Thursday, November 27, 2014

A heart full of thanks.

Heavy snow fell across Massachusetts yesterday, delaying flights out of Logan and causing traffic on highways on the day before the biggest travel holiday of the year: Thanksgiving. We in Stoneham were lucky to get only a few inches of snow, but the last few hours of the storm was all hail, which formed an ice-crust over everything, encasing the walkway and our cars. 

This morning, I bundled up and went out to shovel for us and our downstairs neighbor. I cleared the walkway, the sidewalk, and our cars. Even though I only needed the left side of my car cleared, I thought, "shoveling is good exercise! I'll shovel all around my car, burn some calories pre-Thanksgiving feast!"

That's when I discovered that my right front tire was frozen into a completely flat shape, like a sad Thanksgiving frown. I immediately recalled that on the way to my Social Psychology midterm on Monday evening, I'd been behind an accident and run over some road debris. It didn't sound good when I hit it, but nothing seemed wrong on the rest of my drive to the test, and I forgot to check it before or after the drive home. I haven't driven my car since then, so I guess the tire's been out there leaking for days.

Speaking of leaking... when I called my grandmother to tell her that I wasn't sure how I could get to her for Thanksgiving because of the tire, I could hear the warble in my voice before I even felt the tears. I hung up with her, sat down in a chair, and started to cry... 

Because everything is closed on Thanksgiving and I couldn't get a new tire... Because Dave was spending a long weekend with his family and I just wanted to get to mine... Because some people don't have families, and they're always alone on holidays! How the hungry must feel on a day marked by eating to excess! With my hands still raw and my clothes still wet from the snow, I thought of those who are perpetually cold, the hard reality of homelessness in cold weather... without any options for making it better. No Chinese takeout backup plan. No fixing the car tomorrow. No bed in which to just pull up the covers and wish it all away. The tears fell hot and wide like sheets of rain! 

I posted my predicament on FB and tossed my phone aside to indulge a moment of sadness. And then it rang! My friend Aleta had seen my post and said that she and her boyfriend were using his car to get to their celebration, and she was calling to lend me hers. I totally accepted! This is often what separates the fortunate from the destitute: a safety net that is woven by the supportive arms of friends, who lift you up in times of need, get you back up on your feet. 

I arrived at my grandparents' house in time to help out before dinner. I ate with my family: turkey and gravy, stuffing and potatoes, squash and cranberries, white wine, mandarin oranges, vanilla ice cream, and pie. After the meal, we played games; I talked on the phone with my uncle in Florida; I helped clean up in the kitchen; and there was enough for me to take a bunch of leftovers home with me -- including an entire cherry pie!

I'm so fortunate that my family is happy and healthy with warm homes in which to host each other. And I'm extra thankful for the friends in my life to whom I will always extend a helping hand, or a set of car keys, just as they would (and did today) for me. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Zen Spaces: cook, dine, work, play, relax, and sleep better.

In June, I put my condo on the market. It was a 1300 sq ft 2 bd/2ba w/ den on paper, but to me, it was home. I have wanted to own a home of my own for as long as I can remember. We rented apartments all throughout my childhood and we moved frequently throughout the Boston area. I had lived in more than 10 different places before I graduated from college. All the stresses of moving, and the instability that comes with renting made a lasting impression on my psyche. After college, I dedicated myself and my savings plan to eventually buying real property.

At 25, I made my dream a reality! I searched and saved for 2 years before finding and buying the perfect place for me. It was everything I wanted home to be: stable, secure, spacious yet cozy, a place to host holidays and gather with friends. It gave me a canvas to experiment with color and interior design, to try out recipes and share them at my table. I have so many happy memories at Tall Oaks Drive!

But location is everything, and changes in my lifestyle made the location increasingly impractical for me. This summer, after 6 years of ownership, I sold my home to a single woman who seemed a lot like me. It puts a smile on my face to think that I left good energy within those walls and I hope she will be as happy, productive, and peaceful as I was there. Here are some photos of Tall Oaks!

Now Dave and I are renting a new place, which is even more beautiful! It's an old house, built in the late 1800s, with great floors, great windows, and lots of space. I'm working hard to make it a home. Getting it ready to host Christmas is a helpful motivation!

This brings me to the title of my post: zen spaces. What is a zen space? Your living space is a reflection of yourself, and when it reflects back at you, it ideally gives you a sense of calm, beauty, and purpose. My trick is to think about what I want to accomplish in each space, and to design that space intentionally so that it is designed in line with my goal.

I love the Steven R. Covey quote, "Begin with the end in mind." Bring that energy to your interior design initiative and you will succeed in creating a space that helps you cook, dine, work, play, relax, and sleep better. I look forward to posting photos of the new place when it is zenified! Wishing you Total Body Happiness through your living space. <3 As always, if this subject strikes you personally and you want to talk more about it, please leave a comment!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Master your morning!

