Making it look easy

This past Monday was the first week back at school for my husband (a teacher) and my son, who’s in fourth grade. During summers and holiday breaks, my husband does a ton of housework and yardwork, and he takes our son to a plethora of activities, all of which I appreciate as someone with a demanding job (I work in the IT field, and 40 hour weeks are short weeks for me).

When school is in session, however, all that comes to a complete halt. To husband’s credit, he does the daycare pickup and dinner on the nights when I’m working late or at Toastmasters, but I am responsible for 2/3 of the laundry, the majority of the housework, nearly all the cooking and 100% of the morning routine. On Thursday nights and a least every other weekend, I am, for all intents and purposes, a single mom.

Every time a new semester approaches, I panic inside. This year, though, I am determined to find shortcuts, tricks, and outright cheats to make it somewhat easier on myself – and to make myself appear awesome! Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The 20 Minute Challenge. This was borne out of the realization that, with three of us living in the house, I could get an hour’s worth of work in 20 minutes by making it worth everyone’s while. I thought I had invented this as it pertains to housecleaning, but it’s already out on the interwebs. I run mine as a true competition though, with fabulous cash and prizes a prize for the winner of the challenge.

How it works: Each of the three of us chooses a room (living, dining, kitchen, bathroom) and during the Challenge, we compete to see who ends up with the cleanest living area. Winner gets his or her choice of family activity afterward. We play music during the Challenge, and often will take turns choosing the next song to be played (I have an iPad with a speaker dock and will often pick a song out of my iTunes library or a YouTube video). During the final few minutes, we play the finale of the William Tell Overture. The key is for the Challenge to be FUN. Kids will sometimes lose interest in this, but yelling at them for not participating guarantees they won’t want to take part again. If only the adults end up participating, that’s fine.

Enrichment Night. Alas, I thought this was my own unique invention as well, but a quick Google search proved me wrong. My twist on this is that every participant (on Thursday nights, this is my son’s and my special thing) chooses something he or she wants to learn more about and then just does it. This past Thursday, for example, we learned about  Emotional Freedom Techniques (not your usual topic, but we had a need for it this week). Future weeks may include one or both of us practicing stop motion animation – there’s an app for that – learning Italian or practicing bass guitar.

How it Works: There are more resources out there for learning subjects for free than I have room to list, but some that come to mind are Kahn Academy, MIT, eHow and, of course, YouTube. Simply pick your subject and get started!

Meal Planning. For my family, meal planning typically goes something like this: Saturday afternoon or Sunday night, go to the store, spend about $100 to $120 buying whatever looks good, take it home. Run completely out of food three days later and make an emergency trip to the closest store on the way home and spend another $75 to $80. Go out for lunch and dinner several times that week whenever you can’t come up with something to make or you forget to bring a lunch to work. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I asked Mr Google for help in this area, after being aghast at just how much we have been spending on food for the three of us, and one of the first results was Veggie Meal Maker. For me, being able to “shop” for recipes, adjust the serving size, and generate a shopping list automatically was just what I need (they also have a mobile site, which I used when I went to Trader Joe’s in lieu of printing out the list).

Now, if you’re not vegetarian or want to see what else is out there, a search for “meal planner app” returned over 400,000 results.

How it Works: Review the list of suggested recipes (or browse), drag the ones you want onto the calendar, click “Shopping List” and print to bring with you to the store or pull up the mobile app on your phone while shopping. Last weekend I spent about $130 and got more than a weeks’ worth of groceries. There are no “weird” or hard to find ingredients and the recipes are crowd-sourced, similar to various cooking websites. Each one requires about 5-15 minutes of prep time and 10-40 minutes cooking time. I’ve had delicious foods such as pancakes and Indian curry and have not only saved time and money but I’ve been able to more easily hit my daily calorie budget.

What about you? What are your dirty little secrets for making it look easy?

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Slow down, you move too fast

You likely can’t tell by my lack of recent writings, but I am a go-go-go person, always in motion, either on my way somewhere, or actively doing something. I have a demanding job, and a kid, and friends, and hobbies… and if that weren’t enough, I’m a club officer for my local Toastmasters club. This next six months, it appears I will be fulfilling not one, but two roles – VP of Public Relations (a title I’ve held for the last two years) and VP of Education, the office just below that of President.

