End of Lent … finally!

I was marginally successful trying to give up dairy for Lent.

After writing my last post on the first week, I had fewer issues, because I learned to check ingredients before eating, and I became a little more mindful about putting things in my coffee. That and I got used to drinking my coffee black when there wasn’t any soy milk around.

On a few occasions, I had to turn down homemade cookies, knowing they were made with butter, but then I realized I could eat many store-bought cookies made with things like palm oil. Not healthy, so it was not a good substitute, but I had found a loophole.

This week, however, I have slipped a lot. There was our church’s St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, which I helped organize, and everything seemed to have meat or dairy — soda bread contains sour cream and/or buttermilk, our green drinks were made with Irish cream or milk, and I baked my salmon in butter. Saints’ feasts that we observe, of course, don’t count during Lent, so I was excused.


When a guest in others’ homes or eating out in a restaurant with few or no vegetarian/vegan options, I eat whatever is offered, so I have had cheese in pasta and other dishes a few times, especially this weekend with Shane’s family in Albany. The willpower seems to diminish exponentially in proportion to the distance of the backsliding.


A non-dairy Lent off to a rough start

Lent is fairly new to me. The first time I did it was in the small town where I lived in Mexico, when I was teaching English at a private Catholic school, and I realized that everyone was giving up something, even the elementary school students. I figured I had to try it once I found out that fifth-grader Sofia was giving up chile sauce for 40 days. A Mexican giving up chile sauce — that is a big freakin’ deal, folks.


Giving in to peer pressure, then, just as I had taken to crossing myself every time I passed a church (because even hooligans would cross themselves while passing the churches in their pimped-up cars, and I felt completely weird not doing it), I decided to give up cookies.


This was a big deal for me, because I had gotten addicted to several different types of cookies that could be bought at any corner store — especially Polvorones, which were like shortbread with an orangey twist, and Príncipe, which were buttery sandwich cookies with chocolate cream in the middle. Of course, giving up cookies only meant that I chose to eat Mantecadas, little buttery muffins, and other sweet bread products, so the exercise turned out to be easier than I expected.


In the past couple of years, I have given up other things for Lent that were not so easy to give up — Facebook games one year, when I was particularly addicted to a few of those, and last year I gave up online shopping. Some of those Facebook games were given up forever, and I definitely shop less online now (but especially after losing my full-time job). Lenten resolutions, I have found, can tend to be a bit like New Year’s Resolutions Part 2, as our priest had said on Ash Wednesday last week. But I do try to focus on being more mindful of my behavior and to take a stab at abstaining from bad habits.

This year I have been thinking and reading more about the point of Lent, and how giving up something or adding something doesn’t always get us to the place we are trying to go — being a better person and being closer to God (whatever God is for you — I have to confess that most people who call themselves Christians would find my concept of God totally wacko — more like the Force in Star Wars than the God of the Old and New Testaments).

I decided this year that being closer to God means giving up something that causes harm to animals — milk products, because I learned in the past couple of years that calves are often slaughtered as a byproduct of milk production, as cows are of course constantly impregnated to ensure that they continue producing milk. I also learned that milk is actually quite bad for humans, very fattening as well as leaching out calcium rather than providing calcium for bones, and it accelerates cancer growth as all animal proteins have been shown to do. (Just yesterday, a friend of mine said there have been studies showing that teenagers who drink a lot of milk regularly have more acne than those who don’t. And here I am in my mid-30s still wondering what to do with my skin….)

Anyway, I learned all these things a while ago, and we succeeded in substituting non-GMO soy milk (unfortified with calcium) for milk in our coffee, tea, cereal and cooking, and we have reduced our consumption of cheese and ice cream, but we have not been able to cut those things out completely.

Recently, I noticed how much butter I use. I love it on toast, love to cook with it, and of course I simply have to bake with butter — I would never use margarine or oil in a pie crust or cookies. In Chicago we would substitute half of the butter with applesauce, when we had an apple tree in our backyard and made tons of applesauce, but we still used the butter. It’s just so tasty! And it makes everything so flaky and rich!

When I realized that I had not even cut down on my use of butter, I figured I’d have to give it up now, or at least try for 40 days.

And here we are, about a week into Lent, and I have not been able to avoid dairy completely yet. The first day, Ash Wednesday, we actually had leftover pizza, and I figured I’d give up one of my Sundays during Lent so that we could finish it (since Sundays don’t actually count in the 40 days of Lent). Then, the next day was Valentine’s Day, and after dinner at a Thai restaurant we stopped in a café for dessert, and we just had to share the molten chocolate cake, which most likely had dairy in it, but in any case I had completely forgotten about going dairy-free and had automatically put milk in my coffee when it was brought out. So there went another Sunday.

