Vanity: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part II


By now you may have heard of “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” Allison Slater Tate’s manifesto that we mothers shouldn’t hide behind the camera because we are ashamed of our post-baby bodies and the ravages of aging.

“Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves — women, mamas, people living lives.

“When I look at pictures of my own mother, I don’t look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her — her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes. That’s the mother I remember.” 

Juxtaposed with this, I read a piece on the Huffington Post on why feeling pretty after 50 is important.

What still confuses me, and what I want to explore in my thoughts, conversations and writing, is what aging gracefully means to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dress a whole lot differently than I did at sixteen and, truth be told, I don’t look a whole lot different either.  So when I have to grapple with things like that roll of fat around the middle that just won’t go away

I’m not sure whether to fight it, accept it or make peace with it and figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s inevitable. You’re getting older,” sighed my Ob/Gyn.  “It may be the perfect storm of perimenopausal hormones and glycemic sensitivity,” said my new general practitioner, who spent a full hour talking with me and listening to my concerns. “Try shaving two or three hundred calories off your daily intake each day, change your exercise routine and give yourself six months to lose ten pounds.”

My first round of thyroid tests were normal and though I don’t yet have the results of my second round of blood work, I assume those tests will also be normal.

That’s a good thing.  Though I was anxious for a concrete answer to the changes in my body and rightfully vigilant of the impact of the steroid injections I’d received, I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with me and that I won’t have to be on medication for the rest of my life.

But because I’m not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to my tumultuous tummy, at the doctor’s suggestion, I became familiar with the glycemic index, which measures the impact on blood sugar levels in the body after eating certain foods. If you feel bloated after eating pasta and wonder whether the glycemic index could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, check out the glycemic index website put together by the University of Sydney, which among other things, maintains the international glycemic index database of a wide variety of foods.  Most experts agree that the number you want to pay attention to is the glycemic load, which combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. According to the University of Sydney, it’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. (This blog is not meant to be the source of medical advice. If you are curious about the glycemic index or any other aspects of your health, please consult with a doctor, preferably one who will take the time to listen to your concerns).

I’m more concerned with the life index, which I define as how quickly a meal shared with others is converted to joy,  i.e. how I can have my cake and eat it too.

I knew the day we went to eat dim sum with two Chinese exchange students that lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf with pork, would wreak havoc on my mid-section.  I could ill afford the Michelin look, because the next day I was scheduled for a photo shoot to obtain an author photo for my book Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, which is coming out soon.

We had a great time with the Chinese girls, I ate leftover lo mai gai for a mid-afternoon snack and was predictably puffy the next morning.  So I ate oatmeal for breakfast, worked out and instructed the photographer to take head shots only.

It was worth it.

Despite the warmth and easy demeanor of the photographer, I still found the photo shoot uncomfortable, especially when I looked at all the images she had taken on her digital camera and saw my many nuanced poses reflected back at me in Fifty Shades of Alison.

I hadn’t until realized until then that, unlike writing a book, promoting a book means getting into the picture instead of remaining comfortably behind the scenes, and that this is just the first of many times in the coming months that I will have to put myself out there — vanity be damned.

What saved me was a recent interview I’d had with B.J. Neblett, a fellow author who was writing a profile of me for our writers’ collective website.  The morning we met, I was unshowered and wearing an old sweatshirt of Jeff’s. B.J. didn’t care that I was scruffy. We had an enjoyable conversation, which was reflected in the flattering profile he wrote about me.

I’m not going to pretend to have given up vanity, not to be flattered when people compliment me on my youthful appearance and not to be shocked when I resemble my maternal forbears in their later years (spoiler alert – there is one poem in my new book entitled, “My Grandmother’s Thighs”). I will sporadically pay attention to the glycemic index but hopefully, as the years go by, I will scrupulously pay attention to the life index — dim sum bloating be damned.

Aging gracefully

 I had a great idea for a recipe to share with you that I thought would cleverly tie the themes in this post together.  I planned to call it “Vanity Fare.”  It comes from Dorie Greenspan‘s book Around My French Kitchen and involves slicing boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips, sauteeing them in butter and then adding a cup of creme fraiche with two LU Cinnamon Sugar cookies crumbled and mixed in.  I was going to say that when chicken breasts are sweet and creamy and comforting, nobody cares if they are pleasantly plump.

“What’s for dinner,” daughters #1 and #2 asked suspiciously (they are often suspicious when I am cooking). “Chicken with cookies!” I said, assuming they would be thrilled to have a dessert-like twist on dinner.  I was thrilled to produce such an effortless elegant meal so quickly because I had to rush off to a meeting before the meal was over. They took tentative bites and proclaimed it “too rich.”  The next day, I found some chicken wadded up in a napkin and (not very well) hidden in my office.  We had pasta that night for dinner.

