Thursday, August 29, 2013

In a Different Kind of Pickle

I haven't talked much about the garden this year because, well, it's still a bit painful to consider. Between late freezes, multiple re-plantings and the abundance of grasshoppers, the yield was less than spectacular. I especially missed out on the cucumbers which, of course, I planted extra since my experiments with refrigerator pickles last year met with some success. But no cucumbers this year.

But I ran across zucchinis at the market and I remembered that Alton Brown had mentioned that you could pickle pretty much anything and a quick search yielded this recipe for Zuni Style Zucchini Pickles. Sounds interesting other than the full cup of sugar for the recipe but the mustard and the turmeric were sound choices rather than using traditional pickling spice mixes. The mixes are fine but you get caged to a certain flavor profile and really can't make too many adjustments. But still the full cup of refined sugar is difficult to justify. I think that one of Alton Brown's recipes has at most a quarter cup of sugar for the bread and butter version.

Then I discovered coconut sugar and although it's a bit more expensive, it's not like I'm going to make pickles all the time. One good batch and you have jars of pickles in the fridge for a while. So the expense might be worth it especially if I cut the amount used back a little. A brine really can be messed with in terms of ingredients as long as your liquid to salt ratio stays somewhat the same and even that can fluctuate a bit.

But what about coconut sugar? Does it taste like coconut? I'm not a fan really unless copious amounts of chocolate are involved.  Fortunately, just like most coconut cooking oils, the flavor was not to be found. Coconut sugar tastes like sugar and this brandmeasures one for one. As far how it affects the diet I'll just have to experiment and see. But if it works out then this could be the solution for some holiday treats and eats. Especially for peanut butter cookies. But dessert is still dessert and resides in the realms of moderation and one has to be careful with any kind of sucrose or glucose in terms of how it can affect your health. Just because it's not white, refined sugar from sugar cane does not mean it's fine to eat it by the spoon full. It still can and will affect your insulin levels, your metabolism and energy levels. But for the occasional treat and as an ingredient in recipes, I'm betting coconut sugar is a better option that the white, refined stuff.

So I tried the Zuni recipe matching it pretty closely, cutting back on the sugar and adding jalapenos and onions and it worked very well. Very hot, very sweet and the zucchinis taste just like pickles. Pretty awesome although I could cut back the sugar even more and it would be fine.

Which got me to thinking. Lunches are still a challenge. I can throw some rice noodles in one of my lidded ceramic pots
and eat simple but the addition of vegetables would always be welcome. But cooking and long term storage will always be a problem unless you pickle some squash and zucchini in various mixes and have them in the fridge to add to noodles and broth as needed.  In this case I think I would drop the sugar content down to a quarter cup and maybe add garlic or even experiment with other ingredients. Add some pickle juice to the broth and you might get close to a hot and sour soup.

And as usual, one experiment is going to lead to a list of projects.  Pottery-wise, I want to look at making spring lidded crocks for pickles. Sounds challenging and fun.

And it is a worthy experiment if it makes lunches more interesting. There is enough wiggle room for some variety to stave off boredom.

For convenience, here is the link to the Zuni Style recipe and below is the video from the master himself. I think I've said before that if you want to know how to cook, watch Alton Brown:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Last Mask You Will Ever Wear

A lot of the processes of yoga seem geared towards revealing the "authentic self" which I find fascinating. The dissolution of the ego is a hobby of mine. I'm always curious about what lies beneath, what lives at the very core of a person's being. What did you come into this life with and what parts did you create as you lived and grew into the person you are now?

Perhaps some definitions are in order before we get started because the word "ego" is used to mean a lot of different things. For instance, we could be talking about the Freudian definition of ego in all it's myriad of forms and functions but that can get cumbersome. I mean, supposedly modern psychology has disproven Freud's theories a thousand times over but they still love to bounce ideas off his tombstone.

Or we could be talking about Jung's persona. I like this one a lot better since its close to the concepts I like to discuss. Pesona is the social construct a person presents to the world. But this theory can get mired in psychobabble as fast as anything Freud ever came up with so we'll make our own definition so we can play with the idea and see where it takes us.

So the ego or the persona  is the mask we wear, the construct we present to the world for a variety of reasons sometimes voluntary, other times not. We do not come into this life with it on. We build as we grow and have experiences until there is no discernible difference between who we are and the mask we wear.

Now, some would argue that that's life. Tabula Rasa and all that. We come in and have to create who we are from the experiences we have. But my own experience runs counter to this. Through a variety of means and methods, I've caught glimpses of the "authentic self" in myself and others. We came in with something and then we build masks.