On Sunday then, we finally looked at the ingredients on the Portuguese raisin rolls we had been eating for breakfast for the past three days — popular in our household because they have all-natural ingredients and no preservatives — and discovered that they were made with both milk and butter. There went the remaining three Sundays of Lent.

Monday, I went to brunch with a friend, and I focused so much about ordering my usual farm fresh eggs but with extra potatoes instead of sausage (Oh yeah, did I mention I’m trying not to eat any meat, either? Eggs are OK, though, for now….), that I hadn’t even thought about the fact that the toast would be buttered. And, once again, I automatically poured milk into my coffee.

Today, Tuesday, I was doing well most of the day with my non-dairy diet. But at dinner I ate some pretzels, and then we checked the ingredients — buttermilk solids.

It seems almost impossible to get away from dairy!

And I have other things I’ve resolved to do for Lent — try to eat for a week on a food-stamp budget and go to yoga class at least once a week — but neither of them have started yet. Now that I’ve blogged it, though, I may have no choice but to hold myself more accountable.

The flu, mardi gras pancakes, lower back pain

It was a hellish week. Finally caught the flu last weekend as my DH Shane was getting over it, but I don’t have a demanding full-time job and long commute, so I didn’t come down with complications (like Shane’s sinus infection). Being feverish sucks, though. Couldn’t do one of my stories because of that second bout of aches and soreness.

Shane recovering from the flu with Tigger

Shane recovering from the flu with Tigger

As I recovered, I had two nights of insomnia, and I have no idea why. One night I was up till 2 or 3 a.m., reading about Joan of Arc and Arminianism vs. Calvinism on Wikipedia before finally falling asleep on the futon. And then two nights later I was up all night, feeling  nervous, fluttery in my chest, for no apparent reason. I hadn’t even had any caffeine, but I was jittery like I had had a few cups of coffee before bed.

Partly it was because I had to write two articles before noon the next day. I stayed up late, till about midnight, writing one of them, and by the time I finished I felt shaky and tired. I had that feeling like an overtired child who gets all cranky and throws tantrums and can’t sleep. For a couple hours, I tried to sleep, but I figured I’d better do something constructive, so I got up and wrote the other article, which I had been planning to write in the morning. I finished at about 4 or 5 a.m. but still I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed with Shane when he had to get up, and I thought, well, finally I’ll be able to sleep, but I didn’t. I watched episodes of Stargate Universe, instead. Then I worked the rest of the day copy editing on the paper (as it was going to press that evening) and didn’t sleep till that night.

stargate (Source: gateworld.net)

While I was lying in bed trying to sleep, the only thing I could guess was making me anxious was that stupid pancake supper I was helping to organize for church. I was having all kinds of anxieties about it flopping in a huge way, with nobody coming, or me losing it and yelling at people from my church who were trying to help but being bossy. I ended up writing a long email to my friend Ruth about my worries and how I wouldn’t be able to stand working for the church much longer, and she wrote me the sweetest reply, right away, and she said she loved me and not to fret, which made me cry.

Lucky me, the pancake supper turned out wonderfully, and it was the help of all those people who were also anxious about pulling it off who made it happen, who came early and set up and cooked bacon and sausages and pancakes on griddles and made fun conversation for those few hours beforehand.

Ruth at the mardi gras pancake dinner

Ruth at the mardi gras pancake dinner

One of the strange things I did that made me nervous was I mixed two traditions together, Shrove Tuesday pancake supper plus a mardi gras theme, with feather masks and beads and New Orleans jazz music and king cake. I wasn’t sure it would work, and I have the feeling others weren’t sure about it, either. The king cake turned out very well, though — it was tasty as well as fun to have everyone look for the baby Jesus (a whole almond) inside their slices, and the winner got to wear the crown I bought. As Shane said, always good to have activities. (Though probably a good idea not to make people run with pancakes and frying pans; I was concerned the floor would be slippery from people tracking in snow.)Mardi gras Mary Ann

In the end, it was probably the mimosas that made the dinner fun. We had a pretty good turnout, even though the previous night’s snowstorm kept many of the regular supper guests indoors, and we made almost twice as much in donations as we had at the last fellowship dinner. Success!