This past New Year’s Day, I made the resolution that approximately 95 percent of the people I know make on the first of the year: get back into shape. Like some kind of masochist, I’ve been poring through nutrition websites for everyone from bodybuilders to vegans (and vegan bodybuilders) and reviews on Amazon for products such as Nike+ Kinect. I’ve also been seriously considering trying Insanity, which I own on DVD and which nearly killed me, in a manner of speaking, once again. Yeahhhhhh…

Then IT happened. I had just arrived at work on Thursday and was attempting to stretch when I heard and felt an odd disconcerting “pop”, followed by the sensation of my lower back muscles spasming and, finally, a lot of pain. Pain I haven’t quite ever felt before, as if that part of my back was swiftly torn in two like a sheet of paper.

Once, when my son was a baby, I’d attempted to pick him up while he was in his carseat (and weighing upwards of 30 pounds) and lifted with my back rather than my legs. That had resulted in spasms in my upper back which subsided after a few minutes. This was different. I made it through the work day, occasionally trying to stretch out the knot and grimacing every time, but by the end of the day I could barely walk, let alone anything else. I called off my plans to visit a friend that night and tucked myself gingerly into bed.

“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” – Nine Inch Nails

By yesterday morning, I realized I was going to be essentially non-functional for at least a day or two. I asked my friends on Facebook for their input, knowing my mom (who’s an RN) would likely have some good advice, and revised my immediate January resolution to a much more subdued one than I’d planned.

As yesterday and last night wore on, I likened myself to Bruce Lee, who spent months laid up before rising to prominence, stronger than ever… eh, who am I kidding? I’m a webmaster, not a martial arts master. My back is vital to me, but only as a support system for my right hand and brain.

Still, I am going to care for myself and see this as the mixed blessing it is: a chance to rejuvenate and truly listen to my body, rather than attempt to rush through things, risking permanent damage. Others I know have received similar wake-up calls. One former boss developed pneumonia. Another ended up hospitalized hours after I’d noticed in a meeting that morning that dude didn’t look so well. It’s a well-worn tale and a lesson everyone seems to know intellectually but which rarely seems to portend lasting positive change.

I intend to listen this time, and trade one resolution for another. After all, aren’t most New Year’s resolutions variations on a theme – to care for ourselves better than in years past? To recognize as precious the fragile gift of our bodies, and treat them with more respect than our material possessions?

It’s possible my torn/sprained/strained/pulled (pending a visit to the Dr) back muscle is nothing more than a reminder not to let my quest to “get ‘er done” get in the way of my overall well-being. A subtle plea from my body to me to be kind to myself.

A resolution I hadn’t realized I needed to make.

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No song unsung, no wine untasted

A couple of years ago, I posted a blog entry about a friend of mine who was moving far away and I was incredibly sad about it. That blog, to date, is my post popular post, and it seemed to resonate with readers who felt, as I did, that… gosh, friendship is so hard as an adult.

Several months later, my friend moved back and I realized what it was that truly bothered me: I hadn’t outright told her how much I was going to miss her, hadn’t made the most of our time together, and I vowed not to make the same mistake again.

This year, 2012, brought to light for me the need to not only tell people what they mean to you but to DO IT NOW, first when my father-in-law passed away, then when a friend died and her husband casually let us know. In my father-in-law’s case, he really never approved of me, and my husband and I went years without speaking to him. We really should have taken the time to clear the air with him while we had the chance. When the time came for him to go (or, rather, he decided it was his time; believe me, he ran that show), he called in each of his kids and their spouses to speak with them privately. Except me: I was at work and had been told to stay home.  He had been somewhat active on Facebook – yes, 75-year-olds use social media – and the very last thing ever posted to his wall was me wishing him happy birthday two weeks before his death. Aside from that, I didn’t get to say goodbye.

My friend Susan and I had been coworkers a long, long time ago. She was a quality assurance engineer at the software company we worked at, and I was a technical recruiter. Her husband owned a music store and worked as a police officer in the small town my husband and I live in. We had talked, off and on, for well over a decade about having dinner at their house and somehow life happened instead until one day she was gone. I never saw her socially after 2001 (just briefly, while she was on a ride-a-long with her husband) and, again, no final goodbye.

Part of my issue with this is that, sometime during my formative years, I convinced myself that people are irritated by my presence. Therefore, I am very good at giving them their space, which is often interpreted as disinterest. My husband has vocalized this when I don’t reply to an email right away. So have previous boyfriends, guys I was dating, potential friends, potential employers and many others over the years. 

