Monday, January 25, 2016

Hunkering Down

Bring it on, Old Man Winter!
Winter Storm Jonas only brushed us here in North Carolina. While folks from Richmond to DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York were dealing with snowfalls measured in feet, we only got a few inches, but a good deal of that was in the form of sleet. We were lucky enough to dodge the dreaded freezing rain, a form of precipitation that does no one any good and tends to bring down tree limbs and power lines. Still, in the gentle Southland it doesn't take much snow to shut us down - since significant snowfalls occur only once every few years, we don't have much in the way of snow removal equipment and no one bothers with snow tires, much less chains.

When snow is predicted in NC, bread shelves
take on the look of a Soviet grocery!
Thanks to advanced weather forecasting, we knew this was coming and had time to prepare. Having lived through ice storms before, FryDaddy was taking no chances - we now have both a coffee percolator (no power would mean no way to brew coffee and we agreed that would be bad. Very, very bad) and a butane-fueled burner for cooking. Add to that the propane grill and gas logs and we figured we could ride out a moderate-to-severe ice storm. We made our grocery run (which included chocolate, puff pastry, and ingredients for a variety of soups) and went to bed Thursday night, convinced we'd done all we could. We never did lose power (yay!), but there was enough ice, sleet, and general nastiness to keep us basically snowed in since Friday morning. Approached with the proper attitude, this doesn't have to be a bad thing - and I suppose I've been training for such an event since I started my French journey. Some things you simply cannot control and the weather is one of those things.

So what did we do with ourselves?

First and foremost, I didn't work on "work stuff" over the suddenly-longer weekend. The college was closed and I was with the man I vowed to love, honor, and cherish. Therefore, some things could simply wait for a change in the weather. That was actually difficult, but I put my back into it and managed to find other ways to occupy my time, including:

Nutella & puff pastry - heaven!
Trying new recipes. Knowing that bad weather was coming in, I dug out a few recipes I wanted to try and made sure to include ingredients on the grocery list. I made a loaf of rye bread and one of a Russian-style black bread (yum!), along with chickpea & pasta soup, Nutella croissants (I now want to always have puff pastry in the house!), spicy chickpea salad, and I even made ricotta cheese that I used in both a spread and a pasta sauce. (I was blown away by the last one - cheese! I've never made cheese before!)

Watching movies. We have wide-ranging tastes and we watched two documentaries (one on Scientology and one on rough poet Charles Bukowski), an oddly-touching classic (Galaxy Quest), and a true winter epic (David Lean's Doctor Zhivago).

Eat! I think my jeans may have somehow shrunk over the last few days (ahem), but I had to do some experimentation to find out if anything doesn't taste good when spread with Nutella. The answer, so far, is no. In addition to the new recipes I tried, there was also lushly rich hot chocolate and other delicacies.

Do something new. My beloved Carolina Panthers were in the NFC Championship game Sunday night and I had teal put into my hair just before the storm hit. Since I was at home with time to spare, I painted my nails Panther blue and used the Internet to figure out how to add a snowflake design to one nail. The end result wasn't that great, but hey! it looks like a snowflake if you squint a little. (And the Panthers absolutely destroyed the Arizona Cardinals, so we're Super Bowl bound.)

FryDaddy and I also took our inner children sledding. Yep, we trudged over to the local golf course (the sledding hill is Hole #13, by the way) and borrowed a sled from a neighbor. I haven't gone sledding since I was little. I couldn't believe how much fun I had flying at breakneck speed down an icy hill!

Speaking of which, we also just had fun being together. Being snowed in is good for that sort of thing, whether you're speeding down a hill on a golf course or sitting by the fire reading. (Oh, and I also downloaded an app that is trying to teach me French. [It's also available on your computer.] Why not? I'm not going to learn any younger.)

Today things are nearly back to normal - there's still some ice and some of the back roads continue to be treacherous, but you can see that clear roads are coming. It was a lovely, graceful break in the drear that can be January in the South and I'm thrilled that I took the time to enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

New Year, New Things!

Happy New Year, y'all!

