Getting Stuff Done means Letting Go of Perfectionism

I had never considered myself a perfectionist until one evening in Kazakhstan when I was cooking dinner for a group of fellow Peace Corps volunteers at my apartment.  When it came time for dessert, I took the cake out from the Soviet-style oven (a tiny oven that heats low and uneven, which you light by sticking a rolled-up piece of paper lit on one end through a hole in the bottom while simultaneously turning on the gas) and saw that it was a lumpy, hideous disaster.  It looked like no cake should, and I was too ashamed to serve it. When I told the others that we won’t be having dessert after all because the cake looked terrible, Jen, one of the volunteers, said, “You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?”

I was completely taken aback.  Me, a perfectionist?!  No one had ever called me that before.  After all, I associated perfectionists with being Type-A personalities, anal retentive, super-clean-and-organized, and never happy with anything.  That’s definitely not me, and my husband would wholeheartedly agree, judging from the state of the house, the top of my desk, or the way I cook (I could never follow the advice “clean as you cook.”  I mean, I’m too busy cooking!).

However, I realized the perfectionist side of me definitely creeps in it when it comes to writing or doing something else creative.  Back in the day when I used to write letters to my friends by hand (yes, those of us over 30 actually did this), I would start over if I didn’t like my handwriting or the way a sentence sounded – I’d just crumple up the piece of paper and start with a fresh one.  With this blog, I write a first draft which I need to edit over and over again before posting a copy that I’m happy with.  That’s exactly why I haven’t written as much as I’ve wanted to lately (hmm, 3 entries in the past 4 months?).  It’s not for lack of ideas on what to write, writer’s block, or the lack of opportunity to sit and write.  It’s finding the time to go back and read, edit, rewrite, reread and edit again.  At least 10 times.

The same is true for my creative pursuits.  A few years ago I enjoyed making my own jewelry with silver and glass beads.  The problem is that I never actually made anything because I didn’t like my creations enough to finish them (plus it got very tedious with all those little beads).  Same goes with the countless scrapbooks I’ve started – Turkey trip, India trip, Kazakhstan, Baby #1, Baby #2.   They are all sitting on my shelf unfinished because it takes too much time for me to make the pages look just right (also very tedious), which is stupid considering I’m really the only one who will ever look at them.

Now that I’ve taken up sewing , I find that my perfectionist tendencies are again impeding my ability to finish any projects.  A couple of weeks ago, the sewing teacher showed me how to construct a tote bag.  I brought the almost-completed tote bag home with only the straps left to sew on.  But after a few days of looking at the bag, I decided that I didn’t like how it looked.  So I ripped out the seams and tore it apart.

The thing is, I need to let it go.  I can’t be perfect at anything these days because with two young kids, there’s just no time to strive for perfection with anything.  I need to approach my projects the way I approach parenting (the one area in which I never strove for perfection).  I realized early on that there’s no such thing as the perfect mom or the perfect way of raising a child, so I gave up trying.  There’s nothing more humbling than raising a child and constantly being reminded that you’re never going to get everything right all the time.  Sometimes “good enough” is, well, good enough.  Once I realized that, it took the pressure off immensely.  After all, it’s not like I’m at a paid job where I’m being evaluated and critiqued (except maybe by my husband, but he doesn’t count).  I’m being my own worst critic and I just need to stop.  It’s more important for me now to get these things done than to do them perfectly.  Post a blog entry every week whether I think it’s perfectly written or not (it never will be).  Finish those scrapbooks even if I don’t like the layout of the pictures.  Cook without following the recipes exactly.  Invite friends over even if the house isn’t totally spotless and orderly.  Clean out the closet even if I don’t have the perfect organizing materials.  Just do it and don’t worry about the outcome because it’ll end up fine (like my kids, I hope).  At the very least I’ll learn by trial and error.  Maybe if the pressure is off, I can actually enjoy these things as well.

Am I being an underachiever?  Do I get a failing mark for my half-assed effort in these things?  Perhaps.  But at least this way I can finish that darn tote bag.

