Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ooh La La!

It's been about three months since I started my quest to "become more French" in my attitudes. I've read half a dozen books on the topic, made some small changes (and a few large ones!) and am ready to report on my research.

Executive Summary - You should really do this!

Lengthier Explanation - As I explained in an earlier post, when I started this journey, I didn't think anything would change. I've made enough trips around the sun to know that I'm headstrong, set in my ways, and don't do well with down time. But I also knew that my methods weren't bringing me calm and a cancer diagnosis (even as mild a one as I had about this time last year) will scare you into making some changes.

It started with the idea of dieting. I've wanted to lose ten pounds for years, but nothing ever seemed to work and hey - it was "only" ten pounds. I was fine, right? Then I hit that magic birthday and the weight began to creep up. Still nothing to worry about; the doctor was quite happy with my bloodwork results and my various test numbers. However, radiation treatment meant a lengthy time of being very sedentary and eating whatever I wanted (and I didn't want salads and kale chips, let me tell you!) because - well, cancer and you're so consumed with dealing with that mess that everyone tells you to not worry about the scale (and they're right, by the way). So in June, I stepped on the scale and was horrified to discover that I weighed about 30 pounds more than I wanted to and that nothing - repeat, NOTHING - in my closet fit properly.

At this point, Something Had to Be Done. Having heard about the "French paradox" and having tried far crazier things in my life, I decided to look into this and maybe sort of "go French."

 Oddly enough, this did not include dieting. And yet, over the last three months, I've lost 12 pounds and I've done it without tracking my food or denying myself much of anything. I eat a lot more soup (homemade, which is another plus since prepared ones tend to be full of sodium) and don't go anywhere without a water bottle. I eat real food (which includes butter, sugar, and chocolate, along with huge salads, fruit smoothies, and plenty of vegetables) instead of sad, flavorless, packed-with-preservatives frozen whosits, and I watch my portions. It's interesting - it takes less "real food" to make me feel full and satisfied. I'm not totally virtuous - I occasionally eat the "bad stuff" but overall, my habits are much better than they've been. I also weigh myself often - I've heard conflicting reports on the advisability of doing this, but it works for me.

OK, that's all well and good. I still have 20+ pounds I want to lose and it's likely to take months. That's all right. Clothes that I bought when I was in "ohmigod, what can I wear to work when it gets cold?" mode are now slightly large on me, which is fantastic.

Which brings me to my next point - shopping.

As a general rule, I don't pay full retail for much of anything (read about that here) and I fretted over the French idea of fewer clothes, but better quality. Like many Americans, I had overflowing drawers stuffed with cheap clothes. I took several deep breaths and culled ruthlessly. (When much doesn't fit, it's easier, which is perhaps the only plus side to my balloon journey.) There's an axiom that says that you can't bring more into your life (stuff, love, etc.) unless there's room for it. Perhaps that's true - once I made room and committed to not buying anything unless it fit, I loved it, it was versatile, and the price was right for me - it's as if a celestial door opened. Consignment shops - that's where it's at. Go - and go often! - with patience and a spirit of adventure and buy NOTHING that doesn't fit ALL of these criteria. And, of course, be willing to haggle good-naturedly. (I also keep a list of what I'm looking for so I don't wind up buying things I don't need.)

I've been amazed at what I've found - classic, timeless pieces that will last me decades, if I properly care for them. Also, by having fewer items that go with more things, it's both easier to decide what to wear and I'm discovering new ways to put things together and I'm more confident about trying new things. I'm even experimenting with scarves!

I think the biggest takeaway from the last three months is that it's good to take care of yourself. I work full-time and still struggle to find that "sweet spot" of balance between work, family, the new book, and self-care, but I like using the "good stuff" (such as wearing the good pearl earrings on a random Tuesday or taking a 20-minute bath instead of a 5-minute shower) and it's good to try to have more fun everyday. Some of my steps in that direction include prepping a "bad day" box, getting a decent fountain pen to use instead of just cheap stick pens, using sidewalk chalk, and using fewer disposable paper cups at the coffee shop - carry your own mug instead. By the way, this really isn't a question of money - my finances are such that even shopping at Target right now is something that must be planned for. Budgets are actually your friend - tell your money where to go instead of just wondering where it all went - it's hard at first but it gets better. And you acquire things piece by piece.

