Blah Blah Blahg

A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Happy Wellniversary!

The month of December always encourages somewhat of a personal reflection period being that it is the month I was born in nearly 27 years ago. However, this year brings about a whole new perspective for me as I come up on the first anniversary (or Wellnivesary as I am calling it) of my diagnosis with and treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. A year ago in December, I was spending a lot of time with doctors. I had seen two neurologists here in Spokane and saw a third in Boston, MA while visiting my family to get a "second opinion." It is rather difficult to acquire a second opinion when there isn't actually an official first opinion from which to build! Both specialists could only say what "it" was probably not and possibly similar to. After returning to Spokane and following up with my neurologist here, he ordered one last test to help define what type of movement disorder was causing my incessant tics and twitches; it was the last stop on a train that looked bound toward a lifetime in Pharmaceutical Land. At the end of this past January, I was delivered an unexpected gift at 1:30am during that polysomnogram: a surprised technician at the sleep center came in carrying a C-PAP machine and mask that I was about to wear for the first time.
And the presents keep on coming! Walking out of my home medical care office with this giant plastic sack of C-PAP parts and accessories made me feel like Santa, for lack of a better reference. Then I thought to myself, Santa is a prime candidate for Obstructive Sleep Apnea, what with the terrible air quality in chimneys, his gender, age and physical stature (large neck, carries excess weight in his midsection...)

I'm certain I had no idea what to expect at that point. I know I cried because I thought only "fat, old men" get sleep apnea. I remember my first night of using my C-PAP machine at home and feeling intensely hopeful after what I considered to be a huge and immediate success. And then the feelings of disappointment, desperation and personal failure at not being able to maintain that...
I was overcome with excitement and optimism--and this made the next few nights, which did not go as well, incredibly hard to accept. The novelty of finally knowing what has been affecting my health over the past several years had worn off and been replaced by the realization that I will deal with this for the rest of my life. --taken from this post on February 6, 2011
Many times in the lengthy process toward finding a mask, pressure setting and sleep regimen that would work for me, I wanted nothing more than to be a candidate for corrective surgery, to just give up and revert to being a "twitching idiot" or to somehow just go back in time to when I didn't know I even had sleep apnea. I felt more and more discouraged and at times, isolated in that feeling. I wrote about it a bit on March 19th, here. I wondered if I would ever be able to go to sleep again without "thinking about it" or be able to enjoy that cozy feeling when you wake up naturally in the morning and just want to lay there a bit.

If I had to share my bed space with all of the paperwork, masks, parts, and accessories involved in finally reaching the set-up that now works for me, I'd have no place to sleep!