On the East Coast this morning, the sun rose at 5:12am, and so did I. I'd be lying if I said I was thrilled about it, but now that the sleepiness is wearing off, I'm beginning to remember why I'm trying to train my body to adapt to this new rhythm.

Waking up early creates more useful hours in the day. It also aligns your body with its natural circadian rhythm; 9pm to 5am should be the window for your most restorative sleep. And if those things aren't enough to keep me from hitting Snooze, my relatively traffic-free 30+ mile commute into work sure does beat the hour and a half of stop-and-go I must otherwise endure. I'm looking forward to having more free time in the afternoon when I finish my work day early, and beat that soul-crushing, wrist-wrenching, back-breaking, life-wasting traffic. (Can you tell how much I dislike traffic?)

Successful early risers plan their mornings ahead of time, and stick to a set routine. I like to eat breakfast when I wake up, so packing lunch the night before and having a nutritious breakfast on hand is crucial for me. Master your morning with this delicious and nutritious quiche, which you can make ahead of time, portion out, and reheat (just 1 minute in the microwave per slice).

Early morning breakfast on the terrace: tomato, bacon, mozzarella quiche.

Tomato Bacon Mozzarella Quiche!
9 eggs
4 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella, sliced

1 ripe tomato, sliced
1/4 cup almond flour
1/4 cup almond milk
1 tbsp coconut flour
1 tbsp olive oil
1 pat butter
Salt & pepper

Make it happen:
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Heat olive oil and butter in a cast iron pan. 
  3. Cook bacon over med/high heat until crispy, and transfer to paper towel to drain. 
  4. In a large mixing bowl, beat 9 eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Add almond milk, almond flour, and coconut flour to eggs; whisk thoroughly.
  6. Pour egg mixture into pan, and add crumbled bacon and sliced mozzarella
  7. Gently place tomato slices atop egg mixture, and put pan in oven.
  8. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes.
  9. Reduce heat to 375 and bake for another 10 minutes, until firm. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing.
Add fiber, vitamins, and nutrients to this breakfast by plating it with a pile of power greens, or eating it alongside a delicious halved grapefruit. Don't forget the green tea!

Here's a link to another favorite quiche recipe, and here are a boatload of tips on How to be a morning person. If you find this information helpful, please let me know in the comments below! 


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Good Company (with Moussaka recipe!)

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.
– William Shakespeare
This has been an excellent month for friendship. In the beginning of the month, I got to do some musical and choreographical collaborations with friends old and new. Mid-month, we took our practice to the stage to honor a sweet friend who is healing well, thank goodness, after getting struck by a car while crossing the street. The experience of rehearsing, performing, and gathering with so many folks for such an appreciative reason reaffirmed for me how much fun it is to have friends, and how much I love working on creative projects with good people. It was an opportunity that many among us took to give thanks. It made me reflect on the enormous good fortune of each and every day that my friends and acquaintances are safe and well.

Lindsay, Sarah, and me: "The Robertas"

Smiling friendlies.
A week later, I got a message from a friend who I haven't talked to in a year. There are some friends who I value knowing so much that they're always in my heart and on my mind, no matter how often we communicate. Some of my best friends are the furthest away, which almost serves to reaffirm the magical depth of true friendship. With some people, no matter how much time passes, the comfort, ease, and joy of being together never lessens; it is alive and well whenever we see each other again.

At the end of the month, I got to spend an evening with one of my very best friends doing what we love to do: talk, cook, listen to music, and chiiiill. One of the reasons that Nicole is so important to me is that I feel we always give each other the space to be ourselves, change, and grow, just like Billy Shakespeare said. Whatever phase either of us go through, our mutual love and respect is unwavering and unconditional. Like most good friends, she and I have lots in common, but I feel exceptionally fortunate that among those commonalities are the values I hold most dear: the pursuit of personal freedom through emotional stability, self-actualization, and the overall enjoyment of life, music, and foood.

Together we made the most amazing moussaka I've ever had! The cooking itself was a lot of fun, and since both us have had -- but neither of us had made -- moussaka before, we were astonished with its perfection! We were able to share our beautiful finished product with each other, as well as Dave, Debbie, Charlie, Zack, Taylor, and Laurie! Food is love! Here is the recipe so that you might enjoy this heaven-sent Grecian comfort too. I hope you can share it with a good friend... or 8!

Moussaka: layers of eggplant, spiced meat, and rich, savory custard and cheese.