I'm nowhere near done with this and, quite frankly, I hope it takes me years. I still have too much stuff and I still have tendencies to overwork and view time off as being wasted time. These are not good attitudes. (Common, yes, but good - no.) It is good to treat ourselves well - to drink fresh water and eat real food, to laugh and play, to get ourselves winded from running and then have Gatorade and a graham cracker, to nap and pet animals, to leaf through catalogs and magazines and to remember that the very seasons of the year itself include quiet time for growth and reflection. We could learn a lot from that.

Vive la France!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Moveable Feast

Not this!
As you know, I've been on a quest to "become more French" in my attitudes. No, I'm not sporting a beret, quoting Sartre, and smoking Gitanes (or smoking at all, actually), but I'm trying to incorporate some of the "pleasure principles" I've been reading about into my daily life.

So how's it going? Can a recovering perfectionist raised with an overabundance of the Calvinist work ethic find contentment in self-care? Or does she wind up wracked by guilt at not being productive 24/7 and go around in a constant state of apology?

Let us draw back the curtain and take a peek . . .

The whole adventure started around the end of June. For years, I'd heard about the "French paradox" and read accounts of the generous attitudes toward family time in French society. Well, that's fine, I thought. Wouldn't work here. Now, let me get back to replying to e-mails at 7 am. But this year, I was pulled up short - I had a diagnosis of Junior Auxiliary Cancer and my dad needed heart surgery. (Both of us are now doing fine, by the way.) That will change your perspective on things in a hurry. Just why exactly was I working so hard? Personal satisfaction? A paycheck? So I could say, "Working real hard, boss!" and hope for a paternal pat of approval as if I were a beagle? Hmm. This needed to be examined. (Besides, it's worth noting that French workers are more productive than Americans.)

Over the last two months, I've been trying some things that - to be candid - I never thought would work. The problem as I saw it was that I just didn't have time for that sort of thing. (I just realized - wow! I was Shere Khan!)

I can be so stubborn that it seems my spirit animal should be a mule.

I started small, convinced that (a) it was frivolous, (b) even if it wasn't frivolous, it wouldn't work and (c) even if it did work, it wouldn't matter. But, fine. I'd try and then you'd see it was useless. I started with a little thing that took me less than ten minutes to set up - I organized my cosmetics, tossing the old, cakey stuff and moving the "good stuff" (samples I'd gotten and was "saving") front and center so I'd use them every single day. A funny thing happened. Taking better care of myself through small things made me feel better about myself. I was worth using the fancy eye cream and moisturizer that had just been sitting there unopened! Imagine that! 

Then the universe conspired to help me and I started finding amazing things at incredible prices. The "hunt" was often more fun than the finding, but I couldn't help it - I started to find! I've pared down my wardrobe (still have a ways to go on that) and added a few high-quality pieces that I've found at good consignment shops (on sale! ON SALE!). I have quality skincare products that practically fell into my lap. I'm discovering my "signature scent" and taking the time to wear clothes that make me feel good. I'm drinking water by the tumbler and I'm not stuffing myself with sub-par food. I'm taking the time to read and going to sleep at a respectable hour. I also stop working at a decent hour and focus time and attention on my family. (By the way, I've also lost eight pounds of the weight I put on during my illness and treatment, so there's that.)

Two quick stories to try to convince you to give this a try. First -  since 2011, my hometown has been the host city for the American Legion World Series. My dad went to college on a baseball/football scholarship and played catcher for the only ACC team to win the College World Series,* so baseball is pretty important to us. My parents almost always come down for at least part of the Series, which falls just as my college is starting the fall semester. Therefore, I've always been "too busy" to go see a game with my parents, which resulted in them watching the games and probably wondering why their youngest daughter insisted on behaving like a headless chicken.