I've been away for a bit - you'll hear details on that - and I'm back to talk with you about the importance of trying new things. As I've worked to change old, not-so-good habits and replace them with better-for-me habits over the last half-year, I've learned that I have to be willing to try new things. In a way, this is simple - the things I was doing (which included, but was not limited to, multi-tasking and acting as if my hair was on fire most days) before starting the "French journey" weren't working for me. I was stressed, frazzled, irritated and I desperately needed to return to the French ways that I had been cultivating. Couple that willingness to try new things with the basic necessity of taking care of yourself and all of a sudden I had license to attempt any number of things. (Hey, it was for science! Well, if not for science, at least in the name of "going French"! And yes, I know that this could simply be called "downshifting," but since it all started with books about the French lifestyle, I'm sticking with that term.)

Try new things - got it. Actually, there's one other point that needs to be mentioned. I had to go into this with a spirit of adventure and understanding that a great deal of this was about figuring out what I liked and what didn't work, because not all things would work for me. One of the best lessons I've learned so far was about the importance of failing. Seriously - that part doesn't matter, but it is crucial to my ongoing success to try. How else would I learn that I don't really care for the dehydrated bits in instant Thai Ton Yum soup, but think the broth is fantastic? Or that there's such a thing as Honey-Ginger White Balsamic Vinegar and that it's great when you add just a dash of it to plain water?  As Samuel Beckett (a Celt who wrote primarily in French, so he knew a few things about a conflicted soul) put it, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

As I've mentioned before, I teach at a community college. The week before the semester begins is usually one of the busiest - and most bananas - weeks on the calendar. Classes are being reshuffled due to increased/decreased enrollment and that has a domino effect (nope, not the sugar - more of the Southeast Asian variety) on everything else. Plus, students are still enrolling and there are meetings and reminders and you're trying to get your classes prepped to launch smoothly on the first day of the semester. It's crazy-making ("Hair on fire" territory, to tell you the truth). I tend to go to ground during this time and just try to focus on what's right in front of me. The problem with that is that I forget my "French lessons." In other words, I'm reacting to things instead of acting upon them. I'm allowing myself to be buffeted about by events and people and copy machines instead of taking an extra five minutes to be kind to myself.

Enough of that.

So since early January, I've been consciously trying to incorporate some of the Gallic principles I've been adding into my daily life since last summer. For example, I try very hard to not have meetings back-to-back. Things never end when you expect them to and I run late far too often.

I've got five tried-and-true suggestions I'm experimenting with right now. The bonus - they cost absolutely (or next to) nothing! Take what works for you from here and let me know the results.

1.  Following a tip, I called DHC (you can reach them at 800-342-2273), which is a high-end Japanese skincare line, and requested their catalog. Their products are about the price of department store brands (Clinique, Estée Lauder, etc.), but the catalog also comes with tiny samples of some of their most popular products. (Also, when you place an order with them, you get a couple of samples as well.) The trick for me is to actually USE THE SAMPLES! I need to remember that part of "going French" is to get over saving the "good stuff" for only occasional use. (Yes, I've "saved" things until they went bad and had to be thrown out. Hangs head.) So yes - I try to have pizza on the good china, wear my pearls to the ballgame, and even use the fancy samples. I deserve it. Plus, it's fun to window shop like this. In fact, it's something I suggest doing with all sorts of catalogs.

2. Realizing that I'd been treating myself like the help rather than like company, I did a little Googling for "home spa night." (FryDaddy was tied up elsewhere, so I had the time.) One thing led to another and I found this site. Hmmm, I thought. Sounds pretty straightforward. I started poking around in the kitchen. With coffee, yogurt, honey, and olive oil, I was ready to go! I moved some candles into the bathroom, set up a Pandora station (there's a "spa channel"), drew a hot bath, added Epsom salt, coconut oil, and a few drops of lavender essential oil and firmly shut the door.

Not from my spa night, but still . . .
I mixed my potions and scrubbed my face (too much stress makes my skin dull), then applied a rich hair mask and clipped my hair up, smoothed on a soothing facial mask and soaked until I was done. A little seltzer with lemon and a square of dark chocolate didn't hurt either. I finished up with a shower and a body scrub. (Again, everything featured coffee as a main ingredient - go figure!) Thick, rich lotion and clean pajamas round out the experience. Then it was time for a quick push-back of cuticles and a simple manicure. Grab that catalog, climb into a bed made up with fresh sheets and - aaaahhhhhhh! (OK, it's not exactly like a spa - you've got to clean up the bathroom at some point. But the job wasn't not too bad.)