Father Shane serving mimosas

Father Shane serving mimosas

Mardi gras beadsI think the busy day of baking (king cake and Valentine’s Day Bake Sale cookies) and setting up tables and cooking and cleaning up tired me out completely. As I was getting into bed, a sharp pain shot through my lower back. It messed up my plans to go cross-country skiing the next day, after all that glorious snow. So instead of playing in the sun and snow, I stayed home this afternoon trying (unsuccessfully) to find a comfortable position in which to sit or lie down and watching a documentary about Tribe Called Quest. But then Ruth had us over for a delicious Sunday dinner, and we had a wonderful time with her and her husband and their beautiful rescue dog, Charlie. What a blessing it is to have good friends!

Not the brightest idea I’ve ever had

Writing a blog about my search for a career/job has proven to be problematic in many ways.

It’s made me worry that I didn’t get a job because the prospective employers found this blog and read what I wrote about them. So I stopped mentioning the job interviews and positions I’d applied for.

Then, complaining about aspects of my current part-time position as a reporter for a local news site and free print weekly has alerted superiors to warn me not air my opinions so freely, lest I compromise my mission to report on events and situations fairly.

Also, it’s never a good idea to complain about one’s employer on a public site.

Maybe my problem is that the blog is public. I should probably be journaling about all this stuff and then writing a book about it later, after I am no longer employed at a place I’m complaining about. Or I should make this thing private and unsearchable and only give out the web address to close friends and family via email, not broadcasting it over facebook, which is full of “friends” who are not really my friends anyway. (Hi, those of you reading this and wondering if I meant you!)

Whatever the case, I am finding it hard to write about anything related to my job search, or rather, lack of a job search, or my current position.

I suppose I can say that I may have wriggled my way out of covering the village government, simply by not covering it adequately, though that was not intentional. My heart’s not in it, of course, so there’s that, but I also don’t have the stomach for the quarreling.

My husband came down with the flu on Monday, so he’s been home since Tuesday on. He finally went to the doctor today — one day shy of health insurance coverage, mind you, because our doctor doesn’t work Fridays, and he’s been feeling miserable enough to self pay. I have been trying my best to take care of him.

Now writing that sentence: “I have been trying my best to take care of him,” makes me realize that I have been trying to do that since he started his full-time job at the end of November.

That has been a difficulty for a while between us. I have high expectations of myself, and I have been putting a lot of pressure on myself to be a good stay-at-home spouse, just like Shane was to me for the four years that I worked full-time as a teacher. I want to make delicious dinners with leftovers so he can bring a lunch to work, keep the house clean, do the dishes and the laundry regularly, but then again, I don’t really want to do any of that at all. At the end of the day, when none of that has been done, I feel like I’ve failed him and myself.

I’m also rather a workaholic, so even though I’m technically part-time at the paper, I have made it so that I work on stuff for the paper pretty much a lot of the time. That way I don’t have to do housewife-y stuff, either.

On top of that, I have taken on lots of responsibility at this church. This church! I am in charge of hall rentals, and now I am trying to organize a pancake supper that is happening NEXT WEEK!

One has to understand something about my past to comprehend the anxiety with which I face this freaking pancake supper. I can remember, in my entire 36 years of life, only one or two gatherings that I organized that were successful. I think they were while I was in grad school, so it wasn’t difficult to impress the other grad students I’d invited, who were equally as or perhaps a little nerdier than I was.

OK, so this is at CHURCH for God’s sake, so what am I worrying about? Well, I still want it to be FUN.

In my search for the right formula to create said FUN, I may have tried a little too hard. I bought a bunch of Mardi Gras masks and beads — I mean, come on, Pancake Day is fine and all, but let’s spice things up a little — and I’m thinking about holding a pancake race (which I’ve learned actually happens at pancake suppers in the UK). Shane and a few friends at church are asking me, “Who’s going to run in a pancake relay race?! It’s a bunch of old people who can’t run!” And I’m saying, “The kids?” while I’m thinking, “I want to run in a pancake relay race! And I want to watch a bunch of people making fools of themselves running in a pancake relay race!”

Did I mention there will be mimosas? Everyone is excited about the mimosas. Maybe with mimosas people will wear Mardi Gras masks and beads and run around flipping pancakes. Maybe it will be fun.

Turning 36 in the year of the dragon

Fighting for good journalism, getting ‘real’ jobs, and marriage equality in church

My birthday was last Saturday. I turned 36. This means, in Chinese astrology, that I am a dragon in the year of the dragon. (There are 12 animals in the horoscope, so it’s a 12-year cycle.)

