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Thursday, March 31, 2016

More Than a Restful Walk

Ever take a walk, just for the hell of it?  Get out in the woods, or amble around a lake? Ponder the swaying of the trees in a light breeze? Marvel at the springtime flowers?  Bask in the sunshine and breath deeply in the open air, while you tingle with the light, lingering hint of winter’s chill?

The Germans are an outdoor race.  Even with snow on the ground, people are out in the countryside, walking dogs, chatting with neighbors as they stroll through woodland trails.  I’ve even seen octogenarians of both sexes pushing their walkers through the snow.  Maybe that’s why they seem less frenzied, calmer, and more congenial than many Americans.  I think it’s not the walking, as much as it is taking the time to get outside the stress of job and soul deadening routines.

Then comes the first hint of spring.  Daffodils sprout in butter yellow bursts, cradled in green, spiked castles.  A greenish haze on the black, outstretched arms of the deciduous trees.  Presto!  The Germans come out in flocks and last weekend, I was smart enough to join them.

 Why go for a walk?  Ok, there’s the physical health benefits we all know about.  But walking also settles my mind and sets me at ease.

I can hear your comments:  “I go to the gym.  Walking’s a waste of time.”  Yeah, yeah, I know.  You go to the gym because your friends tell you they go and you don’t want to be left out.  It’s the modern mantra: My mind is a wasteland, but just look at my body! You work hard, while you chat and listen to music, or watch TV on the screen in front of the treadmill.  Pat yourself on the back.  Multitasking, right?  Not so fast, my friend.

Nancy K. Napier,PhD, writing in Psychology Today:
 “Think you’re good at doing several things at once?  Driving and talking on the phone (hands free, of course), or texting while sitting in a meeting? Think again.

Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might.  In fact, we just switch tasks quickly.  Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.

That stop/start process is rough on us:  rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.”

Don’t believe Ms. Napier?  Click on the link above and take the simple test.

Then there’s the creative aspect of walking.  Maybe you’re just not taking the time to be creative, or not taking the time to let your mind relax and your thoughts delightfully wander. 

 No time to be creative?  In The Art of Creative Thinking, Rod Judkins writes: “Our ability to immerse ourselves in the present is one we must nurture.”  He further expounds, “There is an art to doing nothing, intensely…Genius is so rare today because we are so distracted, updated, and connected.  Rather than steering life, we’re reacting to whatever pours in.

Dr. Steven R. Covey, author of The 7Habits of Highly Effective People said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  Just another way of saying, do what’s most important to you, and do them first.  But, how do you find the time to do that?

Ever get through a day having accomplished a long list of “to do”s and feel as if you’ve accomplished nothing?  Perhaps it’s because you mailed a letter, shopped for a sweater, folded the laundry, dusted the living room, sat through a boring meeting, and chatted with friends, before a four hour ballgame on TV, or going to a movie.  What you have actually done is put off those things most important to you.  Writing a book. Learning a language. Researching the family tree.  Sitting quietly for an hour or two to consider what your garden should look like, improving that living room you spend so much time dusting, or reading the book you’ve been meaning to read one day.  Strolling is a great time to daydream about your perfect fantasy life, the way you’d really like to live.

So consider this when you think about walking.  It’s a time to free your mind from the stuff that clutters it, all day, everyday.  No distractions.  No music except the wind in the trees.  A generous, fabulous outpouring of nature.  Flowers.  Trees.  Even your neighbor’s yard.  The colors, the designs.  Wonder why daffodils are the harbingers of spring, why evergreens are evergreen and oaks are not, except for live oaks…and wonder about that too.

Angst flees when you think about the things that are important to you.  Where should your family go on the next vacation?  What are some family games you can play with your spouse and kids that don’t involve a screen and controller?  Sure, you talk to your kids, but do you know what’s flitting through their minds? 

Here’s a question to ponder:  If you were about to exit this life, what are the things you will wish you would have done?  Not talking about a so-called bucket list of things to quickly do and superficially see.  To me, those buckets are empty.

