Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

A calorie is a calorie—but thankfully not in Paris

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

It’s true Paris is a moveable feast and I’m living testimony to that since I’ve moved it right into my 1950s American suburban house and parked it on the chair beside me as I type. It clearly takes some time to flush the sweet smells and sights of Paris from your brain—or at least it does for me. The photos from our Christmas trip save my screen and take me back there in a flash and to make matters worse, I’m finishing up my latest novel which takes place in Paris so trying to come up for air is just not going to be possible for awhile.

Having said that, I wanted to talk about an amazing feature of travel to Paris that I’ve always been thrilled exists and that is the fact that you can go there—eat everything they have available to eat in the entire city—and not gain a pound.

A whole shop full of chocolate!

A whole shop full of chocolate! This store was nearly a block long. It was FULL of people, too!

Now I’m not so bad that I plan my trip  around French food shops and bakeries and the like although I did ditch my son and husband one afternoon as they headed toward the Arc de Triomphe (huh, been there, photographed that) to race over to Fauchon’s for a mind-swirling self-tour of the cakes and canapés and hams and macarons and buche de noels and oh! did I mention the hand made chocolates? They were laid out in row after dizzying row in different shades and shapes and such subtle flavors and spices—each with the promise to totally change your life with just one bite. I watched the Fauchon ladies—like angels bestowing gifts—plucking each delectable morsel one by one from its line of army chocolate brothers and placing them in big white tissue-lined boxes as patrons selected “this one and oh! that one and maybe two of those!”

I ate these every single day I was in Paris.

I ate macarons every single day I was in Paris. I think I ate this tart, too, now that I think about it.

I know it comes as no surprise to anyone that Paris is about food (well, really all of France.) But knowing it and seeing it are so different. The care and respect and appreciation that the French treat their food makes anyone want to slow down and savor and relish their dinner. We are such different animals, the French and the Americans. Never in a million years could they have invented the fast food restaurant. And while it’s true they do have fast food  in France, I’m convinced mostly tourists go there when they’re too worn out from choosing and discerning, marveling and being transported to culinary nirvana. (Hey, like anything else, it’s tiring day in and day out.)

I can't remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack...

I can’t remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack…

It’s not really a French paradox along the lines of eating all the butter and foie gras you want and not succumbing to heart disease at the rates Americans do, but it is still a delightful state of things that you can eat yourself into oblivion in Paris and not gain weight because the city is such a wonderful walking city. I spent one day the week after Christmas shopping on the rue de Rivoli, Les Halles, the Galleries Lafayette all by myself. I noted to my son and husband later at dinner that, as many times as I’ve been to Paris in my life, this  was the first day I was alone without my parents, a friend or my husband. I found the experience one of the most intensely perfect of my life. I also astounded myself by checking my pedometer when I got back to the apartment and realized I had walked over fifteen miles that day (and I wasn’t done. Our evening restaurant was deep in the Latin Quarter.) As I walked, I couldn’t help but compare my exertion to the ten thousand steps I try to clock in on my daily round back in Atlanta.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

While not exactly loathsome, I can’t say I look forward to my walk as the high point of my day. 10,000 steps is right at five miles. I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to walk five miles a day if you were striding down the Quai de St-Michel under the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral.

In any case, I am back to the real world of trying to artificially create a calorie burn while I labor to concoct food that’s delightful to eat. It’s all so much easier in Paris. Eating and walking are organic to how one lives there. And when you try it on for size for a bit (oh! the macarons!) and find that you do not pay a price for the pleasure later, well, it’s enough to make you realize what Hemingway really meant by a movable feast.

  By the by, if you struggle to keep yourself slim while forcing yourself to eat “diet” food, you might find my book The French Women’s Diet  helpful. I wrote it when I came to the point where I refused to give up bread or chocolate, when I figured I was old enough to know the favorite foods of mine that I wasn’t going to eschew any longer, and when I was determined  to stay a size six in the process—all by eating like the French only doing it here in the States. If you get the book and try it, I’d love to hear from you!