You might think this is a good thing; I did. Woohoo! It’s my year, I wrote on facebook. This belief was dispelled by the only other Asian working in the school district where I was employed during the first half of this year. Hai, a Vietnamese immigrant who had lived several years in Hong Kong, has a much better understanding of the horoscope than I do as an ABC (American-born Chinese). The year of the dragon, he told me, is a bad year for a dragon. This, as I understand it, is because the astrology takes into account the five elements — earth, fire, metal, water, wood — and having too much of one element causes imbalance, and a dragon in a dragon year would present a pretty big imbalance. A dragon in a monkey year, however, would be a good, balanced year, since the monkey provides things that a dragon lacks. Or something along those lines.

In any case, Hai was right, in that I had a miserable first half of the year at least. Working at that school caused me to increase my antidepressant as well as start me on anti-anxiety pills; I had bad evaluations, no support though I asked for help, parents and students complaining about me, and a new principal who was convinced that I was a horrible teacher and didn’t give me serious chances to improve. This principal made it virtually impossible for me to get another teaching position in another district, because I was technically, if not officially, fired, and no other school in these tough-on-teachers times wants to touch a fired teacher with a 10-foot pole.

Being fired from my job was, however, probably a blessing in disguise, because I am much happier NOT as a teacher. Of course, I have not been able to bring myself to forgive the actions of my superiors in that district, but I know that I should really feel grateful that they didn’t let me waste any more of my time trying to learn something — dealing with challenging behavior — that was so difficult for me.

Today I went into the city for a job interview at the education graduate school where I got my master’s degree in bilingual education. I had worked there as a secretary for a year during my studies, and that job may have been one of the most enjoyable experiences I had there (which is not exactly saying it was enjoyable, per se). I applied for another secretary position last month, and I think I do want to get the job.

At first, when they called me to set up the interview, I didn’t want it. I had been volunteering at the farm on Friday, talking to the apprentices with whom I work about their difficulties working with their boss. I looked back at my last 15 or so years of work experience and realized I have never had such a good time at a job as I do where I am now, at this paper, working part-time with no benefits. (It was a beautiful fall day at the farm, by the way. I love this area.)

The path to the fields up topView of a pond at Glynwood Farm

After all, the editor is endlessly helpful to me, encouraging me to take on more responsibilities and praising my writing. (My latest articles are both on the front page!) I also like many of the people I work with, and I get to meet interesting people. Oh, and have I mentioned that it is greatly fulfilling to know that I work at a publication that directly competes with the local paper owned and operated by the wife of the president of Fox News? I feel like I am fighting for a good cause, for real journalism, ethical reporting, and bipartisanship, even in the venue of such a small town. I didn’t, and often still don’t, want to give any of that up.

Later I discussed the job with my husband, who is really excited these days about the prospect of getting full-time jobs in the city and moving back there. He says, if we could get settled into some secure, stable jobs in the city, that eventually he could support me while I have a baby. And so we are back to the age thing — I am no spring chicken, and my window of childbearing is closing. If I want to have kids, then I have to have them soon, probably within the next few years.

The truth is that we haven’t found any way to sustain life here in this beautiful and too-expensive Hudson River village, now that I’m not making a good salary. With my increasing responsibilities at the paper, I could make a little more money, but it will not be a full-time job with benefits anytime soon, with the funding situation as it is. And Shane has not been able to find any positions within reasonable driving distance for which he is qualified and that would support us, and commuting an hour and a half each way to the city would be too much for him.

So I resigned myself to perhaps only being able to copy edit for the paper remotely on the internet.

Taking into consideration this new desire to get a benefit-providing job, I don’t know why I was so honest at the interview today. Basically, I admitted to wanting to a job where I don’t have to take work home and where I can have fun with coworkers, and I confessed to needing to work on resolving conflict with others. Whaa? And yet, I think, being honest is my way of cutting to the chase, and if they don’t want me with all of my flaws, then I don’t want them.

There may also have been a little part of me that simply hopes that we can find a way to make things work living in this area and keeping my job at the paper.

There’s this other thing, too, that I don’t know how to discuss on this blog, and that’s the work we’ve been doing for this Episcopal church in town. I think I try to avoid writing about it because I don’t want to turn people off by talking about religion. Most of my friends, after all, are agnostics and atheists, as I was for most of my life.

But it has been a great part of our lives here, and it has meant, for us, being part of a community and, in a way, supporting gay rights. This is because we have a priest who recently came out as gay and who has presided over the first gay wedding in the diocese (even though the bishop has not yet approved of marrying same-sex couples in an Episcopal ceremony). Honestly, if you looked up the Episcopal church, you’d find it surprisingly progressive (for those of us who look down on organized religion and believe Christianity is quite scary in its more popular, conservative American form).

The parish members are wonderful — we met our best friend in the village there, and we are actually friends with some Republican church-goers! The priest gives thoughtful and helpful sermons about emulating Christ by accepting and loving, not judging, others, which I truly want to try to do. (And here the friends who know me well may be surprised, since I never exactly espoused withholding judgment in the past. In fact, my disdain for most of humankind may be one of my most fun traits.)

The church, however, is not doing well. We recently learned that we have to prepare two budgets for the coming year — one continuing as is and another without a full-time priest. Unfortunately, our priest will probably have to leave, since we cannot sustain what we have now, and our savings are dwindling. (Sound familiar? Is it merely a coincidence?)

To add to the turmoil, a couple of the main players on the church vestry have quit, having been burned out, I guess, by the stress of trying to run a church with a full-time priest for over 7 years on a diminishing income. In the course of the past week or so, I have taken on more responsibilities on the vestry as a result — becoming co-chair of pastoral care and chair of hall rentals, and Shane has taken more financial responsibilities as treasurer.

St. Mary-in-the-Highlands

I haven’t been trying a great deal to discern my “calling,” but this — helping the parish — is the closest thing to a calling that we have imagined for ourselves thus far. It’s a beautiful landmark, for one, but a serene place to find comfort (with its stained glass, somber classical music, and age-old, high-mass rites — Catholicism with none of the guilt!) as well as a raucously fun place to find friendship. What churches, after all, hold champagne receptions for adult baptisms and Christmas midnight mass, and regularly serve alcohol at its fundraisers and social events (all while teaching people to be nice to each other)? This place needs to survive!

On discernment, or lack there of, and health insurance

I am currently on a discernment committee through the vestry at my church. (Don’t worry, I won’t talk much about church.) A discernment committee, in the Episcopalian church, is created when someone in the parish wants to go to seminary and become a priest. The members and the candidate meet once a month for 6 to 12 months in order to “discern gifts for the ministry” or some such thing. We meet this person every month and talk to him about why he thinks he is being called to the priesthood, in order to make a judgment about whether the parish should recommend him for the seminary.

I have recently been struck by the absurdity of my presence on this committee. Not only am I one of the most opinionated and judgmental people in the group, I have no idea how to discern my own calling in life, let alone that of someone else.

I thought I had been called to be a bilingual, public-school elementary teacher, serving a low-income population of immigrants and their children learning English. I still feel passionately about bilingual education and advocating social justice for immigrants and minorities in the U.S., and maybe in the future I’ll want to work on those issues again, but I now know that teaching children in large groups is not the way I am supposed to achieve those goals.

The other day, I went to fill out an application form to be a substitute at the public school in town. I didn’t have time to finish the application there, so I brought it home and said I would bring it back the next day. That night, I had a nightmare about teaching a class of rowdy adolescents in my old school. I never turned in that application, and I am not sure I ever will. Obviously I feel a level of anxiety about classroom teaching that has not yet dissipated.

The dilemma I am experiencing right now is that I am paying $680 a month for COBRA to continue my health insurance, and my husband does not have health insurance, because it was much too expensive to have both of us on COBRA. We thought we’d be able to find something for him that was cheaper, in the age of Obamacare, but we haven’t so far. With the income from my part-time job at the paper and his from music lessons, we make more than the cutoff for poverty, so we don’t qualify for most forms of governmental health plans. But to expect to pay over $1500 a month for health insurance for two people is not feasible on what we do make.

The imperative at the moment is to find health insurance, and the only way we know how to do that is to get a job with benefits. We have been searching, though, even in the city, for a long time, and we haven’t exactly been offered many … or any, really.

Yesterday, I went to a job interview in the city for a full-time administrative aide position in a university department. I know it would be great to be able to have (1) a job that pays a reasonable salary, (2) health insurance, and (3) tuition credits as a benefit. The night before the interview, I looked at all the classes I would want to take if I were to get the position: language classes so that I could feel more comfortable pursuing translation, publishing or editing courses if I want to try going that way again in the future, web stuff because everyone wants someone who can do web stuff….

Then I wondered, at 35, whether I should take this job if they offer it to me. Do I want to be a secretary and delay an attempt to work as a copy editor or writer? Or maybe this is just a way to take a much-needed break from being burned out by teaching, and a time to really figure out what my calling could be?

Finally I conceded that I probably won’t get this job anyway, because they are spending the whole week interviewing people, and I have to admit that I didn’t show much excitement for the position, so I may not have to make that decision after all.

I guess I should work on making business cards and a website for myself, while still looking for a “real” job that I would love to take, and use my time wisely while I still have it. What exactly constitutes “wise use” remains to be seen.