And what's wrong with that? Maybe that's what we come here to do. Make new masks, make new selves, explore different ways of being. But my problem is the automatic duality of the situation. If I know it's a mask, how can I be sure that my reaction to any given situation is authentic? What if a mask I wear was not one of my choosing but created as a means of survival during a horrible experience? Wouldn't my actions become a reflection, not of my true self, but of the face I had to create to survive? I can't see those actions as  authentic. I want to be in a space where I act at my own volition, not react based on a social construct I've designed to hide from the world.

So, I want to act authentically and to do that I have to see behind the masks.

So who are you?

 Most would answer, "My name is so-and-so. I live in some-place." So let's start chipping away at the limitations of language when searching for the self by saying you are not allowed to use your name.

So now who are you?

See the difference? Feel the catch in your throat when your identity is suddenly questioned? Our own name is one of the first masks we wear. It's the way we identify ourselves in the world. Take the name away and we have to suddenly think on an existential level. Who am I?

Some find that it's a very uncomfortable situation to be in.

Language is one of the most interesting barriers to authenticity. If you think about, how much of your reality is not really your reality but merely the description of your reality that you keep running through your head? You sit in a "chair". Your feet are on the "floor". Your "hand" holds a "drink" or the "mouse".

An interesting experiment is to go outside and contemplate a tree but forbid yourself from using the word "tree" to describe it. In theory you could contemplate anything for the sake of this experiment but a tree is big and alive and it can fill your field vision. You almost have to acknowledge it's existence. So study it, stare at it, absorb the details but banish the word "tree" from your inner dialogue. Can you do it? Can you hold the entity before you in your attention without assigning it a label?

Because that's it really. We assign labels to mitigate reality and we depend on those labels for communication and organization. But in assigning these labels, we are also assigning limitations.

So who are you? Are you the label?

A label is a limitation.

So at this point we can actually separate out some of the masks we wear as nothing more than labels we use to identify our place in reality. Some we may have had assigned to us by loved or loathed ones as we grew and developed. Some we may need to destroy or at the very least need to set aside. Others we may want to keep as a legitimate construct of this life.

For instance, it took me years to become comfortable with calling myself an artist. It's something that most artists go through and it has to do with perceived ability and self esteem and even, to a certain degree, the definition of "an artist" by a given culture. I created the mask called "artist" and it took me years to get used to wearing it.  The interesting thing is that the minute I was comfortable wearing the mask, I suddenly realized I didn't need it. I could put the mask aside and just do art and that art, I hope, is a direct expression of my authentic self. That's an effect of this process of ego dissolution. I may not even call myself an artist anymore and just do art. Which is ironic. I spent so many years creating that mask, that label. But to set it aside and let the actions speak louder than the label seems very authentic to me. I'm not going to throw away the mask. Sometimes society needs to see the mask they expect to see. But I don't have to wear it. Art is what I do. It's an expression of who I am.

So some masks, some labels are good. And some are bad. Some we need to keep and some we need to throw away. I think each person should choose their own tactics as they see fit since many wouldn't know how to act without the limitations that labels bring. Boundaries make some feel safe and that's fine. Others may need to take inventory of the self and decide if it's time to throw out the masks that make life harder, especially if those masks were created by someone else. Living with your own limitations is one thing. Living with the limitations assigned to you by someone else is unnecessary.

So who are you? Could you sit in meditation and wander the halls of your ego and gaze upon the gallery of masks that this life has created and maybe clear a few out? Could you address the ones that make you comfortable and be honest as to why they make you comfortable? Could you destroy the ones that aren't yours?

And could you find that final mask? Can you see what's behind it?

That's what I'm looking for. That final mask.

Behind it lies the authentic self and that's what I need to see.

Book Reviews from the Reading List: Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness

I'm moving through a lot of reading material both online and off as part of my immersion class. There is a lot to try out and a lot to process but all of it is fascinating in its own right on some level. But up to this point I haven't really found a book or video that broke the experience of yoga down and delivered it from a beginner's perspective.  Most assume prior knowledge and can even be intimidating, showing fairly advance poses with little build up or advice on how to get there. Even more just cover the asanas, ignoring the breathing and meditation, which is fine, I guess, but not I think yoga is more like a recipe and why would you leave an ingredient out of a recipe and still expect the certain results?

Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillnesscame up on the reading list and I think the title had me expecting a little more philosophy and less practical application. But as it turns out, I think I found the textbook that should go with any yoga course. It breaks down the hows and whys and wherefores from the very beginning, answering some questions I didn't even know I had. It is very quotable and an easy and engrossing read and very thorough in its approach.  If someone didn't have access to a teacher, I think this book would be enough to get a student started on their own. A teacher is always preferable of course but the layout of the information in this book could easily lend itself to self-study.

He covers philosophy (without getting sappy) and breathing and "playing with the edge" in terms of how far you should push a pose. I think my favorite section so far is "How to Combine Breath and Movement". Good, clear advice on how to coordinate movement and breath which gets a little tricky for me sometimes. My focus often locks on one or the other, the movement or the breath, and then I can't remember if I was breathing in or out and then I'm falling over. It's a learning process of course and an interesting part of the challenge.

The majority of the book is devoted to step by step instructions to the asanas, including what they work, what they are intended for, how to do the pose and the benefits of the pose. I like that the tone stays very casual and conversational. It could have become just another encyclopedia of poses but it stays friendly and approachable all the way through.

I still have a lot more books and other materials to move through so I not ready to award the "If You Buy One Book on Yoga" prize just yet but this one is a strong contender for that most coveted award. But I'm still reading.

A word of warning: Some of the reviews on Amazon mention that the pictures were kicked to the back of the Kindle version instead of the picture of each pose appearing next to its description. This will not work. The pictures need to go with the poses. I'm normally a fan of the Kindle versions but in this instance I would avoid it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ponderings from the Wheelhead

My schedule is pretty full at the moment so I'm not spending as much time at the wheel as I would prefer. But I take advantage of the time I have and I'm working on larger art pieces instead of the functional ware I normally focus on. So, in a way, I'm back in training, pottery-wise, since I haven't worked with larger pieces in some time and I don't get to practice as much as I used to. So each session is almost myself teaching myself, using the same lessons I would normally give a student. Recently, I found myself obsessing over every piece of advice I ever gave to nervous students while about five pounds of clay swirled around my hand and, in the process, I caught myself staring at my outside hand as my inside hand pushed out the clay. My focus should have been on the inside hand as it created the space. So I closed my eyes and started to work by pushing and feeling with the hand I couldn't see.

This can confuse a new student fairly quickly so I usually try to cover it early on. The inside hand pushes and shapes. The outside hand supports and guides. A beginner's instinct is to watch the outside hand and try to do too much with what you can see rather than focusing on the inside hand that actually needs to do the work.

I usually tell the nervous student, "It's not the outside of the pot that makes the pot. It's the emptiness inside the pot that makes the pot".  Which is a straight up Taoist concept.  The outer shape is a reflection of the space within. The focus should be on creating the inner space.

This has provoked more than a few blank stares which leaves an opening to elaborate and carry the lesson forward. But I've always been fascinated by the fact that some get hung up on the idea of emptiness being the focus. I think it's largely due to the Western notion that emptiness is bad. You wouldn't want something that's empty. Full is better. Empty is depressing. One shouldn't want an empty cup. Or stomach. Or house. Full means abundance and a lack of want or need while emptiness is the epitome of want and need.

But another way to look at it is that emptiness is potential. Stuff can happen, things can change, there is room to grow in the space that emptiness provides. An empty stomach can be a depressing thing but it also has the potential to be filled with an excellent meal. It's an extension of "the glass is half full/half empty" meme that is bit more philosophically flexible and a little less absolute.

Another interesting relevant Taoist concept is the Void.  Now, from what I understand, the term "Void" is a poor translation of the actual concept but it's the closest that linguists can get to a very complex construct of the "resting potential" that the universe emerges from. Pretty heady stuff but another neat way to think of emptiness: Resting potential. Ready to change, waiting to be filled and utilized.

The pot is formed by creating the potential that is the emptiness and that potential is reflected in its exterior shape.

So the clay was spinning and the shape was forming as I discovered the emptiness and I found myself considering the fact that my outer reality is also a reflection of my inner potential just like the pot. And that begs the question: What is being reflected? Is it the true reflection of the potential or is it a reflection of the psychological clutter that anyone would gather over the course of a lifetime? That's a sticky one. Some would say that the clutter is manifestations of ego and all of it should discarded. I'm not so sure about that. Some of the clutter might have yielded a positive change and while the particulars should be abandoned maybe the change should be incorporated into the potential. Perhaps the change even made it's own space.

Still, an inner reality house cleaning may be in order. Go through the clutter and throw out the trash, organize what's left and, most importantly, rediscover the spaces within. Create the space to grow and change.