Most of all, take the time to thankfully appreciate all that you have.

You can do all of those things and more, when you let your mind relax and with a leisurely walk.

 Let your mind glimpse the important things.  It’s never a waste of time. A long walk.  A walk that lets your mind flow like a glassy stream over ideas and questions.  Forget TV and multitasking.  Do what the Germans do.  Go out and stroll.  You’ll be happier for it.  And healthier.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Wicked look at Wicked! Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert!

Of course, when I say Wicked!, I refer to the stage production I saw in London, not your long-ago ex-girlfriend who still floats deliciously through your daydreams as the dewy-eyed star of all your fantasies.

I’d read rave reviews…yes, I tell you, RAVE REVIEWS of Wicked!.  Spectacular!  Not to be missed!  Defies gravity!... so said the posters and the pundits.  See, that’s the problem with being well read.  You see these word-bytes here and there, and gauging the status of the publications that printed them, you swallow the bait like a starving striped bass on the first day of the season.

I should have listened to my mother, who said…well, I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something like “Reading will make you go blind.”  Maybe it was something else that would make me go blind.  Hmmmm, In any case, reading can make you blind when it comes to other opinions.  You find something you desperately want to believe (when swinging over the dark abyss of a theater production you were forced to attend) and you cling to it as the rope of last resort.

But, now let’s get Wicked!  What’s the story line?  Supposedly, it’s the story of the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz.  I say supposedly because for a while it was about professors who were animals who could talk and there was a plot afoot to deprive them of speech.  At this point they had me hook line and sinker because I had some professors who were animals and should have been deprived of speech.

Who hatched this plot?  You remember from the original Wizard of Oz that the wizard had no super hero powers.  This appeared to be only a slight inconvenience to the flow of the play.  Soon, or maybe later (I dozed into the blessed realm of slumber from time to time) a magic book of spells appeared on stage, somewhat abruptly, as if a stagehand suddenly realized this play was moving like a bullet train running out of track.

But, before the magic spells happened, lots of dancing in colorful costumes took place, with dancers whirling around feverishly, while some of the major characters bobbed up and down defying gravity with the help of ropes and pulleys.  This brought great and wondrous reactions from the spellbound audience whose cheers made my eyes snap open in time to hear songs of no purpose sung for no particular reason.  I’ll tell you this, nobody walked out of the theater whistling any of those gems.

Romance, of course, got thrown in, just for comic relief.  At which point, I pondered the possibility that the good witch was bad and the bad witch was good.  Which was witch?  Well, the good witch, who might now be bad, appeared in the opening scene to be overjoyed that the bad witch, who might now be good, was dead.   But, of course, she wasn’t dead because she disappeared in a trap door and ran off with the good witch’s boyfriend.  Wow, never saw that coming!  The trap door, I mean.

I'm left with a myriad of questions.  So, in the original movie, the bad witch flung a lot of odiferous poo-poo around and died in a splash of water, which at the time call for Hoop Hoop Hoorays and a theater full of glowing smiles.  Am I now to believe that was a ghastly mistake, a severe misunderstanding?  How about Dorothy?  She liked the good witch, yes?  And how about the Munchkins?  They seemed pretty happy when the bad witch went up in a puff of water. 

I came to the theater to be enlightened, but now all I have are questions and a strong resolve to fain sickness if asked to sit through it again. Also, I'm never reading reviews again.  I'm blind to them.  So, don't even try to tempt me with sequels, such as:  More Wicked.  Dorothy's Big Secret. The Gay Wizard. Munchkins in Hell.  Accompanied by the usual word-bytes:  Immortal!  A show the family will love!  I'd see it again!

How about the truth?  Defies Logic!  A Show Your Demented Family Will Love!  I’d See It Again, only if the alternative is death!

That’s about it for Wicked!, except, in the middle there was an intermission where I downed two double gin and tonics in quick succession, and my son and I plotted an escape to the nearest pub.  Before we could make our getaway, the bell sounded for act two and we were once again trapped in the tedium of songs without meaning, centrifugal dancing, and a plot shiftier than a villain’s beady eyes.

