Hairless At Twenty-Five

Imagine a young woman waking up one morning, getting her coffee, having her breakfast, and then taking her shower. It’s just an average day in the life of a twenty-five year old. Until she gets out of the shower and begins drying her hair. She notices a small bald spot at the top of her head, and her boyfriend confirms what she sees.

Instead of going to work she heads straight to the dermatologist. She is diagnosed with alopecia and told not to worry about it–it was probably a temporary situation, and isolated incident, and the hair would grow back. Five months later she was completely bald. Now imagine that young woman is you.

You have just begun living a nightmare that just won’t end. You try every treatment that is recommended, no matter how painful and/or expensive. They all fail. You do all the research, consult with the experts, do everything you’re told to do, and the only result you get are a few soft hairs beginning to sprout. However, within a few days they fall out.

The only consistent answer you get to all of your questions is, “We don’t know.” It’s a wait-and-see situation. However, there is a trial medication that you can try. But it costs about $800/month, insurance doesn’t cover it, and there is no guarantee that it will work. Or, if it does, that it will be permanent.

You feel completely normal except for your bald head. You aren’t sick, but you look really weird, even with your wig. Which, by the way, is hotter than hell and itches as well. Strangers come up to you and ask you what kind of cancer you have. Children stare and point, much to their parent’s embarrassment.

You tell the parents it’s okay–you’re used to it. You try and make jokes about it. You keep thinking that someday your hair might grow back. But the reality is, it’s a crap shoot. What would you do?

I honestly don’t know what I would do. But I don’t think I would handle it with the dignity, grace, and spirit that my niece does. She is that woman. And she is truly amazing.

A Chicken In Every Pot

In 1928, Herbert Hoover promised the nation that there would be “a chicken in every pot” if he won. I love that idea, especially if it’s in my crock pot.

But I never could manage to cook a whole chicken in my crock pot. It always came out as a big mushy mess. It tasted okay, but the texture was horrible. And then I found a crock pot recipe for a “rotisserie” chicken.

When I read the recipe I did a mental head smack. I was cooking it way too long! No wonder why mine was a mushy mess. So, I tried the recipe and it was fabulous. Of course, true to form, I changed the ingredients around a bit. After all, blind obedience never was my forte.

I love chicken, not only because it is incredibly versatile, the health benefits of chicken is nothing to scratch at. (Sorry, bad chicken humor). I do cook (and eat) a lot of chicken. But I was recently banned from bringing chicken for lunch by a small group of vegans who were offended by my chicken.

How could you possibly be offended by a chicken? That poor bird never did anything to hurt anyone. Besides, it gave its life for me. The least we can do is show it some respect and appreciation. I know I always say a few words of thanksgiving before I eat it. I just make sure I say them silently so I don’t offend anyone.

I love chicken. I have one in my crock pot right now. I’m getting ready to download the 25 new recipes that showed up in my inbox this morning. I will raise a drumstick in salute to that noble bird. I might even break out into a rendition of the chicken dance. Because there really should be a chicken in every pot.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

Are you ever amazed that some people believe that they have the right to tell you what to do? To control what you say, do, think, or eat? Yes, I said eat.

I’m part of a group that meets twice a week for some pretty intensive physical and mental conditioning. It’s exhausting, especially since I have to drive an hour to get there and an hour home. But, it’s well worth the effort. After all, I don’t ever want to become complacent, or choose not to do something because it’s “too hard.” Besides, I love a challenge.

Those 2 days are long, exhausting, and depleting. If you don’t bring food to sustain you, you will die. Or at least pass out. Since there is no scheduled break, we step off of the mat anytime our blood sugar threatens to plummet. I always bring chicken, because it’s the only thing that keeps me going without making me feel sick.

After doing this for two years, last week I was informed that my chicken was no longer welcome in the building. I couldn’t eat it anymore because the smell of my chicken was offending the delicate senses of the vegans in the room. Huh.

They never even thought to consider that I might be offended by their 6-clove-garlic-seaweed-ginger-tofu curry. Or that they might want to think about using deodorant and occasionally washing their feet.

But I would never say that. Because I believe that we should live and let live, unless it is causing someone harm. I believe in free will choice. I believe in mutual respect and appreciation. Most of all, I believe this courtesy should be extended to one and all.

