Thursday, September 10, 2009

Making Lemonade, and Other Entrepreneurial Pursuits

I'm two weeks out of my vacation, and I can't seem to shake vacation mode. I thought that a vacation would recharge my batteries, and bypass some major burnout. Instead, it has made crystal clear the fact that my current work situation is not working for me.

I want to be my own boss. I want to call the shots, and plan my daily work around what matters most -- and works best -- for me. Not for anyone else.

When I was a kid, I was the neighborhood entrepreneur. I bought candy from the ice cream man and pulled it around in my Radio Flyer wagon, selling it to the neighborhood kids at a huge mark-up (I made a killing on that venture, until someone found my stash of cash buried in the pachysandras in the front yard). My best friend at the time (and partner in crime) and I established our own book and video rental store in his garage, our very own Blockbuster before there was a Blockbuster. We put on plays and charged for tickets. We sold lemonade, which one neighbor claimed tasted like...well, she didn't like it and as a result set her son up with a lemonade stand of his own across the street, setting off the Great Lemonade War of 1982 and putting us both out of business before the day was over. We even sold raffle tickets for a quarter apiece (or five for a dollar), a chance to win lame prizes like a yarn doll or a deck of Uno cards (I broke a glass vase in one neighbor's foyer, and was forced to give her five tickets for free).

Back then, when it came to that kind of thing, I was fearless. Today, not so much. And that's why I'm adding it to my bucket list.

There are three big reasons for my fear:
1) I am seriously uncomfortable with the idea of not getting a regular paycheck. I like being able to predict when the money is coming in, and how much. Without that steady paycheck, life is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, and that's scary as hell. We have bills to pay, for crying out loud! Then again, there is a certain thrill that comes with riding that roller coaster...and there is a part of me that needs that thrill, as well. (Not to mention the fact that in all reality, my paychecks have not been all that regular or predictable these past few months.)
2) I have a hard time talking about myself, and what I am doing (see my last blog). I make my living in public relations and marketing, but I can't market myself. The bottom line is that I worry too much about what other people think of me, and about whether they care about what I have to say.
3) Finally, I fear failure. (This seems to be a recurring theme, doesn't it?) I am afraid that I will try and it won't work, or I will sink myself and my family further into debt, or that the decision I made was the wrong one and I should have stuck with the sure thing. There are a million quotes on failure out there, but they all say pretty much the same thing: the only true failure is in not trying.

I know that I can't just up and quit my job tomorrow; that would be irresponsible. But I have set in motion some serious plans to extricate myself from "the man" and start living the work life that I want to live. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Leaving My Footprint on the World

I was reminded of two things last night: one, that there are people out there actually reading this thing (thanks!), and two, that writing this blog is really something that belongs on my bucket list. As it was pointed out to me that I really hang myself out here, I realized that all this time I've been pouring my heart out, opening up, and letting people get to know me -- something that I have always had a hard time doing "in real life".

Interestingly, it made me want to write here more.

I've always been reluctant to open up and talk about myself. It's the over-thinking thing again. Why would they care what I have to say? What if they think what I think is stupid? What if they don't like me? In the past, it's led me to gravitate toward people who were far more interested in what they themselves had to say, which made it easy for me to retreat even more inside myself. I fooled myself into thinking that I'm "a really good listener" -- but that alone doesn't necessarily equate to being a good friend. In situations with new people, I think my reticence more often than not gives the wrong impression -- that I'm not interested in being friends, or worse, that I'm a stuck up b---- (you fill in the blank).

Even worse, it makes me forgettable. I've been painfully reminded of this fact more than once, when a friend of mine gushed about how happy she was that no one remembered who I was -- so she was able to snap me up in the softball draft. (I've been in the league for five years.) There was a time when "flying under the radar" like that seemed like a good thing; no more. I want to be remembered. I'll never leave a footprint on the world if I tiptoe through life.

I've met more people in recent years who ask me questions, who really seem to want to know what I think, who reach out constantly to invite me to things -- I really appreciate it, and I think that it has helped me to get to where I am now. But they shouldn't have to do all of the work. It's time I take the reins a bit, share without being pushed to.