The truth of that matter is, I'm not entirely there yet. I finally have a mask (Mask #5) that works for me and a pressure setting (I lost count of how many changes that took) that keeps me from having symptoms but isn't too high. I also now have insomnia quite often, as I think the process of getting to where I am now made me rather sensitive to other sleep disturbances. However, I am now off of all of the medications I was on for over a decade. I rarely have the uncontrolled movements that once rendered me unable to hold still at all. On rare occasions, I do wake up with the feeling that I've really enjoyed a restful night and rather than immediately wanting to escape my bed and feeling grateful another night is over, I lay there a bit in the cozy bliss of restfulness. This positivity really came forward yesterday when I checked in again with both my sleep doctor and neurologist. My neurologist here was visibly impressed by the improvement in my strength, balance, and muscle function/control. He said, "It's been a long journey for you, but you really fixed yourself."
At first, I was not sure I agreed entirely with his statement. I recognize how easily this could have been missed if he had not ordered the polysomnogram and if the sleep doctor had gone with his initial intuition to not run the test at all. I realize how easily I could have started a lifelong regimen of more drugs to treat symptoms that I'd likely still deal with if it were not for the correct diagnosis. I realize that essentially, this was and still is in G-d's hands. However, in further reflection, there is truth to my doctor's statement. Many patients continue to struggle with the affects of sleep apnea because it often goes undiagnosed. Many patients who feel chronically fatigued or "just not right" will avoid medical treatment altogether as these symptoms are often mislabeled or overlooked by medical professionals. And many who are diagnosed do not benefit from C-PAP therapy because they discontinue their treatment or their treatment is not completely controlling their sleep disordered breathing.
C-PAP machines are the first line of defense in treatment of sleep apnea. They are a great invention, don't get me wrong--can you imagine if I had to sleep in an iron lung?! A lot of focus is put on the patient responsibility to be "compliant." I strongly dislike that this is the vocabulary used around the issue! Insurance companies will not even cover the purchase of a machine (and cover a rental-only basis of use) until "compliance" over an extended period of time is proven. I recently read an article entitled "Innovative approaches help sleep apnea sufferers benefit from CPAP." The premise of the study done and approach being taken is that patients who have the support and encouragement of a parent or partner/spouse tend to have significantly greater success rates in using CPAP machines. If you are in any way affected by sleep apnea and CPAP therapy, be it that you are the patient or your loved one is, I do encourage you to read this. However, I disagree with the idea that providing emotional support and encouragement for CPAP users is in any way an innovative approach! Unfortunately, within the medical field it is innovative. Many patients are sent home with their machine and left somewhat to their own devices. The author of the article would classify my personal approach to solving my CPAP conundrums as "actively coping." I would classify it is "obsessively stubborn." As much as I would contemplate giving up on the therapy, I never allowed myself to actually see that as an option. I never got to a point where I was willing to go back to the way things were even if things were not as I wanted them yet. Many patients have different coping styles, less obvious symptoms, and do give up on the therapy. Many of those patients' health problems worsen and some actually die from complications of sleep apnea.
If I were to suggest an approach for family, friends, and healthcare providers for people suffering from sleep apnea and to the individuals themselves, it would be that there is no cookie-cutter plan for treating sleep apnea. Every body is different. Some people go home with their shiny new machine and sleep well immediately and for the rest of their lives. Some go home and immediately struggle to adjust, whether it's feelings of claustrophobia, the noise, the lights, an ill-fitting mask, an incorrect pressure setting, you name it. Some have an amazing first night and then nearly a year of struggling. There is no "it takes 4-6 weeks to kick in" type plan here. Well meaning folks will ask how you've slept every morning. Well meaning folks will tell you "you should be back to normal in about 2 months." Well meaning folks will tell you their experience with CPAP was "amazing" or "horrible" or "fill-in-the-blank." And as well meaning but often sleep-deprived patients, we may receive it well, laugh it off or burst into tears--often not when we expect or plan to!
If I had to categorize and classify my experience, I'd put under "Success Stories." Right now, CPAP therapy is my one and only ticket to continued wellness. I tolerate my good ol' machine, sometimes I even almost like the little thing! Do I sometimes still wish that I could have some sort of magical one-time-only cure and not have to use it ever again? Honestly, yes. But the quality of the life I live each day because of how well I am able to sleep at night is the truest testament to how beneficial this therapy is for me. As I near the day I will celebrate my 27th year on this beautiful blue planet, I am immensely grateful to also be celebrating my 1st Wellniversary and to be surrounded near and far by people who showed incredible amounts of love, humor, kindness and patience through it all!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Remembering My Grandpa, Bernard Beller, OBM

I don't think there is ever really a case of "being ready" to lose a loved one. Your phone rings in the evening, you pick it up and even with the preface of "I have some bad news to tell you," it seems impossible to fully brace yourself for the blow that is about to come. This past Wednesday, my Grandpa passed away in a hospital near the apartment he and my grandmother shared in Florida during the cooler months. They had arrived in Florida just over a week prior. I had spoken to him Thursday morning the week before as he and my Grandma prepared for Shabbat the next day.
August, 2011
I was blessed enough to spend a day with my Grandpa this past summer. He most often went by "Ben" and "Ben's Kosher Deli" was one of his (and my) favorite places to eat near my grandparent's home in New York.

My Grandpa and Grandma celebrated 60 years of marriage this past September. There are many things to admire about him and many gifts he shared with me through the years. His own life story is an incredible one, but I will share that at another time. For now, I feel it's relevant and important to say that my Grandpa and Grandma are two of the most influential people in my decision to become a more observant Jew. His love of Torah, learning and mitzvos were at the core of who he was and who I strive more and more to become.