So, I will continue to bring my chicken. Because I can. Because I will. And because no one can tell me what to do. But the ninja in me sure would like to see them try.

Major Mac and Cheese Makeover

I love comfort food. Who doesn’t? My favorite has got to be macaroni and cheese. Good old-fashioned, rich, creamy, gooey, stick-to-your-ribs (and to your hips) macaroni and cheese. It sure does hit the spot on a cold winter evening or when you feel you need some home-style cooking. But seriously, who needs all that extra fat and calories?

I spent years trying out recipes of “lightened up” mac and cheese. They sure did save on fat and calories, because they were so awful I couldn’t eat them. Maybe that was the intention all along. But I still wanted my mac and cheese. So, I used my stealthy ninja skills along with my sharp objects to cut down on the bad stuff and to sneak in some healthy additions as well.

By using high protein pasta, decreasing the amount of butter (but not eliminating it completely), using unsweetened almond milk instead of whole milk, substituting butternut squash for 1 cup of cheese, and tossing in baby spinach for good measure, I believe I finally nailed it. After many tried and true attempts, here is my Major Mac and Cheese Makeover.

16 ounces  Barilla Protein Plus penne pasta

2 TBSP butter

1/4 cup flour

1 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp white pepper

dash hot pepper sauce

2 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk

1 cup cooked butternut squash

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

3 cups chopped baby spinach

Spray a casserole dish with no-stick cooking spray. Cook the penne pasta according to directions, drain and place in the casserole dish. Add the chopped spinach and toss gently. In a medium saucepan,  melt butter. Stir in flour, mustard, pepper, and hot pepper sauce and blend until smooth. Mix the cooked butternut squash in a food processor with 1 cup of the almond milk and blend until completely smooth.

(Note: I buy the butternut squash already cubed in the produce section of the grocery store. I got tired of wrestling those bad boys and losing the fight. Guess my ninja knives aren’t as sharp as I think. Or my ninja skills).

Add the squash and almond milk mixture to the pan, and slowly add the remainder of the almond milk. Cook until the mixture boils, stirring constantly. Add the cheese and cook just until cheese is melted, stirring constantly. Pour mixture on top of pasta/spinach mix, cover and cook on 350 degrees for 1 hour. The results are a smooth, creamy, mild flavored, and oh-so-satisfying macaroni and cheese. Without the fat, calories, and the guilt.

Time to Get On the Ball

When I was in grade school, our teachers used to tell us to “get on the ball!” It was a metaphor for get to work, stop slacking, quit fooling around (and having fun). Basically, time to get serious and grow up. Sheesh! What a bunch of kill joys!

But I sure wished that they meant it, literally. Because getting on the ball is a fantastic (and inexpensive) addition to any fitness program, or just simply to have some fun. In fact, it’s so much fun that you don’t feel like your doing any exercise at all. And, you can do it every day, all in the privacy of your own home. Just sitting on the ball for a few minutes each day can:

1). Improve posture, balance, core strength, and flexibility.

2). Increase blood flow, lymphatic flow, and environmental awareness.

3). Improve cognition, attention, and creativity.

4). Relieve stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

5). Make you feel like a kid again. (That one just happens to be my personal favorite).

Start by simply sitting on the ball. Once you are comfortable, you can add gentle rocking back and forth, and side to side. Start doing gentle bounces. You can even do an aerobic workout on the ball. Put on some music and go to town bouncing around. Or course, keeping safety in mind at all times. I even like doing light weights for my arms while sitting on the ball, because it gives me more bang for my buck. What can I say–I like multitasking.

If you are new to using an exercise ball (also called fit ball, Swiss ball, physio ball, Pilates ball), you might want to check in with a physical therapist to make sure you get the correct size and you know how to use it correctly and safely. But most of all, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be tedious. It can be fun and uplifting. It can even make you feel like a kid again. Without the nagging teachers.

A Day In the Life Of a Penguin

My love affair with penguins started in the 5th grade when I had to do my first research paper (ack!). We were able to chose any topic that we wanted to write about. I was completely at a loss, so my mom suggested I look in something called The Encyclopedia Britannica for ideas.

