Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. ~ Plato, ~400 BCE
Every sound in our environment affects our minds and bodies.
Consider a warm evening with crickets chirping outside your open windows and distant passersby murmur quietly. You’re well on your way to sleep, when a car’s brakes screech, followed by a discordant crash and angry shouts. The tranquility you were experiencing is gone, affected by sounds in the environment.
Music has a profoundly positive effect on the mind and body. Music helps us to concentrate, wakes us up or helps us to sleep, excites or calms us. And people used it for social bonding—in religion or love, or for mind-altering experiences such as war dances, since before time began. Anyone who has rocked out at a concert or flipped on the radio to your favorite music station knows that we are still using and enjoying music today.
Scientists have recently identified the ways that music changes the state of the body. The levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and the endorphins rise; the pupils dilate, antibodies increase (with their protective role in the immune system). In the brain, music activates the amygdala (involved in processing emotion) and prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making).
These chemical changes explain why music is so appealing. With an increase in the brain chemical dopamine, anxiety decreases and depression lifts. Research has found that music is as effective as medication in decreasing presurgical anxiety. Even sick premature babies respond well to the playing of music. People listening to music at the gym showed improvements of 15% in their endurance and workouts, and coronary disease patients boosted cognitive and verbal skills while exercising.
So, the pleasure of listening to music is an important part of a balanced wellness program. What kind of music is best? Whatever you like! Pick your favorite music, make a playlist, and “medicate yourself with music.”
Step up to the “retrain your brain” challenge. When the authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, offer to share their unique insight into decision making, seize the opportunity. “Readers seemed to think no riddle was too tricky, no problem too hard, that it couldn’t be sorted out. It was as if we owned some proprietary tool – a Freakonomics forceps, one might imagine – that could be plunged into the body politic to extract some buried wisdom,” write Levitt and Dubner in their new book, Think Like a Freak. Experts on how to look at data differently, Levitt and Dubner have inspired readers to abandon preconceived notions and embrace nontraditional analysis of economic, political and social phenomena. I recall a fascinating question the authors had posed in their first book: Is it true that one’s name plays a part in determining one’s destiny in life? Thanks to Freakonomics, readers gained understanding of the significance of baby name selection. We learned what names tell us about parenting, economic mobility, and social stereotyping. I am ready to be a Freakonomics insider and exercise a similar approach to my own world.
Levitt and Dubner take us behind the scenes of their research techniques. They explain how to find the most useful questions, understand the data we use to answer the questions and apply effective techniques to implement a solution. Their ideas can be implemented in analyzing personal as well as global issues. When thinking about solving a problem, consider how a “freak” would do it. Do not think “right” way vs. “wrong” way. Instead, be conscious to seek out new information. Do not be satisfied with data that merely confirms a bias you already have. Be wary of traditional wisdom. Distinguish between correlation and causality. Persevere to find the root cause and do not settle for the proximal cause.
Freaks realize the importance of recognizing and acknowledging what they don’t know. Admitting you don’t know an answer not only takes the pressure off, it allows you to seek out the information needed to make a successful decision. Besides, to gather useful information, you have to ask the right questions…to know what you don’t know. Take your time and dissect a problem by asking and answering small questions. Levitt and Dubner argue that few problems are solved through focusing on just one big question.
Thinking like a freak requires we accept that humans are motivated by incentives. As we train ourselves to use the brain of a freak, we learn that the majority of people make decisions that value personal gain over the greater good. This is not a negative statement, rather it is an insight that helps us understand how people think. Knowing this, we then use the power of reward as we work toward our goal. A freak also knows that data-accurate stories motivate people. The power of a telling a good story is, in part, enticing the listener to put him/herself in the other person’s shoes. The other part is including data to focus the listeners’ attention on facts.
Freaks maintain their ability to think like children. They avoid the constraints of prejudice and willingly confront even the most obvious assumptions. As Levitt and Dubner point out, proof of this concept is that children are more skilled than adults at figuring out magic tricks. This is because, unlike adults, kids are not set in their ways and burdened by presumptions. Also like children, freaks are not afraid to have fun. Why suffer while you study when you can enjoy the journey instead?
