To me, balance is a word that should conjure feelings of calmness and safety, of natural order; it’s a word that indicates everything is in its proper place, neither in danger of tipping over nor upsetting the status quo. But it’s funny how that ideal is hardly ever attained: balance is a buzzword tossed around in arguments about ballooning federal deficits and balancing our national budget, and used to bemoan that fact that Americans are increasingly stressed out because they can’t attain a work-life balance. When I see the word in print or hear it come out of somebody’s mouth, it’s always in op-ed pieces written in indignant voices, or in serious-sounding features on the nightly news.
The word has been running through my head a lot lately, and partly because of those negative associations, I feel panicky when my subconscious starts lecturing me about living a balanced life. There are so many things that are important to me: visiting and calling my friends; nourishing my creative side by writing and taking photos; cooking and baking (so my meals don’t consist of fried eggs and toast too often); running outside with electropop blasting; leaving enough free time to rest on the couch as Koko sleeps in my lap and a movie plays in the background. Of course, though, my nine-hour workdays often drift by ultra-slowly; it’s only after work that the hours seem to slip away from me. And that’s when I’m taking inventory of everything I want to accomplish that night, to feel fulfilled enough so that I can wake up the next morning and do it all again.
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It’s been awhile since I attended a bake sale, but I do have fond memories of the events held in our school cafeteria. Plastic tables—heavy with Duncan Hines confetti cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies—were staffed by students with little experience as cashiers, and mobbed by their sugar-toothed classmates. The spectacle was fun enough, but at the end of it all lay the promise of dessert (something not procured from sketchy vending machines!), and the knowledge that you’d helped Mrs. Garcia’s homeroom support a good cause.
If you’re nostalgic too, I can point you to a thoroughly grown-up alternative to the cafeteria bake sales of old. Phoebe and Cara of Big Girls, Small Kitchen are raising money for The Valerie Fund by baking some amazing-looking peanut M&M blondies through Mother’s Day. Personally, I can think of no more appropriate way to say “I love you” to my wonderful mother (a food-blog reader herself, she introduced me to Phoebe and Cara’s writing). And on this holiday, I feel especially compelled to support families that haven’t been as lucky as ours; the Valerie Fund provides comprehensive care to kids with cancer and blood disease. It breaks my heart that anyone, especially anyone so little, would have to go through that kind of pain—and it’s eerily similar to the cause I supported (with particular energy) back in high school.
My senior year, I found small-town life in Wilmette, Illinois to be suffocating, and high school classes seemed to be nothing more than obstacles standing between me and college. Bored and purposeless, I signed up to run a marathon with Team in Training, which meant I’d also be raising money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was a bold and probably dumb move: I’d been running recreationally for two years, but I was young and green and in no shape to run 26.2 miles. But the training and the fundraising would challenge me, ask something of me. It became the thing that gave me purpose in what otherwise would’ve been a self-centered year, spent resting on my laurels and waiting for my next life chapter to begin.
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Have you ever had one of those days? You know the kind I’m talking about, I bet. They take on a different character for everyone, but here’s the gist of it: outside, the skies are often blankly gray and rainy (and you’ve forgotten your umbrella); at work or school, you’re caught unprepared by a confusing assignment or unexpected deadline; there’s usually a bad hair day and/or ugly outfit involved. And the kicker? The harder you try to rise above it all, the worse things get.
Those days are built for comfort food. And on this front, I know that you know what I’m talking about. Macaroni and cheese, baked until bubbling and topped with breadcrumbs. Those world’s-best chocolate chip cookies, warm from the oven and big as hockey pucks, chock-full of thin chocolate disks and sprinkled with sea salt. Oh—and canned chickpeas! Those’ll dry your tears before you can say chana punjabi.
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As a hopeless perfectionist, I find delight in telling you that the below-described cake has absolutely no flaws. Having said that, it’s probably healthier if I also admit that it took me two attempts to attain said perfection. (And, okay, that it took me about ten minutes to write those two sentences.)
I first read about this cake on Molly Wizenberg’s blog, and then later in her wonderful book. In between, I saw countless reproductions of her Winning Hearts and Minds cake in the blogosphere, convinced finally by Shannalee’s post to try the damn thing already. It seemed that everyone who had ever eaten a slice was star-struck, and every baker assured readers of its absurd simplicity: butter, sugar, chocolate, eggs, and a tablespoon of flour. Heaven emerging from a cake pan in twenty-five minutes, essentially. For someone used to chasing perfection, it seemed that this one had been dropped in my lap, and it actually sounded easy. My sanity might remain intact to see another day!
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I’ve become very familiar with the round-trip flight from Washington to Chicago. I can tell you how to get to the Reagan National, Dulles, or BWI airports using public transportation, and once there, I barely have to look at the overhead signs to steer myself toward the correct ticket counter. The flight itself? Similarly predictable, with the patchwork of dull green and brown cropland stretching out flatly as far as the eye can see. On such a trip, getting a window seat isn’t the trophy it used to be, back when I was a wide-eyed kid.
But this weekend, I was reminded that not all airplane rides are simply ways to get from Point A to Point B. Soon after my connection flight left Milwaukee, the pilot began to narrate our journey excitedly: “Folks, off to your right is Denver, and we’re nearing Aspen and Telluride! You’ll see the land get hillier as we head into the Rocky Mountains.” Sure enough, the peaks soon appeared in stark relief, snowcapped and majestic. “There’s Monument Valley,” he narrated. “And we’re coming up on the Grand Canyon—you’ll see the Colorado River’s pretty muddy this time of year.” He couldn’t even help himself from pointing out Las Vegas as we pulled closer to southern California.
As a pilot, I’m sure he’d passed over the same scenery too many times to count. But since a cross-country flight is such an unsubtle reminder of America’s varied beauty, I can’t imagine these views would ever get old, either.
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