Monday, March 9, 2009

On Brains, Good Behavior, and the Need for Treats

Never in a million years would I have predicted this but it’s true: I get along really well with two-year-olds. I think it’s because deep down inside, my brain is like a two-year-old, so I understand people who really are two years old. I have a soft spot for them these days because my niece Lydia is about two and half now, and my goodness, she just keeps getting cuter and cuter. Anyone who reminds me of Lydia grabs my heartstrings. I can’t resist them!

There were a few two-year-old sightings this weekend. I had such a great weekend, which I would not have expected to say, since I spent great swaths of it in front of Excel spreadsheets and yards of data. But in between my fancy intellectual pursuits, I let my two-year-old brain decide what it wanted to do. You can see that I’m not above bribery, even if the person I’m bribing is me. I’d work for an hour or two, then take a shower. I’d work for another hour, then eat lunch. I’d work for an hour, then bake granola. It’s not a bad way to climb a mountain of data, especially one that had been threatening to crush me for months. When you work in a research lab, sometimes it’s easier to generate data than it is to analyze it and make sense of it. It’s not unlike a big rock sitting on top of a hill: it’s hard to get the rock moving, but once it’s going, you’d better stand clear because otherwise it will flatten you. My work life is like a series of this big rocks: once they are in motion, I just want to let them roll until they come to a stop and then I can assess the damage—er, data. My advisor is not a fan of this tendency of mine to let data pile up. He turned up the heat under my behind to get me moving and voila! A mountain of data has been reduced to a handful of powerpoint slides. Amazing.

The bribing of my brain began on Friday evening when my lab-mate Laurie and I snuck out for some gelato at the shop down the street. That morning, the weather had been heartstoppingly beautiful: warm, sunny, a little breezy. I was buzzing with happiness, so euphoric that I didn’t even mind that I had to go to work that day. The warmth faded as the day grew older, but by that time I was convinced that I absolutely must have gelato today. Laurie, never one to say no to gelato, strolled down the street with me and we got double-scoop cones at Linz and Vail, just west of the train stop on Noyes Street. We licked our gelato happily, and Laurie made a mess as it dripped on her jeans, but I thought it was a good look for her. As we ate, a distraught two-year-old fussed in her mom’s arms outside the shop, so I made funny faces at her through the window until she smiled. Then we played peek-a-boo and her face glowed with delight. Her mother escorted her into the shop so we could have proper introduction, where the two-year-old waved at me shyly and I smiled and said hello. After introductions, my new friend and her mom left, and Laurie and I finished our cones. I don’t know what was more fun that evening: sneaking out for gelato or impromptu games with a toddler. Maybe we’ll just call it a tie.

On Saturday, Ammie gave me an excuse to ignore my work for a few hours when she came over for tea and gossip. I made us a batch of baked oatmeal and she showed me the manuscript for her new cookbook. It was all I could do not to run off with her book so I could devour it in one sitting. Ammie’s a self-publishing writer—she’s even got a giant stapler ready and waiting for fresh copies of the book—and I’m so excited to read it and cook out of it I can barely keep my wooden spoons in their drawer. Then, as though the manuscript wasn’t enough, she played a song for me on her viola, an Irish folksong number that she was rehearsing for a fundraiser event later that evening. It was beautiful, haunting and evocative of lost love.

On Sunday, I worked diligently, copying and pasting and calculating and thinking thinking thinking. My brain was very well-behaved. It rained all morning, thick sheets of raindrops. I clicked away on my computer; the rain clicked away on my windowpanes. In the late afternoon, I decided to take a short rain-walk, which turned into a long walk, and it was just perfect. I adore rain-walks, those slow strolls through the downpour, with an umbrella held overhead to deflect the worst of the showers. The rain was sputtering, apparently down to its last drops, and the temperature was mild—cool but not cold. Clouds floated along, and the sun even came out to say hello. I sauntered along, slow as molasses, taking deep breaths and enjoying the fresh air in my lungs. I felt peaceful and happy, almost surprisingly relaxed given the amount of work that was still waiting for me at home. I wonder if I might be turning over a new leaf, learning to accept my work habits as my habits. Good or bad, they’ve gotten me all the way to the brink of PhD-ness, which is not too shabby, really. Maybe it’s okay that I need to bribe myself and that I take frequent breaks. Maybe it’s okay that my best thinking tends to happen while I’m chopping onions or brushing my teeth. Maybe it’s okay that I’m really rather ordinary among scientists, that I don’t live for science. My brain thrives on pleasure, and for me, science is ~95% work, 5% pleasure. So to make up for all that work, I’ve got to find other pleasures, which is really easy, because I find pleasure and beauty all around me.

