Friday, March 27, 2015

A Peaceful Pesach

Yontif is coming, the "Season of our Liberation"!  Rejoice, for we have been redeemed!
And yet, one can feel suffocatingly confined when a multitude of guests pile into a restricted space. Toes get stepped on, proverbially and literally. Lines are crossed. Words are said. By motzei yontif, the squatters vacate in a hurry, and the hosts happily shoo them out.

In order for an entire household to be at peace, it requires a conscious choice by each individual to tuck in elbows, fake smile, and swallow any resentment.

"Crisis Negotiators Give Thanksgiving Tips" by Henry Alford addresses potential family drama regarding the gobble-gobble holiday. The people who spend their day coaxing guns away from hostage-takers are apparently chock full of valuable skills in this department:
1. Active listening. We all want to be heard. Let others speak, and by repeating what they said, and also using emotional labeling ("Sounds like you were hurt/saddened/angered/irritated by that"), shows that their words were processed and understood. 

2. Don't bargain, appreciate. Story: My niece is the worried, bossy-boots type, and when her cousin complained about her managerial style, she dissolved into "this is unjust!" hysterics. I took her aside and told her that everyone appreciates how much she helps out with the younger children, and no one is forgetting that. Additionally, I had told the cousin to cut her some slack, and could she should cut her some in return? She wiped away the tears and bounced away. 

3. "Into the Crevasse" (30 Rock reference). Often, in order to transcend, we first have to crawl downward. This can mean apologizing even when guiltless. Then, the other side melts into malleable putty. And guess who was the bigger person? You were! Now, doesn't that feel good?

4. Don't escalate. There will always be some sort of clash of beliefs or perspective. Instead of demanding that the other side agree, gently present a personal opinion, but don't demand acceptance. 

5. It's not lying, it's minimizing. Matters are usually not as dire as they can initially appear. By parsing it into smaller pieces, hey, it's not so bad. 

6. Bring in the loved backup. There are those who just don't want to look at you, but they are close to someone else. They don't necessarily have to intercede on your behalf—rather, they can distract from any drama by being a cheerful and merry buffer. 

Let's all shut up and eat some matzah!  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Emor M'At

Years ago my folks went to weekend bar mitzvah of a neighbor's son.
Speech after speech extolled the boy's virtues, real or imaginary. One even made the comparison of this schnook to a gadol hador. He was 13!

My parents squirmed in their seats. Such blatant displays of self-congratulation were, and still are, alien to their upbringings (i.e. "ayin hara"). My brother dryly refers to orations of this nature as "obituaries."

My Zeidy phrased it a little more severely, when he would talk (he was a quiet man in general). "They are just asking for it,"  he would say, sadly.

My Zeidy, you see, believed in ayin hara. Not in the current mystical sense, which provides absolution with a red string. No bit of yarn will grant license to brag and boast.
Zeidy never gushed about his children; that, to him, was the only way to circumvent ayin hara. The most he would admit, Ma said, even when they were in shidduchim, were his children's height. 

A few years later the aforementioned neighbor's son began to rebel big time. Luke would overhear him cursing fluently, for no major reason, probably simply for the shock value. He stopped keeping Shabbos, waiting outdoors for his ride to show up at the same time as lechtzen. Drugs were apparent. His parents never threw him out (thank goodness), so his exploits were obvious to the neighborhood

Eventually he wandered back (kinda) and married a like-minded girl. But the time that he was distinctly out of control was harrowing, not only for his family, but for his neighbors, who witnessed it and wondered, "What could have gone wrong? Could this happen to my child?"

Of course I don't think that it was simple ayin hara. A couple of compliments by a party doesn't have such a supernatural force, in my opinion. It's more along the lines of what it represents. Children will not excel based on wishful thinking. Standing up in public, expounding with easy, empty praise will not guarantee a bright and dazzling future. Public displays of affection, even between parents and children, counts for nothing if it is not provided in private.