Living in Washington state while my family is all back east means that in times like these, it's not possible to be with them physically. The distance would feel overwhelmingly isolating were it not for the incredible friends I have here, my Jewish community and the power of technology. I was able to view the funeral via live telecast, and my mother kindly volunteered to read on my behalf the following words I wrote about my Grandpa:

As a very little girl, I am told I was a little slow to warm up to Grandpa—particularly if it involved hugs and kisses. He still smoked a pipe back then. I can remember him telling me to come smell the loose tobacco he carried in a Ziploc bag--that it smelled like chocolate. I knew then we had a very different opinion of what chocolate should smell like. I did not like the crust on my challah at Shabbos dinner and Grandpa told me “eat it, it tastes like cookies!” I knew then we also had a very different opinion of what a cookie should taste like. In those days, he referred to me affectionately as “Peanut.” I knew I had begun to grow up when he starting to refer to me instead as “Darling.” It was also around that time I began to realize that aside from our differing views on what constitutes a proper dessert (and I still won’t touch pistachio flavored ice cream), that Grandpa and I had a lot in common.

Since moving across the country 8 years ago, it’s been difficult to visit my grandparents often. Years have even passed in which I don’t get to see them and that pains me. However, the highlight of many weeks has been Friday morning when I’d call and hear Grandma’s or Grandpa’s voice on the receiving end and could say “It’s Michelle; I just called to wish you a Good Shabbos.” The phone calls are never long and often we'd only talk about the weather—but for a few minutes that erased the 3,000 miles between us. In just a few hours, the sun would set in the east coast and a few hours after that, in the west coast. Somehow, a warm greeting over the phone has brought us together for Shabbos each week.

Sometimes, despite my better intentions, I’ve missed a week. Then there is often a message on my phone come Sunday. My favorite message was one in which Grandpa said “It’s your Grandpa and Grandma. The time in New York is now 6:46. No, the clock just changed and now it says 6:47. Anyhow…we didn’t hear from you…” I think that’s the first time I realized that our little phone calls meant as much to him as they did to me.

Last year, my rabbi here in Spokane, WA made a trip to Florida. While he was there, he met my grandparents for lunch. He made a point to contact me from Florida right afterward and tell me what special people my grandparents are and how lucky I am to have them. He is absolutely right. When he got back to Spokane, he said that again, and added that I am a lot like them and that I look like my Grandma. It was a huge compliment as I so greatly admire the kindness, warmth and generosity of my grandparents and Grandma is a beautiful woman!

For years now, my grandparents have mailed a note to me every month. I’ve saved nearly every single letter. Like our phone conversations, they are short and sweet. Often, there is vital information about current weather conditions. This year in September, Grandpa wanted to know if I’d made any new friends at school. I’m 26 years old, but knowing how important that is to him, I got right on it and joined a club on my college campus. Usually the letter comes after the first of the month. Given that they were traveling and how sick Grandpa had been feeling, I really didn’t expect to get one at the usual time this month. However, the letter came early. It was dated October, 28 and in addition to the usual greeting, Grandpa added at the end: Thank you so much for your phone calls. I hope he knew and that Grandma realizes how much it means to me to hear their voices and to feel for a few minutes of the week like I’m not 3,000 miles away from them.

My hope and prayer in this time is that my Grandma feel and know the love and support she has, that my family will heal and grow from this loss, and that I may live my life in a way that would bring honor and remembrance to the incredible man my Grandpa was.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Just Another Mindful Monday: On the Topic of Prayer

I love this photograph of Jewish women praying at the Kotel (Western Wall), taken in 1848

Happy Mindful Monday! It has been a while since I've posted on this theme and a while since I've been online--though as of sundown Saturday night, this High Holy Day season has finally drawn to a close. Don't get me wrong--I love holidays and this season in particular is laden with meaning for me, but I am quite at peace with returning to my usual routine at this point.
A dear friend of mine has taken on the huge mitzvah of learning together once a week with me. I refer to it as our Torah Tuesdays. The reason I say this is a huge mitzvah is not just because I appreciate our time together so much (which I do!) but because of the importance placed on educating another Jew by Judaism itself. There is a well known Talmudic proverb, which states:
"Whoever teaches his son teaches not alone his son, but also his son's son, and so on to the end of generations." -- Talmud, Kiddushin 30aJudaism places so much importance on teaching and educating that the act of learning with and teaching a fellow Jew is also said to fulfill the commandment stated in Dueteronomy 11:19 to "dilligently teach your children..." even for those who do not have children of their own.
But, yet again, I digress--perhaps I shall post at another time on the role of education in Judaism. For now, I want to focus on the topic of prayer.
I borrowed a book from my friend a couple of weeks ago titled "How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household." The author, Blu Greenberg, had the following to say on the role of daily prayer:
"Prayer serves many functions, in fact, every function and its opposite:
It is a safety hatch when one is overcome by fear or dread, anger or need.
It calls forth a generosity of the human spirit. Prayer reminds us not to take totally for granted that which we all must presume as we go about our business--the gifts of life, health, love, and good fortune. If we constantly worried about these essentials, we would be paralyzed in our actions. If we took them for granted all the time, we would be ingrates, and most unprepared for the vagaries or life.
Prayer sometimes enables us to reach into our own souls, to see what it's like in there. The truth is that we can get by very well for long periods of time without this contact with our inner selves, but at some point it catches up.
Prayer is a sensation of community; but it is also a feeling of intense loneliness, and aloneness with G-d."
(Chapter 4, page 137)