It’s (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

The other day the family went to the pumpkin farm to pick our own pumpkins for Halloween.  As the sun went down over the farm fields, we took a hayride to the pumpkin patch, where my son picked a perfectly shaped little pumpkin while I picked a larger, somewhat deformed pumpkin.

Pumpkins…iconic of October, the fall and cooler temperatures (mid-80’s in Tucson), and the best holidays of the year around the corner.  Pumpkins never played a huge role in my fall festivities; in fact, I had never been to a pumpkin patch before having kids.  I only remember carving one pumpkin in my youth.  I didn’t enjoy “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” as much as the Christmas special.  And I thought it strange when my friend Melissa, who was obsessed with pumpkins (her favorite holiday is Halloween and favorite color is orange), would send me a card every year in our 20s with a picture of a pumpkin patch, or of her holding a pumpkin, or a jack o’ lantern.

It wasn’t until I was in the Peace Corps that I began to appreciate pumpkins (when I started appreciate a lot of things) – specifically orange pumpkins.  During my second year, I organized my site’s annual Halloween party.  I really wanted to bring the Halloween spirit to my students since they don’t celebrate Halloween in Kazakhstan.  I even went so far as asking my friends in the U.S. to send me Halloween care packages (shout out to those friends and my sister who spent the money to send a package to Kazakhstan. I still remember who you are!).  I went to the market to look for orange pumpkins and whatever else we could find that resembled the fall, Halloween, or something scary (aside from the sheep’s heads) to decorate for the party.

When I arrived at the “squash” section of the market, however, all I saw were green and white pumpkins.  As I scoured stand after stand for the elusive orange pumpkin, I found one green pumpkin with a few orange markings on it.  I immediately snatched it up, and my local friend who was shopping with me asked the vendor if he had any other orange-y pumpkins.  Magically, the guy at the stand next to him pulled out an orange pumpkin from under his table.  As we looked around the squash section, more and more vendors were pulling orange pumpkins from under their tables and trying to get our attention so we would buy from them (we ended up buying ALL the orange pumpkins).  Apparently Kazakhstanis preferred their squash green or white, and the orange pumpkins were considered freakish, which was why they were stashed under the table, hidden from the shoppers’ view.  I guess they would compare to the heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, or golden raspberries that you can find here in the U.S. but are not nearly as popular as the traditional variety.

I enjoy pumpkin season now, not only for the joy it brings to my kids, but because you can find an assortment of delicious pumpkin-flavored treats (of course it involves food and drink).  Every October in the U.S., you can find several establishments selling a variety of pumpkin baked goods, from pumpkin pie to pumpkin bread to pumpkin cream-cheese muffins, as well as pumpkin-flavored beverages.  Is there any vegetable as versatile in its flavor as the pumpkin?!  You can even buy canned pumpkin so you can bake your own pumpkin desserts.  I can’t tell you how awesomely convenient canned pumpkin is.  All the pumpkin goodness without the messy work.  When I lived abroad, there was no such thing as canned pumpkin.  I bought pumpkins at the market, lugged them home (not only were they heavy, they were awkward to carry), almost landed in the ER cutting them open with dull knives, seeded them, cooked them, and then used the flesh to make pumpkin muffins in Kazakhstan and pumpkin pie in Thailand.  Perhaps it was the effort I put into making them or the novelty of baked pumpkin goods in these countries, but they were damn good!  Better than any of the premade pumpkin desserts I’ve tasted here.

I also appreciate the orange pumpkin now because it is one of the few vegetables my kids will eat.  Pumpkins are very nutritious – packed with vitamins and antioxidants.  Not only will my kids will eat pumpkin desserts, they will also eat other pumpkin-y foods as well, including pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin ravioli, and pumpkin empanadas.  As for me, there’s nothing better than a pumpkin spice latte or a pumpkin ale.

Whether it’s the picking, carving, decorating, smashing, the seeds, the pie, the baked goods, the coffee, or the beer, enjoy it while you can!