Sometimes, my intelligence can be measured deeply on the idiot scale.

So this year, I said, "Come on down!" and I worked hard to wrap up things so I'd have the free time to visit and play with my folks. No, I didn't have everything ready to go and neatly squared off before they arrived. But I saw game after game with my parents, I had a marvelous time, and I wouldn't trade those days in the hot sunshine for a gold monkey. And the first day of class went just fine!

Second - from the time she was a young woman, my mother has had an oval gold bangle bracelet that she wears so often it's a "signature piece" of hers. Now, this bangle is a solid piece - there's no hinge or latch - so you touch your pinkie and your thumb together and scrunch your hand a bit to slide it on. We call it her "gypsy bracelet" and we've never found another one. Round bangles, sure. Ovals with latches, no problem. But not a solid oval.

Yesterday, I got back to take a second look at a local consignment shop - there was a costume jewelry brooch I wanted to get another look at. And what gleams at me from the jewelry case but a silver bangle bracelet. Oval. No latch. Solid. Excited, I barely remembered to haggle. (But I did. They knocked off a few dollars and gave me the brooch for half off.)

This is what I mean. Once you decide to make changes - I mean, REALLY DECIDE - I've noticed that things mysteriously line up to help you; you just have to pay attention.

Also yesterday, I went to work to tie up some loose ends from the first week, then left to keep a massage appointment I'd made. (I've gone to the same masseuse for about a dozen years now and I really can't recommend it enough. In town, try her [tell her Mockingbird sent you!] - out of town, find one!) I then ran a couple of errands (dropped off bills, found the bracelet!, that sort of thing) and realized it was a gorgeous day and I hadn't really played with the Spooky-dog in ages. So I went home, changed clothes, left a message for FryDaddy (who has been wonderful about supporting my French attitudes as a "moveable feast" experiment), and my Dixie Dingo and I went to our favorite coffee shop. She had a bowl of water and got petted by many passers-by and I had a lovingly-made cortadito while I sat in the sunshine with my getting-longish hair held back with a scarf and hand-wrote a note to my parents. FryDaddy got my message and joined us, so we had an unexpected stroll through uptown and checked out a couple of shops we'd been meaning to explore in sort of an impromptu date night.

Now, not every day is like that, but why not open yourself to the idea of setting things up so it could be? Life doesn't have to be an unending trial and you (yes, you!) can decide to change it! Don't tell me it can't happen - you deserve to take care of yourself. Start today!

* Sorry, UVA won the Series in 2015. So the record stood for 60 years.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Relief, Rest, & Resilience

Earlier this week, I had my first post-surgical mammogram. I tried very hard to just not think about it ahead of time, but it kept sneaking back into my head. After all, this would be the first definitive proof that all the bad cells had been eradicated through the surgery in December and the radiation earlier this year. I'm delighted beyond belief to report that everything was clean and I'm considered to be well on my way to recovery!

Now, any woman who's being honest will tell you that mammograms aren't exactly a whirligig of fun. They're distinctly uncomfortable but they provide crucial information - the entire reason my outcome has been so positive stems from having regular exams. Catching things at Stage Zero (where, technically, it's "just" junior auxiliary cancer since the disease is so encapsulated) is SO MUCH BETTER than catching it later. So - ladies, make that phone call today. Gentlemen, encourage the women in your life to make that phone call today. No kidding. Call. If insurance and funds are an issue, look into alternative low-cost programs. There are many that take mammogram equipment on the road - a "Breastmobile," if you will.

I'm continuing with my 30 Day Challenge to treat myself like company. It's been a good thing, so far, although I'm noticing how often my "treats" involve sweets and I'm trying to find other rewards. In this, I think the French in particular and Europeans in general are way ahead of us. America still holds tightly on to our puritanical roots - if we're not working, sweating, and exerting, well - we're just shameless lollygaggers. We view pleasure with suspicion. Think about it - how often have you heard a woman order dessert and then say that she's being "bad"? Or that she'll "work it off" at the gym the next day?