For me, prayer has taken on many roles. It has sometimes been like having a conversation with G-d. Sometimes it has been forced, rote, mechanical. Sometimes it has been full of feeling and meaning. I pray at times out of habit, at times out of what some might call superstition, at times out of desperation and hope, at times out of joy and gratitude. Many times, all of these factors play in to one Shabbat or one Krias Shema (prayers before retiring at night).
It would look pretty on paper to say my relationship to/belief in my G-d comes as easily to me as the breath to my lungs or the beating of my heart. It has not and does not. In the past, starting that "conversation" of prayer has been challenged by my not knowing to Whom I was speaking. The name game would get in the way--after all, one cannot address a "G-d" she does not believe exists. In those times, which were driven as much by comfort as they were by anger or pain, my prayers would take me by surprise. I'd find myself calling out G-d when I least expected to. That, in hindsight, is as natural and involuntary as the human heart beat or act of breathing.
Judaism recognizes that prayer will not always come with feeling. It recognizes that oftentimes our thoughts or emotions will serve as a barrier rather than motivator when it comes to talking with G-d. That is one reason why we have so many prayers we say daily, weekly, at holidays, on special milestones, painful occasions, even when eating, seeing something in nature, wearing a new item of clothing, using the bathroom, taking a road-trip, etc. It is well known that there are and will be times when we cannot find the words to begin the conversation; Judaism gives that to us.
However, equally important are those words which do come straight from a place deep within. Whether it is from despair and desire, from a place of loneliness or fear--we are all granted a private audience--"aloneness with G-d"--to pour out our soul-song when the occasion arises.
In the early stages of diagnostic testing over a year ago, well before it was discovered that I have severe sleep apnea, I had to go through 3 rounds of MRIs. This took 3 days and over six hours. I was terrified of the machine, the small space, the inability to move, the dark and the loud noises--not to mention all the anxiety of what they might be looking for in there! The one thing that got me through was to continuously recite in my mind the words to a Jewish song, Adon Olam. This is a piece taken from daily Jewish liturgy. Over the generations, it has been put to about a gazillion different tunes--a great way to take up 6 hours of time! But more than entertainment, it provided comfort and peace--each and every time I reached the last words: "Hashem* li, v'lo ira" -- "G-d is with me, I shall not fear."
So whatever the Name you choose to call, whether it's in your own words, driven by feeling, accompanied by meaning or completely by rote, may you all find comfort, peace, and gratitude in having even a brief moment of conversation in prayer.
*To honor the commandment of not taking His name in vain, many Jews will use "Hashem," meaning literally, The Name, when quoting liturgy outside of actual prayer

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Teeny Tiny Taste of Torah: The Yoga of Sukkot

