Sweet Potato Project: Holding ground, moving forward

Some days, when the hunger feels almost unbearable, I don’t have the energy to try something new at the metaphorical restaurant.  I don’t even have the energy to read the menu.  The best I can manage is to order my hamburger and make myself eat it slowly enough that it doesn’t make me sick.

And that’s okay.  On Wednesday, I’d planned to leave the house in the morning, bike to a local coffeeshop, and meet a friend to get work done together for our respective jobs.  I ended up spending the day watching a silly TV show and doing rote (but necessary) work on Akkadian.  But I made that choice deliberately; I assessed my mood and energy, and I decided that it was better to choose to do something low-key but mildly productive than to spend the whole day trying to do something more ambitious, and berating myself when I didn’t do it.  I don’t feel bad about Wednesday.

Today started reasonably well; I made breakfast (hot cream of wheat with maple and mixed nuts) and took myself and the spousey to our respective therapies.  As is sometimes the case, today’s therapy made things worse in an immediate sense, because it forced me to stop and confront certain situations and mental habits.  It didn’t help when, afterwards, I spent two hours wrestling with moronic health insurance representatives and phone trees and pharmacy bureaucracy, just to try to get the spousey the meds he needs in order to function.  I came home beaten-down and exhausted.  I knew that an evening home alone wouldn’t help, but I effectively had to bribe myself to get out of the house for the evening.

I’m glad I did.  My bribe (and my New Thing for the day) was a half-hour soak at a local spa that has a large community hot tub.  The hot tub was delightful, but at least as rewarding was my reading material: an introduction to behavioral analysis, a gift from a friend.  I’m still working through it, but its fundamental message, which I really needed to hear, was this: behavior can change.  People can be trained.

On a day when I felt hopelessly overwhelmed by my perceived brokenness — my inability to focus and achieve things that I want, even things that should be enjoyable — that message, and the accompanying techniques of behavioral science to facilitate change, helped immeasurably.  I had dinner on my own, continuing to read the book between bites, and I picked up some “supplies” at the grocery store on my way home: I want to try to train myself into better habits.

Hope comes in different forms.  Perhaps the meta-lesson of today was this: too often I look for an instant fix to the listlessness and despair of depression, something to magically Make Me Happy. But the fact is, I’m doing this Sweet Potato Project because I don’t know how to accomplish that.  I went out this evening expecting to enjoy a nice hot tub soak, and I did, but the biggest breakthrough of the day came because I strayed from my normal reading material and habits.  Here’s to continuing that wandering.


Sweet Potato Project, Day 3: Cooking and bedtimes

So hey, the depression’s been pretty crap lately, but I’ve been trying to continue the project.  Two new observations from the past few days:

  • Cooking in itself doesn’t make me happy, but it has two advantages.  First, if I have a specific plan and a cleanish kitchen, I can do it even when the brain weasels are acting up a lot.  Second, the results of cooking (tasty food, pride in accomplishment, praise) can often be happy-making.
  • Going to bed early (which for me means by midnight) doesn’t make me happy.  Getting up earlier helps a little, because it means I have more daylight hours doing stuff.  But probably the biggest advantage is that I avoid the awful zone from 2 to 3am when I’m inevitably achingly lonely and feeling hopeless about it.  So that’s a thing.

Just so I have them down somewhere (someday I’ll start doing a real recipe blog, with photos and more concrete amounts), here are the three things I’m most proud of cooking over the past couple of days.

Brazilian collard greens and sausage: Brown and cook spicy sausages in a large skillet.  While they’re cooking, remove the central stem from the greens, then cut them into thin strips.  Blanch them in boiling water for one minute, then drain.  Add some olive oil to the skillet if necessary, then add a large spoonful of minced/crushed garlic and stir until fragrant.  Add the blanched greens, salt and pepper them generously, and cook, stirring regularly, for a few minutes, until everything’s hot and fragrant and well-distributed.  Sprinkle with red wine vinegar and serve over rice.