And to continue with the analogy, I think that meditation is the way to explore the house and yoga is a way to clear the clutter. Or at least begin to. As this practice develops, I'm noticing the created spaces but there are also a few boxes tucked in corners that I can't throw away yet. But I know they're there and I can get to them eventually. The point is I am finding space. I'm discovering potential.

But what is being reflect even as the clutter is being cleared and the spaces created? Is the true self even in there any more? Or is it all ego?

I think it's time to delve deeper into this ego thing and examine the relationship between labels and limitations.

But that's going to take some thought and I'm still making space.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Can't Beat Free

I am pretty steady on the diet these days but it's still challenging at times.  I'm always on the hunt for new ideas and new ways to do the diet better but sifting through all the info out there is impossible. So I have to rely on the occasional article or a recommended recipe but even then it's hit and miss and what I really want is ideas that I can take and twist to my own designs.

I found this site which keeps track of the free books for the Kindle and, under the cooking category, I found quite a collection of books on paleo and cleaner living. Now, the diet is a modified paleo system which means that some of the better ideas come from  paleo cookbooks. But full sized cookbooks are (pun alert) hard to digest and pulling the good stuff out is time consuming. The good thing about most of these little ebooks is that they are short, concise and to the point.

For instance, I found  Simple Gluten Free & Paleo Bread: Fast, Sumptuous and Guilt-Free Baking Recipes and got it downloaded before they took it off the free list (it's still available for loan to Prime members. Note that the free books are apparently a promotional thing so they may not be free forever). Anyway I got it downloaded and gave it a read. Very concise. Very to the point. Still a lot of good info. The recipes are simple and the ingredients are not too outrageous although the first basic recipe uses 2 cups of blanched almond flour and that stuff is expensive But if you were looking for bread and wanted to stick to gluten-free, it looks like a great way to go. I'll have to wait for the next paycheck to try it out and report back though.

I would normally suggest avoiding any sort of bread-like food to avoid any psychological triggers but I've have a beef stew recipe that begs for bread and I've been craving beef stew.

The site has a quite a few books to peruse and it changes daily. Lots of smoothie and juice books, I noticed, and quite a few covering everything from desserts to slow cookers. There are other categories, as well. The cooking category was the one that caught my attention and filled up my Kindle first.

Here is the link again for convenience:


Friday, August 02, 2013

Yoga and Pottery

The asanas of yoga are practiced with the intent of preparing for seated meditation so I shouldn't be surprised by the fact that a yoga practice would help with working on the wheel.

I haven't had much time to get my hands muddy since I started the immersion program. As a matter of fact, last Sunday was the first time I really had a chance to sit and work for any length of time. I think I've mentioned before that what I found inspiring about yoga was that it got me to that quiet place that I experience when working on the wheel for a while. What I noticed as I sat down and got to work was that I found that quiet space much faster than I ever had before.  Just me, the clay and the hum of the wheel. I let the clay do what it wanted for the most part and was pretty satisfied with the outcome.

Now working on the wheel is not conducive to good posture. You can try to keep your back straight but you won't get far since you need to lean into the clay for leverage and your elbows need to be braced, sometimes on your knees, sometimes on your side so you spend some time hunched over. Getting up can be a painful exercise of unkinking the bowed spine as you rise up and stagger around for a minute clutching your lower back. Or at least that's how I used to get up after an hour or so on the wheel.

This time was different. I threw three mediums sized pieces. And then got up and took several steps to the drying rack before I stopped and wondered at the lack of pain and stiffness. There was none.  Not even a twinge. After years of rising hunched and sore, I just stood up and walked like it was nothing.

I've always had back issues, including a herniated disc, and I can say definitively that yoga helps. As a matter of fact it helps a lot. We spend a lot of time in class stretching the spine and twisting and, at first blush, I expected there to be more pain. After years of problems I'm a bit paranoid about anything concerns the spine and maybe even a bit overprotective. But the stretching, the twisting, the opening of the vertebrae has alleviated almost all of my symptoms and, as my core gets stronger, my confidence goes up. I'm not going to push it too far and I still follow all the basic rules (lift with legs, don't twist and lift, etc.) but still it's amazing how fast a steady practice has helped a problem that has plagued me for years.

And getting up from the wheel pain-free is my own little personal victory against getting older. I can't do a headstand yet and I am far from a full lotus but I think I'll measure success by these small achievements and relish the fact that one of my favorite activities no longer punctuated by pain.