Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cultivating Happiness

I've written before that I'm a planner by nature. This means I spend a great deal of time focusing on the future and how to get to it, and not a whole lot of energy consciously experiencing the present. It has made for a somewhat angsty existence. So, in my effort to spend less of my life frustrated and unhappy and to get to a happier place, I've decided that I'm going to have to cultivate that happiness, however awkward that may be.

Part of me hates the idea that I have to work at happiness. Society tells us that it should not only come naturally, but that it should be our default position. In reality, I don't think that ever actually happens. The most we can expect is general contentedness, with moments of happiness. And really, that's not such a bad deal.

So, I'm cultivating happy moments. When they happen - and yes, they do happen - I am making a point of pausing and noticing them, mentally recording them, and appreciating them for how they add to my days. The moments are varied. There was the laughter-filled afternoon I spent in Fort Worth last week, drinking beers with a good friend and laughing hysterically over inside jokes about river dolphins and cute waiters who are now officially too young for me. It was followed by the next morning's car trip home, during which I blared Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as loud as I wanted and sang even louder, dancing and driving and appreciating that I have a job that's flexible enough to allow me a few days off pretty much any time I want. This past weekend brought a home-cooked lunch with my best friend, after which we laid on the couch and moaned about how full we were and I thought, "Something as simple as melted cheese for lunch with my best friend is pretty great."

It's not that the substance of my life is changing. These are all things I've done before. I just didn't pause to appreciate them and then file them away in my mental catalog of happy moments. I'm striving to consciously notice one of these moments per day - just one - and I'm already finding that it's changing the way I feel about my life. Instead of constantly looking to the future and plotting a path to that mythical, big-H Happiness, I'm finding happiness in the little things. And for now, that seems to be enough.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Still Fresh

As much as I'd like to think that I don't repeat my mistakes, the truth is that I sometimes often do. And on the rare occasions that I'm able to see one of these repeats coming, recalling an old blog post can help me remember the pain of past mistakes and motivate me to avoid them.

Last year I wrote about a guy an asshole who repeatedly took advantage of my time. He'd make plans and break them, or worse, say, "We'll do something later this week," and then never follow through (in the meantime, I'd foolishly keep my schedule open and... wait...). He had excuses, and always told me that he really did want to spend time with me, but had work/family/fill-in-the-blank-with-an-important-sounding-thing obligations that kept him from being able to. He even chose watching a 15-year-old movie that rated a paltry 36% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes over spending time with me, leading me to question exactly how fresh I would rate in comparison. I put up with this for months until I finally realized that he actually was doing exactly what he wanted to do, but that just didn't include making time for me. The lesson I took away from it was that in situations like this, it's better to believe what people do than what they say.

So when I went on what seemed like a promising first date a couple weeks ago, I was really excited at the end of the date when the guy asked if I'd like to get together the following week to see a movie. I told him, yes, I'd love to. A three-day weekend followed, and I knew he had plans and didn't expect a call right away. When a few days passed and I didn't hear from him, I texted him to say I had a good time and hoped we could do it again. He apologized for being out of touch, and saying that yes, he'd like to go out again, we'd see a movie later that week, let's play the day/time by ear. 

This triggered red flags for me. Ever since the guy asshole last year, I've been hyper-sensitive to men leaving me dangling, expecting me to keep my schedule open and be on call for them. But I didn't want to be That Girl, the crazy one who gets pissy out of nowhere and clearly has some serious baggage, setting off red flags of his own. And besides, he hadn't brushed me off - yet. So instead, I replied with, "Sounds good. But keep in mind, my dance card fills quickly." I followed it with a little winking emoticon to let him know I wasn't trying to be difficult or rude, just wanting to plan something ahead of time. He responded saying we'd be sure to plan something in advance then, complete with a winking emoticon of his own.

Except he didn't. He didn't call, or text, or email to make plans. He did absolutely nothing. I sat around, wringing my hands and wondering if I should follow up again. Maybe he thought that when I said my dance card fills quickly I was giving him the brush off? But no, that didn't make sense, since I had followed up with him, so clearly I wanted to see him again, right...? I rehashed it over and over and over again. And then, finally, I remembered the lesson I learned last year: ultimately, he's going to do exactly what he wants to do. I signaled - twice! - that I'd like to see him again. I even gave him an opening to schedule something. I couldn't have been clearer about my interest. If he wanted to see me again, he would call. Simple as that.