Happy Halloween and Happy (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

Adventures in Cooking

I didn’t start cooking until I was 30 years old.  For some reason, I never cooked with my mom growing up (I guess she wanted me to concentrate on my studies so I wouldn’t end up being a stay-at-home mom…go figure), and all throughout college I lived in dorms or other housing where meals were provided for me.  I remember the first time I cut up a chicken breast – it was after I graduated from college, when I lived in an apartment in Brighton, MA (outside of Boston) with three roommates.  I was totally grossed out as I handled the raw flesh, trying to cut away the fat and skin.  I kept muttering “gross” “yuck” and “what the …?” My roommate Risha looked on, completely amused (and trying not to laugh, I’m sure).  Then she said “Oh Linda, you’re so cute.”

A few years later, I lived alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in Chicago.  My kitchen, though relatively big, had approximately 1 square foot of counter space.  I didn’t have any interest in cooking, and with a full-time job, I was too tired to do anything after work except zone out in front of the t.v.  My typical dinner was a piece of salmon I cooked on the George Forman grill, frozen brussel sprouts I steamed in an electronic steamer, and rice that I made in a rice cooker. (Suffice it to say, I’m a slave to my kitchen appliances.  This started freshman year when I illegally had a hot pot and toaster oven in my dorm room.  Never started any fires but it did make me pretty popular on my floor.)  I went out to dinner with friends 2-3 times a week, and every other weekend I went to my parents’ house to get free meals there.

This lack of cooking skills kind of screwed me by the time I joined the Peace Corps.  It wasn’t a problem the first year that I lived with a host family, but when I lived alone in an apartment in my 2nd year, it was just me against frying pan (and a pressure cooker I acquired from another PC volunteer.  Again with me and the appliances).  It was quite a challenge for me to make rice without a rice cooker, cook beans that weren’t from a can, and prepare chicken that wasn’t cut up cleanly and pre-packaged.  There were no frozen convenience foods available, plus my freezer was the same temperature as my refrigerator, which wasn’t very cold in the first place.  The only thing that saved me from having to cook all my meals was the plethora of cafes in my town.  For about $1, I could get laghman (Kazakh noodles), plov (Uzbek fried rice), or a variety of Russian dishes (all with sour cream and dill on top).  However, the food in Kazakhstan wasn’t very healthy (I gained 10 lbs. my first year) – it was heavy on meat and all the dishes seemed to have a layer of orange oil floating on top.  I decided to cook in my apartment more to change up my diet.  Thus my adventures in cooking began.

I went to the open market a few times a week to get produce, grains, meat, and cheese to cook with.  I guess I wasn’t too adventurous at first, because starting from that year in Peace Corps and continuing on for the next 5 or so years, I had to follow a recipe exactly.  I had a Peace Corps cookbook that became my bible (by the end of my service, it became so beat up with food and water stains that I couldn’t bring it back with me  to the U.S.  I still regret that now).  I was so stringent in following the recipes that if I couldn’t find even one ingredient at the market, I wouldn’t cook the dish.  That’s how inexperienced and unknowledgeable I was about cooking.

When I returned from the Peace Corps, my college friends from Boston introduced me to the Food Network.  I started watching it a lot (along with Fear Factor and other “reality” shows that ruled the networks when I came back to the U.S. in 2004).  I began to gain some knowledge about cooking as I cooked more and more.  By the time I moved to Thailand two and a half years later, I had a bit more confidence so that I didn’t have to follow a recipe exactly every time.  I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai which taught me about a critical cooking device that I had never used until then and is now always by my side in the kitchen – “the tasting spoon.”  You taste your food and add what’s needed, whether it’s salt, sugar, fish sauce, lime, etc.  Seriously, before then I never thought to taste the food before sitting down and eating it.

Cooking became an adventure I started to enjoy, and my fellow colleagues enjoyed my dishes as a change-up to their usual Thai fare (which is delicious, but gets monotonous after a while).  Sometimes my colleagues in would bring me back ingredients they picked up on their vacations (like vanilla beans from Bali) or in Bangkok so I could drum up a dish.  I would scour the markets for familiar ingredients and try to whip something up, whether it was a Thai dish or an American one.  I still ate at cafes a lot, but I also had more practice in the kitchen (and sometimes with very little to work with – not many appliances available to me there).