The 8-day holiday of Sukkot begins tonight at sundown. During this holiday, Jews around the world can be found eating their meals--and often sleeping as well--inside makeshift huts called sukkahs. Many families build a sukkah right in their own backyard, while others make visits to friends' homes or to their local shul (synagogue) to fulfill this mitzvah (commandment).
These next 8 days, which lead to the holiday of Simchat Torah, are a time of unity and joy for the Jewish people. So perhaps you are asking-- why the additional mention of the Yoga in this post? What does stretching yourself into a pretzel have to do with Sukkot or with Judaism at all for that matter? I would be so bold as to say a lot!
I've been stretching a great deal (pun intended) in both my Yoga practice as well as my Jewish observance. Through the last several years, I've often felt the 2 were mutually exclusive, if not at times completely opposing forces in my life. Judaism, it seemed, was about prayer, community-focus, and action in the world. Yoga, it seemed, was about solitude, self-focus, and escape from the world. Increased learning in both areas has led me to see how the 2 share many similarities and fit together quite nicely in my life.
This idea was made especially clear in my mind when I thought about some of the meaning behind Sukkot. Sukkot is a joyous time. We honor the season of harvest. We celebrate our unity as families, as communities, and as a people. And we do all this inside a wooden hut with at least 2 and a half walls, the ground as a floor and branches as a roof to provide essentially some shade, but not too much that you should not be able to see the stars of the night sky. What meaning is to be found in this ritual? We remember through this our ancestors who kept similar living conditions through their 40-year exodus from Egypt. We try to imagine the level of trust they must have had to maintain in G-d that they should make it to this supposed Promised Land they'd yet to see. It brings to mind the age-old toddler-on-a-road-trip question: "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How 'bout now? Are we there yet???"
And deeper within that, is the very-Yogic concept of impermanence. We remember, honor and celebrate the impermanence of our material world: This harvest season that shall come and go. The temporary nature of the places we lovingly call home--shelter is very little more than some walls, a ground, and a roof. The people we meet along our way. Beyond that, we balance our need to both be insulated from this physical world and to exist within it--to still be able to see the stars of the night sky.
Often there is a sense of wistfulness when we think of things as temporary. We feel sad about the nature of something not lasting forever. Judaism and Yoga both call on us to bend beyond that immediate notion, and see the beauty in that which is temporary; to celebrate, sing, eat, sleep and be joyous in this moment.
Chag Sameach! May you and yours have a joyous Sukkot!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Teeny Tiny Taste of Torah: Reflections on the High Holidays

The first 2 major Yom Tovim (holidays) of the Hebrew month of Tishrei have now come and passed. Rosh Hashanah was accompanied by slices of Washington State apples dipped in honey, delicious gluten free challah thanks to some very caring and talented friends, many scrumptious desserts not to mention the 3 days (since Rosh Hashanah was followed directly by Shabbat this year) of savory meals. This was the perfect opportunity for our waistbands to expand had we not all come down with a Post Rosh Hashanah Plague, which left me 4lbs lighter than before the holiday began! Even this unpleasant event, however, was tempered by the outpouring of kindness in my community as those who were able went out of their way to care for those who were lying in fetal positions upon the hard tile of their bathroom floors. Even those who were ill made sure to send messages of kindness and/or humor to their ailing compatriots. Then, before we knew it, candles were being lit to usher in Yom Kippur and Shabbat. I thought for sure that fasting would be easy this year compared to years past since I'd still not really regained my normal appetite and I had unintentionally given up most caffeine after last Sunday. I ended up having quite the migraine by late morning of Yom Kippur day, but was even able (between some kvetching) to find gratitude for the occasional waves of nausea that were taking my mind off of thoughts of food! With the fast ending at 7:02PM here, the last couple of hours really seemed to drag. My davening (prayer) began to feel a bit less focused and more forced.

But, there is an amazing thing that happens to me in that last hour. Suddenly, there is an unspeakable energy in the room. The sight of little kids eating cheese and crackers doesn't seem to bother me anymore. Even said little kids requesting cups of apple juice when I don't have enough spit left in my mouth to lick a finger and turn a page in the Machzor (prayer book for high holy days) doesn't sway my energy. And it's not the pending platters of smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese, fruits, cakes and salads that have my focus at this point. I am truly feeling the "High" of the High Holy Days.
The sun was setting outside the synagogue window. Our night was drawing to a close. For the last few minutes before nightfall, there is singing and dancing and then silence--before the shofar sounds one last time and we all declare with astonishing energy:
"L'shanah haba'ah birushalyim!" Next Year In Jerusalem!
I have not always felt this high during the High Holidays. Despite being the one time of year the most Jews gather worldwide to go to synagogue, I feel like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have somewhat of a bad rep. There is a sense of somberness and palpable discomfort even in the mention of Yom Kippur, which translates to English as "Day of Atonement." We are asked to reflect and take personal inventory of the last year. We are told on Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life is opened and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; our fate for the following year is decided here and now. Who will live, who will die, who will be successful, who will struggle to make ends draws to mind an image of G-d sitting up there leafing through pages of humankind, placing a check mark here, a question mark there, an "x" there... Sounds unpleasant, no? So what is it that draws so many Jews of so many backgrounds--even self-proclaimed non-believers to gather in synagogue this time of year?
My dear friend purchased a copy of this book while on a trip to New York a few months ago. She shared a few excerpts with me over this holiday season, which I found to be quite meaningful and helpful. The author relates that on Yom Kippur, we are able to connect at the highest possible level with our Creator--a level we are not able to reach at any other time of year, not even on Shabbat. He also compares our relationship with G-d not to that of a master/slave or parent/child--but to a marriage, a partnership. It is as though we are standing under the chuppah (bridal canopy) on this day and joining with our Creator.

