Some summer self-improvement

I read constantly. All day, nearly every day, for my job. I read for a living. Because of that, when I’m off the clock, whatever I do, I really do not want to keep reading. It hit me, while I was on a recent flight and trying to find something to fill my time, that something I used to love to do was now almost unbearable.

So as this summer continues and as it starts to wind down, I’m making a pledge to myself: I’m going to read more for pleasure, even if I don’t want to. Once I start reading, I don’t regret doing it. It’s just getting the urge to start. I’m deep into a Tom Holland historical non-fiction book about the end of the ancient world and the rise of Islam, “The Shadow of the Sword.” Next I’m planning to check off a book that’s long been on my list: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”

I actually have my boyfriend to thank for this jump start. Sensing that I was becoming listless and in need of a hobby besides coming from and going to work and Netflix, he nudged me back toward my books. I’m also planning to take some time for myself to pick up some basic coding skills (which he’s promised to teach me at some point, but I’d like a head start).

Lately I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about myself and how I use my time. I wouldn’t call it a full-on existential crisis, but merely a renewed understanding that my time is limited and that zoning out to old “Friends” episodes is probably not the best use of it (I’m on season 9 now, though, so almost done). I’m also thinking about possible career moves in the future and am afraid of limiting myself or being pigeon-holed. A hobby might very well one day lead to a new career, or it can help keep me sane. Either way, I’m making this my summer of self-improvement.

Advertisements

The family you choose vs. the one you’re born into

I spent Thanksgiving week in Kansas City at my parents’ house. I hadn’t seen them in about six months, and hadn’t seen my dog for longer than that. The house was mostly the same, with a few changes here and there. My mother had, for instance, cleaned out and organized my bedroom, turning it into a tasteful yet still personalized guest room.

This was a notable Thanksgiving because it was the first one I’d spent with my parents in three years. Last year I spent Thanksgiving in Germany and two years ago I was with my grandparents in Vermont. Three years ago, I had just returned from England and was still readjusting. Four years ago, I was in England.

We decided to spend the week together, just the three of us. And the dog. I’ve always been closer to my parents than many people, I guess, because I’m an only child. At the end of the day, it’s the three of us. And the dog, so long as there’s cheese.

I’m also normally a fairly insular person. I don’t let people in easily and I can be aloof. I don’t make friends that easily but the friends I have are uniformly rock solid. So the arrangement of me, my mum and my dad is pretty much fine with me.

And yet I spent this week in almost constant contact, via email and Gchat, with my boyfriend, thousands of miles away. It was important to me that he understood what was going on and why, what was involved and that it mattered to me. He’s promised to celebrate the holiday with me when and if we make it to that point of being able to celebrate it together.

While it was great to celebrate the holiday with my biological family, it was also wonderful to start to share it with, if all goes well, my eventual chosen family: me, my boyfriend and our blended families. There’s that saying of, “Friends are the family you choose,” but this is decidedly deeper … legal even, eventually, maybe. It was a big step for me to share the intricacies of the holiday and family traditions with someone else, and for that sharing to be valued. That my boyfriend is a foreigner makes it that much more special, because, lacking the Thanksgiving tradition growing up, he has my example to follow.

Poor prior experiences with trying to open up about traditions to the men I’ve dated made me appreciate the enthusiastic response from Jamie all the more. It made me want to go all out for him and to make him look forward to the holiday every year as much as he would if he were American.

I think we may make it after all.

(Jinx.)

It’s OK to spoil yourself

About two months ago, I threw my back out and was out of commission for a few days. The pain was immense and I had to take a prescription muscle relaxer and painkillers. Toward the end of my recovery, I made a quick decision to do something I had wanted to do for a long time, but hadn’t yet dared: I booked a hot stone massage for myself, and a facial treatment.

Both treatments, at the Willard Continental’s Elizabeth Arden spa, went amazingly well. I felt incredibly relaxed and rejuvenated and my face had a noticeable glow that almost made me look pretty. I justified the expense by writing it off as a treatment for my back; the facial I’d gotten just because hey, I was already there.

Earlier today, I went back to the spa and had another massage (Swedish this time) and another facial. My skin is still glowing and my back kinks are worked out. Did I have a “medical” excuse this time? No. I wanted to go, and I did. And it was amazing. And I don’t feel guilty about doing it.

I’m finally to the point now where I have a healthy savings cushion built up. I can fulfill my rent and student loan obligations and other bills, and still have a decent amount of money left over. More recently, I’ve been buying (small) things for myself that even a few months ago I’d have written off as frivolous or unnecessary: a new ring, a necklace, a pair of flats, a pretty blue lace slip. None of them are necessities, but all of them give me enjoyment and allow me to express myself.

As long as you pay up for the necessities, whatever you do with the gravy is up to you. It’s been an almost overwhelming concept to me, given that I’m practical and frugal almost to a fault (I rarely buy anything that’s not on sale, and I don’t have much jewelry or even pierced ears). I don’t blow through my money or rack up credit card debt I can’t pay off. But I also don’t second-guess myself. Do I really need that bra? Do I really need those shoes? That facial? That flavored espresso drink? No, I don’t need them. But I want them, and I have the means to get them.

So why shouldn’t I?