My perceived disinterest turned people off, which in turn seemed to confirm my feelings of being somewhat undesirable. On the other hand, on occasions during which I’ve been more authentic and expressed my feelings more openly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how receptive most are.

My New Year’s Wish for 2013, then, is simple: do it NOW. Call your grandmother. Kiss your children. Tell your husband what you want from him. Take your mother to see Les Miserables and leave the boys at home. You won’t regret it.

Best wishes to you all in the new year.

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Halloween: A Time for Reflection

I was surprised one night at Toastmasters to hear a gentleman in our group come to the front of the room during Table Topics and declare that he hated Halloween because, in his words, “It encourages people to be violent”.

As I was Table Topics master that night and I’d presented an exercise to the group involving pulling Halloween-themed words from two cups with which to create a story, I initially took this a bit personally. All Hallow’s Eve is my favorite holiday, and I have a storied history with costuming (both wearing and creating garb, even before I got involved in theater), cooking, decorating and contemplating what, to me, is a most spiritually significant day.

My brother and I attended a strict religious school until 6th grade. Each day began with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible and ended in prayer. Secular forms of entertainment were verboten, and at our school, October 31st was known as History Day. Scary masks and costumes were not allowed (and were cause for suspension) but one could come to school dressed as, say, Winston Churchill or Mary Magdalene (because, of course, the Bible was our main history textbook).

As a result, I never dressed for Halloween as a witch or ghost (until I was in my 30s, anyway), but I did win my school’s costume contest the year I came as Eve, in a beautiful, leaf-covered dress my mom had sewn.

So on the one hand I grew up with the message that ghosts weren’t real and believing in them was sinful, Halloween was a holiday created by Satan to lead good Christians astray, and kids eat too much candy anyway.

On the other hand, there was my grandmother. A devout Catholic all her life, by the time I was 5 or 6 years old, even before I’d ever heard of a medium, I knew that my grandma saw dead people. Not only that, but when she was very ill once as a child herself, she’d seen and talked to Jesus, who appeared as an apparition at the foot if her bed and assured her that her time in earth was far from over (she turns 91 next month, so he was right).

I loved and revered my grandma and her awe-inspiring abilities and it wasn’t long before I had a couple of life-changing experiences myself.

I was about 6 or 7 years old and we were visiting my grandparents, who lived on a farm in Alamogordo, NM. I was in one of the bedrooms one day, looking at a framed sheet of paper in the wall. This piece of paper – I remember it as some sort of certificate – had script on it and a dark blue oval near the center. As I stared at the oval, I noticed the face of a woman superimposed onto it. The face then became the face of a child. Then an old man. And so on, and so on and so on.

I told my mom and grandma about the faces and they replied that only the pure of heart could see the face of the Virgin Mary in the blue oval. Didn’t explain the many faces I saw, but at least no one insisted I was imagining things.

Not very long later, my family moved into a 3-year-old house that had been built on an old apple orchard. Over the 8 years we lived there, all of us saw, heard or felt odd things, but nothing quite compared to the night I looked into the hallway from my open bedroom door and saw a black figure silently wandering around. I never forgot it, and felt silently relieved when we moved.

In my experience, not all hauntings are terrifying experiences, however. The night after my brother’s best friend committed suicide, he appeared to me in a dream to apologize, and to say goodbye.

Four years ago, during Labor Day weekend, another dream visitor, my husband’s mom (whom I’d never met) appeared to me as I’m told she looked toward the end of her life to reassure me that my then 5-year-old son would be just fine and that she was always watching over him. At the time I didn’t understand the message. The following Tuesday, though, began the chain of events which ultimately led to C being evaluated for, and placed in, special ed. After several shifts and much trial and error, he is now a happy, well-adjusted fourth grader who earned a scholastic award last week.

The person who had the most touching experience with the other side, of course, is my grandmother. She awoke in the middle of the night to find her favorite great-uncle unexpectedly standing in the doorway. She asked what he was doing at her house and he replied “I came to say goodbye.” Her great-aunt called just then to inform the family that he’d passed.

This brings me to my point. In October, when the day and night trade lengths and the veil thins between the living and the hereafter, Halloween (and its sister holiday, Dia de los Muertos) serve as a timely reminder of our fragility, our mortality, and, ultimately, our connection to others.