 I hope when my kids look at pictures of me and I’m sporting a tummy, they’ll see the kind eyes and joyful open smile of a mother who ate carbohydrates to make them happy.

My Three Sons

” I have mountains to look at, stars at night to gaze at and it’s so dark that you can see every star in the sky. Also, the people here… everyone wants to help each other.”

“When I arrived here, nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me and associated anything besides the connotations of being American. It’s like someone just hit the ‘reset’ button on my life, and I get to build a name for myself from scratch again. It’s a great feeling to know that anything people think of me before they get to know me comes from questionable stereotypes and nothing else.” 

“Best of all, we got to experience life under a philosophy that’s different from today’s norm. Rather than “keeping up with the Kardashians” and constantly working more in order to buy more, our hosts worked comfortably with what they had. As a result they’ve ended up with a beautiful home, two grounded and fun-loving sons, and best of all, the time to appreciate it. “

Three young men that I have known since birth are on extended forays in Afghanistan, France and New Zealand.  These sojourners — a soldier, a “sheap traveler” and a student — are sharing their impressions of the world, and their place in it, via Facebook and blogs.

(To be fair, the insights about appreciating what you have were written by the sheap traveler’s girlfriend and travel companion.  He’s lucky to be sharing his life and this adventure with such a grounded, healthy “shiny” young woman).

More than thirty years ago, I launched myself into the world.  There was no Internet back then, and therefore no Facebook and blogs, and the only way to share one’s impressions was via tissue paper- thin aerogrammes. It usually took two weeks for them to reach their destination and two additional weeks to receive a reply.

By the time the response arrived, you might have forgotten what had inspired you to write in the first place, having moved on to new experiences and corresponding new emotions.

I like this real time communication.  Yesterday I chatted on Facebook with my sweet, strong nephew A, who is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan.  He regularly Skypes with his wife, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and I imagine it is a great comfort to them to know that he feels safe and happy under the stars and that the previous night he shared a delicious meal with his Italian friends.  Rather than feel isolated, A can participate in home life and share the sweet mix of pumpkin patches, soccer games, doggy love and memories of good food with the people he loves.

I had to laugh when I read K’s accounts of student life in France.  Not much has changed since I attended a lycee in 1978.  His blog reminds me of the highs and lows I felt each day, as I, too, struggled with stereotypes and the reserve of the French students at my school.

I spent a second year attending college in France in the company of E’s parents.   Reading his stories of living and working in New Zealand on the cheap brings back memories of sleeping in parks and youth hostels, drinking inexpensive red wine and taking endless train trips throughout Europe.

E did a stint living and working in New York, so he’s experienced one version of “grown-up” life.  Now he’s seeing contrasting views of what a satisfying life can be. I can’t wait to find out what he decides for himself.

A few weeks ago, when the Canadians were here, Jeff pulled out his journals from his 1990 Everest trek.

That’s where he met S, aka “Cheesehead” (we’re not talking about Wisconsin here.  Jeff says this is the term used in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s to describe Canadians who crossed the border in search of dairy products).

More than twenty years later, we laughed as Jeff read us his impressions of S and tales of their adventures together in Nepal.  Twenty years and two very different life paths, yet we marveled after the Canadians left, that Jeff and S still feel a sense of connection and of shared values, as well as a mutual acknowledgement that their international experiences  shaped the way they chose to live their lives.

I’ve been reliving my own first tentative steps into the world as I put the finishing touches on the cover and interior design of my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small, which should be out by the end of next month (stay tuned for details).

I know of what I speak when I tell these young men that their lives will be forever changed by their international forays.

“Kids, today,” one generation is fond of sighing about the next.

Judging from the tales from abroad I’ve been reading, I’d say, the kids are alright.  They are scaling mountains.  They are making informed choices about their values.  They are not sheep.

If my two daughters  explore the world and show as much insight, sensitivity and open-mindedness  as my three spiritual sons, I will have fulfilled my most important goal as a parent.  Their parents should be very proud of them.  I know I am.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of cooking going in in our house because we are still adjusting to a busier schedule.  One night, tired of quesadillas and pasta, I vowed to make the Garum Factory’s Roast Chicken with Muhammara, but was thwarted by a Justin Bieber-related incident that it took most of the night to resolve (this time it’s personal, Bieber!).  A few nights later I did make that blissful chicken and the night after that, I used the stock I’d made from the chicken carcass to make one of my favorite standby soups, Ezogelin Corbasi, Turkish Red Lentil, Bulgur and Mint Soup.  Recipes for this soup abound. I used the recipe from Turquoise, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book about their culinary travels in Turkey.  Here’s a link to the recipe.

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

Lentils are one of those ancient foods that provide sustenance all around the world.  May these young men continue to find sustenance and broadened perspectives  through the people they meet and the meals they share.