Most Amazing Moussaka
2-3 eggplants, sliced lengthwise
2 cups shredded Muenster cheese
1 lb ground lamb
1 lb ground veal
1 8oz can tomato sauce
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 eggs
3 cups 1% milk
6 tbs butter
2/3 cup breadcrumbs
All purpose flour
Peanut oil
Ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper

Make it happen:
This dish is a great one to make with a friend, because it is a bit labor-intensive. It'd be great for one person to do the meat, and one person to do the eggplant, with someone else to clean the dishes! However, it wouldn't be impossible to make solo. I'd liken it to the difficulty of making a lasagna from scratch, although the bechamel sauce is more delicate than a marinara. I promise you the effort is worth the outcome in deliciousness. I'll separate this into 4 sections: the eggplant, the meat, the sauce, and the assembly. :)

The eggplant:

  1. Heat peanut oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. 
  2. Lightly salt eggplant slices, and dredge through flour.
  3. Fry eggplant slices until golden brown on both sides.
  4. Drain and blot cooked slices with paper towel, removing as much excess oil as possible.

The meat:

  1. Heat 2 tbs peanut oil in large pan over medium heat.
  2. When oil shimmers, add diced onion and minced garlic and cook until soft (2-3 minutes).
  3. Add lamb and veal to pan and increase heat to medium-high, breaking up and mixing meat to cook.
  4. Add tomato sauce, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Season with salt, pepper, and cinnamon to taste.

The sauce:

  1. In a large heat-safe mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs.
  2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt 6 tbs butter, and allow to bubble but not burn.
  3. Microwave 3 cups milk for 1 minute, then slowly add to butter, whisking continuously.
  4. Continue whisking until all the bubbles are out. (Water content evaporates.)
  5. Slowly add 6 tbs flour, while whisking continuously until sauce begins to thicken.
  6. Beat hot sauce slowly into egg bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Sauce should firm to a light, custard consistency. 

The assembly:
Prior to assembling moussaka, set oven to preheat to 350 degrees.

  1. In an ungreased 13x9 baking dish, add one layer of cooked eggplant.
  2. Top with half of the cooked meat mixture.
  3. Sprinkle 1 cup Muenster evenly on top. 
  4. Top with 1/2 of sauce.
  5. Evenly sprinkle half of the bread crumbs.
  6. Repeat layers.
Place moussaka in 350 degree oven for 30 -- 40 minutes, until top is golden brown and contents are bubbling. Allow to cool for 15 -- 20 minutes before serving. Serves 9.

Now that you know what goes into moussaka, you might be wondering why this dish qualifies as a Total Body Happiness superfood, because it does, although clearly it's not the world's healthiest dish. It has plenty of protein and is low in starch, but with the oil, cheese, and butter, you'll taste the luxurious richness known as fat. Yet, there is a place for comfort food in moderation, and the best thing you can do with this dish is to put love into making it, and share it with others. Enjoy yourself! Splurge in all the right places! When you embrace a healthy routine, there is room for a little butter. ;)

Did you know that low fat diets are linked to depression? Make sure about 30% of your diet comes from healthy fat for the optimal function of your brain and other organs.

Find this information helpful? Like this recipe? Let me know in the comments below!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Do you feel lucky? My Shepherd's Pie will help!

All the Irish in me comes all from my Nana, Lorraine. She was half Irish, and proud of it. I'm inspired by her life story. Her mom died when she was young, and her alcoholic father couldn’t take care of her and her siblings, so they were separated from each other and had a tough time growing up. My Nana was even homeless as a teenager, but still got herself to high school every day, and graduated. She married my Grampy; they had my dad, my aunt, and my uncle; and she went on to Nursing school to become exactly the kind of nurse you’d want at your bedside: smart, compassionate, and hilarious. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I smile whenever I think of her.

1983: My mom's mom, Susan, on the left. My dad's mom, Lorraine, on the right.
As a kid, I often spent weekends staying at her house, and evenings hanging out with her during her night shifts at Long Island Hospital. She made me feel like I was a good companion and a helpful assistant, never a burden, even though she was actually babysitting me and working at the same time. She took care of everyone around her, at work and at home. She could cook for an army, and regularly did. She even drove meals and gave rides to friends and family who needed them. To be around her was to be nourished, in both body and in spirit.

My Nana died of a brain aneurysm after a few years of what seemed like just plain bad luck, including a couple car accidents that injured her neck. She was only 57 years old, and I knew she left the physical world way too soon, but now that I’m older and my mom is nearly her age, I have an even clearer picture of just how premature it was than I did when I was 15. I got the news that she had fallen down in her garden during a school day. I had been in high school choral class, singing Danny Boy. I remember being given the message from the school receptionist and leaving the room to use a payphone in the hall. I don't remember that phone call, but I do remember walking back to the chorus and trying to rejoin the song, while tears streamed down my face. 