To me, Halloween gives license for fun and revelry but also a celebration of our humanity.


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Bad Company

This is a humorous speech I plan to give on Monday night. I’ll try to think of a better title, I promise. Constructive comments appreciated. Enjoy!

Good evening, fellow Toastmasters and honored guests. It’s September now, almost fall, and before too much longer the holiday season will be upon us. Ahh… candles, trees, tidings of goodwill to all people… and my personal favorite, company holiday parties!

Now, those of you who know me know that I’m not just a Toastmaster – I’m also a businesswoman. I’ve worked in corporate America long enough to know there are certain expectations when you’re attending a company-sponsored soiree, which is why my advice to you, if you’ve been invited to one, is this: proceed with caution. We’ve all heard tales of people (or their spouses) getting just a little tipsy and making complete fools of themselves at parties, but I’d warn you that even something as seemingly innocuous as how you (or your spouse) dance can make a lasting impression – for better or worse –  on the higher-ups. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Shortly after I earned my first degree, I wound up working at a technical recruiting firm in Sausalito – my first real, REAL job. I was young – twenty-two to be exact – as were most of my coworkers. Our boss was a man named – and I’m not making this up – Roger King. He and his wife (again, not making this up), Kathy Lord, were titans of business during the height of the dot-com boom.

My first year at the company, Roger and Kathy decided to throw a holiday shindig fit for, well, a King. Held at a prestigious winery in Sonoma, the evening promised to be a night to remember!

Now, let me reiterate. This was a period of time during which the economy was good. My coworkers and I were young, and we were having our company holiday party at a winery.

The party got underway and, soon, so did the dancing. I got up a danced for a bit, then I sat back down and decided to people watch for a while.

Now, when people are sober, they dance like this: [demonstrate]. Feet nailed to the floor, you might twist your body from side to side. Arms going a bit. You might even talk to your neighbors: “Hey! How are you??”

When they get a little alcohol in their system, people resemble those inflatable windsocks you see at auto sales. They kind of look like this: [demonstrate]. They get louder too: “Wooo-hoooooo!!!!”

When you have a situation like, um, a free, open bar during your holiday party, all bets are off.

Anyway, back to my company party. After a few bottles of wine had been consumed, things were raging. Roger, most of my male coworkers and my coworker Susan’s boyfriend, this guy named Andy, got up and began to dance together… as in arms around each other, leaning on one another for support. Singing along with the music, LOUDLY.

Someone – don’t really remember who started it – decided to lead the group in the can-can, that iconic dance performed in gay Paris during the heyday of the 1800s. Have you ever seen a group of men in suits and ties doing the can-can? Me either… until then.

They looked like a group of windsocks that were about to take flight. When one of them did a high kick, they ALL did a high kick, every one of them nearly stumbling and falling over… although thankfully none of them did, because they all had their bros holding them up.

The entire group decided to go for a really high kick when, before everyone’s eyes, Andy’s prosthetic leg – which I personally had no knowledge of – detached and flipped through the air like an acrobat, end over end [demonstrate]. It was like watching a car accident in slow motion. Finally, the leg came to rest, in the middle of the floor. You know that scene in what seems like just about every movie when the record player scratches and the room is completely silent? Yeah, THAT. Then, after what seemed like a small eternity, the entire place erupted. Recuiters, administrative staff, managers, waiters, bartenders and their dates all, with tears rolling down their cheeks, laughing at the poor guy.

Susan scrambled to her feet to retrieve the leg and re-attach it to her boyfriend. They sat down, the dancing stopped and the party went on. No one was hurt, but that image was etched into my mind forever.

It was on that night that I learned a very valuable lesson about company holiday parties. Don’t overdo it, and don’t get too wild. Heed my advice and keep both feet on the ground and you will have a leg to stand on!

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Conversation With a Preteen

Earlier tonight, I had the following conversation with my 9-year-old:

Me: I’m going to start teaching you about cleaning your skin in a few years. Teenagers get these things called pimples; they’re boo-boos that you get on your face.

Him: Well, Nonna has a boo-boo on her foot!

Me: Really? What’d she do to it?

Him: it’s black.

Me: Her foot is black?!?

Him: No.

Me: Then what’s black??

Him: I don’t know.

I’ll have to try some other time.

