Happy tummy, happy memories

What is it about food and the memories they evoke? I don’t know about you, but my elephant of a memory tends to connect occasions I celebrate with food or the places where I went to remember them by.

I remember “firsts” and count their “anniversaries” with the restaurants I went to and the food I ordered. Happy tummy, happy memories, indeed.

I happily remember the last meal I enjoyed with my family when I left Manila last July. A hearty meal at Corazon over at the East Wing of Shangrila Plaza mall. It was a family luncheon of gourmet Filipino food before I hopped on the plane taking me back home to New York.

Family meal last year at Corazon Restaurant in Shangrila Plaza
CIUDED REAL: Lechon Kawali with Laing by Corazon

I can cook but can’t really indulge in Filipino food here in the big apple, primarily because most Filipino dishes are best enjoyed with rice, a staple I gave up more than 2 decades ago. Then there’s the fact that it’s just myself and my not so little guy anymore — so that’s two people eating viands for a family of 4, and that’s if my super picky dining partner here will even dig into the likes of “Laing” (pictured above) or “sisig” (below). But when I’m in Manila, there’s no dieting for me!

Family meal last year at Corazon Restaurant in Shangrila Plaza
PACO: Pork Sisig, sautéed with onions, chili’s and secret spices

I look back to first meetings or being reunited with friends over brunch.. and while I remember the place we had originally wanted to visit then turned out to have closed already, we landed somewhere else where I had one of the best ever French toasts I’ve had.

My memories of that place and the food and that occasion so many years ago, bring me back to happy thoughts and feelings. The type that having a French toast breakfast brings me back to.

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So to celebrate one of those happy memories this week, I did one of my favorite versions of a crispy French toast I picked up many years ago at one of the hotels I had visited with family. Not exactly the same version I was remembering, but it brought me back to the happy place I am grateful for.

Simple enough.. dip the bread in beaten egg slightly thinned with milk, then coat the slice in Frosted Flakes that have been crushed to smaller pieces. (I like crushing the cereal by hand while in their original plastic container, when the cereal bag has probably a cup or so left.). Toast on a nonstick skillet in butter. No healthy detours — butter or it won’t be French toast!

I like my French toast with some sliced strawberry or banana, slathered with syrup, then bathed with heavy cream. Even just writing that makes me smile — more so when I go back to the memories they bring me.

I am grateful. Those memories come with wave after wave of happy thoughts. And I find myself comforted knowing that I have made some good choices that have brought me to this happy place I am in today. I haven’t always agreed with the choices the universe made for me, but this one steadied me and made me a wiser and better person. French toast at this time of the year will always be a reminder to me of how I have been lucky in many respects. There were a lot of things that worked out and which proved me right, time and again. I am a stronger, better and happier person now, thanks to a bit of French toast one chilly morning years ago.

My Happy Place

A few weekends ago, I visited with a girlfriend I hardly get to see because of the distance.  I haven’t seen her in ages and it’s really because (1) I don’t drive, and (2), getting her to the city or getting me to Long Island can be quite the journey.

She asked me a question which was simple yet a tad complicated to answer:  How do I manage to stay happy?

Happiness, for me, is a continuing journey.  I think that as we get older, we have to seek or find that “happy place” in order that we may not get buried by the day-to-day hassles of our toil.  It is THAT place we can retreat to — even if only in our minds — to bask in some happy memory or thought or even just a snapshot, that brings us that feeling of bliss.  Brief, though, it may be.

I have not always been as positive or happy as I am now.  Even now, I still find myself succumbing to moments of sadness or those blah times when  life overtakes me.  But I know better now to stand up or wiggle free of the weight of negativity, and not let myself slide deeper into that abyss of sadness.  I deal with it in a way that works for me.

One thing I’ve learned is that you have to consciously seek to be happy, or you will find yourself sinking or wallowing in the opposite.  Happiness is not automatic.  How many times have you heard it said, “Happiness is a choice.”  I’m still not quite comfortable with that whole concept because I think what people label as “happiness” is relative to what they consider it to be.  As we get older, the word takes on a bigger meaning but we start defining it in simpler terms.

Each person defines happiness a different way, and I think much of the frustration or sadness about life in general is brought about by how difficult or unreachable that definition of “happy” is.  When people ask me for advice, I come back with a simple question: “What is it that will make YOU happy?  Without worrying about everyone else around you, the other people depending on you for their own happiness, just thinking about YOU and YOU alone — what would make you happy?”