I knew that cooking officially became a hobby for me when I moved next to South Sudan.  We had cooks who prepared our meals three times a day.  Although it was nice not having to worry about food, I sometimes felt the urge to cook or bake, because it was a good way for me to relieve stress.  It was impossible, though, because I didn’t have any ingredients, couldn’t find anything to cook with in the kitchen (which was even more barebones than in Thailand), and didn’t have electricity.  I looked forward to going back to the U.S. so I could cook again.

Now cooking is still an adventure for me, but more of a tedious and time-consuming one.  I have to prepare meals to accommodate four people in the family, including a vegan-ish husband and a picky preschooler with food allergies (on the other hand, my toddler eats almost everything. Like mother, like daughter).  We eat out at restaurants twice a week at most, but for health and money reasons, we have most of our meals at home.  And with a husband with zero cooking skills (unless you count pushing buttons on a microwave), all of the cooking falls to me.  I still enjoy it, but I would more if I cooked occasionally rather than ALL THE TIME.

At least I’m better off now than before I left for the Peace Corps.  I can’t imagine having children with the cooking skills I had back then.  I would probably be serving my kids Kraft mac n cheese, Chef Boyardee, or McDonald’s everyday (I still do occasionally).  I look forward to the day when my kids are a little bit older (and their palates a little more refined) so I can introduce them to dishes from around the world.  But for now I look forward to Mother’s Day, because that is my self-proclaimed no-cook day.

I heart COFFEE

I love my coffee.  There’s nothing in the world that makes me happier upon waking than a hot cup of coffee.  Not my kids’ smiling faces, the fresh Arizona morning air, or the beautiful day that lies ahead of me.  I love it so much that after having my first baby (who was born on my birthday), I bought myself one of those Keurig single-serve brewers along with a bunch of  environmentally-unfriendly coffee-filled k-cups.  Every morning, I look forward to (and desperately need) that steaming cup of Keurig-brewed joe to perk myself up and prepare me for the day ahead (I’m not the type to bound out of bed in the morning ready to start the day).

I started drinking coffee in college and my habit reached its height in my late 20s while working full-time in Chicago.  I drank about 4 cups per day at the time before realizing that my intake had to be curtailed, not only for my daily caffeine consumption (which didn’t really affect me so much anymore), but the fact that the fancy coffee drinks were making a serious dent in my wallet.  I reluctantly decreased my trips to the café from a few times a week to once a week.

By the time I entered the Peace Corps, I was a full-blown coffee addict.  The problem was that coffee wasn’t readily available in Kazakhstan (tea is the customary drink).  A couple of days of withdrawal and a serious headache later, I had to settle for the only coffee available – Nescafe.  Yes, a travesty to true coffee drinkers.  At first I shunned it, not only because Nescafe IS nastiness packaged in granules (coffee should NOT be instant), but that it’s made by the evil corporation Nestle (a rant for another time).  However, after realizing there was no coffeemaker in sight, not to mention actual coffee, I gave in and started to drink the dreaded stuff.  Believe me, for a coffee addict stuck in a land devoid of coffee, Nescafe became a godsend (eventually as a seasoned Peace Corps volunteer, I was privy to passed-down French presses and coffee percolators along with ground coffee sent in care packages by former PCVs – a true godsend).

The only time I gave up coffee for an extended period of time was when I was pregnant with my firstborn baby.  After 8 long months without coffee, I missed it more than any other food or drink I had given up, including sushi (my favorite food) and margaritas (my favorite drink).  I looked forward to the day my baby was born so that I could send the husband out to Dunkin’ Donuts, which was just down the street from the hospital.  I resumed my coffee drinking after my baby was born and continued through my second pregnancy.  I couldn’t imagine giving it up again during my second pregnancy (I needed even more with an active toddler) and figured that caffeine can’t be that bad for your unborn baby (I must add that my second baby was a much better sleeper than my first.  Perhaps because she was a “coffee baby” while my first wasn’t accustomed to the caffeine in my breastmilk).