There's nothing but guilt in that approach.

As the wise and wry Tasha Tudor would remind us, life is meant to be enjoyed, not saddled with.

So treat yourself well! Eat food that will keep you humming along, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, spend time with friends, delight in your family and quit putting your own needs so low on the list that you have to turn the list over to find your name! Pet a cat, walk around your block, pick up a book, take the time to brew a real cup of tea. Use the good crystal, wear your pearl earrings on a Monday, spend your lunch hour testing perfumes to find your "signature scent."

Frivolous? Not a bit! Who knows? Maybe if we all treated ourselves a bit more kindly, we'd be quicker to extend that kindness to others. So smile at the cashier, let a car merge in front of you, wave at the garbage truck driver who's there to pick up your trash.

To quote Bluto in Animal House, "Don't cost nothin'." Sure, he's talking about something else, but still . . .

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Company's Coming!

Coloring - not just for kids!
I have to say that I like the results of my "French experiment" so far. It's been nice to start culling my closet (much, MUCH work to do there - I'd like to eventually get to a "capsule wardrobe," but that's likely to take a while) and I've enjoyed taking better care of myself through what - and when! - I eat. I'm going to continue on this road, with the ultimate goal being happier and more comfortable in my own skin (which, I have learned, is "bien dans sa peau" in French. Lovely, but with my North Cackalacky accent, I'm sticking with the English) .

So my next step is to spread the love of this idea. I've started the "30 Day 'Treat Yourself Like Company' Challenge" - every day, you are to do two nice things for yourself, the sort of thing that you'd do for company without a second thought, but don't often take the time to do for yourself. Let me explain - the idea here is not that you're running off to Bora Bora and abandoning your responsibilities. Instead, by taking care of yourself in multiple small ways throughout every day, you're actually setting yourself up to be better able to take care of others. This isn't about you becoming a diva and demanding that the world stop spinning to acknowledge your gloriousness; but it IS about you taking a few extra minutes to reset and value yourself. Examples might involve the indulgences you do on vacation, such as having ice cream for lunch or taking a good long soak in the tub. Or they might include using the "good stuff" on an ordinary day - the fancy guest soaps, the wedding china, or your best perfume. Maybe it's food - taking the time to make a perfect summer tomato sandwich or making soup from scratch and letting it simmer all day. Maybe it's skin care or makeup or jewelry or taking time to color or to just read for fun. It can be all of these things, some of these things, or none of these things. But for 30 days, go a little easy on yourself. Plan two treats per day - and no days off!

I've gotten a few friends to agree to do this with me and we'd love to have more - it doesn't matter where you start - just go ahead and jump in wherever. I'd love to hear what you're doing! Leave a comment here or use the hashtag #companycoming on Twitter.

Now go do something nice for yourself!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Becoming French

My ongoing quest to continue downshifting both hit a few bumps in the road and found new urgency since last we spoke. A few days after we left for vacation, I received word that my father had been taken to the hospital. Several days of tests and much worry later, it was determined that my dad needed some serious heart surgery. Serious to my mind, but practically routine these days - serious, though. Dad came through surgery like a champ (I had a screaming fit in a parking lot, but at least I didn't scare horses or children) and is back home now. According to his doctors, he's recovering nicely and should be just fine - even better than that, since now his heart is working without three blockages.

Let me tell you - something like that will snap you into focus pretty darned quick. Maybe even more so than my own diagnosis. There, I was concentrating on myself and what I could do; in this situation there wasn't anything I could do, other than burn up the road between my "now home" and my childhood home, which I did. I'm no good at sitting still, so I came up with the hare-brained idea to build Dad an elevated summer garden so he'd have something to look at from his bedroom/study while he recovers. It's good to stay busy and the final result was something that Dad seems to like quite a bit. Maybe this gardening thing is going to stick, after all.

