Ah, the end of one year and the beginning of a new. For some, myself included, the new year comes in September -- when the sloth of summer takes a sharp turn into crisper weather and busy schedules, and memories of the smell of pencil lead and paper cuts from a just-opened packet of notebook paper.
However, I also celebrate the new year just like everyone else does -- when December turns into January, and you screw up the first 10 or 15 checks you write by filling in the wrong year on the dateline. At this time of year, the one thing it seems like a lot of my friends are talking about are their New Year's resolutions. In fact, I bet some of you are thinking, "Gee, I don't know what New Year's resolutions I should make this year. Let's see what Carol has up HER sleeve!" (and seriously, if any of you actually DID think that, you need to have a drink; I mean it)
The thing is, if you're coming here for answers, you're S.O.L. I don't make New Year's resolutions. What I do instead at this time of year is spend a little time thinking about what I've liked about the past 12 months or so, as well as what I might want to do in the coming year. I spend an afternoon just like I did today going through old email, reading through my datebook, perusing pages of some of my journals, and thinking about what I've accomplished or what made me happy.
Last year at this time, I looked back on 2006 and my first reaction was that I thought the year was in the shitter. My grandmother died, I had a few health problems (none of them serious, just mostly annoying), went through a crappy breakup, saw some legislation my colleagues and I worked hard on get vetoed by the President, and missed out on an opportunity to move to New York. As soon as I finished making that mental list, I actually sat back and thought, "WAITAMINUTE! Despite a few disappointments here and there, on the whole 2006 was actually a pretty good year." I spent time with great friends and loved ones, signed on lots of new clients, built up a healthy bank account, made some much-needed cosmetic changes to my home, set aside time to write and read, traveled, and experienced countless other things I know I sometimes take for granted and shouldn't.
So, while I knew deep down inside that 2006 was actually a pretty great year, I couldn't get past this noodgey feeling that something was just off. And then I realized what it was: I was bored.
It's no good when I'm bored. Not at all. I get cranky and annoying. More so than usual, I should clarify. And, I just kind of coast and then annoy myself in ADDITION to annoying others. So, yeah; boredom, not so good.
Because I love making lists more than you'll ever know, I made a list last year of anti-boredom things I thought I should do in 2007 -- house renovations, business expansion, travel, shampoo purchases, etc. -- but as I was writing it, nothing was really jumping out at me. Sure, they were all things I could do, but somehow, I knew I'd still be bored.
So, instead of a big to-do list of crap I knew would deliver yet another boring year, I decided to go a different route and figure out an overarching strategy for the year. Yes, people, I gave 2007 a theme. Because if you didn't already know I was a huge nerd, you sure do now.
Instead of resolutions or a list of specific goals for that year, giving a year a theme is something that I've done off and on throughout my adult life -- sometimes without even knowing I was doing so. For example, 1999 was The Year I'm Not Learning Anything, and I dove headfirst (more than I usually do) into trashy magazines and bad television with no apologies. When not at work, I really tried hard to let my brain go to mush as often as possible, and it was great. 2001 was the year I started my own company, so I really didn't have a theme other than Let's Not Have 2001 Be the Year I Declare Bankruptcy Because That Would Totally Suck. 2002's theme was I Made It Through The First Year of Business So Let's See If We Can Keep This Gravy Train Moving Along Because Going Bankrupt Now Would Be Embarrassing and Also Suck. 2005 was The Year I Will Not Put Up With Bullshit From People (an incredibly liberating year, as I'm sure you can imagine). 2006 didn't really have a theme, which ipso facto, The Year I Was So Bored And Thus Annoying and Cranky That I Can't Believe Someone Didn't Punch Me in the Throat Because, MAN.
I decided that if I was really going to do this theme thing for 2007 (again, NERD), I needed to pull a little mental jujitsu on myself and declare 2007 as The Year of Yes. Now, that didn't mean that I was going to say "yes" to everything that came my way, because, hello, basket case. I'm very good at saying no, and turning down stuff that I think will infringe upon the very little amount of personal life a self-employed person tends to have. But I needed something that would stave off another year of impending boredom, so I was willing to try anything. I didn't have specific criteria for The Year of Yes, but my thinking went a little something like this: If I've never done it before, or I'm reluctant to try it, I'd say "yes." (get your minds out of the gutter, you sick, sick people) If something seemed the least bit daunting or made me wrinkle my nose or clench my shoulders in trepidation, I was going to say "yes." If something seemed preposterous and could very likely crash and burn in a heap of firey failure, I'd say "yes." I decided that for me the only way to not be bored was to leap before I looked and enjoy the ride. The goal wasn't to say "yes" to everything or to the things I would ordinarily say "no" to. It was to say "yes" to the things I would have ordinarily said, "Are you f-ing kidding me?!?!?!?" to.
The first thing I said yes to was on January 3rd, 2007 when a friend asked me to teach public relations writing in the Masters program at Johns Hopkins University. Me? A teacher? A professor? I don't even HAVE a graduate degree, and I was pretty sure I'd suck at teaching other people what I do for a living. But, I agreed to do it, and you know what? It was a TON of work but I loved it, and I found out I'm actually pretty good at it. I loved it so much that I followed her to Georgetown and now I teach part-time in the Masters program there. My students have been amazing, and I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me.
Another thing I said "yes" to was hosting a radio show. I talk to the media all the time for my job; and, I have hosted segments and done panel discussions on-air here in the DC market, but I've never hosted my own show. So, when the host of a program I was a panelist on left the program and they asked me to take over, I said "yes" and it's been fantastic. The show runs on the eight Clear Channel-owned radio stations here in the DC market every Sunday morning, and I love every minute of it. Even the hate mail from listeners who think we're full of crap (which sometimes we totally are).