3. I'm eating real food again after all the rich holiday treats. I've ditched the fake sugar and use actual, real-from-cane (or agave; I just discovered that) stuff. Yes, sugar isn't especially good for you, but spoonful after packet after squirt of the fake stuff isn't good for you either, and there's evidence that it just confuses your body into wanting even more sweet stuff, thereby setting up folks like me who have a sweet tooth the size of Chicago to binge big.

And it's not just the fake sugar. I'm trying to cut out/back on fake food in general. For example, I like dairy. I'm no longer worrying about skim and fat-free everything. Yes - real full-fat milk, full-out thick Greek yogurt, real cheese. (I just found a recipe for homemade ricotta that I'm going to try. Let's see if Monty Python was right all those years ago when they said, "Blessed are the cheesemakers.") It's such simple advice - eat real food - but it's hard to do. I've got a pantry of not-quite-foods like salad dressing (take a gander at the amount of sugar and sodium in the "lite" versions sometime!) and pasta sauces, but I'm trying. I'm still making homemade bread and I prefer it. (By the way, if you decide to try this, look in thrift shops. I found one the other day in one of my favorite consignment shops for $12.) A thick slice of toasted wholegrain bread spread with actual butter and real fruit jam makes a pretty fine breakfast, I have to say. (To the French, it's a "tartine." I'm trying to learn a few words here and there and food seems like a fine place to start!)

On the subject of eating, I'm trying to separate eating and working. It's hard for me to just put the keyboard down and back away, so I tried it for a day a week at first. It helps to go outside if you can. I'm adding a few flourishes to my meals, like using a cloth napkin - it's really no trouble to just toss it in the laundry. I work with one woman who has a special plate for her lunch. She uses it every day and never, ever eats out of plastic - it's a way to remind herself that her lunch is special to her and that she should take time to enjoy it. I like that idea.

4. I'm trying to move more. Right now in North Carolina, it's bitterly cold, so I'm not doing anything more outside than I can help at the moment. But I'm using my favorite running podcast with the goal of getting back into shape to participate in 5K races by the time spring rolls around. At the moment, I'm using the walking track at the college instead of outside, which gets dull, but it still counts. It's so important to remember that small stuff counts - take the stairs, take a ten-minute walk as part of your lunch break, park at the end of the lot and walk to the building, walk the dog around the block - it all works.

5. And the final thing I'm trying to develop as a habit right now is to write letters. Not e-mail, letters. You know, the kind with postage. I heard the author of this book speak this past fall and I'm trying a version of his ideas. When you sit and have to form the words with a hand-held pen (I'm using a fountain pen to really slow myself down. Fortunately, I have a few friends who could advise me on inks and nibs and things), you have to think about what you want to say. It's oddly soothing. And I have the advantage of having an excellent example for this one - my mother writes notes quite often. I usually get a letter from her at least once a week, often with newspaper clippings from my old hometown paper. Sure, it's online these days, but that doesn't diminish the delight I have at getting something fun in the mail from someone who loves me with evidence that they've been thinking about me. Give it a try, I say!


Monday, December 21, 2015

Ça Fera

According to Google Translate, the title of this post means "It will do" in French. I like that. As we head into the thick of the holiday season, I realized that it's been nearly six weeks since I've updated the blog - I didn't mean to let so much time slip by, but things happen, especially at the end of the year. And what a year it's been! Just before Christmas last year, I underwent a lumpectomy to treat "Stage Zero" breast cancer - another name for "ductal carcinoma in situ." (Christmas on painkillers - that ought to be a country song.) Stage Zero. Nothing to worry about. Whatever. Cancer. That's about all I heard.

I came through things with flying colors and the subsequent six weeks of five-days-a-week radiation treatment, while not a whirligig of fun, were all right. I had an amazing medical team, support from family, friends, co-workers, and strangers. People looked after FryDaddy so he could look after me. Still, I was stubborn and fell into old thinking, which included acting mule-headed and ignoring that I wasn't exactly 100%, which meant that I resisted having people take care of me. No, no, that's okay - I don't need help; I'm just fine.

