Monday, August 30, 2010

Mars and Venus in the Kitchen

At the open house for our kids’ preschool last week, a fellow parent asked me why I had not posted on my blog all summer. The baseline polite response would have been to thank him for reading my blog, and briefly explain my virtual absence. And I think I did that, but I can’t quite recall. We were speaking across a loud room full of disoriented parents and hectic children. I personally was sitting in a miniature chair dishing cups of goldfish onto paper towel squares while simultaneously supervising the autonomous pouring of water from a communal pitcher into several small and nearly weightless Dixie cups. Whatever it was that I said to him, I’m sure it was not inaccurate. I still have a kid in preschool. I have a limited number of dedicated work hours in my daytime schedule each week. Within those time constraints, it took me all summer just to write a book review, write another article, edit some other work, and produce a radio show.

Had we been chatting in a less havocked and hurried environment, it’s possible that I might have given him an even more accurate answer. About how I could have worked more on my next blog at night. But how I instead engaged in a hodgepodge of other summertime activities that included but were not limited to taking tennis lessons, weeding my yard, tending my garden, making costumes for my kid’s summer musical debut, attending farm dinners and pre-Shakespeare picnics, and occasionally watching recorded episodes from the new seasons of Project Runway and Entourage, although only one of these is making it work, while the other is in a full-blown plot freefall.

As much as I like to chat, the truth is that I probably would not have provided him with a more detailed account of my rich after hours life, even if given the opportunity. There are two main reasons for this. First, I have a persistent, abiding fear of people thinking I’m lazy. I don’t mean that in a physical sense -- my broad Irish shoulders tend to recommend me in that area -- I mean it about intellectual work, and especially about writing. My fears are particularly acute when I’m talking about my productivity level with other writers or academics, who tend to view limitless and unceasing work as not just a necessity but also a badge of honor, particularly if they haven’t yet published their books or gotten tenure. I still can’t help feeling almost all the time like I should be doing academic work, and I’m not currently even working as an academic.

In my more serene moments, I can honestly say that I’m not lazy. I once had a therapist who alleged that people’s claim to laziness was just psychological subterfuge for other treatable pathologies, such as the fear of failure, or the avoidance of some other life choice. I lazily agreed with him. Yet I’m also aware that not everyone sees it that way. Someone might just think that I pursue too many interests outside of work. Or that I shouldn’t go to sleep so early if I have all that to fit in. And it’s true that if I needed 3 or 4 hours less sleep – like both my mother and my husband typically do – then I think I could write, roast some beets, and still put sharpie spots on a sweatshirt. If there’s one thing I have learned in my 41 years, though, it’s that making comparisons between your sleep habits and those of someone else – particularly if you’re the one who needs more sleep – is never an invitation to serenity.

The other reason I would have spared him the longer answer is that almost nobody cares if you’re remodeling your kitchen. Renovating your house, I’ve come to learn, is so stressful, expensive, and demanding of your time and attention that you really should explain the process in detail to someone if you want them to know you’re not lazy. But to a person who is not your sister, your mother, or one of a very few of your close friends who are in the habit of regularly returning your emails, it means absolutely nothing. And why should someone want to hear about how much time I’ve spent planning my kitchen remodel? As a process, it requires a singular combination of painstaking focus and monumental aspiration. As a topic of conversation, it manages to be at once both staggeringly boring and universally irrelevant. And I know this because it is reinforced to me time and time again by exhibit A, my own husband.

Mike is not a man who spends money frivolously. He is a generous person, but quite admirably, I think, somehow manages at the same time to be a meticulous and even ruthless financial planner. In the life of this kitchen remodel, I think he’s derived considerable comfort from knowing that he has veto power over several major line items in the budget. Yet if I come to present him with a specific material or design, he seems strangely avoidant, distracted, or detached. When I tell him we have to make a decision about one of these things, he frequently looks at me with a wearied, discomfited expression -- like you might see on the face of a growing teenager whose grandmother has just presented him with a healthy jicama salad for lunch.

Consider a conversation we had last week. Earlier that day, I had gone straight from preschool dropoff to prepare for a meeting with the kitchen designer, and then spent the almost three ensuing hours looking at cabinet styles, colors, and countertops with said kitchen designer. That night, as Mike sat across from me with the newspaper, I directed his attention to the three different cabinet doors and a small slab of stone that someone had blasted out of a mountain, and I had lugged home in my car to show him.

Me: So, I think this granite looks warmer than the first one we brought home, don’t you?

Mike: Yeah, I guess I can see that.

Me: It’s got some grey in it, but the dominant color is more like sand, so it coordinates with both the off-white and dark brown cabinets.

Mike: Oh yeah. Right.

(pregnant pause, lack of eye contact)

Me: Are you even listening to what I am saying?

Mike: Yup, Yes, I’m listening. Warm. Sand. Got it.

I suspect that the focused irrelevance of the kitchen remodel makes it an overwhelming topic for a lot of people, and maybe especially when they are not the primary cook in the house. I don’t really know. Luckily for me, though, I have a friend who bucks the trend. Although she devotes almost all of her time to her three kids, and lives several thousands miles away, my friend Kate has been generous enough to both listen to me talk about my kitchen, and spend some of her own time doing on-line research to help me. She says she enjoys it. But really she's a devoted and relentless problem solver, whether the issue be pillowcase fabric or childhood rashes. She is also an uncommonly skilled user of search engines. Suffice to say, I am grateful for her enthusiastic willingness to help. And since I haven’t posted that longer piece yet anyway, I thought I’d post an email that she fired off to me that same week. I think of it as homage to her. Mike said after I read it aloud to him that he thought it sounded rather like a monologue from a Judd Apatow movie -- so an homage, maybe, to whatever constellation of factors might describe the difference between Mars and Venus. At least insofar as it pertains to the renovation of kitchens.