My Nana was, without a doubt, my favorite person. I've never seen more appreciative friends, or flowers, at anyone's funeral. Her life touched hundreds, and I'm inspired by that. Saint Patrick’s Day reminds me of my Nana, and her boiled dinners and soda bread. I also remember the cards she used to send me on “little holidays” like this; they’d say “Love Ya! XOXO, Nana” and contain $5. On this day, my heart sings Danny Boy, musing over its lyrical references to the lush beauty of Ireland, from glen to glen and down the mountainside. It’s a sad song, with a sad memory attached to it for me, but I still love it. Not everything worthy of cherishing is happy; there is beauty in the difficult things, too.

I know my Nana’s spirit was too strong to just evaporate. I believe the soul transcends the physical body after death, and I still sense her presence 15 years later. Mortality, and Buddhism, reminds us to cherish what we have, because everyone we know and everything we have will most certainly, someday, be gone. Life is richer when you’re mindful of that: know that loss is inevitable, cherish the gifts life brings. That is Heaven on Earth: the experience of thinking from the Higher Mind. It bathes the blessings of your life in light, and keeps your spirit out of darkness.

Be it a friend, the love in your heart, oxygen, or sunshine, if you appreciate more, your blessings will multiply. Tonight, I’m making Shepard’s Pie, pouring a Black and Tan, and focusing on what I have, not what I’ve lost. I know my Nana would approve.

Bison Shepard's Pie
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 lb ground bison
1 bag Steamfresh peas
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 large sweet potatoes, roughly peeled and chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup beef broth
1 tsp Worcestershire
1 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1-2 cups goat cheese crumbles 
Salt, pepper, thyme, ground cinnamon, and canola oil

Make it happen:
  1. Boil large pot of lightly salted water; add sweet potatoes when water is boiling.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  3. Heat the oil in a large sautee pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
  4. Add the onion and carrots to pan, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
  5. Add bison, salt, and pepper; break up and cook through.
  6. Add bell pepper to pan.
  7. Add microwaved Steamfresh peas to pan and stir.
  8. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme.
  9. Add broth, Worcestershire, and tomato paste. 
  10. Stir and reduce heat to simmer until sauce thickens.
  11. Transfer to 11x7 baking dish.
  12. Top with layer of goat cheese crumbles.
  13. When sweet potatoes are soft, drain water and return potatoes to pan.
  14. Mash with milk and butter until smooth; add salt, pepper, and cinnamon to taste.
  15. Spread sweet potato mash onto top of baking dish, creating peaks and valleys with a fork.
  16. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes or until mashed potato peaks begin to lightly brown.
  17. Let cool for 15 minutes and serve.
It's a non-traditional version of this dish that sneaks in extra veggies and uses buffalo instead of lamb. Bison, or buffalo as it's also called, has less fat, more high-quality protein, fewer calories, less cholesterol, more iron, and more B12 than most meats. In short, it's really good for you. Check out this chart:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Get your quiche on!

Mmm, quiche. When I think quiche, I used to focus on the buttery crust. But, since veggies and eggs are Total Body Happiness superfoods, I've switched my focus to the delicious innards, and also switched a few of the ingredients for a crustless and almost-Paleo quiche sensation.

Thank you to my friend Leah for turning me on to almond and coconut flour! This quiche is gluten-free, high in protein, colorful, and delicious!

Ham and Broccoli Cheddar Quiche!
9 eggs
4 slices lean ham, chopped
2 cups broccoli, finely chopped
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1-2 cups shredded 2% cheddar
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup almond flour
1 tbsp coconut flour
1 tbsp olive oil
1 pat butter
Salt & pepper

Make it happen:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Heat olive oil and butter in a skillet or cast iron pan. (If you have a cast iron, this quiche will be a one-pan meal, since you can stick it right in the oven to bake!)
  3. Cook onion over medium heat until soft. 
  4. Add broccoli and sautee lightly until soft.
  5. Add pinch of salt, and pepper to taste.
  6. Remove from heat. If cooking vegetables in a pan that is not oven-safe, transfer vegetables to baking dish and spread evenly.
  7. Spread ham evenly on top of vegetables.
  8. Sprinkle cheese evenly on top of ham.
  9. In a large mixing bowl, beat 9 eggs.
  10. Add almond milk, almond flour, and coconut flour to eggs; whisk thoroughly.
  11. Pour egg mixture over vegetables, ham, and cheese. Add pepper to taste.
  12. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes.
  13. Reduce heat to 375 and bake for another 10 minutes, or until center rises slightly and firms. Don't overcook, because it will dry out! Err on the side of moist for maximum yumminess.

Let me know if you try this recipe and enjoy it! Happy quicheing! :)

Friday, March 7, 2014

My new favorite smoothie!

Starting your day the liquid way is an awesome way to hydrate and get a dense blast of nutrients, even if you're in a rush or still half asleep. All week, I've been experimenting with ingredients and flavor combinations. I've also lost 4 pounds toward my goal, because I've been tracking my calories (creating a deficit of about 200 calories a day, while maintaining a healthy carbohydrate/fat/protein ratio), and exercising.