Ta recently discovered in the Taamei Minhagim that when hosting a seudas mitzvah, meaning even when someone is required to throw a party, one should be sure to invoke the coming of Moshiach in order to deflect ayin hara.  

Besides for the fact that no one really likes speeches (when did one by every course become required?) a d'var Torah should be a d'var Torah (as opposed to a hesped). Instead of elaborating on the honoree's qualities, how about emphasizing what we still have to learn, where we still need to improve? Our celebrations signify beginnings, not ends.

Take the average sheva brachos speech. A glowing, flirty couple sits before an entire room, and mostly everyone deliver paeans about how wonderful their married life will be, since the two of them are so wonderful. A wonderful married life does not just happen; it is based on two people making it a priority for their relationship to work.
Please keep speeches short (two minutes), sweet (laugh-cry-laugh), and most of all, true. Instead of saying what a loving brother the bar mitzvah boy is (when his little sister knows he melted her Barbies just last week) talk about how this occasion is but the first milestone of many. Reference a d'var torah about what behavior is now expected from a bar mitzvah boy. Invoke avos, imahos, grandparents, his namesake. 

Just don't say how great he is. That's not for now. Still 107 years to go.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Small Flame

We expect a lot in life. It's not surprising, considering how much life has upped its game in the last fifty years—delicious fruits and vegetables are available all year round, our homes can be heated and cooled to our whimsy, and oh, the bliss that is indoor plumbing. 

So we get rather annoyed when life is short of perfect. "What is up with this weather?" "What is up with this traffic?" "What is up with these taxes?"
David Brooks' "The Case for Low Ideals" cites the political realm, wherein lies all sorts of hope. 
I’m here to make the case for low idealism. The low idealist rejects the politics of innocence. The low idealist recoils from any movement that promises “new beginnings,” tries to offer transcendent “bliss to be alive” moments or tries to fill people’s spiritual voids.
Low idealism begins with a sturdy and accurate view of human nature. We’re all a bit self-centered, self-interested and inclined to think we are nobler than we are. Montaigne wrote, “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”
Brooks continues that politics is not about seeking a miracle cure. It is about careful maintenance and slow change. My favorite line: 
Government in good times is merely dull; when it is enthralling, times are usually bad.
Mmm, dull.
This view is applicable to many areas. Any lasting change is sedate, boring, and diligent in nature. Ideas that explode onto the scene swiftly fizzle out; low flames can burn steadily with small amounts of fuel. Starting small—smiling more, considering another person's perspective, taking a moment to double check an almost spoken word or almost sent text—can yield deep, meaningful alterations upon our minds and souls.   
The low idealist . . . likes the person who speaks only after paying minute attention to the way things really are, and whose proposals are grounded in the low stability of the truth.
There is nothing new under the sun. It is not by reinventing the wheel that we can be better people, but by putting the basics into practice. 
The low idealist is more romantic about the past than about the future.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lateness Counts

Acceptable reason to be late for a date: 

"My elderly neighbor fell in her kitchen and I held her hand until the paramedics came." 

Unacceptable reason to be late for a date: 

"I was at the gym." 

Acceptable reason to be late for a date: 

"I checked all the stations for the traffic reports but then I was caught in a mind-boggling snarl that even Waze couldn't get me out of." 

Unacceptable reason to be late for a date:

"I just had to stop for a coffee." 

Yet, he then took me to Starbucks.
It's not that complicated, is it, gentlemen? 

This—and by "this," the dressed, coiffed, and painted self that I spent an inordinate amount of mental thought and minutes analyzing, primping, and panicking over—doesn't just happen. Sure, sure, dudes don't have to do much more than shave, don a crisp-enough shirt, and utilize Google Maps. 

But when he so obviously does not respect my time and effort by not even bothering to try to arrive punctually (or to fabricate a more flattering alibi), I already hate him. "Hate," a strong word? Really? 