For me, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not a time of impending doom and gloom. It is not meant for me to harshly review and ruminate on each and every potential ill action of my past. It is a time for me to connect with my Creator and to connect with myself; for if G-d can forgive all people's transgressions for all time--both willful and unintentional--how much more important is it that I also find that level of compassion within to forgive others and to forgive myself. How much more meaningful would it be to join in this partnership or "marriage" with the sense of joy that such a simcha (celebration) would typically evoke!

And I do believe that deep within every Jew, that is what really brings us to sit--and more often, stand through hours upon hours of services on the High Holidays. We may call it by another name: "guilt," "obligation to family/children," "tradition/habit..." We may even get a little kvetchy around 5:00PM on Yom Kippur. But I cannot deny the incredible surge of emotion that hits me when I hear the first shofar blast of Rosh Hashanah. In that moment, I feel connected to G-d. I don't feel that 100% of the time throughout the year or throughout each day for that matter. That is the nature of a physical partnership, too. Our emotions ebb and flow in any relationship. We come close to another person, we drift away, we return; it is deep-seeded connection, however, that keeps us striving daily in our relationships to be better friends, better siblings, better children, and our best Selves.

May you all have a meaningful season and be inscribed for good & peace!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Staying Organized & A Few of My Favorite Things...

A few of my Favorite Fall decorations...

Huzzah! I am officially back into the full swing of life as a college student! After taking a year off to embark on the process of finding out what was causing my health problems and adjusting to the addition of C-PAP machine therapy to treat my sleep apnea, I am embracing the feeling of exhaustion that naturally occurs after a long day of teaching, learning and getting ready for the upcoming High Holy Days. It feels wonderful to be tired because I've been so busy as opposed to the all-encompassing fatigue that used to linger over every moment of every day, seemingly no matter what I did. My days are filled to the brim right now, and I'm loving it! Having such a full schedule means I must organize my days carefully, though the incredible thing about having less empty time is that I seem to get a lot more done!
One of my favorite discount store finds was this plant rack, which creates a wonderful storage space in my kitchen for cookbooks, my recipe box, plastic & reusable shopping bags and--of course, my dinosaur lunch box.

This time of year can be a balancing act for many of us. For some, kids are back at school and extra-curriculars are up and running. Others are students like myself and nose-deep in textbooks, essays and exams. Many of my friends and family are also preparing for Rosh Hashanah (which begins at sundown this Wednesday) and the holiday-packed Jewish month of Tishrei. I recently read a wonderful post on by a guest blogger, Rivkah Slatkin of Jewish Life Organized. Mrs. Slatkin comprised a list of 10 Organizing Secrets for a 3-Day Yom Tov that covers every aspect of holiday preparation from cooking and cleaning to decorating your home, hosting guests and religious observance. Her ideas are concise, complete, and comprised in a way that is not overwhelming (which is hard to accomplish!). Since I am single and not hosting any holiday events this year, my To-Do list is quite a bit less involved, but many of her suggestions could still be useful this time of year and beyond.

Efficiency in cooking and food prep (not to mention disaster-avoidance) is dependent on utilizing minimal counter space well! I love having a spice rack for my most-frequently-used dried herbs and spices. Having some of my cooking utensils and good knives out and handy is helpful, too. I especially love that wooden box, which I found at a thrift store last year for storing things like olive oil, salt & pepper shakers, vinegars and my oil mister where I can quickly get them (and put them away) while I'm using the stove.

I specifically found her suggestion of using a slow cooker to prep and freeze meals very appealing. There is nothing more satisfying than coming home after a long day to a hot meal—and when you live alone, your slow cooker is likely the only means by which this will occur! Lately, my freezer has become a dear friend! Making large batches of soups, casseroles, even baked goods and freezing leftovers has allowed me to thaw out meal options for those days that are just too jam-packed to start from scratch.