Yes, that’s the way we did it back then. No quick internet search right at your fingertips or in the palm of your hand. No, Sir-ee, not for my generation. We had to do things the hard way. Like walk a mile back and forth to school in 2 feet of snow, uphill in both directions.

Anyway, as I was flipping through the entire collection of books I saw a picture of a penguin. Eureka! I had my topic! My mom looked a bit skeptical when I told her I wanted to write a paper on penguins, but she agreed to help me. Over the next few days, we both fell in love with these adorable mammals as we learned about their habits and patterns. I even remember a few fun facts to this day.

For example, penguins are incredible social. And, even though they can’t fly, they can jump as high as 9 feet. That sure would come in handy in a ballet class or during my ninja training days. Also, penguins display very intricate courting behavior. I guess that means the females preen their feathers and the males flex their muscles.

I even remember how they know if it’s safe to go in the water. They all gather at the waters edge and begin pushing and shoving each other until one of them falls in. If the penguin swims around, they’re good to go. If the hapless penguin gets eaten by a predator….well, you get the idea.

I learned a lot of life’s lessons doing that report. First of all, it’s good to belong to a community. After all, there is safety in numbers. Next, sometimes you need to be able to jump and rise above the fray to get to where you’re going. Finally, don’t make it a habit to push to the front of the line in a crowd, because you might not make it out alive, literally and figuratively.

This sweet memory was triggered when my sister showed me a video of the penguin parade at the Pittsburgh Zoo last month. And, the fact that National Penguin Day was last month. Who knew?

I still love penguins. And I love the fact that for the next 40 years, any time my mom and I saw a penguin, we would look at each other and smile. My mom would always ask if I remembered “our” report on penguins. Which , by the way, I got an “A” on. I always assured her that I did. Because I remember everything, especially a day in the life of a penguin.

Hallelujah Kale Salad

I have a love-hate relationship with kale. On the one hand, I love the incredible health benefits in this beautifully colorful but pungent vegetable. On the flip side, I don’t like to eat it. Period. End of discussion.

A few years ago, I used my stealthy ninja tricks to sneak more kale into my diet. I had started juicing, because I heard about the almost magical benefits of this latest dietary fad. One of my friends even assured me that her green juices gave her “super powers.” Hmmmmm….I thought to myself, who wouldn’t want that? And I started adding kale to my juices.

Since my martial arts class started at noon, it was always a challenge to figure out when to eat lunch. Eat too close to noon and you feel like you’re going to throw up. Which would certainly defeat your opponent, but there are better ways of doing that. Eat too early and you’re defeated by your own plummeting blood sugar. Having a freshly rendered juice before leaving for the dojo seemed to be the perfect solution.

Until the day when I was feeling exceptionally adventurous and put an entire bunch of kale in my juice before I ran out of the house to go to class. Class always began with a vigorous acrobatic warm up including a complex series of rolls, falls, cartwheels, etc.  After my first 2 rolls I realized I had made a serious error in judgment. I managed to keep it together (if you catch my drift) for the rest of the class, but I assure you, I never did that again!

Recently, a friend of mine shared her kale salad recipe with me. It involves “massaging” the kale to make it soft and tender. Always skeptical, I tried it in spite of my misgivings, figuring I could always put it in the composting if it was inedible. It was delicious! So good that I ate the entire bowl in one sitting, without the dire side effects I experienced from the kale juice. Halleluja! Kale really can be irresistible! So….here it is. My Hallelujah Kale Salad.

1 bunch green kale

1 ripe avocado

1 lemon

sea salt

Mash the avocado in a large bowl. Strip the leaves from the stem, tear into smaller pieces, and toss them into the bowl. Add the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon and “massage” the ingredients together with your hand. Not only does it soften and tenderize the leaves as you work the avocado into the kale, it’s an awesome way to work out some anger issues. Not that I would know anything about that. (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes right now). Sprinkle sea salt to taste and mix together.

You might want to add a bit more lemon juice. I like things that are tart (like myself), so I actually use an entire lemon. During a creative streak, I tried adding ingredients like garbanzo beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., but it didn’t quite work out. In this salad, the kale stands alone. Enjoy!

Ancient Ninja Secret for Your New Year

Here we are, in the last week of January. Maybe you started the new month (and the new year), with high expectations of working out, going to the gym, or eating healthy. How’s that working out so far?

A lot of us make those New Year’s Resolutions and end up falling flat on our face. Fantastic. One more thing we can feel guilty about. But, I have a better idea. Instead of feeling guilty or giving up completely, I am going to share an ancient ninja secret with you. But, please don’t report me to the Society of Ninja Secrets. They might not like it, and might take away my hard-earned official secret ninja card.

So, here it is–keep moving! Literally, just move. Move your body in every single direction, including forward, backward, side to side, and diagonally. There are many reasons why this is important.

1). First of all, if you can move in any directions or any moment in time, it will keep you safe in an oftentimes unsafe world. When you can adapt to any unexpected change in your environment, it can even save your life.

2). Next, the simple act of moving your body improves your circulation, lymphatic flow, cognition, awareness, balance, flexibility, and cognition.  Moving your body keeps you from getting stuck, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, if you are stuck in any way, movement stimulates brain function, gets the creative juices flowing, and helps improve your problem-solving abilities. You can find solutions to problems that you’ve never thought of when you were sitting on the couch waiting for the spring thaw.

3). Finally, ditch the judgment and the self-doubt. Just find new and creative ways to move and explore your environment, just like you did when you were a kid. There is no right or wrong, just opportunities to learn. and that is a nifty little ninja secret that is my late January gift to you. Besides, it’s so good for your health!

Karma Cooties Can Really Bug You

Karma cooties can be a real threat to our health and well-being. We all get exposed to them every now and then, and they can be very infectious. And contagious. However, just like we can protect ourselves during cold and flu season, there are precautions we can take from being susceptible to the little buggers. And the first step is knowing that they exist so you can avoid them.

The first time I heard about karma cooties was about 20 years ago from a friend who was a massage therapist. She told me she had a client that she had to cut loose (in other words, she fired her) because her karma cooties were so bad. “Karma Cooties,” I responded in confusion, “What are those?”  

She explained that we all experience hurts and transgressions in life. You got that right. After all, life is full of hits, and none of us get through this roller coaster of life without our fair share of them. But, some people let those tough times define them, even embrace them, which breaks down their karmic immune system. Okay, she kind of lost me there, but at least I had something to think about.

So I began paying attention. I noticed that some people could suck the joy out of a room by simply walking into it. Or suck the life out of me just with a phone call. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. You might even have a friend like that, which can be a real problem for you.

I had a friend who was so infected that she was beyond hope, and I finally had to cut her loose. It was awkward, especially since we had been friends for 30 years. But, being exposed to all of that negativity isn’t healthy. Eventually, it breaks down your resistance and draws you in. So, just like you do during cold and flu season, take some precautions to keep yourself safe.

Because staying safe and being healthy is much better than being bugged.

Bavarian Pork With Sauerkraut

I grew up in a home and with an ethnicity that relied heavily on sauerkraut for cooking. I even remember my dad drinking the juice directly from the jar, saying it was good for your health. Blech! Even though I did like sauerkraut as a kid, I really learned to love it as I got older. And luckily, I married a guy who loves it, too. Even if he is from the South. However, neither one of us will drink the juice. But I will cook with it.

I found this little gem of a recipe so long ago I can’t even remember where it came from. The original recipe calls for baking it in the oven, but I prefer cooking it in the crock pot, with a thin layer of the sauerkraut over the pork chops. I apologize in advance to my vegetarian and vegan friends. Having included that disclaimer, here ya go:

1# pork cops 1/4-1/2″ thick

salt and pepper to taste

2 C drained sauerkraut (Feel free to drink the juice and toast to my father’s memory).

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large apple, sliced thin

2 tsp brown sugar

2 TBSP chopped parsley

1 tsp allspice

Brown pork chops and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.  Toss the sauerkraut with the chopped onion, 1/2 of the apple slices, parsley,and  brown sugar. Place in a baking dish (or bottom of crock pot). Lay the pork chops on top with the remaining apple slices. Cover and bake at 350 for 1 hour, or cook on low for 8 hours in the crock pot.

This dish really hits the spot on a cold winter’s night. And my ancestor’s would be proud!