That doesn't make it sting any less, and it really doesn't leave me any less confused - I still don't get why he'd go to the trouble of asking to see me again, reiterate that he wanted to do so, and then just disappear. But the irritation I feel does reinforce one thing for me: I really want the person I'm dating to be someone who is honest and up-front and does what he says he's going to do. I'm direct and usually follow through on my commitments, and I have little patience for people who can't give me the same courtesies. 

Of course, I also want someone smart enough to recognize just how fresh I am. And this guy imbecile clearly wasn't him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today was my birthday. I celebrated it over several days with some of my favorite people. There was a party with a Mexican luchador pinata we named Jorge (#RIPJorge), appetizers and the most amazing cupcakes baked by my friend Amy, and more cookies and beer and wine and presents and even more cupcakes than any girl has the right to expect. Then on Monday I went to Fort Worth for a meeting and spent the afternoon and evening with some of my fabulous friends who live there. And if that wasn't enough, I took today off work and got my hair all done up and a massage and ate horribly unhealthy things like leftover bean dip and cupcakes and didn't feel guilty about it at all because that's what 31 year olds do, right?

(Humor me.)

Truth be told, I wasn't really looking forward to this birthday quite the way I did the last one. I've had a series of disappointments over the last couple months and I didn't really want to make a big deal of my birthday, but I was convinced to celebrate and I'm glad for that.

That wasn't the way I planned for this post to begin. In fact, I've been stewing on an entirely different birthday blog post for a week or so, but I just couldn't get it to come together the way I wanted. The gist of it was this: again and again over the last year, life (or, more accurately, people) has shown me that I can't really rely on anyone except myself. People let me down in ways that are seemingly small but that deeply fractured my trust in them, perhaps irreparably. Other people let me get my hopes up only to prove that they never really meant to fulfill them. And still others made promises I should have known better than to expect them to keep. Over and over again, I felt let down by the people around me. It seemed like the lesson of year was that the only person I could rely on was me, and my birthday present to myself was going to be to avoid disappointments by only relying on myself from now on.

There's just one problem with that: it's utter bullshit. Yes, all those disappointments happened. But every time I've been let down by one person, another one has been there. I had a friend offer ("threaten" might actually be a more appropriate word) to fly me halfway across the country to spend the holidays with his family because he didn't want me to be alone. Countless other friends in Austin offered to let me spend the Christmas holiday with them. These people invited me into their homes and their families at a time of year that's supposed to be reserved for those closest to them. They did the opposite of let me down; without being asked and without hesitation, they propped me up when I needed it most. Other times, when I was frustrated or disappointed or depressed, they were there. Some listened, some brought me food, some made me laugh, some forgave me, and some prompted me to throw a birthday party when I really wasn't feeling up to it, but they were all there in the ways I needed them to be. Not once did my real friends let me down this year, and that's the lesson I need to take away from it all.

The people who really mattered were there when it counted, and they probably will continue to be.

So here's my revised birthday present to myself: the knowledge that I am surrounded by a community of supportive, funny, loving friends near and far who are there when I need them. It's just a bonus that they will also watch me drunkenly beat the hell out of a Mexican luchador pinata affectionately nicknamed Jorge and filled with pixy stix, condoms, and single servings of booze, knowing full well that I will leave Jorge's head swinging from the tree in my front yard for at least a week after the festivities are over.

That, right there, is the face of friendship.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Since It Has Pumpkin in It, This Counts as Health Food, Right?

I'm a pumpkin-loving gal. In middle school and high school, I often requested pumpkin pie in lieu of birthday cake (if you have any idea how much I love chocolate cake, you know how noteworthy this really is). My favorite part of Thanksgiving is the pumpkin pie and pumpkin cheesecake. So when a good friend of mine repeatedly requested "the perfect fall ice cream," the choice seemed obvious to me: pumpkin cheesecake ice cream.