It's a crazy time - this weekend is the second Joss in June conference and I have the privilege of delivering the keynote at that conference. My topic (dealing with Pinocchio and the new Age of Ultron movie) is one that I selected before the film came out, so I haven't had the time I'd have preferred to have had, but I dug this hole myself, so it's up to me to shovel my way out. I think I like where the presentation goes, but I'm a little too close to tell.

On top of that, my two summer classes begin for me next week, so I had to get those set up before we leave for the conference. Yeah, it's not exactly been a time of gentle musing and contemplation.

So - becoming French. I picked up a book when we last visited one of our favorite used book stores in Tennessee that was all about "finding your inner French girl." Sounds silly and fluffy, but it had some good advice about slowing down, taking care of yourself, eating real food (not at your desk, where I eat far too often), and there were some recommendations for movies to watch to soak in domestic details. I started trying to do some of these things - not drink my morning coffee standing over the sink, actually use the good stuff (we used the good china tonight, for example), take a few extra minutes to consider things before leaping off into something I don't really want to do and have fewer things, but of excellent quality. I even went through my closet to pare things down and finally got rid of clothes that simply don't fit any longer. Nope, I'm not hanging onto them until I lose the 20 pounds I've put on this year from stress eating. (My sweet tooth is my downfall and it must be reined in.) I'm not buying stuff just because it's on sale, either. To get in my closet from now on, a thing has to be something I need, something I can wear often, something beautiful, and something of high quality at a good price. Taking this attitude has already paid off, as I found an item I'd been looking for off and on for years in a consignment shop that has become a sort of haven for me. (And that's all I'll say about that, lest you think I've turned totally materialistic.)

While I haven't turned into a beret-wearing, baguette-chomping clotheshorse, already I see some progress in achieving my own level of je ne sais quoi. I'm taking the extra few minutes to take care of my skin, instead of just slapping on soap and scrubbing like a deckhand; I take time to relax in the evening (including taking the time to actually make tea instead of just heating a random mug in the microwave), I'm working to remember that family is more important that work, and I'm also trying to enjoy my work more instead of feeling constantly behind.

The French just may be on to something.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Taking the Phone Off the Hook

A long, long time ago, I heard a song by Billy Joel that was never one of his hits, but one that deeply resonated with me - "Vienna" from The Stranger album. It's a song in which an older person is giving some hard-won advice to a younger person (maybe they're even the same person), and you just know that Youngster isn't listening, being in far too much a hurry to get going to Somewhere. And you also know that Oldster knows that Youngster isn't listening, but Oldster's going to try anyway.

I like it. A lot.

I've been away from the blog for longer than I really mean to - at first, it was "well, I'll write after "X" happens" and then I missed writing after "X," so I figured I might as well wait until "Y" happened, and so on and so on and now I find myself here. Lots has happened - FryDaddy and I celebrated our 5th anniversary to much loving and little fanfare; the semester finally ended (seriously - too many medical appointments and too much self-inflicted pressure on this one); Mother's Day and my mother's birthday; and also our slightly-delayed anniversary trip that we'd saved up for so FryDaddy and I could go hog-wild in a used bookstore. (Look, I don't judge your relationship, do I? And we revel in the printed page.)

Clearly, that's too much to try to cover here, so I won't. Suffice it to say that I'm working hard on not working hard. The silver lining to the last seven months has been discovering that I really need to ease up - that not everything's a forest fire in need of my immediate and undivided attention every second. And that it's okay to not get everything done. Yes, the house has "hot spots" that need some attention (you know "hot spots" - those places where stuff just gets dumped and never sorted through. I'd been doing really well about keeping those under control; now I need to start over), and that'll happen. I'm also ready to start pushing myself with jobbling again. But I'm also ready to spend some time reading for fun (how is it I never read Little Women? Well, I didn't and I'm fixing that now). I'm also conducting experiments in testing the best spot in the backyard for the hammock and watching the herb garden take root.

