free moments at work were often devoted to scrolling the New York Times cooking app looking for dinner ideas. There were days where as soon as I took my shoes off from work, I immediately threw on my apron and began chopping vegetables.

One of my favorite things over the past year was bringing in baked goods to my work. At first, I put them on a counter on the other side of my cubicle. However about midway through the year I put them on the counter I shared with my cubicle neighbor. We’d usually get about half-dozen people to come over to sample things, and there were always a few people who I rarely talked to outside of a cursory “Good morning."

Cooking gave me the opportunity to learn something again. It’s not that I haven’t learned anything since grad school, but I don’t think I consumed as much knowledge on a subject as I did around food this past year. Just about every trip to the library had me leave with an armful of cookbooks or food-related memoirs. I watched tons of YouTube videos to learn new techniques and I could feel my palate beginning to recognize different flavor profiles. I can definitively say I am a better cook than I was a year ago. It feels great to read a recipe and say, “Yeah, I can do that.”

Eating dinner with my wife (who also was a great cooking partner many days) has become a highlight of my day. The 10 to 15 minutes we get after finishing our meals has become my favorite time of the day. We’re full, we’re content, and we don’t have to do anything except for let our stomachs settle. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

6.1 - Connections

Our mailman retired last week. His name was Kermit and he loved Manchester City Football Club. Kermit was about 5'8 with grey hair and he often wore shorts on his indoor delivery route in the skyway. He sounded like a guy who didn't yell or get angry very much. He's probably a fantastic grandfather if he has grandkids. If I'd catch him making a delivery to our bar association office, we'd chat for a few minutes about our respective English Premier League teams, and it was often a highlight of my day. We got a gift card for him and his wife to go out to a restaurant, and a thank-you note was hanging in our office last week. I'll miss him.

Our going-away gift for Kermit wasn't the same as what this neighborhood did, but the thought it is all the same. The whole thing is worth a read. (Bring tissues.)
I worry we'll lose things like this: moments of geniune gratitude and thankfulness for the people who do seemingly minor things in your life. We're obsessed with specialization, efficiency, and removing any sort of friction between you and an end product. Self-checkout lines remove the need for eye contact between you and a cashier. Restaurant delivery removes you from talking to a human being until the last second of exchange. Hell, even self-serve tap walls remove you from talking to a bartender about what beer is good. I'd be a hypocrite if I said these things are all bad. I'll use a self-checkout line if I only have two things and everyone else seems to be stocking up for the apocalypse. And we'll use Amazon Prime when we need toilet paper and we just don't feel like going to the store. Sometimes you just don't want to talk to people, I get it.

However, I'm worried that that's become the norm, rather than the exception to the rule. And removing those small relationships in our day has real consequences. We need a "network of low-stakes, casual friendships." And I don't have to remind you that loneliness is a public health epidemic. Seriously, just google "millennials lonely."

So what can we do about this? If you have something nice to say, say it. Compliment your cashier's glasses. Say how wonderful you love the produce at a farmer's market stand. Ask about the janitor's day. The place we're spending more and more of our time, online, is still mostly awful, so we should combat that offline.

Be polite. Be kind. Listen. And when you can, chat with your mailman.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

This I Believe: 31

Today, I got choked up over four popcorn bowls. The bowls were empty. They had been sitting on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet for over a year. I hadn’t ever used them. And yet, there I was with my wife, crying when she handed me light brown, wooden popcorn bowls as we cleaned out my cabinets for things to take to Goodwill.

I cried because these bowls are one of the last links I have to my maternal grandparents. At some point during every trip to their house, those bowls were filled with popcorn. It was the best popcorn. It was air-popped and smothered with real butter and salt. Conversations had to stop when they made it because the popper was so loud. I eagerly watched my grandpa doll out the popcorn, in order to make sure my brother didn’t get more than me. I remember digging my way through the bowl to find those few kernels that were absolutely drenched with oil and salt. My brother and I would lie on our stomachs in front of the television and eat popcorn out of those bowls as we watched a movie. Since then, I’ve never had a popcorn experience as good as those.

In the year 2019, I believe in popcorn bowls. More specifically, I believe in those items that are so full of memories, they make you cry.

Being emotionally manipulated by powerful entities is nothing new, but I believe in my popcorn bowls this year because everything is vying for some of your emotional spare change. Whether it’s social media,  the day’s news, or trying to keep up with the inane all-day group chats, they all chip away at your emotional well-being.

Sometimes I get emotionally paralyzed by the cascade of things I’m supposed to care about. I hate that feeling. I felt that way as we cleaned out my kitchen cabinets.

There are going to be things in life you’ll use once and then forget about, like the Noodelizer. There are going to be things in your life that you probably should have thrown out a long time ago, like that loaf of Johnnie bread in your freezer from December 2017. There are going to be things you shouldn’t have brought to your life in the first place, like that bottle of mint-infused Captain Morgan. There are going to be things in your life that you think you absolutely need, but they only end up cutting your hand, like the mandolin slicer I bought at Marshall’s for five bucks. And there are going to be things you’ll have such an abundance of, that you’ll wonder why you had so many in the first place, like my many, many take-out tupperware containers.