OK! Kitchen, so exciting. Have you spent hours pouring over images, to test your commitment to white cabinetry? If you are worried about reproducing what you have now, what about a different countertop material. . .. concrete, silestone, paperstone, or soapstone? What about doing your granite honed? The materials I suggest are more neutral than granite, so I think perfect for open kitchen with as yet unpurchased adjacent decor and furniture. Polished granite is more statement, so if you are worried about neutrality, I might pick something less shiny. (Here, I reveal personal preference, and since you seem sure about granite, I think maybe you disregard above suggestions.) With that in mind, what about you go pick your granite first? Look at it this way: ask yourself, "What is the one thing I am most attached to in my kitchen vision?' If the answer to that is a certain style of white cabinetry--let that guide you. Let the mission cabinetry you love shape the rest -- just making shit up here. Or a cottagey look?

If, on the other hand, the white cabinetry was just a neutral you were picking, and the granite was your dream item, go shopping for your slab, or at least find a picture of your dream slab and move on from there. Maybe the color you love will impel you towards a painted cabinet that is more of a washed color, or even a neutral, warm maple, rather than white ….again, a made up example. As with anything, you need some constraints and parameters, but the way to work those is to let the parameters be the things you love.

I think backsplash tiles are whimsy--like you put together the kitchen and then go shopping and pick the tile that speaks to you and the palette. The blues and grays and one simple red sound beautiful! Why not go with that? If you have that as a guideline, and you spend an hour in the tile store, you will narrow it quickly. If you are truly "a difficult person," like me, you will find only one or two things in the tile store up to your exacting standards, anyway. Then, too, is price a factor? It was my guiding light. Hence the vast amount of subway tile in my house. Honestly, though, in my opinion, tile may well be your last step, although I can think of a case from my own remodel that proves the opposite. I found an arts and crafts repro tile I ADORED, and planned the whole downstairs bathroom around it. If tile is your dream vision, what kind? Tumbled italian? A spanish look? Malibu? Searching for these things first will then let the other pieces fall into place.

But really, have you spent hours with magazines? I think it's worth it to make a folder with images that you love, or a posterboard with all your dream aspects represented.

CALL ME, We talk it out!



Friday, February 26, 2010

Got Kale?

Mike suspects he might be lactose intolerant. I’d consider this a borderline inappropriate topic for public discussion – or at least not very interesting -- if we hadn’t just moved to Wisconsin. But I think our relocation might actually be implicated in the whole milky mystery. And while it’s a difficult thing to self-diagnose on the internet, my efforts to do so have yielded some rather curious findings.

The symptoms began prior to our arrival in Wisconsin. Mike never suspected a food-related culprit, largely because his stomachaches seemed to come and go at random. He went to see his physician about it several times, but the doctor always told him he was just digesting too much stress. His recommendation was that Mike quit his job. Mike didn’t follow this prescription. But he did accept the fundamental reasoning behind it. After all, plenty of people in Mike’s office suffered from chronic physical pain and discomfort. If he didn’t have a debilitating back problem or a severe bleeding disorder, Mike figured he was one of the lucky ones. Besides, he didn’t have a better explanation, and he was too busy working to come up with one.

When we moved here, though, his condition started to worsen. One day recently, he read an article in the Times about the onset of lactose intolerance in adulthood. We sat down to ponder his eating habits and discovered that, in fact, Mike’s diet had changed. Almost every afternoon, he now drinks an extra carton of milk. Why, suddenly, does Mike got so much milk? Because, he says, the cafeteria refrigerator has got milk -- a lot of it. Of course, this hackneyed cliché can only go so far. Every refrigerator in Wisconsin is not perpetually stocked with milk. But the deli on the bottom floor of Mike’s former office didn’t seem to move nearly as much milk out the door at lunchtime. In Wisconsin, there is manifestly just a lot of milk around for public consumption.

Mike’s lunchtime carton of milk probably tipped his total daily dairy consumption to an intolerable level. At least that’s what some experts would have you believe. Accepted wisdom is that you should “control symptoms of lactose intolerance by carefully choosing a diet that limits diary products.” The Mayo clinic certainly doesn’t own the last word on the subject, but the doctor-journalists at Web MD agree. There is no cure for lactose intolerance, they say, but you can treat your symptoms “by limiting or avoiding milk products.” The website Google Health breaks it down even further. “Removing milk products from the diet,” says Dr. Google, “usually improves the symptoms.”

Medical websites may try to build their conclusions from hard science, but they can also be kind of a downer. The data at seems to trend in a more upbeat direction. On the question of whether people should avoid dairy if they are lactose intolerant, they cite research that finds people with low lactase levels “can consume the recommended number of servings of milk and other dairy foods.” In fact, they contend, not only can these people handle “at least two cups of milk a day,” but the consumption of “lactose-containing foods such as milk may improve tolerance over time.” In the vein of practical suggestions, the website also recommends trying lactose-free milk, and emphasizes dairy products with active cultures, like yogurt. In the end, the discrepancy between the research used by medical websites and the nutritional expertise of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board seems fairly inconsequential. If the dairy people are being overly optimistic, what’s the worst case scenario – that someone gets a stomachache?

I don’t say that to make light of Mike’s condition. I grew up eating Wisconsin dairy foods, and I still adore them. Having to get your recommended daily allowance of calcium from leafy greens seems hateful to me. And if eating cheese suddenly made me sick, it would be the purest form of heartbreak. If it were my illness, though, I'd probably listen to the internet doctors. I certainly wouldn't try to lessen the pain by taking medical advice from the same people who stock the office dairy fridge. I’m not saying they’re perpetrating a vast lactose conspiracy. But at the same time, it’s probably a good thing for everyone that they’re not growing peanuts.