Thursday, January 31, 2013

100 pies

Last November I made a milestone. I baked off my 100th pie. It took a few years to do it but I kept a diary of every pie I baked with the intention of baking 100.

A few years ago I read an article about a man who wanted learn how to make knives. He bought a second hand grinder and some knife blanks and set to it. Over the course of months and years he made lots and lots of knives...many of them so unredeemable he just buried them in the back yard. But eventually he became competent and after that he became good. Eventually his knives were sought by others By then he had made over a hundred knives.

That article stuck in my mind. I remember taking a walk with a friend and talking about life goals and I recall saying that I wanted to truly master at least one skill in my life. At the time I didn't know what that would be but the idea resonated with me and stuck.

I didn't think pies would be my thing but as an eating experience and as a craft, pie has its own distinction.

One summer when I was 20, Mom and I went black berry picking behind her house. Afterwards we went into the kitchen and she taught me how to bake my first pie. Mom has a real ease with pie baking--we enjoyed pie frequently when I was growing up--always apple or peach and always what ever was in season. A family friend infamously asked his own wife why she couldn't bake pies like Mom's. Ouch! But, really, they were that good. They had a somewhat homely but flakey crust. The fillings were firm without being under or over cooked--more fruity than spicy.

When that first blackberry pie was out of the oven she sent me home with it to share with my friends. I was living in an all female household and one of my room mates had over some guests. I offered up my pie to share. I remember the reaction very vividly.

After having a few bites one of the guests knelt down and kissed my bare feet. I had cooked many things up til that day but NEVER had anything elicited that kind of response. Wow!

Despite this stunning debut, I didn't bake another pie for over a decade--mostly because I lived in places where the ovens didn't work well. It just fell off my list of things to do in the kitchen.

One evening I was at a friend's house and we started talking about pie. There is a bakery in Julian that is famous for pie. I tried that pie and wasn't impressed--I thought the crust was pretty doughy. But it was the only game in town for home made pie. I seem to recall scoffing and saying I could make a far better pie. 
After my fog of memory and delusion subsided, reality set in. I had problems with the dough sticking and tearing--eventually I ended up patting it into the pan. It turned out horrible...card-boardy crust, bland, mealy filling. All around lousy and an embarrassment. I didn't bake another pie until I went to pastry school. 

On my own turf I'm very comfortable cooking and am used to my dishes turning out successfully. However, in school I was introduced to many "rules" and was surrounded by Type A perfectionist alpha bakers--I was a nervous wreck. I was an enthusiastic home baker but some of the girls in class were already working in bakeries or doing catering. My overconfidence screwed me again!

During the week we did pies, I was confounded by the issue of trying to make a flaky crust that was something I could also roll out. "If it shatters in the bowl it will shatter on the plate" one of the instructors said. Yes, that's fine but dough needs to cohese if you are going to roll it out. I couldn't stand the idea of having another cardboard pie come out of the oven with my name on it! I gingerly worked the flour and butter adding ice water by the tiny spoonful. My dough was impossibly fragile and unrollable...I had to patch my crust together for the test. My pie was pretty homely--very "loving hands of home" as my friend Helen would say. However, when the Chef had a bite she said it was good--balanced filling and a flaky crust. Crust is everything in a pie. I needed to work on the cuteness factor of course but I was on the right track. 

In the mean time I had other inspiration to draw on. One afternoon after arriving home from a business trip I found Keri had baked me a peach pie. It was pretty as can be! Even in school I had never seen such a lovely pie--fluted edges, sprinkled with sugar and perfectly golden brown all over. I had a big slice--it was a foot kisser! Once Keri brought one of her pies to a friend's house and the host tried to tell her "the right way" to make pie crust. I interjected--I could only see one pie on the table (Keri's) and nobody was going to rain on my sweetheart's beautiful offering. The pie didn't last through the next day so I suppose Keri understands "the right way". There is no truer testament to quality than an empty plate.

I started practicing making pies at home. One pie caught on fire in the oven! But gradually, the pies improved. I asked Keri to teach me her way which she generously shared with me. Her own grandmother was a professional cook and made pies daily. I wanted to be able to roll a crust to just the right size without measuring it. With practice that came more easily. I started decorating my pies with cutouts of hearts or bees and flowers. They eventually became pretty!

One year I baked 40 pies as a fundraiser for my friends at Unconditional Love Animal Rescue. After that I logged pie after pie. I baked them for friend's parties. I made for guests. I shared them with my family. I even sold slices off the tail gate of my car when I was between jobs. I experimented with fruit and herb combinations. My work became more consistent and I was able to do the preparation with more ease. I have a few rules I always follow and because of that I can expect a certain result no matter what filling I use.