But then you’ll have your popcorn bowls. And you’ll remember how great your grandma and grandpa’s popcorn was.

And everything will be just fine.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

9.27 - Finding God; Today on the Bus

I felt disgusting after work today. I had spent most of the day with my ears glued to the Dr. Christine Blasy Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Regardless of who you voted for, it was impossible to turn away from those hearings in a pleasant mood. Hearing the witness recount her experience of sexual assault through tears, the political grandstanding from both sides, and the barrage of opinions/takes/rants on social media made you want to curl up in the fetal position. There was a woman telling millions of people the worst experience of her life, couldn’t we just listen? Is this what the shining example of Democracy has come to?

When I’m overwhelmed with these sorts of political things, I try to step back and look where I can find God in my day. This time, it was on the No. 9 bus. About 20 people got on at the corner of 7th and Nicollet. The bus was running late and people were cranky. I ended up sitting near the back next to a kid who looked to be in his early 20s. He was carrying a big red orchestral instrument case.

I got that feeling in me knowing I needed to do something. I’ve come to realize that’s God nudging me, so I started a conversation with the kid. I asked what instrument he played. “Cello,” he responded. I joked with him about having to carry such a big instrument on a crowded bus. He laughed. I asked him about school and future plans. He said he was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota and he eventually wanted to play professionally. And then his stop came. I wished him luck as he exited the bus.

And that was it. It was remarkable how much better I felt after a 10-minute conversation with a person I’ve never met, and who I’ll likely never see again. (Unless he rides that bus again.)

Today was dominated by painful recollections, senators looking to score political points, and a spewing of social media reactions - some cathartic, some insightful, but some just noise.

I’ll be thinking and praying for that kid with the cello. I want to put stock in something hopeful and beautiful today.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

6.1 - How to be Happy in a Dumpster Fire

A lot has happened since I last posted here. To be specific, a lot of good things have happened, to me. I ran a half-marathon in a half-decent time. The World Cup has started. And, most importantly, I got engaged. It’s not a stretch to say that this has been one of the biggest weeks of my life.

It’s also felt like one of the most disgusting news cycles in recent weeks. There are kids being kept in cages along our border. Trump’s seems hellbent on destroying alliances with allies and making friends with dictators. And people seem more intent on defending their “team” rather than doing anything.

If there was one person I didn’t want to hear from the weekend I proposed to Kelley, it was Trump. I didn’t look at news, I only checked my notifications to see who liked our engagement photo, and we soaked up the moments when we shared the news with our family and friends. Hearing my aunts choke up over the phone, seeing the reaction of Kelley’s brother and sister-in-law, and seeing messages from friends who I haven’t heard from in years was fantastic and life giving.

Yet, Trump wasn’t going anywhere. I knew my Facebook feed would still have articles documenting the wanton cruelty, corruption, and recklessness of his administration. These things would still be happening. The reality of the world would eventually pop my bubble of warm fuzzies.

Social media doesn’t help any of this either. If you’re silent, you look apathetic. If you’re posting about stuff like #MPRraccoon, you’re accused on trivial and inconsequential things. If you’re angry, be prepared to spend half your day moderating comments on a post. It just doesn’t seem like a productive use of time, even if it’s your only outlet.

A tweet from one of my favorite movie critics, Tim Grierson, summed up how I feel. He said, “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.” A reply to the tweet stated, “None of this seems particularly complex.
Anyway, I use my anger as fuel. Looking away is a privilege I refuse to indulge in.”

Something about that response made me angry. I don’t doubt that the woman who wrote it is a good person whose intentions are in the right place (and I don’t want to judge the person based on one tweet.) However, it dismissed the complex, beautiful, and subtle things that make us human beings. We weren’t born with two emotions: anger and not anger. Anger is not my main fuel. And yeah, you can look away, because if you’re shocked by everything, pretty soon you’re shocked by nothing.

I don’t think it’s healthy to feel one emotion all the time. I don’t think we should strive to feel one emotion all the time either. Sometimes you embrace your anger. Sometimes you embrace your sadness, and sometimes you embrace your joy (and you shouldn’t feel guilty about any of these things.)

Yes, I’m going to continue to be angry by the inhumane treatment on our borders and make my small voice heard how it can. But I’m also going to be watching a lot of World Cup games and sharing my enthusiasm with my friends and family. I’m also going to be working hard planning a wedding. And I’m going to revel in the journey I’m taking with my fiance.

The world is so much more complex than we think it is. Embrace it. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

3.1 - Two Americas in Minneapolis

There were two Americas on display at the Minneapolis Convention Center today. One, called “ Tax Cuts To Put America First Event” featured the Vice President of the United States of America talking about how tax cuts have improved the economy. He was up on stage with two congressmen who are afraid of their constituents and a businessman who’s taken part in some sleazy advertising practices.