Sharing is caring! Try this:

1 cup raw chopped kale
1/4 cup blueberries
1/4 cup pineapple
1/4 cup raw cashews
1/2 scoop Gold Standard Whey (chocolate)
1 tsp cayenne
1 ice cube

I use my Magic Bullet to blend all ingredients until the cashews and kale are smooth. It makes a lively-looking green chocolate smoothie and you can taste a kick from the cayenne!

Nutritional info:
287 calories
41% carbs, 34% (healthy) fats, 25% protein
4g fiber
19g protein
227% daily vitamin A
166% daily vitamin C
37% daily calcium
18% daily iron
561g potassium

I've started using cayenne for the first time ever this week. Here's why. By weight, cayenne is high in vitamins A, B6, E, C, riboflavin, potassium and manganese. Even more interestingly:
Cayenne pepper consumption dilates the blood vessels and speeds the metabolism due to the high amounts of capsaicin. This increases circulation and blood flow to all major organs which facilitates oxygen and nutrient delivery.
Some research suggests that cayenne pepper may support a healthy energy balance while suppressing appetite. It has also been shown to aid in the oxidation of adipose tissue, regulate high blood pressure, promote healthy liver function and tissue production, help regulate the digestive system, promote healthy mucus production in the membranes that line internal organs.
I don't know about "promoting healthy mucus" but I can attest to cayenne's power to break up mucus. It is March; I am so sick of the 20 degree, snowy winter weather in Boston, and so ready for it to be Spring. After a cold I had this winter, I could not seem to fully rid myself of a lingering background congestion, until I started using cayenne this week. Coincidence or not, I am breathing clearly, and it tastes great with chocolate! I'm keeping it on the menu.
Cayenne pepper is also claimed to be an aphrodisiac because it contains capsaicin... 
...Alright then! Happy Smoothie-ing!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Find your abs by summertime! Time is on your side!

Oh happy day! There are 40 days til Spring, and just in time, all the wheels of my Total Body Happiness project finally feel like they're turning. I'm finding time for sleep, meditation, exercise, thankfulness journaling, and prioritizing healthy eating. I give thanks to a manageable schedule that's so fun and yummy that I'm more than happy to stick to it, and I'm seeing results.

February is an awesome month to focus on the health and happiness of your body, especially in the Northeast. We need the endorphin boost that exercise gives us, and we need the healthy glow we aren't getting from the sun! But rest assured, we are starting to see the light at the end of the winter tunnel, and it's better to look ahead to bathing suit season now than to let it sneak up like a thief in the night. I've got a bikini that was a little too teeny last year; this year, I know I'm going to rock it, because time is on my side!

Here's a sample schedule that has always helped me lose weight and feel awesome. The key is eating 3 meals and 2 snacks to boost your metabolism. I also make sure I'm taking in lots of water all day, green tea in the morning, protein with every meal, good fats, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Check out the Total Body Happiness food shopping list for lots of ingredient options. Here's a sample schedule!

Wake up
Guzzle 8oz of water straight to your face.

Breakfast (within 30 mins of waking up)
2 eggs scrambled with a little bit of extra virgin olive oil, spinach, tomatoes, a little feta, 1 piece of wheat or rye toast.
Kashi Go Lean cereal (it has protein!), almond milk, handful of berries.
A nutrient dense protein smoothie like this one.

Post-breakfast beverage
Hot mug of Green tea (catechin rich plus a light morning boost of caffeine)!

Mid-morning snack (2-3 hours after breakfast)
A small fruit and a handful of nuts.
2 whole grain brown rice cakes with a shmear of natural peanut butter.

Lunch (2-3 hours after snack)
A big salad, an antioxidant rich clear soup (example homemade chicken and vegetable), or leftovers from last night's healthy dinner. Today I had a pork and walnut salad with a whole clementine and a drizzle of Trader Joe's Champagne Vinaigrette!

Mid-afternoon snack (2-3 hours after lunch)
1/2 cup nonfat Greek yogurt (plain or vanilla) with a handful of nuts and seeds, berries if you got em!

Pre-dinner workout
30 - 45 minutes of moderate to intense exercise. Do this 4 -6 days a week and you'll be on track to minimize stress, boost physical fitness, and increase endorphins. I use an arsenal of at-home workout DVDs by Beachbody, a couple dumbbells, and my music collection! If I "reeeally don't feeeeel like working out" I can always put on music and dance in the mirror. Just get yourself out of breath for 30 minutes and throw in some circuits of crunches and squats. You can do this.

Dinner (2-3 hours after snack, but try not to eat too close to bedtime)
Lean protein (fish, chicken, turkey, bison!) with a big portion of steamed or sauteed vegetables. Brown rice (1/3 to 1/2 cup) or whole wheat pasta (2 oz).