I invite you to further explore Think Like a Freak. Learn intriguing skills such as teaching a garden to weed itself. Analyze whether knowing when to quit is just as important as deciding to proceed. Become a Freakonomics insider.
Moving can be one of the most fun (yet daunting) tasks a person ever has to face. You have to research until you find the desired new home, go through all of your belongings, and pack. The stress starts early and lasts until you’re fully settled in your new place.
I recently moved into a new apartment with a close friend. I thought the search was the tough part- and then, came the packing. I have a lot of stuff. A LOT of stuff. When I started tearing apart my closet, I found school assignments from elementary school. I felt like a hoarding mother with a soft spot for nostalgia. I knew I was in for a long and stressful process. After a while, I realized that getting rid of stuff wasn’t necessarily the issue. However, looking through everything and deciding what to keep was quite overwhelming. I had to ask myself a series of questions in deciding what to keep: Why do I have this? Where did it come from? Why is this valuable to me? How long have I had this? Do I need it? Do I use it? Would someone else benefit more from having this? These are just a few of the many questions that you can use to determine an item’s value. In Downsizing Your Home with Style, we’re invited to shift our perspectives from “I’ve got to get rid of this stuff!” to “What can’t I live without?” You’re not sacrificing your beloved belongings, you’re reducing your things to the “best and most loved.” That’s not a bad way to look at things.
Like I mentioned, I have a lot of stuff. Not only is there an abundance of stuff, but it’s all quite awesome. Whether it’s an item that was gifted to me or something that I found at a thrift store, I keep my belongings in good condition. This actually makes it more difficult when deciding what to get rid of. First, I offer belongings to friends who I think will appreciate certain items and give them a good life. Then, I take the remaining “give-away” items to a local donation center. Rarely, but on occasion, I may sell some things to make a little extra money.
Here’s another tip: upcycle! When you have an item that you absolutely can’t part with (and have no reason to keep) you can re-purpose it! Upcycling is a great way to hold on to a beloved item and actually get use out of it. I’ve found many creative ways to re-use otherwise trash-worthy items. One of my favorite re-purposed items came from a busted bass drum – which is now my bedside table. I have also used old and broken jewelry to make new jewelry and hair accessories. Repurposing items is fun! Plus, it can help you save money.
The other important thing to keep in mind is having an organization system. There are plenty of containers in various sizes sold in stores to aid in this process. This might be a possible opportunity to repurpose something! My roommate and I recently bought small hooks (cup hooks) and pieces of half round molding to make a wall mounted necklace rack. Total cost? Less than $3. Organize Your Home is filled with great tips on keeping your belongings organized no matter what room you’re in or what it is you’re trying to accomplish – like moving your household!
As stressful as moving can be, it is important to keep the end goal in sight. With plenty of research and organization you can find the perfect home and feel confident in the amount of belongings that make the move with you. While you might not need all of your old school assignments, it’s alright to gather all of those old band t-shirts and make them into a brand new quilt!
Ahh, the farmers’ market…
How wonderful to have the farmers’ markets back! If you are lucky enough to have a market nearby you can plan your menus around an easy weekly visit to their tables full of colorful, juicy produce! Maybe you will even run into a vegetable that is new to you—have you tried kohlrabi yet? Maybe you like beets, but are looking for a new way to prepare them, or you’d like to find a recipe that will entice your family to eat kale. It’s time for a new cookbook! Here are a few recent cookbooks from the shelves of Howard County Library System.
The Farmers’ Market Guide to Vegetables: Selecting, Preparing and Cooking, by Bridget Jones, has been a staple since its publication in 2001. How nice to be able to highly recommend a new title, Vegetable Literacy (2013), by Deborah Madison. At “the vanguard of the vegetarian cooking movement” for over three decades, Madison now explores and celebrates the diversity of the plant kingdom. Her approach is to introduce us to each of twelve plant families, such as the carrot family, the mint family, the cabbage family, and show how ingredients are related and can easily substitute for each other. Each vegetable within the family gets several paragraphs of history and advice, a list of selected varieties, and a bit of “kitchen wisdom” followed by several wonderful-sounding recipes fit for a chef’s repertoire and a tantalizing photo.