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More American Than Apple Pie

Fellow toastmasters and honored guests, this week we celebrate the birth of our nation, one of the richest, most beloved countries in the world. If you were to ask a random sampling of Americans, you’d hear lots if platitudes about how great the U.S. is. Here, we have our freedoms, democracy, capitalism and a national landscape which offers something for everyone. Living here is so desirable that people are willing to uproot their families to come here and make a better lives for themselves and their loved ones.

However, we as a nation are in crisis. We have an issue that is almost unheard of in the rest of the world, even among other industrialized nations, although parts of the rest of the world are beginning to catch up to us.

A few years ago, I read a shocking statistic. Nearly 30% of Americans are clinically obese, having a body mass index of 30 or over. Not only that, but obesity related health care costs for conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer top $150 BILLION dollars.

Deaths related to these conditions are through the roof. About a month and a half ago we lost my father in law, who was diabetic. A couple of weeks ago, I heard through a friend about someone close to my age who had suffered a heart attack – we’re in our 30s and what was more shocking to me than this news was the fact that it was the second time in two years. This is not right, and the situation is far rarer outside the U.S. Yes, obesity and the health risks involved with it are more American than apple pie.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is grim news for our country. The cause of much of the disease can be pinpointed to two things: diet and exercise.

Exercise I won’t get into. Most of us know we should get up and move. But the standard American diet bears a second look.

When you think of American food, what immediately comes to mind? Anyone? [get suggestions]
I know that, when I look back on the food I grew up with, I remember that I primarily ate from the four food groups: meat, milk, starch and sugar. Vegetables were kind of a condiment, and various forms of fat, like butter and gravy were used as seasonings. Part of this has to do with my parents – my dad is one of those guys who always has candy bars around – and part of it has to do with the kind of food that everyone just ate. A lot of what we consumed as a family was processed – Kraft singles, Twinkies, SPAM… you get the idea. Heck, apple pie contains two of the four main food groups.

I know my experience isn’t unique. I also know something else about American cuisine – it’s growing, literally. Have you ever had the experience where you started to eat a package of something and thought “Oh, cool. It’s only 200 calories!” only to realize there were 3 servings in the package? How many people know how much protein you should consume at a meal? About two to three ounces, which is roughly the size of a deck of cards. Yet, most of us eat much more than that, as well as far larger portions that needed of other foods.

The standard American diet makes it more and more difficult as portion sizes grow, and food is made more and more cheaply with lower quality ingredients.

So what’s the answer here? I think there are a number of steps we as Americans can take in order to improve our health and well-being. One such tactic, which I’ve spoken about in the past, also has a side benefit of reducing stress on the planet and can help reduce the stress on your wallet.
The particular tactic I want to propose to you all tonight is the adoption of a plant-based diet, rich in complete amino acid protein, iron, vitamins, minerals and with the amazing ability to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce cancer risk.

Notice I didn’t say vegetarian. I said plant-based. Reduce your intake of eggs and dairy as well as meat, and it will have a profound effect not only on your health but the health of the planet.
The Environmental Working Group claims that if every American ate one less burger per week, it would be the environmental equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles. Researchers at top American universities also state that the adoption of a plant-based diet releases significantly fewer greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than an omnivorous diet, a poultry-based diet, or even a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, on which one consumes dairy and eggs.

Now, I have no illusions that people will jump to adopt veganism overnight. But if you could make even a small change – say, eating a plant-based meal once a week or replacing one soda a day with water, I believe you will see and feel immense changes begin to take place.

Where to start? By educating yourself… four fairly recent movies that you can watch to gain a greater understanding are Supersize Me, Forks Over Knives, May I be Frank and PlanEAT. Also, google something called the Engine 2 diet, promoted by an Austin, TX firefighter who happens to be the son of the physician profiled in the movie Forks Over Knives. Also, here in Santa Rosa is Dr. John McDougall, a long-time proponent of a plant-based diet who has seen extraordinary changes occur in the lives of others.

Ladies and Gentlemen, change won’t happen overnight. I know I’ve been adjusting my diet for the last 22 years and I’m still working at it. But I have fait that, with small steps, maybe some day the phrase “going to Mickey D’s” will mean visiting Dr McDougall. And that will someday become more American than apple pie.

Delicious vegan tacos, because I didn’t have any pics of apple pie at hand when I wrote this

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