Papua New Guinean sweet potatoes: Poke holes in whole sweet potatoes with a fork, then bake them at 350 for about an hour, until they’re soft and oozing sweet juices.  Cool, peel, and mash the sweet potatoes with coconut milk or cream and salt to taste.  Sprinkle with chopped roasted peanuts, then bake until browned.

Bolognese pasta sauce: Brown a pound of beef, drain it, and put it in a slow cooker with a large can of tomatoes, broken up.  In the same pan, after adding some olive oil, sautee chopped onions, finely minced carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, and garlic (in that order), then toss them in the slow cooker as well.  Add half a bottle of red wine and deglaze the bottom, bringing it to a simmer, then adding it to the cooker.  Add a little more oil and sautee a can of tomato paste, then add the other half of the bottle and stir until the mixture is totally smooth.  Add to the cooker, along with thyme, oregano, basil, black pepper, salt, and a generous glug of cream or half’n’half.  Stir and cook on high for three or four hours, stirring occasionally.  Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve over pasta, with optional parmesan.

Sweet Potato Project, Day 2: Bike Exploration

First, I neglected an important part of my Day 1 post: analysis of its impact on me.  Honestly, the process of researching/shopping/mixing didn’t have a lot of emotional impact.  This may change as I see progress in the sourdough starter (so far I’ve seen a couple of tiny bubbles, but not much), but I think the lesson is that mixing up foods, with no immediate follow-up or outcome, isn’t inherently transformative for me.


Yesterday’s Thing was exploration on my bike.  I have a lovely bike for urban exploration, and I hadn’t ridden it in half a year, between breaking my leg and having my intestines trying to kill me.  But I’m getting close to recovered, and the weather was cool and clear, and the snow had mostly melted off the streets, so I went riding.


It wasn’t much — just a trip to a used bookstore and coffeeshop, both new to me, and then a bike ride home.  The bookstore was a nice little place to wander, and the coffeeshop had tasty baked goods and a fabulous wrinkled couple who’d been running it for fifty years.  The most happifying part, though, was the bike-riding itself.  I arrived home pleasantly worn out, napped for two hours, and felt genuinely good.


Two lessons from that, then.  First, bike riding makes me feel a deep, genuine happiness.  Second, it’s easier to motivate myself to get out and ride when I have specific locations to visit.  (Having a goal helps pull me over that mild hump of getting dressed for the weather and setting down everything else.)  Third, expending the energy on moderate exercise actually gives me more motivation and energy for the rest of the day.  It’s just a matter of overcoming that initial hump.

The Sweet Potato Project, Day 1: Sourdough Starter

It’s time to dust off this long-abandoned blog for a new ongoing series: the Sweet Potato Project.

The title for this project came from a conversation in therapy today.  I have a thing for overly complicated metaphors, and this one’s really more of a parable:

I feel like I’m ravenously hungry, and I just sat down at a restaurant serving Papua New Guinean food.  I’ve never eaten this cuisine in my life; the ingredients and techniques only look vaguely familiar, let alone the names of the dishes.  There are hundreds of options on the menu, and while many of them are probably delicious and satisfying, I don’t know which ones will be.  But at the bottom of the menu is a simple hamburger.  It’s not the most delicious thing on the menu, or the healthiest, or the most interesting — but at least I know it’ll keep away the hunger for a little while.

I want to stop ordering the hamburger and start trying new dishes.  Each time I order something new, I may never order it again, but over time, it’ll help me learn what foods are best at making that hunger go away.

The hunger is my depression.

The hamburger is the familiar distractions of internet and reading and television.

The Papua New Guinean menu is the rest of the universe.

I’d picked Papua New Guinea because, off the top of my head, I knew literally nothing about the country’s cuisine — just that it sometimes involved underground pig roasts.  (True fact.)  When I came home, I started researching, and I discovered that while some of the techniques and ingredients are new to me, many of them aren’t.  In fact, Papua New Guinea’s biggest staple crop is the familiar sweet potato, called kaukau in Tok Pisin; they eat over 1000 lbs of it per year (not a typo!), by far the greatest per-capita consumption in the world.  I love sweet potatoes in almost every form — roasted, boiled, fried, baked into pie . . . — so it seemed like an appropriate name for this project.