Molly Katzen is well-known among vegetarians as the author of the Moosewood Cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and several other vegetable-themed books, including Salad People for preschoolers and up. Her newest is the The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation (2013) and it is lovely! I find the deep eggplant-colored cover and the illustrations and photos more appealing than the “handwritten” style of the Moosewood books. The organization is by categories such as soups, salads, pasta, sauces, etc. She has added a helpful list of the recipes that are “vegetarian” and those that are “vegan.” Katzen’s definition of her cuisine is “a beautiful plate of food, simply cooked, maximally flavored, and embracing as many plant components as will harmoniously fit.” this is one I will be taking home!
Forks over Knives: the Cookbook (2012) by Del Sroufe and others, is a companion to the Forks over Knives book and video. Whether or not you are convinced by the original book and video that you should embrace a wholly plant-based whole foods diet, the cookbook is a great collection of healthy recipes. There are only a few enticing photos, but that leaves more room for the wide variety of recipes. You will probably be introduced to a few new ingredients—be adventurous!
One of the most important categories of vegetables—and perhaps the most confusing and intimidating—is the leafy greens. Mark Bittman is the author of the How to Cook Everything series, the Minimalist column in the New York Times, and several “minimalist” cookbooks. Bittman wants you to enjoy your leafy greens! His Leafy Greens: an A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes, written in 1995, when he was an avid gardener, deserved a reprint in 2012. The A-to-Z guide includes dandelions, seaweed and other wild greens as well as the more common collards and spinach. His recipes aren’t only about greens but about how to use them with pasta and proteins. The whimsical but realistic illustrations have also stood the test of time.
What if you are the only vegetarian in your household—or you are a household of one? You may need the advice in Joe Yonan’s Eat your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (2013). Yonan has an easy conversational style that encourages one to experiment and have fun cooking. His advice will help the single cook to shop efficiently and cook without a lot of leftovers.
My last reading suggestion is the whimsical Cooking with Flowers (2013) by Miche Bacher of Mali B Sweets. Bacher is trained as an herbalist but it is her creativity with everything from lilac sorbet to dandelion jam that will inspire you.
Summer is the easiest time of year to get plenty of healthful vegetables in your diet. Try being a “farmers’ market chef” this summer!
Female boomers in the U.S. make up a tad over 50% of the current population. And they are, healthier, wealthier, wiser, and making more lucrative investments than men. At least, according to Stephanie Holland of Sheconomy: A Guy’s Guide to Marketing To Women. But publishers and their authors don’t necessarily pitch to their vibrancy.
Library customers who make up the above statistic come in every summer asking the frustrating question: “Aren’t there any good books out there where the main character is – well – over 45?”
And the answer is: “There are! And you’re going to have a heck of a good time reading them!”
Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray
Julie Roseman and Romeo Cacciamani (both over 60 years old) are rival Boston florists whose families share a decades-old grievance. The fact that no one is precisely sure why or when it began doesn’t matter. In fact, all that Julie can remember from childhood is her father spitting on the floor if anyone dared utter the name “Cacciamani.”
Bitterness between the families only intensified when Julie’s teen-aged daughter, Sandy, and Romeo’s son, Tony, tried to elope. Fast forward almost 20 years: Julie’s divorced, Romeo’s widowed, and the Roseman-Cacciamani feud continues to simmer. Until Julie and Romeo meet at a job fair.
Suddenly, all hard feelings – not to mention the arid climate of post-menopause and erectile dysfunction go out the window — or at least the door of Romeo’s cozy, walk-in flower cooler where the two — well – combust. Hysterical!
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal? If so, consider this well-mannered English confection (replete with hedgerows and high tea).
When his brother dies, staid widower and retired schoolteacher, Major Pettigrew, can only seem to express his grief to Mrs. Ali, a warm and affable Pakistani shopkeeper (and widow) whom he’s known for years. But sorrow has a way of making one ‘see’ someone anew. Especially when there’s a shared delight in discussing Kipling.