Something else I said "yes" to this year were two enormous and daunting client projects that a year ago I would've turned away without even considering. One involved a high-profile international celebrity, and the other one involved a government program for people with disabilities. Both projects took me out of my professional comfort zone and have led to other things in the pipeline for 2008. I've grown so much both personally and professionally as a result of working on these two projects, and met some amazing people in the process. And, to be totally selfish, my bank account ain't suffering, either.
But the one thing I decided to do in 2007, this Year of Yes, that has taken on a life of its own and in fact has changed me the most, is this very blog. I started it because one morning I had the TV on in the background as I was cleaning the house, and got really angry that people who were watching a particular program on a particular cable network were expected to believe that dumping some vodka and a taco seasoning packet on a store-bought rotisserie chicken was a great idea for dinner. I was ranting inside my head composing a hateful letter to that cable channel's programmming VP just as I was dusting my bookshelves, and there it was: The French Laundry Cookbook -- a book I often thought deserved white-glove treatment and should be viewed only under glass because it is so lovely and clean and full of delicious, crisp writing and storytelling... and a book I admire and respect for its dedication to the pursuit of perfection.
I pulled the book off the shelf, turned off the TV, plunked down on the sofa, pulled a heavy wool blanket over my lap, and started gingerly turning the pages once again, as I had done at least once every month for YEARS. But this time, it felt different. As most people who know me in real life will attest, I, too, am a bit obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. I don't like to be wrong about anything, and I can't stand it when I don't live or work up to my own expectations or standard of perfection. So, when I read through The French Laundry Cookbook in the past, I saw it as something that would give me more than 100 ways to screw up, not live up to my own standard of perfection, and be a big, fat failure.
But opening The French Laundry Cookbook that day felt different from all the other days I'd looked at it before. I actually felt as though I might be able to pull off one or two of the dishes. As I continued looking through it, I flipped the pages faster and faster, realizing that everything about the dishes appealed to my sense of order, time management, discipline, and list-making obsession. And, something just clicked.
I decided right then and there that there was no point to my anger at the cable channel I'd been pissed off about because its programming wasn't going to change, nor was it going away. So, instead of trying to find a way to prove them wrong (because I'm not really a stubborn 5-year old although I sometimes play one on TV), I decided instead to prove to myself that I could cook every dish in the heavy, gorgeous, pristine book that was sitting in my lap. And, as I reached to open the drawer in the coffee table to get a pad of paper and a pen to make a grocery list, it hit me -- maybe I should do a blog about cooking every dish in this cookbook. I have to say, even though I'd set up blogs for clients and other people, I wasn't necessarily a big fan of blogging. So, I asked myself, "Who the hell would read a blog about me cooking every recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook?" I counted: My mom, my dad, eight or nine friends who liked food, and maybe a cousin or two. Were a dozen readers worth it? At that point, I felt the shoulder shrug and wrinkled nose thing going on that told me I was shirking it for some reason, so I said (out loud, strangely enough), "Fine. I'll do it." I just figured I'd give it a go and see what happened. If it sucked, it sucked, and I'd just delete it after a few posts and pretend like nothing happened.
I turned to page 35 of the book -- Gazpacho -- wrote down the ingredients, drove to Whole Foods, bought everything I needed, and got started that afternoon.
As soon as I'd done the first dish, I was hooked. I was already a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself, but this gazpacho was better than any I'd ever made before. And, not only did the gazpacho taste amazing, the whole process of planning and shopping for it, as well as making it, was energizing. Sharing it with my friends and neighbors, and anxiously awaiting their response, was nerve-wracking and powerful all at the same time. I was slightly giddy as my guests left and I started the dishwasher.
I went upstairs to my little home office, loaded the photos onto my laptop, and opened a Blogger account. When I started to type my first post, I felt a little guarded, like I was putting myself out there more than I was comfortable with. I proofed and spell-checked the post, and as soon as I clicked the "Publish" button on that first entry, I knew I was in for a wild ride. But I didn't know then what I know now -- that the book and this blog would unlock something in me I still can't quite define.
It may sound odd coming from someone as cynical and snarky as I am, but doing this blog and cooking this food has changed my life. Okay, maybe "changed my life" is too much. It's really more that it's made me more comfortable and happy in a life I already loved. I've fallen in love with my kitchen again (I was in a long-held "hate" stage in my love-hate relationship with that room), and reclaimed a part of my brain I'd long since ignored. I've been able to write about something I love. I've been able to hear from so many of you about what you love about cooking and food. I've eaten amazing food in my kitchen, as well as others. I've become a better cook because I'm more open to taking risks in the kitchen. I've received the most kind and generous advice and counsel from some of the best in the business. I've received accolades I never thought possible. I've met one of my literary heroes.
But above all, and perhaps MOST important -- I wasn't bored for one single day of the year because I was doing something that fed me in a way I didn't know I needed. And, you all are a big part of that -- so, THANK YOU. I'm grateful that you come here to see what I'm up to, and I love your comments and email, so keep 'em comin'. I'll need it when in a month or two I have to slice the skin off a baby cow's tongue and try really, really hard not to vomit. Repeatedly. For days. Because, ack.
So, what's my theme for 2008? No clue. But I hope you'll stick around to find out. In the meantime, I'm raising a glass of wine here at my desk to clink with yours in wishing you a happy, healthy 2008.
Happy new year, everyone!
Read my previous post: Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish