Sunday, September 24, 2006

Relaxing around the home, Michael Melcher-style

Greetings, loyal audience,

I am not the best person for relaxing. I'm a high-energy kind of guy.

Most normal relaxation-type activities don't really work for me--picnics, watching TV, watching brooks babble by. With time on my hands, I often feel a little panicky. (Or, as my family insistently describes it, "nervous." "You're so nervous," they declare, everytime I shlep across the country to visit one of them. "Why are you always so nervous?")

Mind you, this doesn't mean that I am actually productive all the time. Quite the opposite. It means that during my occasional downtime, I engage in a lot of low-level, completely useless, Hamlet thinking. "Should I go to the movie or do the laundry?" "Should I go the gym or rearrange my closets." "Should I call someone? But who?" I can go on and on like this for hours. And even when I sort of decide things, I can change my mind--I have been known to walk out of my apartment, and back, two or three times within a period of 20 minutes. This does not lead to marital bliss, incidentally, since nothing incites my three dogs to their shrillest, most aggressive barking than when I leave and unexpectedly come back.

However, like anyone, I do need to relax, desperately! Cause I got a lot going on! When I don't relax, I can get kind of...crabby. And confused. And prone to states that are unsuitable to being the Life Coach to the Stars, like feeling put upon, distracted, and pessimistic. It's shocking but true. I'm not proud of my limited ability to relax. No sirree. I hate all the faux constant busy-ness of contemporary life--don't count me on that side.

So how to relax effectively is a theme constantly in my head. And never did I need to relax more than this weekend. I just returned from a nine-day trip to Italy to attend a friend's wedding and try to do some business. And nine days from now I will be zooming off to Hong Kong (by way of Raleigh) and California to do a bunch of workshops. Much time zone changing and evil plane travel. With my mental and physical health in mind, I scheduled a weekend of down time upon my return. However, then the inevitable question arose: what will I do during this critical weekend? Something, God help me, besides checking email, which has got to be as opposite from true relaxation as anything.

The answer came in two parts. First, I lucked out and found a great book to read on my 8-hour flight back from Milano. Paul Auster's new novel, "Brooklyn Follies." Loved it! Oh, the joys of reading. Reading has been something I have counted on my whole entire life, ever since I mastered "Story Wagon" at age five. Yet, weirdly, I often don't have anything good to read.

Why? It turns out that good books, like good food in your refrigerator, don't just pop into your life. You have to do a bit of planning. Research, even. They're out there--but you gotta find 'em. Thus motivated, I went to Barnes & Noble to see what there might be for my upcoming 16 hour trip to Hong Kong. And I totally scored again--a well-written book on Bombay, the new novel, "Calamity Topics in Particle Physics," along with "What's the Matter with Kansas?," (the book that explains how the Republicans have taken over everything and what to do about it), and my most unexpectedly delightful find, "Julie and Julia," a book about a woman who spent a year making every recipe in Julia Childs's classic, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Why? Just cuz it seemed like a fun idea.

This last book, frothy but thoughtful, is awesome. And it brings me to my second form of relaxation... cooking!

Something I've known for years but not always put into practice is that cooking is a great way to unwind from a day, week or lifetime of stress. I can't say it feels like that when you are trooping home with plastic bags leaving welts in your palms from your trek from Fairway, but it really is true. Cooking is, after all, an act of creation. So it's the perfect antidote to the soul-numbing activities of checking Treos and dealing with office politics, paying bills and peering over cubicles. Plus, you get to eat what you create, which is always fun. Cooking at home is almost always more nutritious, delicious and cheap than anything you'd get in a restaurant. (New Yorkers often dispute the last point about cheapness, claiming that cooking at home is expensive, often way more expensive than going out. I will not even honor this with an argument. These people are delusional and probably lazy. Eating at home is always cheaper.)

So I've now spent two entire days in a kind of fugue state between reading about this funny person cooking Julia Childs recipes and cooking various things myself, with occasional forays into minor household administrative activities like doing my Quickbooks and opening mail.

So far I've made (and eaten) the following:
-- biscuits (made with Bisquick)
-- mashed sweet potatoes with lemon and orange zest
-- peach cobbler (made with Sylvia's-brand mix along with fresh peaches and Splenda)
-- goat meat stew with fingerling potatoes
-- lentil salad made with green French lentils and warm vinaigrette, following the instructions on the box
-- and (in a moment), some kind of marinated goat liver dish.

(Okay, a word about the goat meat, in case your wondering. I am a carnivore, but love animals, including the ones I'm eating. So my one consistent philosophy in dealing with this core hypocrisy is to buy meat that was once part of an animal that had a reasonably good life. This means that I will buy anything that appears to have eaten grass in a meadow for a reasonable period of time. This is why I eat beef but almost never chicken. Unless it grew up in the Hudson Valley or somewhere similar. The farmer's market had goat meat so I thought, why not?)

Anyhow, now I feel great! And relaxed! And sort of creatively whole, enough to tap out this little piece.

Plus, I am all bonded with my dogs, Luna, Splash and Jackson. It turns out that dogs are never more fascinated than when you are cooking a series of interesting dishes that they will surely taste. They are there, rooting for you, at every intriguing stage.