About eight hours later, one floor up, at the “Step Up” event,  one of the convention halls was filled with 400 teenagers getting critiqued on their job interview skills by about 100 working professionals. The kids ranged from ages 14-21. Most all of them were kids of color, many of them were kids of immigrants, and about 25 percent of them were Muslim girls.

I interviewed four kids. One kid, named Johnny was a bright kid with an enthusiastic spirit and a good heart. He wanted to do well in school for his parents, who were from Mexico. I found out he was a soccer player. I asked him about a time he was challenged while playing soccer and he spoke about the time his club team was down 5-1 in a state championship game at halftime, but they came back to win. I was impressed. He also played center-midfielder, which is one of the toughest positions on the field because you have to direct the game, but also keep an eye on everyone.

I talked to another kid who was quiet, but he wanted to help other teenagers with mental health issues. There was a young Somali girl who didn’t speak a lot of English, but her eyes lit up when she talked about a school project she did about Nina Simone. My last interview was with a Somali boy who went through the program last year, but was looking for “an indoor job” because it was hard for him to build playground stairs in the summer while he was fasting for Ramadan. Kudos to him because I could barely keep my Lenten promise for this year.

While I’m not going to wade into the weeds of tax cuts and job growth numbers, I did see that Pence did not mention anything about equality in hiring, or giving opportunities to people like those kids. While Pence touted how many jobs his tax cuts have saved Minnesotans, he didn’t mention that the state is second worst for racial inequality.

I wonder what Vice President Pence would have said if he had just been able to stay a little bit longer and talk to those kids. I wonder how those kids factor in to his and Trump’s “America First” plans. After all, they are American, too.

Monday, February 26, 2018

2.6 - One Beer

I had a beer on Sunday. It was one of my Lenten resolutions to give up alcohol for 40 days. I did it last year, and while it was difficult, I lost a few pounds and felt great after Easter. I took a little bit different tack this year. I decided to do it because Kelley and I were celebrating two months together. It was a wonderful day out. And we had a heckuva time talking about home repairs to my water-damaged apartment. I really wanted to have that beer as a culmination to the day.

I used the excuse of “Oh yeah, you’re able to break your Lent promise on Sundays.” (Which, for the record, I’m not sure is an actual thing.) We went to Steeltoe Brewing in St. Louis Park and we each enjoyed one beer together. It was a wonderful way to end the day.

I justified this beer because my real goal this Lent is to have a more mindful relationship with my food. I’m don’t think my habits with food are unhealthy, but they could definitely be improved. I sometimes eat a second lunch if there is extra food leftover from a work meeting. I have a donut even if I feel full, and I tend to eat way too close to my bedtime. The pleasure of eating has dulled due to my mindlessness.

I’ve started a Google Doc of all the food I’ve consumed since Lent. It helps me examine all the times when I could have refused something. I’m not removing myself from pleasure, heck, I had a donut and coffee on Friday, I think I’m just pinpointing the times that really make me happy (like one donut on Friday, as opposed to donuts three times a week.)

I think the expectation to be “full” all the time is one of the leading causes of unhappiness in our society. Whether that’s with our food, our entertainment, or just how we get through everyday life, it’s damaging. I think the more things we count and take note of, the happier we’ll be.

And I took note of that beer.

People who know how to do home projects: A pipe burst in my apartment this weekend. It damaged a good portion of the floor in my roommates room. Now I have to think about new flooring, and a bunch of other projects that I want to get done. It’s all very stressful. Luckily, my girlfriend Kelley is very good at organizing and planning, two things I could use some help with. I’m thankful for that because otherwise my only home furnishings might still be a secondhand card table and three mismatched folding chairs. Also, half of my floor would probably still be torn up.

The Como Conservatory: It was a very sunny day on Sunday. After two snowstorms in the previous 48 hours, I was ready to go outside. I had been worrying about my floor all weekend and I didn’t want to listen to the hum of fans and a dehumidier anymore, so Kelley and I decided to go to the gardens (which she had never been to.) I don’t think I appreciated being in tropical heat when there is over a foot of snow on the ground. There’s something great about the freedom to just be outside without worrying about getting your feet soaked or your nose freezing. Also, I can’t wait for spring.

The Black Panther: I saw the Black Panther last weekend. I’m not going to go into the cultural significance of the film, there is plenty of that and you’d be better off reading about the deeper meanings of the film with other writers. I will say that it’s nice that we have a cultural event that’s come close to achieving a shared experience to a wide swath of people. The film is probably going to break the $1 billion dollar mark and people of all ages and races have enjoyed it. Critics have given it almost universally positive reviews. So, in an age when the biggest unifying event seems to be gawking in awe at the U.S. President, it’s nice to have something more meaningful to take in.