Nonsense and I regret that.

So around late June, following a HUGE health scare with my dad (everything's okay on that score, but my family is quite ready to be done with this year), I started the "French journey" I've been writing about here for the last six months. A year-end wrap-up seems to be in order.

While I can still be as crazy as a rat in a coffee can (see picture and imagine a far more crazed, Edgar Allan Poe sort of rat), I'm better that I used to be (most days, anyway). Choosing the French to emulate was a good choice for me - it's a society that celebrates women, style, and intellectual ability (philosophy is a standard high school subject. Seriously). Yes, I've made changes in how I eat (most days). Yes, I've pared down my wardrobe and I've found amazing high-quality clothes and accessories. Yes, I now have a chaise longue (and I now know that it's not spelled "lounge") that I want to spend entire days on. Yes, I'm better at leaving work worries and aggravation at work (most days). Yes, I know about eight ways to twist and pin my now-shoulder-length hair into an updo. Yes, I can tie a scarf about five different ways. Yes, I have a Pandora station devoted to French music.

As one of my beloved friends tells her composition students when they present her with a paper that's long on facts but short on reason, "So what?"

It's an excellent question. The "so what?" in this case is an internal shift. It's not about perfume, or glitzy hairpins, or a silk blouse (although I found one for eight dollars the other day. I swear, it's like hunting). Those are merely outside trappings - certainly pretty, but not essential. The "French shift" for me has been a change in attitude. That includes taking the extra few minutes in the day to do things that make me feel good, whether that's adding a scarf to an outfit or making sure to have fresh fruit in the house. This change in internal attitude also means noticing things as they cross your path. The Bible tells us "Seek and ye shall find" and this is true. Yesterday, I noticed that "Angels We Have Heard on High" is a traditional French carol. My dad brought home croissants (which he never does), so I have those for a day or two leading up to Christmas. People know that I'm working on these things, and send me encouraging notes - including about a chaise longue! My project has taken on a wider reach than I ever would have imagined. Then again, I think we all could do with being a little gentler in our attitudes towards ourselves and one another.

A huge part of that has been learning to say "no" and mean it. "No" is a complete sentence and, while I still deal with twinges of guilt when I say "no," I an bone-deep sure that I am better able to serve my community, my students, my family, my friends - and yes, myself - when I'm not flailing about trying to complete too many tasks in too short a time. (Let me tell you a secret. Lean in here, so no one overhears us. Ready? The way to make saying "no" work is to look the other person square in the eyes and simply say "no." Don't attempt to explain, or add conditions, or (heavens above!) say something like, "If only . . ." Just say no, then smile. Perhaps shrug a little to indicate that, really, you would, but with the state of things as they are, it simply isn't possible. [Yes, you can communicate all of that with a shrug. Practice.] My French cousins might add "C'est la vie," but I am not French, so I'm sticking just with the "no" and the shrug. It's simple and it works, provided you keep your trap shut after saying "no." The other person will begin to talk. Let them. Smile sadly a little. Add nothing to the conversation. Say "no" again if you must, but nothing more than that.)

Also - I'm learning that, at my age, no one gives out gold stars. Remember those? Very popular with teachers, especially those who work with young students. Well, after a certain age, nobody gives those out, so it's imperative that you find your own value. This is echoed in the marvelously over-the-top Sweet Potato Queens who didn't wait around for someone else to give them a sash and a tiara. Very clever women, and their recipe for "Chocolate Stuff" is one treat everyone should try this holiday season.

Anyway, I bought my own box of stars (I really did - the local dollar store stocks them. I also write myself gift notes when I order things for myself off of Amazon. Why not? It's free and I like saying nice things to myself) and I give them to myself as I decide I deserve them. Some days it's because I completed grading an entire stack of papers or because I finished writing a chapter. Other days, it's because I didn't stab anyone with a fork - it's a flexible scale. I really do suggest trying this. Is it a little whimsical? Sure it is, and the world needs all the whimsy it can get these days.