I have heard from more than one person that my pie is "as good as" or even "better" than their mother's. I always feel so proud and a little embarrassed to hear that (shouldn't Mom's pie always be the best?). My brother's won't say my pie is as good as Mom's but they usually are up for a second slice!

I am not looking to the next milestone--the next 100 pies or the next big thing. Now that I've done this feel more relaxed. Even if I only make pies for my friends I have a connection to something alive and satisfying--the making of something I know is good and that I know others think is good too. Although this pursuit isn't a world changer, I feel more solid because I pursued something until I felt I wasn't kidding myself. Also, it's important for me to remember that when I see someone do something that seems so natural that more than likely there was a large gap from when they started and where they are today.

I'll try to keep this in mind as I learn my new job.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why its so Damn Hard to not Eat the Damn Take Out Pizza

So, last night, after a full day of eating good stuff, feeding my brain and generally walking my talk I sat down to watch a movie. All of a sudden I couldn't stop thinking about the left over pizza in the fridge. I had already eaten enough, felt sated, but my brain was on a one way collision course with this pizza.

With curiosity I gave in to my urge and tried to feel whatever it was that was going on inside myself as I picked out two slices, nuked them (I felt pretty impatient and took them out before the timer went off) and consumed them--this whole process took under 5 minutes. But even as I was warming up my two slices I knew I would want the next two slices (the remainder of my half of t left over from last night). As I was taking the last two slices out of the microwave I got a phone call from Keri. She wanted to chat but I was itching to eat the pizza I had just warmed up. . Of course in this case my better self won and I didn't hang up the phone while my girlfriend wanted to chat--however it was a struggle.

So, clearly there is an opportunity for another mind hack! I have a hack for "doing" but the next hack I want to create is for "not doing".

So kiddies, lets look at what happening inside our brain when these impulses to eat stuff occur. I don't know what triggered my brain to want that pizza other than I knew it was there. I was in relaxation land--off the leash for the day. For now I'm going to assume that an existing connection between watching a junk movie and eating a salty, fatty white flour snack was the trigger--after all Iron Man is much better with pizza, right? My lizard brain started reving me up to anticipate something even more delicious than pizza--a hit of dopamine!

Mmmmmm, dopamine, delicious.

So lets talk about the two things that happened in my brain when the pizza emergency occurred.

First the desire to eat fatty, salty, starchy delicious things. Our primitive minds still think its a good idea for us to load up on calories of this sort--in nature they are scarce but also loaded with important survival oriented nutrients (salt which is necessary to balance the electrolytes in our blood, fat which is long term energy and starch which is short term energy) so there is a pleasure process built in to make sure we prefer these easy to process nutrition sources.

What happens after we obtain and eat the fatty, salty, starchy delicious thing is our brain releases a hit of dopamine and the mind gets a feeling of relief and well being (but only temporarily). Our brains naturally transmit dopamine during the day--that and other other naturally occurring chemicals in the brain keep us on an even keel. It helps counter stress--however too much stress depletes dopamine and the brain will seek ways to release the chemical (such as over eating, drinking, drug use, sex and a host of other pleasurable activities).
When I get triggered to eat something not to my benefit it takes enormous energy to overcome the urge. Because I want to maximize my available energy I want to find a way to short circuit the urge before I need will power to kick in.

I know I wouldn't have wanted the pizza or thought about it if it wasn't there BUT I also "felt" unfinished with my eating for the day--so my earlier statement about satiety isn't perfectly accurate. I knew I had enough in terms of my nutritional requirement but I was still unsatisfied. The desire was floating out there unfulfilled.

So, first thought is to ensure that foods I will mindlessly gorge on aren't readily available--this isn't something revolutionary. But, left over pizza is going to be in the house from time to time. I don't think its a useful or realistic strategy to design your life so its monastic.

But what to do with that free floating desire? I don't want to tell it to directly shut up--that takes too much energy. I want to satisfy it...I do want my hit of dopamine after all!

So, my challenge is to find that Ok thing to underline my day--the happy ending if you will. It can't be something that my brain knows is a rip off--my lizard brain is not so stupid that substituting something lousy and virtuous will cut it. It has to be something really good but not throw me off the cliff at the same time--in essence I'm applying the 80/20 principle to this problem. I will get more benefit from a tasty snack than fighting the urge to not have a tasty snack.

Ideas that come to mind:
glass of red wine
glass or port
hand full or two of chocolate covered raisins (I love them and get my supply from Trader Joe's)
blue cheese spread on toast with a drizzle of honey

I'm shooting for something delicious and about 200 calories. I know I could eat something optimal for thinking but I'd rather have the dopamine in this case--a different kind of optimization. The highest and best combo of course is something that does both. Avocado on Ezekiel bread sprinked with sea salt comes to mind. Bottom line, it has to feel like a treat.

I'm curious to hear your reactions.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Low Carb Diets Make You Dumb

I know people love these diets because they allow you to drop a bunch of weight all at once but they aren't optimal for your brain function or mood. Allow me to explain why I think these diets make you dumb (at least short term until you stop doing them).

Low carb diets cause two changes that are counter to optimal brain function. These kinds of diets deprive the body of glycogen stores. Water is needed for muscle tissue to use glycogen to respond to the body's demand for glucose. By eliminating glycogen stores, your body drops the water that would otherwise be used to enable the body to form glucose.

So, great, you drop five pounds in two days because you peed out all this water your body wasn't using to form glucose. Jeans fit is good, right?

Well, not if you want to do your best work, have a steady mood and have optimal brain availability.

Consider this. The brain's composition is 85% water and uses water for neuro-electrical conduction--neural impulses that allow us to access memory, process thought and basically respond to the outside world run on a watery network. Brain function starts to suffer when the hydration dips by as little as 1% below optimal levels.

So  you counter act that by drinking lots and lots of water (good, you should drink lots of water) but your brain is still suffering. The brain's number one fuel source is glucose. By severely restricting carbohydrates, your body has nothing to produce glucose with. As a result your brain starves.

So, if the brain needs glucose, a candy bar should do the trick, right?

Sorry to disappoint. Your brain needs around 150 grams of glucose a day to function optimally--but not all at once! Refined sugars are absorbed almost immediately in the bloodstream causing a flood of glucose. The result is a spike in blood sugar that causes temporary hyperactivity followed by an energy crisis--the dreaded sugar crash. Bad mood and a lack of mental clarity are the typical result of a sugary snack.

The brain accounts for 20% of the body's energy use on an average day. Activities that require concentration use even more energy. I'm convinced that eating for optimal mental function will lead to better performance on all levels--physical energy and also (although I haven't proved it out) healthy weight over time.

So eating in this way is no different than maintaining a normal healthy diet. A diet emphasizing lots of good carbs (whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies), healthy fats and an appropriate amount of high quality protein is generally accepted as beneficial for long term health on all levels.

I know anecdotally that my own mental clarity/mood suffers on days after I indulge in lots of sugar/white flour snacks. This is unfortunate because Sunday lunch at my Mom's is full of such things. This is probably why Mondays suck so hard.

I'm musing a great deal lately about optimal mental function these days. Because of the demands of my new team, the associated learning requirements as well as my need to keep an even emotional keel while I'm under scrutiny, I'm leveraging more brain hacks these days to improve my own performance. Although it was tempting after the new year to do something "extreme" such as dumping carbs to make my pants fit better I thought I would take an opposite approach--to eat for my brain and let the cards fall where they will with my weight.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Battle of the Lizard Brain

Procrastination is an activity of the lizard brain--check out Seth Godin's blog for his take on it. Our most primitive selves will do anything to avoid discomfort (discomfort equals danger...danger means we might not survive...this part of our brain is fairly unsophisticated) If you equate working out with discomfort, expect the lizard brain to chime in on why not working out is a better idea. Loathe your chores? The lizard brain will come up with some other chore to keep you from doing the first one (see? stupid).

I can literally feel my frontal lobe short circuit when my lizard brain is kicking in--it feels like all the strands of my thoughts are being violently pulled and matted temporarily. It stops me--it feels like coming to a wall or a crevasse. Then almost by magic some other soothing, easier to do thing is put in front of me and whatever it was that activated my lizard brain falls out of my thinking to be done "later".

The scenario is so deceptive because later really does seem like a real time that things will happen. It could be "later" that day or "later" in the week or the all time favorite "tomorrow". Later is a powerful illusion--doing its job by keeping us safe from "discomfort". And we'll get whatever it was done "later", right?

It takes effort to overcome the lizard brain--maybe you can manage to do it a couple times a day but its going to deplete your energy. Eventually fighting it will become too much and you will fall off track of whatever it was you set out to do (oops, I mean it will get done "later").

Bottom line, you want to have your mental and emotional resources available to do the things that are truly important to you--fighting the lizard brain simply takes up too much of that valuable energy.

The best way I have found to counter the lizard brain is to create a ritual that masks whatever it is I would normally procrastinate on. The activity needs to be something simple and pleasant that allows me to  transition from one activity to the next without activating the lizard brain. It takes far less energy to do this than to use will power.

When I want to work on a project such as practicing my language skills I have a simple ritual that puts me in the proper frame of mind to begin.

First off I schedule the work--this keeps things from getting random and haphazard. At the appointed time I take a short walk around my home or office and then get a cup of tea or coffee. I'm then ready to work. That's it. If I'm at home I sometimes will I will substitute the walk with a hot shower. The point is to relax.

But you might ask "hey, isn't going for tea/walks/showers just more procrastination?"

No--here is the reason why. Rituals are purposeful. Procrastination is random. If you sit down to work and all of a sudden need to take out the trash you are engaging in procrastination. However, if you purposefully empty the trash before sitting down to work, that is a ritual (and could be exactly the sort of relaxing transitional activity you need so your mind is fully available to work--I'd rather have a cup of tea).

Play with rituals and see how much more you are able to get done.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In an Uncomfortable Place

When I started this blog a few months ago I wanted to write about my personal projects, work and approach to life. I've started a number of articles in the intervening months that I haven't shared. They didn't feel finished--or at least I didn't feel finished with whatever it was I started writing about. Its remarkable how quickly time passes.

What I did finish was a major project I'd been working on for two years. It was full of starts and stops, difficulties, learnings, and interpersonal and professional conflict. There were good things too. I was glad for it to be over--even more glad that when all was finished, everything turned out great! Even though people didn't think it would work out things worked out better than expected! It was a big win!

I asked for the project because I wanted to do something really big. It evolved into being something really big that I needed to commit to daily to finish. The work itself wasn't bad--I enjoy hard work. The issues I had were with other people. There was enough difficult about what we were doing that I had to really focus to stay engaged and move things forward. That only leaves so much energy left over. However I found I spent far more energy dealing with politics and whining. I hated it. Many times I wanted to quit. Several people on my team actually did quit! But I decided to finish it--I wanted a real victory. For me that meant seeing it through to the end.

The longer I was engaged, the more clear it became to me that no matter how well things would go, people would not see it as the major it achievement it was. There was a lot of complaining from the other teams for the level of participation required of them. There was also a great deal of grumbling that our planning wasn't up to par. Although we did our best to get support, there seemed to be a certain denial that we would go through with the project at all. There was no sense of anticipation. No one was looking forward to it. It was just seen as a necessary drain on resources that probably would blow up.

It didn't blow up. It was a victory--a victory that made things better. We were only shooting for "as good as" but it was BETTER!

After all was said and done my team mates listened for someone to say they recognized what work went into the program and to receive a healthy thank you. There were a few notes from executives (a few people got nice gifts) but nothing that really acknowledged that depth of the effort. As I read these warm words of appreciation I scanned for the signs that they understood--what I read was that they knew they needed to say thank you but really didn't feel it--somehow we didn't convey to them all we put in and they couldn't see it. I can only think that they experienced the same thing we all do when we read the news and hear that somewhere thousands of miles away an earthquake has wiped out a city. We know its a tragedy but we are soon distracted by the more pressing concerns in our immediate sphere and our hearts go silent.

Hearing thanks is an important human need but even more important is knowing someone understands and appreciates what you did. If I'm really honest with myself I have to admit I die a little when I feel the "right person" didn't see or understand what I did. Truly, I deeply yearn to be appreciated. It hurts me to see how openly others are suffering because they were only marginally recognized. But that's the rub. Nobody can ever really know what a person goes through to do something well and completely. And when you sacrifice...well, that's what makes it a sacrifice. You don't get paid back--its something given up.

This Thursday I'm hosting a thank you party for all the people who contributed to my project. Not everyone can be there--many were in other states or abroad. I'm struggling with writing the speech to say thank you. I do want them to feel thanked--deeply appreciated. I despair that I won't be able to say it in a way that people will understand. People sacrificed a lot of time and were often in the cross hairs. We had a change in management (twice!) and had the deadline pushed back three times. Some people gave up their vacation time (or more...things that should not have been sacrificed for work) to get things done. I nearly gave up my vacation when things were going poorly...I'm glad I didn't especially since the deadline got pushed again!

I'm trying to learn a new job that I'm not sure about either. I asked to be on this team but again I'm out of my comfort zone. I'm not comfortable with this new discipline. I'm getting good support. My manager is patient, being a good coach--non critical as well. Maybe because of that my anxiety is sky high! I've decided to give it some time and to see if gaining competence will help me. I prefer to hide when I'm incompetent. I go somewhere quiet, gain competence and then blend in. This group has no room for that style--they are all very extroverted and I feel I'm standing out because I have so little to share. I don't know when I will need to be "as good as" the rest. Most days I feel like a bug on a stretcher board.