I went with pumpkin cheesecake ice cream and not pumpkin pie ice cream because cheesecake already has a lot of dairy in it, making it easier to convert to an ice cream. I googled around and found a couple pumpkin cheesecake ice cream recipes, and went with the one I though sounded the best. I taste-tested the base before chilling and decided it wasn't pumpkin-y enough for my taste, so I more than doubled the amount of pumpkin in the recipe. But I still wasn't happy with the final results: the ice cream was too tangy. So the second time around I cut the amount of sour cream and upped the amount of cinnamon. And since I've discovered I like ice cream with texture, I folded in chunks of graham cracker crust. The second batch was perfect.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Ice Cream

Makes about 2 quarts

14 oz. cream cheese
1 (15.3 oz.) can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie mix!)
zest of 2 lemons
1 c. sour cream
2 c. half-and-half
1 1/3 c. sugar
6 t. cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
2 t. grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 graham cracker crust (I recommend store-bought because it breaks into chunks instead of crumbling - homemade tends to get crumbly)

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Alternatively, put in a large bowl and blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste and adjust the spices if necessary.

Break the graham cracker crust into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate until ready to use.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.

Fold in pieces of graham cracker crust, and transfer to container to finish freezing. For best results, let sit overnight or for a day or two for flavors to balance and meld.

If you don't want to go to the trouble of folding in a graham cracker crust, you can do what I did with my Raspberry Cheesecake Ice Cream: make an ice cream sandwich out of graham crackers. Similar effect, and perhaps a little less effort (and more fun to eat).

I'm especially proud of this little creation because it's the first time I've tweaked an existing recipe so much that it really is my own now. I don't often go off-script, but I'm really happy with the results this time. Perhaps I'll dare to go astray again in the future?

I doubt this batch will last until Thanksgiving - I just like it too much - so I'll probably be making more soon. I can't imagine it supplanting pumpkin pie and pumpkin cheesecake entirely, but it might be a good companion at the end of the meal.

Monday, November 7, 2011


I walked out of my therapist's office the other day $60 poorer and having lost another 50 minutes of my life to discussing what's become a recurring theme lately: my disappointments at work. The lack of upward mobility and the feeling that my work isn't valued, to be more specific. I've been struggling to find a way to make the situation work, but it doesn't seem to be happening and it's left me feeling angry and frustrated.

On my way out of the office, I spotted something on the ground. It looked like a word, so I leaned closer and discovered I was more or less right; it was a single piece of magnetic poetry.

Sometimes life forces you to face the questions you're not asking yourself. I know the superficial reasons why I'm unhappy at work - I listed them above - but that doesn't explain why the situation makes me so unhappy. So I asked myself the bigger "why?" - why does this really bother me so much? - and the answer became clear immediately. I feel trapped.

I've been in the same job for 5 1/2 years. I've progressed to the point that I make a good salary for someone my age. Good enough, in fact, that leaving my job will probably mean a pay cut - something I can't really afford. I work in a field that's very narrow, and there aren't a lot of opportunities where I live, which means I'll also probably have to move if I want a better job - something I don't want to do right now. And with no opportunities to move up, or even laterally, there isn't room for growth of any kind in my current situation. In short, I'm stuck. I'm only 30 years old (for another week, at least) and I already feel like my career has stalled out. That's the real reason I'm so bothered by the whole thing: I feel stagnant and powerless to do anything about it.

The thing about powerlessness - for me, anyway - is that it's usually false. There are very few situations in which I'm truly powerless; it's just that it's often easier to feel powerless than to do something about it. Lately, I think my default position has been "powerless," waiting for some amazing opportunity to land in my lap. Not only hasn't that happened, but it's probably not going to happen, and waiting around for it is only making me even more unhappy. So I've decided to do something about it.

I just don't know what. Yet.

But I'm going to figure that out. I need to think about my options more broadly. I can volunteer. I can try freelance writing. I can do more nonprofit work. I can blog more. Whatever it is, I need to find a way to feel more fulfilled, and if work isn't going to do it, then I need to figure out what will.

And more importantly, make it happen for myself.