Whether 2016 has you "going French" or not, I wish you the very best in the coming trip around the sun! Just try to be a little kinder when you don't want to be. If enough of us do that often enough, we'll see a change that will make the world sit up and take notice! Your best is good enough. Put forth that effort, then allow things to simply be - at least as much as you can.

Joyeux Noël, mes amis!*

* Yes, I do not speak French. Maybe I'll learn.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tending Your Garden

Any changes you make in your life really need to be part of all your life, if you intend for those changes to stick. So how does this work with my efforts (nearly five months in right now) to "become more French"? If this just an "at home" thing, or does it carry over?

So glad you asked!

Keep in mind that what I'm trying to do here is change my thinking, not just my wardrobe. It's easy to switch clothes - the real trick is to figure out what clothes are truly a reflection of you. In order to do that successfully, there's a great deal of "interior work" to do.

For instance, today my work outfit consisted of a white T-shirt, khakis with a black braided belt, black ballet flats (comfortable as bedroom slippers, by the way), a black ruffly jacket with three-quarter sleeves, and a red patterned scarf knotted into a necklace. My hair was in a French braid (my attempt today at a Dutch braid looking weirdly as if Belgium had invaded - there's a reason I don't post all my attempts at updos!) and I was rocking redredred lipstick and a discreet puff of Chanel perfume. I certainly looked French, but far more importantly, I felt like Mockingbird. I was comfortable, pulled together, and confident.

Yay, me. Not all days are like that, though. Some days it's a real effort to not just toss on a turtleneck and a college sweatshirt (which has been my go-to for far too long!) and just lumber in to work. Some days the world seems like a kind place populated by thoughtful people; other days it seems like humanity is a bad case of global lice that the planet ought to shake off as quickly as it can mange to do so.

What to do on those days?

As Voltaire might say, "Tend your garden." Thoughtfully consider what you have done to enrich your life and your outlook. Take a few minutes to check - have you tended to yourself? Have you had water? Enough sleep? Eaten real food, instead of processed faux-food? Gone for a walk? Read something non-work related? Cleaned your face? Washed your hair? Taken a bubble bath? Had a cup of tea and told the world to just hang on for a few minutes? You simply must take care of yourself to have the energy and focus to take care of others. So, first things first - how's your garden?

Voltaire's quote (from his satirical novella Candide), also refers to doing some actual work in the garden. You can't just watch it and hope for the best; you need to go tend it. Optimism is all well and good, but it must not be a substitute for purposeful action. Not all purposeful action will work. This is very important to understand. Do not be afraid to ask yourself, "When's the last time I failed at something?" In fact, ask yourself this question regularly, for if you haven't failed at something lately, you haven't tried anything new lately. 

Now, I'm not suggesting you fail at skydiving or heart surgery. But try new things - not all of them will work, or be to your taste, but you'll never know that if you stay safe and secure. That's the same thing as constantly outlining your paper instead of actually writing it (as an example). It's by knowing what you like and what suits you that you learn who you are. So what follows is a list of a dozen things I've failed at lately. Note that many of these are just not that big a deal. I learn by failing, but I get another chance to use what I've learned.
  • I hesitated and a pair of flat-out gorgeous dark red boots I was already half in love with were purchased by someone else. Carpe caligae, friends!
  • I didn't want to bother the barista so I didn't ask for the pumpkin pie spice when I really wanted it for my coffee.
  • I skipped the time in the morning that I set aside to pray and meditate then wondered why I was out of sorts all day. (That's a practice that really does help me brace my feet for the day.)
  • I tried an orange nail polish for Halloween and it chipped off in less than a day because I applied it in a rush. (Lots of my failures have to do with rushing, I've noticed.)
  • I desperately needed to take a few minutes and reset my mood instead of reveling in being angry, which is (quite frankly) a luxury I can't afford.
  • I allowed myself to get dragged into a Facebook argument - you never win those.
  • I thought I could fix a problem that, when I really thought about it, I realize will take many people working together to address and solve.
  • Because it's what I wanted, I thought things would simply unfold the way I had it scripted in my head, forgetting that other people have their own scripts.
  • Turns out that sometimes you need more than an extra two bobby pins to make a hairstyle work.
  • I gave in and had popcorn and movie candy for dinner. 
  • I let myself think that chores were more important than spending time with those I love.
  • I didn't look through my travel supplies and ran out of contact solution while out of town at a conference.
I hope to add to this list as the month continues. What about you? What have you failed at lately? And if you haven't, get hopping!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A French Day