I have no formula for happiness.  I envy those people who can authoritatively declare that their personal default setting is “happy”.   Is that at all possible?  Or are these people just deluding themselves about how happy they are.  Are they really happy?

I had asked myself that question many times — and I found my answer.  But the answer to my question is personal to me.  That question is answered a million different ways by the millions of other people out there.  You would answer that question your way.

I still ask myself that question when faced with a dilemma where I have to make a choice.  We have been wired to think of “what’s good for the majority”, or “whats good for all.”  But when that answer clashes with “what’s good for us” or “what’s good for me”, there arises a frustration that leads to sadness and discontent.  It leads to sacrifice — mostly on our part.  And sacrifice, no matter how noble, always hurts.

There’s nothing wrong with sacrificing or doing what’s best for others.  But it is more difficult to swallow when we ourselves, are, in general, not happy.  It all starts with ourselves.  So you need to find your happy place and go there when everything else seems to be crumbling down.

So how can you find that happy place?

Memorialize “happy” in words.  I read somewhere not too long ago, that a gratitude journal is precisely for these times when we feel at our lowest.  We need to remind ourselves that there were things that made us feel grateful, and collectively, these are the things that contribute to our happiness.  That worked for me for a while and I just don’t know where my gratitude journal is right now, but that is a good idea that might work for those who do journaling or blogging or some form of record keeping.  I haven’t posted in ages, but I used to have a “Five Things to be happy about” list here– simple things that make me feel grateful at any given point in time.

The point is to have something filled with positive thoughts that you can go back to over and over again, more so during those times when you need a major pick me up.

Find that picture that will never fail to make you smile.  I have pictures that remind me of a million emotions that wrapped together bring a smile to my face.  I love taking selfies with my boy, and even before the age of smart phones and all, I trained myself to take photos with my point and shoot camera facing us, at arms’ length.  People used to wonder how I could do that and come up with perfect framing– I simply say, “Practice.”  Of all the probably thousands of selfies I’ve taken, I have a favorite one when he was probably 4 or 5.  I love that photograph because he was still small enough to sit on my lap, rest his head on my chest, and he smiled this happy smile that proclaims to everyone around “This is my girl.”  (He will probably cringe now at almost 13 if he reads I wrote that.). I have a copy of that picture in a frame on my desk.  Some place I can always see it.  And when I see that picture, I find myself in my happy place.

Create a happy space in your mind you can retreat to just by closing your eyes.  Remember how, as a kid, you would imagine a world where you were the princess or the super hero?  Or how you had such fun vacations with the family?  A special trip with friends perhaps?  Or a time and place where you get a tight embrace, where there was so much laughter you found yourself shaking uncontrollably until you had to take a deep breath before you started tearing up?  I have my favorite happy moments I loop in a repeating video in my mind, and I go there when I feel like things are going grey.

Carry a small memento of a happy moment with you.  Some people have keychains, a matchbook, a bookmark, a table napkin — tucked in your purse or wallet – or a note from a favorite relative, a word of encouragement.  Nondescript items that symbolize a happy moment in our lives, whenever that may have been, wherever they may be.  It might be a business card, a rewards card, or some other plastic with someone’s name which brings you happy thoughts.  Have it within reach so that each time you feel you need a boost, you can fish for it wherever it may be.

Do not feel guilty about reaching out for a favorite snack or comfort food that might give you a much-needed sugar boost!  It might not be so bad to actually give in to a craving for something that absolutely bring you a piece of heaven, even if it is spelled in calories.  For me, it’s that chocolate treat, or a pint of my favorite butter pecan ice cream.  The thing is, it shouldn’t become an excuse to overindulge or overeat.  It should be enough that you satisfy the craving, smile and move on from there.  A taste is different from gorging on something you absolutely love.  Just enough to make it to “happy” and nudge you awake to do something about your state of mind.

Or it can be a reward for something you need a pat on the back for.  I know most people will disagree with this but life is too short for us to continually deprive ourselves of those things that put a smile on our face just because the rest of the world dictates that we have to be a certain dress size.

These things have helped me to stand up when I was at my lowest and even on an everyday basis.  Perhaps the shorter answer to my friend’s question about how I stay happy is that I keep my happy thoughts and happy items near.  Even on an ordinary day, I go to that happy place tucked in the corners of my mind and I visit and breathe in my bit of happy.

 I choose “happy”.  That’s how I manage to get past the pain and the chaos and the obstacles that life has made a habit of throwing my way.  

Flowers at the Grounds of Alexandria