I like to have a glass of red wine to unwind, but some wines are better than others. Choose a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Save the beer and hard alcohol for the weekend or one cheat day/meal.

That's all she wrote, baby! After dinner, the kitchen is closed. If you do get a late-night snack attack, here are some tasty tricks:
  • Sugar-free gum or hard candy (I like Lifesavers pep-o-mints)
  • Kava, chamomile, St. John's Wort, or peppermint tea! (Anything caffeine-free is yay.)
  • Brush your teeth, drink a glass of water, and exert your willpower. If your stomach's actually growling, my research says that the best possible latenight snack for maximum fullness. fastest metabolism, and muscle fuel and recovery is a scoop of cottage cheese. The amino acids in cottage cheese even facilitate serotonin to make you sleepy.
I've been re-reading my copy of The New Abs Diet for Women by David Zinczenko, former editorial director of Women's Health magazine. I love the Abs Diet cheat sheet, so I'll post it for you here. The plan is to eat your meals spaced evenly throughout the day, and make sure that each meal contains at least two of the following:

Almonds and other nuts
Beans and legumes
Spinach and other green vegetables

Dairy (fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese)
Instant oatmeal (unsweetened, unflavored)
Turkey and other lean meats

Peanut butter
Olive oil
Whole-grain breads and cereals
Extra protein (whey) powder
Rasperries and other berries

Enjoy! And if you do, please subscribe for updates! Post your comments and questions below!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Neurogenesis Now

Neurogenesis is a big word for the birth of nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells make the nervous system work, enabling us to think, move, and react in a glorious symphony of chemical and electrical impulses.

For a long time, scientists believed neurons stopped reproducing shortly after birth. In spite of this, we continue to grow and develop, neurally speaking, because new connections between existing neurons continue to form throughout our lives.

Recently (as of the '90s) scientists have conclusive research evidence that neurogenesis can continue into adulthood. What affect could the creation of new nerve cells have on our lives?
  • Improved learning, cognition, and better ability to access memories.
  • Stress reduction through better stress regulation, bolstering the function of the hippocampus (responsible for memory, cognition, and navigation) and inhibiting the amygdala (responsible for fear and stress).
Less stress, less fear, and more brain-power? Sounds like Total Body Happiness to me! Thus, the quest for neurogenesis begins!

Let's start by eliminating the #1 inhibitor of neurogenesis: sleep deprivation. We already know that sleep deprivation increases stress, disrupts mood, and even causes our bodies to hold onto fat.

Speaking of fat, we may be able to increase neurogenesis by increasing voluntary exercise, emphasis on voluntary. Studies show that when the beta-endorphin (which elevates mood) is produced during exercise, new nerve cells are increased and sustained in the brain -- though this is not the case in the absence of the beta-endorphin. No wonder it feels so great to find fun and engaging ways to exercise, but it feels so lame to push through a boring workout. 

Quick side note (since it's bad to be boring) another study I find relevant and interesting comes from the University of Saskatchewan (2005) where cannabidiol (CBD), the biggest property of the cannabis plant second only to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was also shown to cause regeneration of nerve cells in the hippocampus. From

 "Cannabidiol, the main component of the glandular hairs [of Cannabis] is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid; it exerts a plethora of pharmacological effects, including anti-convulsive, sedative, hypnotic, anti-psychotic, anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory actions. Cannabidiol is a potent antioxidant compound and it has been recently proposed to have a neuroprotective role..."

The many benefits of cannabidiol is why medical marijuana is a thing now. Get used to it.

Tools to use:
I was inspired to start playing more games after watching Jane McGonigal's TEDTalk, "The game that can give you 10 extra years of life" -- a must-watch. Check out the Lumosity app, or Lumosity lets you build a personalized brain-training program that focuses on memory and attention. I play 3 quick brain-games a day, and I've already noticed that my simple math skills, which were sorely in need of a boost, are getting just that. I also like to play Ruzzle, a word search game, and Lost Cities, "two player Solitaire with an extra portion of suspense" that helps me practice odds- and risk-calculation as well as quick addition. Do what's fun for you; fun is good for you. 

Another must-watch TEDTalk: Tony Horton's "Health, Fitness, and Happiness: Rules to give you all 3." He's the P90X guy, and he explains the brain-derived neurotrophic factor in this 10 minute video about the benefit of exercise. To see results and continue to grow, Tony emphasizes the importance of variety, consistency, and increasing intensity in exercise.

"Exercise should be like brushing your teeth, or eating your meals, 
or showing up to appointments, or making sure you go to bed at night. 
It should be part of who you are, 5 to 7 times a week, for the rest of your life."
--Tony Horton

The hippocampus, and in particular the dentate gyrus is the site of stem cell populations in the brain
(see Ming GL and Song H, Neuron 2011 70(4):687-702).