Any time you begin a huge shift in procedure and policy, you can expect that the path of progress won't be an unending march toward the light. When the "procedure and policy" basically involves a major reset of The Entire Way of Doing Things in your personal life, this is even more true. Sad, but it's a universal truth. Change requires challenge. And yes, I'd gotten off the French road a bit. Therefore, I took Sunday as a "reset day" to get me re-committed to these positive lifestyle changes. How did I get back on the horse?
The color really DOES wash out!
  • First, I decided I wanted to. If the changes are working, you ought to stick with them. These are working for me, but I wasn't working the changes.
  • Next, I decided on a "reset day." This was to be a day in which I really made a conscious, ongoing effort to live according to the principles that had been working for me.
  • I started by sleeping in. There's something deliciously French about one day a week when you don't have to set an alarm and can just snuggle under the covers with the one you've chosen to spend your life with.
  • Next was a day-old croissant from Dunkin' Donuts. Don't judge me - I live in a small town and croissants are hard to come by. I'd picked one up yesterday (along with an eclair!) prior to my 5K untimed Color Dash. (Note the new tutu - my original one became a nest for a family of wrens this summer and - well, there's just no coming back from that.) The eclair was eaten and the croissant was saved. I reheated it, sliced a perfectly ripe pear, added a dollop of actual butter and put the whole shebang on one of the good china plates. Then I poured a cup of hazelnut-flavored cafe au lait and added a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. By the way, at this point, I was still in my Turkish robe. 
  • After breakfast, I showered and took care to be nice to myself, even though I didn't really plan on going out and visiting with anyone. Good quality lotion, perfume, a touch of mascara and lipstick. Remember to brush the hair, even if it's just going into a ponytail. There, now. I feel better.
  • Got some fresh water and took a deep breath. Time to apply the KonMari Method to bookcases. This was harder than it was with clothes, but then again, I'm a bibliophile. Still, I tried to stay true to the core concept - don't concentrate on what you're discarding; instead, focus on what you truly want to keep. I lost count after my 70th book in the "go bless someone else" pile.
  • After a lovely lunch of homemade potato-onion-ham soup, fresh yogurt, and a juicy apple, I divided the books that were leaving the house into categories and then worked to reshelve what was staying. I then loaded up the car before I was tempted to change my mind.
  • I dug out my old bread machine (I'd already shopped for the ingredients) and started a loaf of French bread.
  • I finished grading a project for two of my classes. I took my time and read their responses carefully - they really are starting to get it, which feels great, although it's far more them feeling confident enough to get a little real than anything that I've done.
  • I made plans to meet a running friend for coffee - we didn't run today; I needed a day off after yesterday's Color Dash. I had a book that I needed to pass on to her and I'd left some things in her car yesterday, so a meet-up was a good idea. I touched up my lipstick and left the house. 
    Not beignets, but pretty good bread!
  • On the way to the coffee shop, I dropped off books at two Little Free Library sites. Another batch went to the "free books" shelf at the coffee shop.
  • I visited with my friend, enjoyed an afternoon pick-me-up of milky coffee and a freshly-made (and warm!) chocolate croissant.
  • Then it was back home. I walked the Spooky-dog in the blissfully welcome sunshine. It was a short walk, but that's all either of us needed today.
  • Just as we walked in the door, the bread machine started beeping. Although the crust could be darker, it seems to have created a decent French loaf.
  • A simple supper of fresh bread and a chef salad followed, along with a pear and yogurt for dessert. More water, this time seltzer with lemon.
  • Along with dinner, FryDaddy and I watched The Babadook for an upcoming podcast. Truly a scary, not-sure-what's-happening, the-human-psyche-is-whacked film. I completely loved it.
  • I ended the day with a soak in a warm tub with good soap and soft music. Another tumbler of water.
  • Then it was time to end the day, feeling accomplished, but not rushed and out of sorts, and behind.
And there you have it! A day with a balance of work, good food, exercise, water, and thoughtful activity. Now to string together several of them . . . 

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.