Upside down

I don’t know why March gets all the hype, when anyone with kids can tell you that in September madness abounds.  There’s the getting back into school rhythm, the ceremonial synching of the calendars, the myriad of forms to fill out, the continual washing of soccer clothes (and hunting for soccer socks) and lots and lots of driving.

We’re affiliated with a new school and a new swim club, which means new faces and names to remember and new “opportunities” to become a part of these new communities.

For every event on my September calendar, there were one or two competing or bookending events, making it hard to get into the natural flow of daily life.

A few weeks after school started, we hosted a Japanese exchange student and had the opportunity to show her how a normal American family lives.  I thought it would be a good idea to make homemade pizza for our first dinner together.

I should have learned the Japanese translation for this.

Later that evening, our intrepid friends the Canadians unexpectedly showed up. They were camping in their nifty house on wheels

Sigh. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

which they parked on the normally quiet street in front of our house.  All day I had noticed an unusual number of cars parked on our street, including one with a woman in the front seat engrossed in a book.  Two hours later, she was still there.  Four hours later, she was still there.  At 11:00 p.m. she was still there, still reading.  It reminded me of that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.

“I’ll read what she’s reading.”

Flanked by Jeff and the Canadians, I knocked on her window to make sure she was okay and to get a look at the book that had held her attention for so long. She explained that unbeknownst to us, our neighbor across the street had died earlier in the week and there was to be an estate sale beginning the next morning.  “They provide entry to dealers based on a list.  I’m number one on the list, so I’m spending the night here in my car to protect my spot.”  She went on to explain that it’s not unheard of for people to sneak out at night and remove estate sale entry lists, which are posted outside the property.  “Actually,” she said indignantly “you are supposed to remain near the premises to hold your place on the list, but I’m the only one still here.  At 5:00 tomorrow morning, everyone else will show up.” I did ask her about her book, but neither it, nor the prospect of being the first person to get the chance to dig through an old man’s stuff, seemed worth spending the night in a car.

The Canadians wisely decided to move their vehicle to our driveway, rather than risk being awakened by treasure hunters.  At 6:00 a.m., when I took the dog for a walk, there they were and their numbers grew throughout the weekend.  I imaged trying to explain the reason for all these people to our visiting Japanese girl.  Was this how normal Americans lived and died?

I decided we should stick to sight seeing.

The new ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront

The visitors left, the month wore on and I kept waiting for things to calm down.  Over dinner, I spoke authoritatively about putting “systems in place” and established menus and job charts to keep us all on track.  Whenever the opportunity to restore order presented itself I grabbed it, collecting the apples that had fallen from our tree to make applesauce (using a James Beard recipe which admonished that, because different varieties of apples vary in sweetness, it would be “folly” to add sugar until the apples were cooked.) and catching up on laundry in between the first and the second time the dryer broke.

One such night I wanted to cook, really cook and so I decided to make maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern upside down dish of rice, eggplant, cauliflower and chicken, using the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s new book Jerusalem. The timing may have been bad – just as I was frying up cauliflower, Daughter No. 2 needed help with her math homework. I know I’m not alone when I say that answering any questions about math requires me to sit down and breathe deeply before I dive in. But when I brought the steaming platter to the table and adorned it with garlic-infused yogurt, I could imagine that one day, life would feel normal again.

 As we moved into October I had two encounters that gave me pause.  One was with a former neighbor, who came by to tell me that a member of her family had died.  I was rushing to dry my hair, take the dog for a walk and zip to an appointment when she appeared and so could not fully express my condolences or share memories with her. The other was a telephone conversation I had with a woman I had interviewed for an article I’d written.  She’d lost her teenaged son unexpectedly last Christmas and recently her family met the man who had received her son’s donated heart. Our interview the day before had stirred up memories and now she wanted to tell me all about her son, not so that I could write about him, but so that I could know the person he had been.  I listened, wanting to help her keep his memory alive, but I was distracted. I had ten minutes to chop and brown pork and put it into the Crockpot so that we would have time to eat dinner after school and swimming and before soccer practice.

One evening last week, in the brief available interlude after dinner and homework and before bed, we watched snippets of the documentary Half the Sky, which aired on PBS.  Even my daughters, who were riveted by what they saw, realized that our challenges are First World problems of our own making.

Still, I know it would be folly to expect that September will ever be any different, at least as long as I still have kids at home.  Just as I once designated a night of the week as European Chicken night, I’m thinking of designating September as Topsy-Turvy month and cooking maqlaba and tarte tatin and other upside down dishes until life, and our priorities, right themselves again.

It’s been a year since I started Slice of Mid-Life and I want to thank all of you who have read it and commented.  Even though work and life and puppies sometimes interfere with my best-laid blogging plans and I have to find stolen moments to write (like tonight, when I typed in my car while waiting for our Cuban Roast pork sandwiches to be ready), I’m always glad that I did.