What can you do to strengthen your brain and your body today?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thank God I can't have everything I want.

What do we see when we look upon all that surrounds us from the vantage point of our two eyes? There's my nose, the tops of my cheeks; my body sits below, arms and hands stretched out before me, fingers quickly typing these thoughts.

When I think about the astonishingly vast inner workings of the complex vessel that is my body, it makes it all the more ridiculous to believe that I am my mind and my thoughts. Try this thought on for size: the voice in your head, that of The Thinker, is just one among your brain's many functions. You don't call your iPhone "Siri" just because that's the function that can respond to you verbally and processes verbal requests. Nope, you know that your iPhone has an infinitely larger capacity to access the world of information. So do you.

Considering that our minds and thoughts are subject to change, and influenced by factors as simple, straightforward, and chemical as food and sleep, why then have I spent so much of my life hinged to something so discursive, passing, and transient as thoughts? What affect has identifying with my thoughts had on so many of my experiences and relationships?

The body enables my life experience and all of my connections, yet it can separate me from my experiences, and from others if I identify myself as The Thinker. The Thinker would like me to believe that I am just a voice contained in my body, and that the way I see things is the way things actually are, because that reinforces its own importance and guarantees its own survival. 

But consider for a moment that you'll never be able to see your own face, with your own eyes, in all of its three dimensional glory! Who are you and why are you so sure of yourself if you never will, and never have, so much as set eyes on your own face? Our viewpoints are limited. We must respect that.

Lots of lessons come of all this mind-boggelry. One lesson that I've been trying to experience as much as possible is to see other human beings, animals, and elements of nature as subjects, not objects. There is boundless substance in everything we look upon. Nothing is simply "what meets the eye." 

When I remember not to take everything that I see at its face value, not to flatten anyone else into one dimension, it reminds me to react more slowly and with more compassion. This creates more time and space in my experiences with my surroundings and with others. It increases my respect for my own vast complexity, while increasing my respect for the complexity of every aspect of my external world. When I stop flattening myself into a one dimensional view and voice, I also pause before objectifying others in this way. I take what they say with less gravity; I make a greater attempt to acknowledge the whole of who they are.

When we are in this state of knowing, when the Knowing mind, the God mind, the Soul, succeeds in being louder than the Egoic mind, The Thinker, the incessant voice that's always coming up with perspectives, opinions, and contradictions, there is less static, less conflict, less irritation, and less neediness. 

It's the needs that get me. Need to be warmer, need to elsewhere, need to be understood, need to be right. Need to be cool, need to be liked, need to be loved, need to be forgiven. Need to be seated, need to be served, need to be needed, oh God! The list could go on for a lifetime -- and that's exactly what I don't want to happen. I want to practice counteracting this tendency to follow every little thing my mind says, and I want to practice it now, before I've followed a lifetime of perceived needs to all the shitty places they'd love to take me.

Because most of our needs aren't really needs; they're just wants. And thank God I can't have everything I want. I'd be an absolute monster if I could. I'd probably just trample everyone; spend my life endlessly showboating in anticipation of a resounding applause; justify every tantrum, every shitty mood influenced by too much sugar or too little sleep. I don't want to be that person: ruled and fueled by my ego. Whenever I remember to be aware of the limitations of my singular viewpoint and experience, my ego lessens in volume and prevalence. Those are better moments of a better me.

Happy birthday (yesterday) to the late and eternally amazing Alan Watts, and happy birthday (today) to my incredibly amazing friend Ben, who I admire so much. Ben linked me to the video that I'd like to share, below. I've become a YouTube subscriber of HDvids101, the creator of this gorgeous video illustration to accompany this Alan Watts lecture (and others on the HDvids101 channel). I'm thankful for the wealth of knowledge that is so easily and freely accessible to us here in 2014! Please enjoy this inspiring Watts talk that discusses some of this which I've written about today, plus so much more, more clearly and eloquently than I can yet, but aspire to someday!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fight those demons, day in and day out.

This year, I resolve to be happy. I will continue to fight the demons whenever they arise, stand up after I fall, treat myself and others with kindness, and fill each day with as much positivity as possible.

So far in 2014, I'm off to a mixed start. On New Year's Day, I slept past noon, lounged for a couple hours and napped again 'til 5pm. Impressive! This is highly unusual party-time behavior, woo! But it's not a good thing for me. There's something about falling asleep when it's light out and waking up when it's dark that has often been the kiss of depressive death. More than once, I've woken up from such a nap and felt a deep sense of life-hatred. But, somehow this 5pm wakeup felt happy and refreshed. I needed that day of rest, I told myself. It was the first day that the cold I'd had since Christmas Eve finally let up, and hell, it was my last full day of vacation. Sleep it up!