Try stabbing yourself in the eye with a mascara wand.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mindfulness and Marriage

I had already grasped that the method of mindfulness meditation is to focus on breath, slowly bringing the mind back from any distractions, but I didn't know that it is also the point of mindfulness meditation. That is what I learned from this Charlie Rose interview with Dan Harris, the news anchor who had a panic attack on the air.
The more I hear about mindfulness meditation, the more I believe that it is davening's parallel. I am working to finally achieve true focus during davening, and using the methods of mindfulness meditation has been the most instrumental. 

In other news, it is incredibly gratifying that two days after presenting my thesis on the post-Holocaust marriage model, corroborative material is printed.
Her embrace of Marxism led to a young man who within a week became her first husband. The haste, she said, reflected her loneliness and sense of displacement.
It is “unnatural and unworthy, how I lost my family,” she said. “At my age now, it is normal not to have grandparents, parents, uncles or aunts. But when it happens as it did, you cannot simply get over it.”
Marrying within a week happened “because we felt so terribly alone that it was quite natural to say yes, now at least I have a husband, and one belongs somewhere.”
Hey, she said it. And me.     

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Walter Mischel is uses the term "sitzfleisch" when discussing self control and the "Marshmallow Test." Of course, of course, he's a Viennese Jew. He's following up now on the original test-takers ("Learning How to Exert Self-Control" by Pamela Druckerman), to see how those kiddies turned out.
Walter Mischel
Firstly, he says, "marshmallowing" children doesn't prove anything, since self-control is taught. Secondly, how those kids resisted the temptation is the same method that adults can use: Changing perspective. 
The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.
Adults can use similar methods of distraction and distancing, he says. Don’t eye the basket of bread; just take it off the table. In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you’re viewing yourself from outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place. When a waiter offers chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it.
“If you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes,” Mr. Mischel writes.
"Good and bad"—"tov v'ra"—are subjective. While perspectives differ from person to person, and an individual can choose to see something in a completely different light.
He explains that there are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control, he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first.
To do this, use specific if-then plans, like “If it’s before noon, I won’t check email” or “If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10.” Done repeatedly, this buys a few seconds to at least consider your options. The point isn’t to be robotic and never eat chocolate mousse again. It’s to summon self-control when you want it, and be able to carry out long-term plans.
“We don’t need to be victims of our emotions,” Mr. Mischel says. “We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.”  
It is not good when emotions are in the driver's seat. They are all about the now, this second, this minute; the brain should not only be the brakes, but the wheel, too. But in order to be a responsible driver, there should be a destination in mind. 
Self-control alone doesn’t guarantee success. People also need a “burning goal” that gives them a reason to activate these skills, he says. His students all have the sitzfleisch to get into graduate school, but the best ones also have a burning question they want to answer in their work, sometimes stemming from their own lives.
What do we each want in life? And what do we need to do to achieve it? 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Be Calm and Cream On

Smell that? 

There's a distinct scent to the air when the greenery begins to poke cautious shoots out from the melting snow. The aroma is pleasing, and yet there is an undercurrent of anxiety. 

For spring, as we know, means Pesach. 

Hear that? 

That is the sound of a clueless husband getting yelled at for dropping crumbs all over a freshly disinfected dining room. 

We definitely do overthink and oversweat Pesach. While it certainly does involve a lot of work, most enjoyable things in life do.
While I'm frantic (in general), I'm not too tense over Pesach. Thanks to my face creams, I don't look tense, either. So, for all the wrinkles sprouting around eyes and mouths this season, here's a product for the counterattack: Oz Naturals Super Youth 2.5% Retinol Moisturizer
For those new to anti-aging products, I would suggest applying moisturizer first, then Super Youth on top to mitigate the stinging. A dermatologist recommended once Cetaphil Daily Advance Lotion, and I use it every night along with the rest of my skincare routine. 