Although I am still going strong with a 2-cup-a-day habit, I mostly drink it at home.  However, one of the things I really missed while I was pregnant and while living abroad (not simultaneously) was going to a cafe.  I’m talking about the cafes you find here in the U.S. where they serve a thousand different kinds of coffee drinks, are open at any time of day, and where you can sit for hours without anyone bothering you.  In my single and childless days, I loved going to relax and enjoy a vanilla latte, most of the time by myself and a book or laptop, sometimes with a friend.  This is a luxury I first took for granted when I lived abroad.  The cafes abroad (at least in the countries I lived, not places like Paris) weren’t actual coffee shops – they were more like casual restaurants where they served food and drink.  They didn’t specialize in coffee, much less SERVE it (or if they did, it was of the Nescafe variety).  Also, the cafes in developing countries weren’t open at all hours.  In grad school, I used to go to the cafe after 10pm to study or write papers (back then it was perfectly normal for me to drink coffee at that time).  When I moved to Thailand shortly after grad school, I missed those late-night cafe excursions so much I would dream about it.  One time I dreamt about going to a cafe at midnight!

I still think of going to a cafe as a luxury.  Nowadays the problem isn’t supply, since I live in a college-town with several 24-hour cafes, not to mention a Starbucks every half mile (this is the U.S. after all).  I just don’t have the opportunity anymore with two kids who are with me all the time.  So during those infrequent times I hire a babysitter to watch the kids while my husband is away for work, I go to a cafe by myself like I used to.  I order a cup of coffee and enjoy some much-needed and desired quiet and solitude.  Sometimes I write, sometimes I read, sometimes I just relax, look around, and enjoy being alone with my thoughts.  Aaaaahhh.  There’s nothing like having children and living abroad to appreciate the little things in life.

From international aid worker to stay-at-home mom

I still can’t believe I’m a mom sometimes. Just last night I was sitting on the couch with my 2-year old next to me and my 2-month old in my arms. I looked down at them and it suddenly hit me – holy crap, I have two kids! It’s not so strange considering that I’ve always wanted children and thought that eventually I would. It’s strange considering that three years ago I was living quite a different life than the one I have now – single with no kids and working as a development/aid worker in Africa (the two usually go hand-in-hand). At the time, having children seemed like a far-off and intangible dream that I preferred to keep in the back of my mind. I was 35, though, and I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was not yet married or had children. However, doing so set alarm bells ringing, a panicky knot in my gut and the big question looming in my head “WILL IT HAPPEN FOR ME?”

Well, a lot can happen in three years (even in one year!). Looking at my life now – with two kids, a husband, and a house outside the city – my stint as an international aid worker seems like a lifetime ago. And even though the lifestyle of an aid worker is dichotomous with the one I have now, I enjoyed it immensely at the time. I was living my dream (one of them, at least). Sure, the living and working conditions were horrid at times. I was living in developing (i.e. poor) countries, staying in tents or compounds with my colleagues, taking bucket baths, using pit latrines, battling the elements (no a/c) and working 60 plus hour weeks.  However, I was doing something that was truly meaningful to me, and I never once had to question or quantify my life or career.

Now that I’m a mom, it’s easy for me to live in the sheltered and isolated bubble of stay-at-home motherhood. I definitely have been guilty of it since my son was born two years ago (and it’s even worse now since my daughter was born earlier this year). Whereas three years ago my main concerns were whether Sudan would break out in a civil war or how to convince the locals not to drink water directly from the river, my main concerns now are my toddler’s food allergies or getting my baby to sleep through the night. Although as each day passes and I get further and further away from my former life, it’s never too far away from my mind. I am constantly thinking about my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan or development worker in Thailand and South Sudan. I guess the point in writing this blog is to take those experiences and somehow connect them to my life now. I’m not sure if I’ll have anything worldly or wise to say, but it’s a chance for me to reflect on my experiences and perhaps open my eyes back up to global issues and impart some life lessons to my children. For now, though, I’ll see if I can actually get a blog going (even that seems impossible to do with two young kids!).