My good mood lasted through dinner, which was delicious and totally unhealthy -- my first trip to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. A+ on the pig-out joint rating list. At home afterward, I put some vodka into what was left of my paper cup of Mello Yello, lost a game of cards, and at 9pm, I found myself strangely devastated. Specifically, crying about the objectification and hypersexualization of women on TV.

Whoah. Really? What happened there. Let me see...

I slept away most of the day, ate grease, and watched too much TV, including some dumb Miami crime show that mostly consisted of boobs and butts on rollerskates. Ads for other crime shows filled the space with headshots of missing and exploited women. I also watched one too many episodes of this trashy TV show called Hemlock Grove, which is addicting and the plot is good. It also features a lot of steamy teen sex and that part gets to be kinda blech after a few.

I have every right to engage in a rant about how women are portrayed in various forms of media. Our media-infused lives are filled with unreal images. There is abundant evidence that it greatly affects the self-image of the female population. Common knowledge. There is value in questioning it; if we don't, it infects us.

In the words of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "We see these images on TV and in movies and magazines all the time, and if you don't stop and think about it, it just sort of seeps into your brain and that becomes the way you perceive reality." Check him out dropping this feminist wisdom in an interview with Ellen.

This stuff is certainly worthy of examination, even scorn, but never forget that you have the option not to expose yourself to an excessive bombardment of media bullshit. There's power in that. I can fill my life with subjects that inspire and fulfill me, instead of provoking my angst. Yes, the media is pervasive, and it affects our society, but there are many ways to escape it, by choosing how we direct our time and minds. The despair I felt wasn't really the fault of this programming's very existence. Watching it was my choice, and letting it creep into the cracks in my spiritual strength... that was made possible by my own behavior, too. I put myself in a weak place.

I decided to indulge this feeling of despair in a way that I haven't since summer, since before I began meditating in an effort to stop exactly this kind of emotional turmoil. Misery loves its own company; it seeks to perpetuate itself. When a depressive mood takes a strong hold, it can be hard to shake. My higher mind knew that this was optional. It knew that I was essentially doing this to myself by indulging it instead of moving past it. I knew that if I dragged myself to a quiet spot, I could try to breathe my way back into the quiet, calm state that knows that totally body happiness is a choice, but I just didn't want to. Depression itself told me that meditating was stupid, that I deserved to suffer for this moment. It also said that those around me would just have to observe and hopefully understand my suffering -- if they couldn't understand, that was just proof that we are essentially separate and alone. Hello, ego!

In the past 6 months, I've taken more responsibility for my behavior than ever before. I've recognized that I control my body, my attitude toward my body, and my emotions, not the other way around. I've invested time daily in order to do this, and it's made me feel radically empowered.

In this moment, it also made me feel alone. I felt the urge to rely on someone else for a change, to lay all my pain on the table like I used to, and see if someone else could sort it out. I'm so thankful that I don't feel a regular compulsion to do that anymore. It has only ever compounded my problems and made me feel much worse.

I guess this happens. We're only human and sometimes we do need each other. Sometimes we even need to sleep all day, eat crap, and watch filth TV. But as the vodka wore off, so did my total bummer of a mood. It left me even more resolved to take good care of myself, and to (in the words of UK band Dry the River) "fight those demons, day in and day out." I'm thankful that those demons don't rage up daily, but I do believe that strengthening the spirit with daily positivity works like a vaccine against the poison arrows of spiritual devils like pride and self-doubt.

Spiritual strengtheners and spiritual injuries both add up incrementally. In each moment of our behavior, we cast a vote about what knowledge and experiences we are filled with. We can multiply moments of happiness, and we can eliminate doses of things we know make us feel bad. Maybe if nobody watched those TV shows, or bought those magazines, they would disappear from existence. But I doubt that will happen tomorrow. So, just know that in any given moment they can definitely disappear from your own life. It takes some effort to snap out of it, but that is always within your power.

That night, I slept badly, dreamed wildly, and by 5am, was wide awake. By the time my alarm went off, I had already:
  • Warmed up Dave's car 
  • Toasted us both an English muffin with almond butter, and eaten mine
  • Watched the weather/news while stretching
  • Changed the sheets/made the bed
  • Seen the sun rise
  • Had a conversation with a friend
  • Listened to an album and a 20 minute guided meditation
  • Washed/dried/folded a load of laundry
  • Retrieved the mail
  • Cleaned Moose's litter box
  • Taken out the trash and recycling
And that feels great. Maybe I needed a trip to the dark side to refuel my dedication to a peaceful and productive morning routine. Today, I am a master of this early morning thang, all I have to do is keep it up tomorrow... and tomorrow... and tomorrow... whenever possible. Best of luck to me! :)