If there had been any blemishes lurking beneath the surface, the retinol will yank them out into the sunshine, so initially there may be some breakout activity; it doesn't necessarily mean the product isn't for you. Rather quickly, though, the blemishes should go away, and the retinol will keep them at bay (Differin, prescription-strength retinol, is marketed to teenagers with acne).

I love yontif, but it does involve work, no doubt about it. Slather on some retinol along with the rest of Pre-Pesach Prep, and keep on smiling.   

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Plastic Brains, Anyone?

Apparently, there is an upside to being single . . . indefinitely. But it's in terms of brain development, yawn. Eh, us spinsters will take what we can get.
Laurence Steinberg, in "The Case for Delayed Adulthood," is of the opinion that growing up is not so great for the gray matter.  Marriage, education, and employment are more likely to be deferred amongst today's 20-year-olds, as opposed to the baby boomer generation. 
Studies reveal adolescence to be a period of heightened “plasticity” during which the brain is highly influenced by experience. As a result, adolescence is both a time of opportunity and vulnerability, a time when much is learned, especially about the social world, but when exposure to stressful events can be particularly devastating. As we leave adolescence, a series of neurochemical changes make the brain increasingly less plastic and less sensitive to environmental influences. Once we reach adulthood, existing brain circuits can be tweaked, but they can’t be overhauled.
While it sounds simply biological, it's not. It can be a chicken vs. egg thing—when the individual stops behaving like an adolescent, then the brain begins to "harden" from its "plastic" state. 
It’s important to be exposed to novelty and challenge when the brain is plastic not only because this is how we acquire and strengthen skills, but also because this is how the brain enhances its ability to profit from future enriching experiences.
With this in mind, the lengthy passage into adulthood that characterizes the early 20s for so many people today starts to look less regrettable. Indeed, those who can prolong adolescence actually have an advantage, as long as their environment gives them continued stimulation and increasing challenges.
Steinberg suggests higher education to stimulate the brain. He also states outright that marriage does not stimulate.
Alas, something similar is true of marriage. For many, after its initial novelty has worn off, marriage fosters a lifestyle that is more routine and predictable than being single does. Husbands and wives both report a sharp drop in marital satisfaction during the first few years after their wedding, in part because life becomes repetitive. A longer period of dating, with all the unpredictability and change that come with a cast of new partners, may be better for your brain than marriage. 
I would have gotten cocky about this article, except I live my life by routine. While he may call dating "stimulating", I find it more aggravating. Certainly not remotely comparable to a college course.
What we do to keep our brains plastic . . .  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Chesnut-Date Truffles for Pesach: A Saga

I was poking around my sister's Purim haul; 90% was the usual multi-colored processed sugar. But there was one neatly boxed offering clearly labeled "Raw Date Balls," along with a convenient ingredient list: "dates, almonds, and chocolate chips." 

I took a bite, and was hooked.
Now to find the recipe! Many called for—blah—shredded coconut, but I was able to come across a a number of helpful ones from My Halal Kitchen, Chocolate Covered Katie, Feed Your Temptations, and Skinny Taste

Since my family does not brok, the majority of our Pesach delicacies is sweetened air, which means an individual can consume an entire sponge cake in one sitting. I am always on the search for a more filling option that is kid-friendly, but they don't seem to be crazy about nut cakes. I don't blame them.

Oh Nuts! carries Kosher l'Pesach Medjool dates, and ground nuts are readily available. But I have one niggling problem: I don't have a food processor for Pesach. We barely use the year-round one as it is. Although, now that I think about it, I should use it for when I make cucumber salad. 

I had to work out the method. I searched a bit more, and found a recipe in which the dates are mashed, not pulverized, by Beauty Munsta. Medjool dates are so soft and moist that mashing them with a fork takes less labor than mashing Shabbos egg salad. 

A further benefit: With fork mashing, as opposed to food processing, I can make these on yontif! 

My difficulty, though, was trying to figure out the date-to-nut ratio. Different recipes provide different measurements. But after numerous comparisons, I decided on about 5 dates to around 1/4 to 1/3 cup of ground nuts. That and a splash of vanilla extract were presented to Luke for a taste test. 