This blog is a start. The next step is to take what I'm doing and learning here, and apply it in the real world. Consider it added to the bucket list.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New Year's in September

I love September. These past few days have been cool and clear, and you can almost feel the back-to-school energy like electricity in the air. I was one of the few kids who could not wait to go back to school in the fall...all the way through high school. To me, it always represented a fresh start, another opportunity to reinvent myself. It was my "new year".

To this day, I still feel that excitement as September approaches. As much as I love the summer, by mid-August I'm longing for the cool, wood-smoke scented air that signals my fresh start.

And here it is!

I've already got a couple of irons in the fire on the reinvention front. But now it's also time to get back to business on my health.

I know, it's a risk to pile more onto my plate (no pun intended), but it has to be done. Anyway, I've been here before, so it should be easy. And I'm not sure I'm going to go all-out, gung-ho South Beach at this point, just sticking to the basics:

1. Drink the water. It does absolutely no good sitting there in the water cooler. My head and muscles will be so thankful.
2. Moderation, not deprivation. And not overindulgence, either -- I don't care what "they" say, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Just ask my gut. And my husband.
3. Exercise. I don't care if it's just a walk around the block -- my butt needs to unstick itself from this chair at least once a day. And a trip to the fridge doesn't count. Neither does the trip across the room to the water cooler, although that is a good start (see #1).

That's it. Plain and simple. What are your "back to school" resolutions?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Adding to the Bucket List

As the River Edge Women's Softball League season comes to a close -- and is pretty much over for me, as my team, the Redrum, lost to the Cougars in the playoffs this week -- I am reminded of something I need to add to my list of fears to overcome.

I am afraid to slide. As an avid softball player, with years of experience under my belt, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I have never slid into a base. Never. Not ever. To cut myself some slack here, the truth is I've never been taught. I don't know how. But, admittedly, I haven't actually made an effort to learn. Sliding requires complete commitment, a gung-ho, just-go-for-it-and-stop-thinking-so-much attitude. It's about trusting your instinct. Which, as we all can gather, goes completely against my hesitating nature -- and it's why I'm afraid of it. It falls under the "fear of looking like a complete moron" AND the "fear of getting hurt" bucket list categories -- a double-whammy.

So, you're all my witnesses. I am laying down the gauntlet: by hook or by crook, I will finally slide.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Moussaka for the Masses

I've been on staycation this week, and seeing as I have so much time on my hands, I've been able to feed my foodie least a little bit.

On a recent trip to Stop & Shop, I couldn't resist the special little rolling cart in the produce department piled high with pre-packaged, buy-me-today-please-or-I'll-go-bad-tomorrow deals. I snagged a package with a nice, fat eggplant and a little, skinny zucchini for a buck and change. SCORE!

When I got the suckers home, I scratched my head wondering what I was going to do with them -- and fast. Maybe a pasta dish? Some baba ghanoush? Some kind of funky eggplant bread? Taking stock of what I had in the fridge, I found some defrosted lean ground beef. Okay, another piece to the puzzle.

So I plugged the words eggplant, zucchini, and ground beef into Google, and it came back to me with the overwhelming response of -- moussaka. Of course! Dave and I had seen Guy Fieri chowing down on the stuff on an episode of "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" (love, love, love this show), and I've been dying to try it ever since.

For those who don't know what moussaka is, it's kind of like a Greek lasagna -- without the noodles. And with loads of creamy white sauce. Not the most figure-friendly meal (that bechamel sauce is a killer, but it makes the dish) -- but hey, everyone's got to splurge now and then. I tried my best to at least cut the fat from the recipe, and it came out really good; I'll give both the higher- and lesser-fat options, and you can choose.