Yes, I've got the beginnings of a lovely garden thanks to generous friends and a willingness to work the business end of a shovel. Gardens take time, so even if everything takes hold (unlikely; I'm working in Carolina red clay here and my technique tends to be a bit - well, let's say enthusiasm wins out over skill most days), it'll be a year before you can really tell. That's okay - good things take time and I've had some hard-won lessons in the futility of rushing things. Speaking of which, I've got a keynote to write for a conference I'm thrilled to be invited to. The research is done (mostly) and I've finally reached that time where I'm itching to get words on paper. 

Plus, I've had three days away with my love where we had nothing to do at any particular time and slept so late that we missed housekeeping making up the room one day. We came home to pets who had missed us and a cozy house that takes care of those under her roof.

And our "long vacation" - our first one since our honeymoon - is coming up in a couple of weeks. There's some serious work to get done between here and there, but when we pull out of the driveway, I expect it to be with the "phone off the hook."

Yes, I've been to Vienna. But I know that there are other places that wait for me.

This is from Joel's performance in November 2014 at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. He was honored at the 2014 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Music. The arrangement is a tad different from the album, and Joel's voice has changed a bit from the 1970s, but it works so very well.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

So Now What?

After being brought to the realization that yes, I'm through with radiation treatments but also yes, I'm sick from them, things have (oddly enough) gotten much easier. It has to do with not fighting so hard to be better when I'm not and instead just accepting that I'm not quite there yet. I know - elementary, dear Watson, but I'm a hard-headed mule sometimes.

So over the last two weeks, I've been trying very hard to just listen to my body instead of my head (that thing has proven that it just Can't Be Trusted sometimes). As a result, I'm getting stronger more quickly. My days aren't back to "normal" just yet - basically, I'm good in the mornings and I work until I get tired, which I recognize by my loss of concentration, then I go home. I nap, then usually I can finish what I left unfinished earlier in the day. I had a check-up with my regular doctor (as opposed to my oncologist and radiation doc; those are scheduled for later) who reassured me that this is my new normal; at least for now. It won't stay here forever - I will get stronger and have more stamina - but this is where I am for now and that's to be expected.

I was strangely buoyed by this news.

And what I'm seeing now is that I can have one really strong day, but it's usually followed by a day of being pretty wiped out. Therefore, it was with great nervousness that I approached yesterday's Gold Rush 5K, which was held as part of my college's 50th anniversary celebration. FryDaddy had made it clear that I was to take it easy and I reassured him that I would, but that I really wanted to do this event. It would be my first post-radiation timed jobble and it was important to me to see that I could finish it. I've canceled two events already - and those decisions were the right ones for me to make at the time. But this race was super-close to home and non-competitive. (Oh, there are the serious-minded ones, but they're so far out in front of me that I don't have to fret about that.)

 With all that in mind, I donned my "let's not take this too seriously" race tutu, posed for pictures in the Very Fetching Hat (which was swapped out for my trusty ballcap for the actual race) and positioned myself at the back of the pack. I'm still not completely sure of my exact time - it was somewhere around 40 minutes, which is slowslowslow, but thrilled me. Plus - get this! - I somehow managed to win second place in my age group! I wore that medal most of the day! I had a number of friends in the race - some doing their first 5K, some old hands, and one - let's call her PiMaster - came in first among all the women competing. It was a wonderful morning and I was surrounded by support and was able to give a little support as well.

So it seems that I'm getting closer to being back. I've got goals over the next month - get some plants in (both flowers and food), get the house back closer to order, and so on - and I'm so very pleased to announce that I'm much, much closer to learning to not overdo. One of the greatest tools in that? So easy a child can do it, but we forget as we get taller.

Ask. Just ask. (This is in no way to be confused with whining. Asking is more "Can I have?" and whining is more "But I want.")

Ask for what you need, be that encouragement, coffee, an afternoon off, the name of a good therapist, grace to just get through the day until you can throw the covers over your head. Ask. People want to help and the Universe is really not out to get you; no matter how it seems some days. And for the love of heaven, help someone else out! Let someone cut ahead of you in the grocery line, hold the door for someone whose hands are full, smile at someone. Because - no kidding - we all have it rough and we're all in this together.