On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

The Hierarchy of Needs

Earlier today one of my friends shared an … edited … version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The base — the broadest, most pressing immediate need — was Wi-Fi. Some days, that’s a very accurate assessment.

Maslow’s hierarchy should be familiar to anyone who took a high school psych class, ever. The actual base is physiological fulfillment: food, water, warmth. Next is stability and security. Love — friendly, familial, romantic — is in the middle. After that comes self-esteem and respect. Self-actualization is the highest point. The idea is that you have to fulfill the lower needs before you can fulfill the higher ones.

Marking my one-year anniversary, both at my job and in D.C., has lately gotten me to start reevaluating my needs and what I want out of my life. Despite seeing so many of my friends starting families, I reaffirm to myself that that’s something I want, but only when the timing is right. It’s not something to do just to tick off a box.

I guess the hardest part of climbing the pyramid is figuring out what self-actualization, on an individual level, actually means. Some days I’m afraid that maybe I’m doomed to be a nomad, shifting from place to place without ever putting down real roots. Then I think of staying in any one place forever, and I can’t breathe. So it’s a pull in opposite directions: fear of loneliness on the one hand, fear of being trapped somewhere on the other.

Ultimately, I think, self-actualization (and the accompanying feeling that you’re where you’re meant to be, doing what you’re meant to do, with whom you’re meant to be) is probably like being in love. When you’re there, you know. And if you have to second-guess yourself, look for exits or wonder if you’re there, you’re not.

So for now, until I do get that feeling of actualization and permanency, I’m going to embrace my nomadic nature and appreciate people and places that I know are probably fleeting. And when I get to the “right” place, I’ll know.

A long-awaited update

I’ve been shamefully derelict in updating my blog lately. A lot has happened: I’ve moved back home to Kansas City for the time being, I formally completed my master’s degree and have the paperwork to prove it and I’m currently job-hunting.

One thing I’ve been doing a lot to stay busy and productive (sadly, though, not “thin”) is cooking and baking. Like two years ago, I made all of the family’s Christmas goodies with my mother this season. This year’s menu consisted of red velvet cupcakes (the Hummingbird’s recipe from “Cake Days”), vanilla-and-spice whoopie pies (also from “Cake Days”), chocolate-and-caramel shortbread bars and peppermint macarons. For Christmas Eve, I put together a Linzertorte, a German pastry made with almond meal, lots of butter and raspberry jam.

I have a few cooking feats I want to achieve in the next few months. Sometime later this winter, I’m playing host to an Indian dinner party for my family, serving homemade chicken tikka masala, naan, bombay potatoes, pilau rice and pistachio rice pudding. The chutney and papadams, I’ll probably buy. I also want to improve my macaron technique (I’ve made better cookies than most food bloggers’ efforts that I’ve seen, but I’m no Ladurée), field a decent risotto and make a Battenburg cake, the gold standard British teatime treat.

Despite this baking, I’m still not a food blogger (if you want to read a great one, read my friend Brenna’s). But I love doing it for fun, it gives me something to do and I enjoy it. More importantly, I also hope to start regularly updating my blog again, now that I’m in a more stable living situation. The Republican primaries are coming up, there’s a lot of social media topics to be discussed and lord knows I need to keep up with my writing.

In the meantime, I can make more of these.

Not bad for a first effort, no? They have feet!!

Chocolate macarons with chocolate-and-coffee ganache

Chocolate macarons with chocolate-and-coffee ganache

I’m OK … I think?

About a week ago, I made the tough decision to move back home for a while, work and try to save up my money for a UK work permit further down the road. I realized that even if I could apply for one now, the time it would take to find a job would leave me financially crippled. As painful as my decision is, it’s for the best.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I read Noreen Malone’s New York magazine cover story about millennials and our struggles to get good jobs, pay off our student loans and start families. While some aspects of her story were grating — if you can’t get a job in Williamsburg … look elsewhere? — others made sense. Namely, our generation has trouble getting angry and channeling that anger into progress. She also notes the annoyance of parents who raised us to have high self-esteem and then go on to tell us we act “entitled.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’re a generation who did everything “right,” in terms of going to university, only to discover that that won’t necessarily help us. If it’s our own fault for being unemployed, what did we do wrong and what can we do right?

It’s interesting though that, looking at my friends from university, I see mostly success stories. I know people working for law firms, engineers with good state DOT internships and even some marketing types who’ve started their own companies. Most of my friends majored in journalism, an industry that we’re constantly told is in the crapper. Yet just about every one of them has a good job in the industry, be they reporters, editors, photographers or designers. Even on my end, I came very close to getting a good media job in the UK (I like to think I’d’ve had it were it not for my permit quandary), and have found several excellent prospects at home.

Despite these successes, it still feels that something’s missing. I thought about it and realized that it feels like our generation has nothing left to really “fight for.” We don’t have Nazis or Communists or the worst effects of state-sanctioned racial discrimination. We tend to be progressive and champion LGBT rights (with a lot of success) and environmental responsibility. But in terms of having a grand good vs. evil plot, we’re lacking. I think that’s why the Occupy Wall Street movement is catching our intention — our defining struggle might be an economic one.

Of course this is just speculation. I’m “only” 24 (OK, closer to 25) and I’m optimistic despite my plan to live and work in the UK getting shelved for the moment. It doesn’t feel like a failure, more of a postponement.

And I’m OK with that.