Eggplant & Zucchini Moussaka

1 large eggplant (or 2-3 small)
1-2 small zucchinis
1 pound lean ground beef
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (I cheated and used 1/4 tsp of the jarred stuff)
3/4 tsp garam masala* (if you don't have garam masala, use 1/4 tsp each of cinnamon and nutmeg)
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1 (8oz) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup red wine
1 egg, beaten

For the sauce:
4 cups milk (I used soy milk; lowfat or skim milk would also work)
1/2 cup butter (try the Smart Balance Butter Blend Sticks to cut the fat content)
6 tbsp flour (I used Trader Joe's 100% White Whole Wheat)
salt to taste
black pepper, to taste

1-1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp garam masala (or nutmeg, your choice)

1. Cut the ends off the eggplant and zucchini (skins on), and slice lengthwise (1/4-1/2 inch thick for eggplant, 1/4 inch thick for zucchini). Place in single layer on a baking sheet, spray with canola (or olive oil) spray, and brown under the broiler, about 10-15 minutes.

2. In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the ground beef with the salt, pepper, onions, and garlic. Once meat is brown, add garam masala and Italian seasoning. Pour in tomato sauce and wine, and mix well. Simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then stir in beaten egg.

3. Make the bechamel sauce. Heat milk (you could heat it in a pot on the stove, but I microwaved it for a couple of minutes in the glass measuring bowl to save on cleanup). Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat; whisk in flour until smooth. Lower heat, and gradually pour in the milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. (IMPORTANT: Do not let the flour mixture cook too much before adding the milk; the longer it cooks, the browner and "nuttier" it gets, and no longer will be a "white" sauce.) Season with salt and pepper.

4. Arrange a layer of half the eggplant and zucchini in a greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Cover with all of the meat mixture, and then sprinkle 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese over the meat. Cover with the remaining eggplant and zucchini, sprinkle another 1/2 cup of cheese on top. Pour the bechamel sauce over the top, sprinkle with garam masala (or nutmeg) and the remaining cheese.

5. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

* A note on garam masala. I discovered this blend of spices about six years ago, when I had to hunt it down for a recipe for Moroccan Lentil Soup (another awesome recipe; I make it all the time in the fall/winter). While it's generally an Indian/South Asian ingredient (consisting of, at a minimum, cumin, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and sometimes nutmeg), its flavor lends a nice twist to Mediterranean cooking. At the time, I lived in Queens and was able to find a huge container of it at my local Associated grocery store. You may need to check a specialty foods or higher-end grocery store if you don't live in one of the five boroughs. Or, you could try an online store like Penzeys (excellent quality, though a bit pricey) or The Spice House (they also have some locations in the Midwest; I love the Chicago store!).

In the case of this recipe, since cinnamon and nutmeg are generally the big spice players in moussaka, I decided to try the garam masala. I'm not a huge fan of nutmeg, but its flavor mellows out among the others in the blend. I highly recommend trying it!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking the Leap of Myself

When I first started dating my husband, Dave, we talked a lot about our dreams, shared our philosophies on life, and laid out our goals -- all, of course, in the span of about three weeks' time as part of the intricate courtship dance, to see how and if these two lives will somehow, someday fit together. At the time -- especially being only three weeks in -- the concept of marriage, and family, was a little frightening to talk about. We called it "starting a bobsled team".

One thing Dave said, one of the many "truisms" (he made a list) that has always held true (go Dave!), was this: Your worries keep you honest; your fears hold you back.

That was nearly twelve years ago.

Recently, I was reminded of this adage and have not been able to let it go. During a long-overdue visit with my best friend (hi, Katie! We still need to schedule in that weekly call we promised, what, six weeks ago?), as we were catching up on life while jumping from jacuzzi to pool and back again, she made a very astute observation.

"See how you are inching your way into the pool? Me, I just jump in. You hesitate. That's the difference between us."

She is so right. And that halting, inch-by-inch progression to full submersion in that pool? The story of my life. That's my fear, holding me back.

I'm miserable in my job. I have ideas for at least half a dozen businesses that I have yet to start. I have dreams, I know I do -- remember back when Dave and I were dating? We talked about them all the time. At least, thank goodness, we finally started that bobsled team!

True to my character, it has taken me six weeks of hemming and hawing, negotiating, and thinking about it to finally do -- not decide to do, but do -- something about it.