But, in fairness, my wife loved it, and so did my son’s girlfriend, neither of whom could coherently explain why they loved it.  Why was that?  Do you cry at commercials featuring loveable puppies that are as soft as your towels if you use a certain laundry contaminant?  If you answer NO, then you already know the answer.

Wicked!  Is really an algebraic problem, solving for X and Y.  In this case I’m talking chromosomes.  I’ll give you a hint:  Y =0.  I still haven’t figured out X.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mexican Soup – Corn, Chicken, and Chiles

Yes, it's soup, and a thick one.  And yes it does involve Mexican style ingredients, but there are a few American twists.  I don’t grind my own corn with a Molcajete.  I buy the bags of masa, and I used some fresh chile substitutes.   Ya que! (so what)  Olé, Amigo! Put another shot of tequila down your parched throat. Wash it down with an icy Corona.  Now grab a spoon, and if your hunger gnaws like a starving rata, don’t be the last in line!

So what if this soup ain’t ‘xactly comin’ from south of Brownsville.  Damn, it’s good! And good food don’t need no stinkin’ pedigree!

Ok, amigos, let’s git down to it!

The fixins:  (makes about 8 bowls of soup, about 16 cups)

3 green onions, mostly the white parts, sliced in thin rounds
2 smallish red onions, peeled and sliced down the middle (roots intact)
1 large whole jalapeño
1 15 oz jar roasted red bell peppers (or roast 2 of your own!), cut in ½ in strips
1 oz can fire roasted mild green chiles (don’t drain)
12 oz frozen corn kernels, thawed
2 chicken breast halves, each split into thin fillets
6 cups chicken stock (plus a cup or two more for thinning the soup)
3 tablespoons masa, or use fine corn meal
Queso Fresco cheese, crumbled for topping (or another semi-soft mild white cheese)
1 Tablespoon coarse salt, or to taste
Serve with fresh tortilla chips (see below)

In a dry iron skillet (or oven broiler), put the sliced green onions and red onion halves and jalapeño.  Leave them in the pan and turn them until they are charred pretty much all over.  The green onions will char first, so remove them and leave the rest until they are nicely charred.
The mixture in the food processor

Put half the thawed corn kernels in a food processor.  Cut the root ends off the red onions and add them to the blender, along with green onions.  Remove the seeds from the charred jalapeño, slice and add it to the blender.  Also add the undrained can of mild, diced green chilies.  Add two cups of chicken stock and blend until smooth.  Put the blended mixture in a large, deep-sided pan.  (Big enough to handle the chicken, more corn, roasted red bell peppers, and at least four more cups of chicken stock!)

Meanwhile, put two cups of chicken stock in a medium sized saucepan.  (When I use commercial chicken stock, I usually add a cube or two of chicken bullion to make it richer.) When the stock boils, put in the chicken filets and cook until tender, about 10-12 minutes.  Remove the chicken filets and use two forks to shred the meat.  Add the stock from the saucepan and the shredded chicken to the soup .  Stir and bring to a boil.  Add the rest of the corn kernels, the sliced red bell peppers, salt, and the final two cups of chicken stock.  Reduce to medium heat and stir.  Cook for another 10 minutes.

Mix the masa into three tablespoons of cold water to make a paste.

Stir the masa paste into the pot of soup and stir until thickened.  If the soup gets too thick, add more chicken stock as needed. Reheat as needed.

Ladle the soup into bowls and dot with bits of Queso Fresco.

To make the fresh tortilla chips:  why would you use Doritos when these are so easy???
1 package corn tortillas, halved and the halves cut into thirds
Heat 2-3 inches of vegetable oil to 350ºF (180ºC)
When the oil is hot, add the cut tortillas in small batches and just cook until the grease barely bubbles.  Take the chips out immediately and put them on a paper towel to drain.
Add salt as desired.