He was excited at the idea of an energy ball during Pesach, but he found them too sweet (he also referred to them, quite maturely, as "poopie balls," for their hue). True, they are as sweet as cake batter. Chocolate Covered Katie calls hers "Cookie Dough Babies," after all. Medjool dates are insanely sweet, while containing fiber and nutrients. But they aren't exactly calorie-free; one medjool date consist of 66 calories and 16 grams of sugar. It takes five dates (along with healthy but fattening nuts) to make four balls, and that's nearly 500 calories. I don't think I can stop at one.

In order to cut the sweet, I could add cocoa (various recipes call from anywhere around 1 teaspoon to 2/3 cup), but why waste all that sweet if I'm paying for the calories anyway? I scrounged about some more, and I came across a comment to a date ball recipe which reported that the dates could be partially replaced with chestnuts.

100 grams of chestnuts vs. 100 grams of medjool dates: 75 calories less, half of the carbs, while also containing beneficial nutrients. Dates are straight sugar (66 grams); chestnuts would lower the sugar register (10 grams), creating satisfaction as opposed to a sugar addiction. When it comes to fiber, though, dates win: 7 grams, as opposed to 5 grams (not nothing!) in chestnuts.

I found a recipe for chestnut balls, and I planned to replace the honey with dates for the binding material. A number of brands carry Kosher l'Pesach chestnuts, such as Gefen and Seasons. Or buy whole and get them out of the shell any which way.

They were soon on my doorstep, and I began to experiment. Again, no food processor, so I mashed them with a fork. I used one bag's worth, 5.2 oz = 150 g = 21 chestnuts (I counted). I added the dates one by one to see how many are needed to bind the mixture, along with a few splashes of vanilla extract.

One of the recipes for the date balls calls for soaking the dates prior, in room temp water for an hour, in hot for a few minutes. I ended up soaking only one, but it really makes them easier to work with. 


I used a number of add-ins: chopped walnuts, cocoa, chocolate chips. The one ones to the right-ish were coated: ground walnuts, sprinkles, cocoa, and confectionery sugar. 

Now, don't hit me, but I don't exactly have a perfect, exact recipe. I wanted to experiment to the point of generality so that I don't use up my Kosher l'Pesach chestnuts prior to yontif.

Pesach Friendly Chestnut-Date Truffles 

(10 truffles) 

Approximately 20 chestnuts
Around four medjool dates 
Vanilla extract
dash of salt 

Optional add-ins: 
Chocolate chips 
Chopped nuts
And so on 

Optional toppings:
Ground nuts
Confectionery sugar
Melted chocolate 

1) Mash or grind chestnuts. I mashed them with a fork, but if one has a food processor, definitely use that. Shoot for a ground-like consistency. Another way, I also learned, is to put the chestnuts in a bag and wack 'em to smithereens with a blunt instrument.

2) Mash in dates. Soaking them prior would add some moisture and make them easier to work with. Go gently there, since I don't have exact quantities down pat. Maybe two soaked, two unsoaked? Ah, I don't know! After Pesach I'll have it worked out. 

3) See if the mixture is willing to be rolled into balls by pinching off a bit and seeing if it sticks together. At this point, chuck in any add-ins. If not, add another date. 

4) For cocoa, add desired quantity, 1 teaspoon and anywhere above. There's also cinnamon. Or some chopped nuts. Mayhap a handful of chocolate chips. 

5) Wet hands and roll mixture into balls. Wetting the hands prior to rolling makes a big difference. 

6) Since the color may not be very attractive, feel free to roll the truffles into ground nuts, cocoa, sprinkles, confectionery sugar, etc. 

7) Refrigerate to store. Can last a good while in there, from what I hear.

I divided up the batter and tried, separately, cocoa, chocolate chips, and ground nuts, and also a variety of different toppings.