Speaking of reusable containers, I love these working glasses with lids for storing dry goods like sugar!

My first few days of school made me keenly aware of how important it will be to have to-go options ready for packing along during the week. Reusable containers and baggies of ready-to-munch veggies, fruits, nuts, granola, etc., will all help me stay nourished and energized from the preschool classroom in the morning to the college lecture hall at night.

A couple of my favorite refrigerator lists, and yes, that's a photo of Tiny Me, shoving something chocolate into my mouth!

Another habit I’d really like to further develop is the ever-useful List. To-do lists, shopping lists, wish lists, agenda lists—I love lists. My sister turned me on to this meal-planning & shopping list template via the Real Simple website.

Even with best laid plans (and Lists), it's always important to recognize that sometimes, for various reasons, everything will not get done when or how we would want it. In those times, we are called upon to develop our ability to be flexible and compassionate with ourselves. I love to end my days with a bubble bath, a favorite magazine, and maybe even breakfast for dinner. In fact, after I accomplish some of today's to-dos I think I shall make myself some gluten-free Doughnut French Toast for dinner and curl up with a mug of apple cider.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Creative Kitchen Concoctions: Lemon Blueberry Cornmeal Cakes

I will come right out and say that prior to giving up wheat and gluten in my diet, most of the common culprits were not my favorite foods to eat anyway. I was never much of a bread lover--it usually served as something to hold the "real" stuff together in a sandwich. I'm not saying it was easy to cut out pastas, crackers, pastries, cookies, most cereals and many sauces, dressings, marinades, even supplements for that matter. Sometimes I think it would be so nice to just buy a loaf of regular bread again (and not spend upwards of $5 for a loaf of something that attempts to resemble it). Sometimes it would be so wonderful to be able to indulge in a muffin or scone at my favorite cafes again (at least they aren't sitting on my waistline anymore, right?). One of the times I most miss my former gluten-full diet (and really only the nostalgia of it or perceived convenience since I definitely don't miss the health issues) is at breakfast time.
Sunday mornings roll around with a lazy longing to linger over coffee, and I would love to have a nice big breakfast to go with that. Sure, there's an awful lot one can do with eggs, but sometimes you want something a little different. Here again, I was never the one to order a stack of pancakes on a Sunday brunch out. I never cared for their rubbery texture and they seemed most suited to soaking up puddles of syrup. I decided this past Sunday morning that it felt like a pancake day, even a day to cheat a bit and use a baking mix. It would require some concocting and definite creativity--and that's how I ended up with Lemon Blueberry Cornmeal Cakes!
If there is one thing that going gluten free has taught me, it's how to have a sense of adventure in the kitchen. That being said, too much adventurousness can be expensive and even wasteful when it comes to cooking and baking with gluten free substitutes.
I recently purchased a copy of The Cake Mix Doctor Bakes Gluten-Free (click the link to view it on I like the security of starting with a mix, but--to be quite honest--without some doctoring, many gluten free cake and cookie mixes leave quite a bit to be desired! I've loved baking various types of muffins again (and even administering some further "doctoring" to the recipes in this book). I baked some corn muffins a few weeks back and I decided cornmeal felt like the perfect addition to pancakes. I started off with Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Pancake Mix, added in some yellow cornmeal, some ground flax (gotta have your protein!), lemon extract & some frozen blueberries. The result was delicious and perfect for toasting/reheating in the busier weekday mornings for a great kick-start to any day.
My Semi-Recipe for Lemon Blueberry Cornmeal Cakes
1 cup Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Pancake Mix (you can substitute another gluten free or gluten-full pancake mix and adjust accordingly)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 TBSP ground flax
1 egg
3/4 cup milk (I used nonfat, you can use any cow's milk or milk substitute)
1 TBSP vegetable oil
agave nectar to sweeten (to taste, I didn't add too much)
1 teaspoon lemon extract
about 1/2 cup frozen blueberries

Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients, and mix. Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium heat. Spray with a little olive oil or nonstick spray if not using a non-stick surface. Ladle in desired amount of batter (to reach the size pancake you want). Flip when edges start to cook through, and continue to cook until golden on each side.

I'd love to say that I sat down and slowly enjoyed the fruits of my labor, but no, I ate the first one,
standing, as soon as it was ready AND dipped it in copious puddles of maple syrup!