Maybe I’m finally learning the art of productivity. It’s ironic: as long as I have plenty of fun, I have no problems being productive. I think two-year-olds work the same way: make it fun and they’ll love it. It’s time for me to embrace my inner two-year-old. Today’s recipe ought to be a good starting place.

Yogurt with Sautéed Apples, Maple Syrup, and Brown Sugar
Serves 1 generously

This treat is deceptively delicious. Take a look at the ingredients and you might think, Well, that looks good but rather ordinary, right? And to that I say it’s very good, especially when eaten out of a big shallow mug while snuggled under your favorite blanket. The apple melts into soft, fragrant slices as it cooks in a mixture of butter and walnut oil, and then it is sweetened with maple syrup and brown sugar before being stirred into a cup of yogurt. The combination is rich and creamy with just a tiny bit of chew. Longtime readers of this site might remember the apple from this recipe. Sautéed apples are one of my favorite discoveries of recent years, and now I crave them regularly. This dessert is virtually instant, and its pudding-like quality makes me feel like a kid again. Yet somehow it seems a little sophisticated, perhaps because you do need to get out a skillet, something that two-year-olds ought to do only on their pretend stoves. You, however, should make this on your real stove.

Note that the brown sugar is optional. I prefer this treat with the extra sugar—it feels more treaty to me that way—but it’s pretty good with maple syrup as the only added sweetener.

1 large apple, such as a Golden Delicious, cored, peeled, and sliced into thin slices
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp. walnut oil
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tbsp. brown sugar (optional if you prefer the tartness of plain yogurt)
1 cup plain organic yogurt (whole milk or low-fat, your choice), such as Brown Cow

1) Melt the butter into the walnut oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the apple slices, toss them with the hot fat, and cook for several minutes until the apples are soft and perhaps a little browned.
2) Spoon the apples into a small dish. Stir the maple syrup and brown sugar into the apples.
3) Place the yogurt in a bowl or large cup, such as one of those oversized coffee mugs. Top with the apple mixture, curl up under a blanket, eat with a soup spoon. Enjoy treating yourself to something homemade and indulgent.


ttfn300 said...

fantastic :) reminds me of the baked apples mom used to make growing up! sounds like you had a great weekend :)

there are so many scientists who live 100% science. and i know i don't want to be like them. i'm ok with that, i need my outlets, in the kitchen and otherwise!!

Rosiecat said...

Mmm, baked apples sound good too, ttfn...I'll take any excuse to fire up the oven during these late-winter/early-spring days!

It's too bad that science has a long history of glorifying scientists who are totally and completely devoted to science. Because science is devoted to problem-solving, I think it's really important that there ARE scientists who are able to understand and connect to parts of the world that exist beyond the walls of the lab. A scientific approach can be modified and applied to many different areas of life. I'm hoping that the fact that I like science AND other things will make me a good teacher. I want my students to see me as knowledgeable AND accessible. I also want them to see science as understandable and very relevant to their lives, even if the most relevant part is the approach that science teaches for problem-solving.

Anonymous said...

Yes, brain, yes. I am convinced that it is essential to honor the manner in which your brain works best. Mine, like yours, frequently has to be bribed through boring tasks. :)


ammie said...

I'm glad I could distract you! Oatmeal and tea was just what I needed that day, and I'm glad I could finally play for you.

Rosiecat said...

AMPD, boo to boring tasks! I imagine your boring tasks have the same mind-numbing repetitiveness that mine do. If only I'd known with such concrete certainty that bribery is the only way I can get these things done! Who knows what mountains I may have moved, what galaxies I may have explored, what recipes I may have invented with that knowledge? I'd put recipe invention in the category of tasks that I use to bribe my brain. By the way, your initials make me think of you as a radio station: "Coming to you live from WAMPD, this is Food Radio! All food, all the time!" Certainly this is how your brain works, right? ;-)

Ammie, you can come over for oatmeal and tea any time! And I'll listen to you play any time :-) It was my pleasure.