Earlier this week, I started writing my first novel. (This does not count the popular seventh-grade serial The Strange Things That Happened in Room 101, or 2050: Seascape, the self-proclaimed cult hit in tenth.)

This step is a long time coming; I've wanted to write ever since that Room 101 journaling adventure in Mr. Griffith's seventh grade English class. But something has always stopped me. I now know what that something has always been: fear. The burning question is, fear of what?

The list is endless. There's the fear of criticism, which is inevitable in writing. Your work is criticized first by someone (or more) who you have to trust to give you that outside perspective as you're writing; then by agents, publishers and editors as you try to get your hard work recognized and published; then (if you're lucky) by book critics and the general public. Then there are the unknowns. What if I do this and find out that I suck at it? What if I do this and find out that I hate it? What if I get writer's block? What if I have to speak in front of a large audience? What if? What if? What if???? It's exhausting.

If some of this is a little repetitive, forgive me; I know I've blogged about it before. Which is all the more reason why I had to get off my duff and do something about it.

I'm 1,117 words in; only about 99,000 more to go.

Now that the novel is underway -- a BIG step one -- I'm starting to think about other things I'm afraid of, where my fear could be holding me back. I'm not talking about things that have major danger or death factors, like skydiving or bungee-jumping, or running with the bulls. No way in hell anyone's getting me to do any of those, so I'm not going to set myself up for failure. I'm talking about the things that, basically, my EGO is afraid of. Like, singing in public (not as part of a large group and definitely not because I'm drunk). Or, telling someone that they were right and I was wrong. Or, starting one of those businesses.

Step two is listing all of these things -- large and small. Step three will be to check them all off, one by one. Call it my bucket list, if you will. I call it my path to a better life.

What are your fears? What dreams do or did you have that you have yet to realize? What is holding you back? I encourage everyone to join me, make a list of your own. Feel free to share -- and don't be afraid, I won't bite!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Are You There, Blog? It's Me, Stephanie.

Dear Blog,

It has been quite some time since I last wrote, and I am certain you must feel somewhat neglected. I wouldn't blame you in the least if you didn't want to hear from me ever again.

I have no excuse for leaving you the way I did, so suddenly and without so much as a goodbye. One day, I wasn't there anymore.

For me, it wasn't so sudden. The term "falling off the wagon" isn't entirely accurate. That makes it sound so simple, and there's so much more to it than that. Your foot slips off at first, then you notice your shoelace is untied, and while you're leaning over to tie your shoelace the wagon hits a bump and knocks you off the seat and you grab onto the wagon cover as you try to get your footing, but then the canvas starts to tear and you go with it, flying off the back of the wagon and hanging onto the shredded material as you're dragged behind until you can't hang on any longer, and you're left there on the ground covered in dust and road rash and hugging a tumbleweed, watching the wagon drive off in the distance. And all you want is a Big Mac, fries and an ice cream sundae.

Long story short, I fell off the wagon. (Oh, I get it...) I can say that I learned some interesting and important things about myself in the process. First, I am a stress eater. Second, I am an emotional eater. Third -- put the two together and get out of the way, because if you don't I'm going to run you over on my way to the nearest Dairy Queen.

So Blog, you can probably deduce from this that things have been a bit stressful for me lately. I know I should have talked to you about it instead of running away, and I hope you can forgive me and give me a chance to make it up to you.

I am both lucky and amazed that despite the fact that I've been splurging quite a lot over the last few months, I have come through with my initial weight loss success intact. I can't say the same for my ego, which is more than a little bruised from the fall but should make a full recovery in time.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry for being away for so long -- and I promise that I will try to be better about writing and keeping you in the loop about what's going on. I'm also going to remember that I'm only human, and that I don't have to be perfect -- like everyone else, I'm going to get through each day and make the most of what I've got in this life. Along those lines, I'm working on a little bit of a different, and less perfectionist, relationship with food.

Anyway Blog, I hope this clears things up at least a little bit. And that we can be friends again. Maybe we can share an ice cream sundae one of these days.