Today, I started simple: I began a sourdough starter from scratch.  One of the things I’d like to try is baking more and different breads, and this seemed like a good beginning.  I’ll post updates as it develops over the next few days!

I adapted my starter combination from this site, mixing together 170g orange juice, 55g all-purpose flour, and 55g organic barley flour.  The house is cool in the middle of winter, so I expect it’ll develop slowly — but that’s true of most worthwhile things.

Relaxed hospitality.

I really enjoy Israeli ideas of hospitality (even if I’ve yet to practice them much from the other side . . .). Lunch today was a perfect example.

First, there are drinks — generally juice and water — before the meal, while the food finishes cooking.

Next, everyone sits down for the main meal, which usually features meat but in a supporting role, and includes at least one good salad. For example, today there was a kind of picadillo with ground turkey and summer squash, boiled peeled potatoes, a salad with chopped tomatoes and lettuce in vinaigrette, and a salad with small-diced cucumber, mint, and cooked whole grains in vinaigrette. All were delicious.

After the meal, there’s dessert. Today was ice cream (raspberry swirl) and fruit (watermelon pieces), which is also typical.

After dessert comes coffee or tea, little cookies to nibble (today’s were homemade miniature bars with chocolate, walnuts, and marmalade over pastry), and conversation.

If one is willing to assume that all the desserts and drinks are storebought, then it’s not actually that much work: prepping the main course beforehand, making the salads and starch in the half hour before serving, and preparing hot drinks while everyone relaxes after dessert. Nor is it overly expensive, given the cheap cost of fresh produce here in Israel. The result is really lovely, though: a relaxed, extended meal with good, healthy food and congenial conversation. Honestly, it makes me wish I had more chances to be a hostess. Which is entirely up to me!

busy busy.

Soon, the semester will be over, and I’ll be able to prod myself into posting more.

But for now, I only have one specific thought: I don’t know how I got by without Amazon “Look Inside.” It’s like Google Books, only much more comprehensive for modern books, and it allows me to search for keywords anywhere in the book. Which is pretty invaluable, or at least an amazing time-saver, when writing papers. You need the physical book as well, of course, but the combination of the two makes it so swift and easy to hunt down half-forgotten quotes or passages.

Mmmmm, technology.

Will I look back and laugh at how much I did, or how little?

I thought it might be helpful for people who’re wondering why I never talk to them any more to see what I’ve been doing this semester. 🙂 Um, and if you’re one of those people, I’m truly sorry.

The relationship between the links and their subject is left as an exercise for the reader.

Environmental Theologies
Religion in American Society, 1550-1870
Principles and Practice of Preaching
Introductory Greek
Practicuum (discussion and support of structured church internship)
New Testament Interpretation (auditing*)

Internship with a local “evangelical, ecumenical, Episcopalian” church
Intern for the City for the Transportation department, working on projects of sustainable transit

Yale Earth Care Committee (apparently I’m the technical president . . .)
Elm City Cycling (committee member, city liason, and baked-goods-maker)
Committee member for the Org. for Transformative Works
Monday night WoD RPG
Berkeley Divinity School

So, yeah. When I’ve gotten to the point of telling the boyfriend, “how about I just give you access to my Google Calendar, so you know when I’ll be free, since I’ve got eight things lined up for every day already” . . . I know I’m busy.

(* – I like the NT lecturer, and I really need the background, but I didn’t have the space for the class this year. And frankly, I’m much more interested in refreshing a general background for academic exploration of the NT texts, so I can take upper-level seminars in NT next year, than I am in memorizing dates and writing entry-level essays. So this way, I get to attend lectures without having to do the boring work. Yay!)