Is your Spanish improving?  Well, down another shot, grab another Corona chaser and get into the spirit of this thing!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Almond Blossom Festival on the Wine Road

Didn’t I tell you there would be another Weinfest an der Deutsche Weinstraße (on the German Wine Road) this past weekend?  I was there, along with a few hundred other thirsty visitors, with the juice of the grape on our minds, but camaraderie in our souls.

This one, as promised, celebrated the blooming of the almond trees that line the main road and most of the surrounding streets.  I’m telling you, one of the things I love about Germany is the way even the smallest villages celebrate every season and every harvest.  Pumpkins.  Chestnuts.  Strawberries. Asparagus. New wine. Beer. Plus, there are the religious holidays, which are more rigorously celebrated than we’re used to in the U.S.  Just when you think you know all the saints, another pops up and the stores close and garbage pickup comes a couple of days earlier than you’d planned.  But, let’s get back on topic.  Almond blossoms.

Ok, so almond blossoms and beer and wine aren’t harvested, but they definitely represent a change in the seasons.  Hey, nature doesn’t lie.  When the almond trees start to bloom, you know spring is here.

In a few weeks, the forests’ budding branches will cast a faint green velvet glow over the awakening trees and the almost infinite rows of vines will be covered in light green finery.  Even now the days grow longer and Germany’s days glow with lingering glimpses of sunshine.

The blooms are on their way!
But, back to almond blossoms and the Almond Blossom Fest, held every year in the tiny town of Gimmeldingen, near Neustadt on the Germany Wine Road.  You have to keep your eyes and ears peeled to catch the date.  Nature not only doesn’t lie, but it keeps its own timetable.  The almond blooms burst out when they will, so the festival is announced on short notice.  This year we got about a ten-day call.

What do you expect to find at an almond blossom festival?  No trick questions.  Small, beautifully trees, adorned in pink blossoms. Beer.  Wine. Wurst.  Vendors with exquisite temptations. 

But, no matter what you expect, also expect surprises.  At this fest I saw something I hadn’t seen is a while:  roasting salmon on cedar planks around open wood fires.  You don’t want to know how delicious fire seared salmon is, it’ll only disturb your sleep and make you wake up hungry.  Add fresh rolls and dilled mayo….sorry, I can’t go on.  It’ll disturb my sleep, too.

Let’s move on to the handmade wares. As I have often said, the vendors at German fests are first class.  The almond blossom affair was no exception.  Gabi Müller-Seng makes jewelry.  Fine, inventive jewelry, with every piece uniquely crafted.  She is a native to the Wine Road, with a shop in Neustadt.  I wouldn’t be so crassly commercial, but I really have seen nothing like the jewelry she makes.  Gold and silver, curved and hammered into small sculptures you’ll be eager to wear on your fingers, or wrists, or around your neck…or pinned to your jacket.

Now to the heart of the matter.  I didn’t come for jewelry, or even almond blossoms.  I came for indescribably delicious wine, roasted wurst , whose redolent smoke you whiff for a hundred yards before you see it, and even more importantly, the crowds of happy people that are more than willing to drink with you and smile and use their faltering English, while you stumble and spit out your torn, rag tag German.

A long time ago, when my sons were young and we ripped them away from their covey of close friends and schoolboy enterprises and took them across vast oceans, they were more than a little sad.  They trusted us, but the loss, combined with facing the unknown, made their sleep a toss and turn affair.  When we’d settled in to our new home, I asked them what they missed about the place we had come from. They gave me names of friends and things that had happened, soccer games won or lost, the freedom of the last day of school, the summer days spent wandering the woods, or fishing in the lake.  Never once did they mention a ‘thing,’ a gift, a toy.

And that’s what the almond blossom fest was really all about.  Sitting next to friendly people, most of whom were Germans, welcoming you with open arms to share some wine and conversation, talk about the weather, comment on the salmon, or pickles, and make you feel at home.

More and more fests coming up!  Wine and more.  You’ve heard of Christmas markets.  What about Easter markets!  Hey, put some Google in your life!  Find the fests!  Mark your calendar!  Meet the people who will make your stay in Germany linger in the corners of your heart forever!