Slowly but surely, their world begins to eclipse everyone – including small-minded neighbors and self-serving relations. Everyone but them.
There is nothing, Simonson reminds us in this endearing tale, like the rich patina of mid-life love.
A Year by The Sea by Joan Anderson
And finally, not fiction, but a sobering memoir. And by a grown up, now 64.
While 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed, (Wild), may have clue-lessly walked the Pacific Crest Trail in toe-pinching hiking boots, and thirty-something Elizabeth Gilbert showed readers the way toward becoming a pasta-eating yogi in Eat, Pray, Love, memoirist Joan Anderson chose a far less glamorous path to self-discovery.
In her mid-fifties, her husband of many years informed her he was taking a job offer out of state – one that would necessitate selling their family home. Joan’s reaction, after a pragmatic assessment of her life (or rather shelf-life as wife and mother) was not what anyone in her family expected. She headed for Cape Cod.
There, a dilapidated summer house would become her unlikely ‘muse’ for the next twelve months. The best part of Joan Anderson’s life was far from finished.
I only think about olive oil when I really want fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, and I generally just pick whichever brand at the grocery store looks the fanciest without being too expensive. Of course there’s a whole world behind the scenes that I had no idea about! It turns out that I should be treating olive oil more like a fine wine – carefully chosen to exact specifications with the flavor, quality, age, and origin in mind.
Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil is more than just a risque title, it’s an eye opening “journey through the world of olive oil” covering the oil’s history and traditions, plus fun stuff like rampant fraud in the industry and the popular Turkish sport of oil wrestling.
There are eight flaws which can be found in olive oil:
- muddy sediment
The presence of just one of these flaws barrs the oil from being graded as extra virgin. According to Mueller, many olive oils are labeled as extra virgin despite not meeting the standards legally imposed for such an assignment. Lots of these oils actually fall into the poorest category created by the International Olive Council (an intergovernmental agency instituted by the United Nations – this is serious business!): lampante, meaning “lamp oil,” which by law is unfit for human consumption and must be refined before being sold as food. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel great knowing that this is what I’ve probably been using.
Why does it really matter? The taste suffers, for one. Further, excess refinement, aging, or mixing with other oils removes a lot of the health benefits that lead many to the use of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in the first place. Mueller explains that “real extra virgin olive oil contains powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories which help to prevent degenerative conditions (p. 7)” and those properties are actually found in the same substances that give the oil it’s integral flavors. High bitterness and a velvety texture are signs of tocopherol, squalene, and hydroxytyrosol – antioxidants – and a peppery sting the back of the throat is a sign of oleocanthal – an anti-inflammatory (p. 104-5).
Desirable aspects of a good EVOO are a balance between bitterness, fruitiness, and pungency (peppery). Choosing a quality EVOO involves quite a few factors, but Mueller provided some tips for us laymen to follow if we can’t quite get to Italy to pluck olives off the tree ourselves:
- It’s very perishable, so try to find it as fresh and close to the mill as possible – hey, the more local your food is the better, why not olive oil too? You want to protect it against light and air, so darker colored bottles are better if you can’t find it fresh.
- Look for a best by date around two years away, as that should indicate that it was bottled recently. A harvest date is even better, and if there is one look for dates from the current year. Quality EVOO will be good for around 18 months to two years after it’s harvested and pressed.
- Check the label for the specific grade: extra virgin. Ignore buzz words like pure, light, and first or cold pressed; as non-regulated terms they mean nothing. Even “pressed in Italy” and similar phrases are misleading as olives from other countries are imported and bottled in Italy before being re-exported with an Italian flag on the bottle.
- Remember, different olive oils are good for different uses. A robust, full-bodied, or “early harvest” oil will pair well with strongly flavored food while a mild, delicate, or “late harvest” oil will work better with less flavorful foods (Mueller suggests it for chicken, fish, or potatoes).
I can’t wait to find a specialty oil seller now so I can experience the difference between quality EVOO and the stuff I’ve been using – I suspect I won’t be switching back.