Thursday, May 12, 2016

Adulting and Slayage

The semester is over. Papers have been marked, grades have been submitted, “Pomp &  Circumstance” has been played, and tassels have been moved. Despite the heat and the backless aluminum benches, I’m enough of a sap to enjoy graduation. Many of our students have worked uphill against the odds to put on that cheap polyester robe (in more than a few cases, you might be pardoned for saying that they’ve “done the impossible and that makes [them] mighty”) and they should be celebrated for sticking with it and seeing it through. Which brings me to my point. As a child, I thought being an adult was going to be all about doing what I wanted, when I wanted. I’d stay up late, eat whatever I wanted, and no one could tell me to clean my room. Oh, sweet and innocent child - how far away you seem some days.

My first Slayage
Slayage, the international academic conference devoted to the study of Joss Whedon’s work (presented by the Whedon Studies Association), began in 2004. I missed that one - didn’t even know about it, for I did not know that popular culture could be studied academically. I thought of my love for Buffy and Angel as an every-so-slightly shameful dark secret. In late 2005, I discovered Serenity then backtracked fiercely to Firefly. (When I say “fiercely,” I mean it. There’s a probably-awful fanfic novel I wrote in five weeks tucked away in a cabinet.) Then in 2006, as I’ve related before, a colleague and incredibly generous friend told be about a call for papers (I didn’t even know what a “CFP” was then - my academic work had never been pointed to presentation and publishing and then I went to law school, which can hone your mind while simultaneously draining you of ideals. It doesn’t HAVE to, but it can) for a Whedon panel at the (then named) PCA-SW/TX conference.

Sometimes when life strikes us, we chime like a bell.

New Mexico
Since that first conference (hey, Alyson! This is also where I first met Asim. And Brita - how’s your Bill to my Ted?), I’ve been a fixture at Whedon conferences. I attended my first Slayage in Barnesville, GA with my dear friend and mentor, Barbara Taylor, who has since passed on. Neither of us presented at that one; we found out about it too late, so we were content to go and gaze. I have to admit that I was more than a bit star-struck around these bright, vibrant people who chattered like polysyllabic birds and traded lines from episodes whip-fast. I screwed up my courage and spoke to a few people (impostor syndrome is real, people!) and stayed in touch.

At that very first conference, I approached Beth Cox at the McFarland table, because she had foolishly invited the conversation by putting out a sign saying “Tell us about your book idea!” So I did, following up with a hastily handwritten (!) one-page pitch. (I had to do it that way, or I would have lost my nerve.) A lot of work followed and, with the help of several good friends and much red ink, Faith & Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon eventually resulted in early 2008. That same year, I presented at the Hendersonville, Arkansas Slayage as a featured speaker and had a seat on the "Buffy Bookers" panel and did my best to repay those who had cleared the brush for my path by sharing my experience and e-mail address. I had just begun to be courted by the gracious, funny, and Whedon-loving Ensley and I called him one night from the motel parking lot and talkedandtalked until I finally apologized for not letting him get a word in edgewise and he said, "I like hearing you soar." Reader, I married him.

Much Ado
Two months after our wedding was the St. Augustine Slayage, at which I served as the only American keynote speaker and I had the thrilling pleasure of hearing my husband make his first Slayage appearance (Hello, Amazing Wilsons!) and we discovered a "Slay-age" was three incredible days followed by two years. Slayage conferences continued - Vancouver, Sacramento - to be a shining spot in my professional and personal lives. I met so many incredible people and deepened so many amazing relationships that I will not attempt to list them all here, for fear of leaving someone out and bruising feelings that ought to never be marred.

Then in late 2014 (a few months after the squirrel-ridden Sacramento conference), I was blindsided by a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ. Junior auxiliary breast cancer, if you will. I was scared, nervous, and apprehensive, but mostly scared. Slayage friends rallied around me and the support did a great deal to carry me through some dark months with good cheer and optimism. In response to that, I decided that my paper for the 2016 Kingston conference would center on collaboration in Whedon's work - both onscreen portrayals and offscreen production work. I hoped to touch on both positive depictions of collaboration (Scoobies!) and not-so-much (think Vichy France).


It's not going to happen. While my surgery and subsequent radiation treatments were wildly successful, they were also quite expensive, even with insurance. (I know my Canadian and European friends don't quite get this part, but - trust me - the American health care system is responsible for nearly two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies in this country - and three-quarters of those are WITH insurance!) The financial meltdown of 2008 affected colleges and universities across the country and, in North Carolina, we handed the reins of government to a legislature who cut and cut and cut the educational budget to a ridiculous degree - think of a giddy Sweeney Todd. My college hadn't been contributing to my Slayage journeys since 2010 and it was made discreetly clear to me that asking for international travel expenses under current conditions would be met with a swift, albeit regretful, "no."

Ensley and I tried hard to soldier on - we even made our reservation at a lovely, in-walking-distance flat near the conference site. But the more we looked at things, the more our hearts sank. To go to this conference would involve going deeper into debt at a time when we just can't. And we would have to be on strict austerity measures instead of me getting to show Greater London (with just maybe a trip to Hadrian's Wall for my Roman-loving husband) off to my husband, who's never been there.

I hate being a grown-up.

Ooohhhh, meta!
After I wailed and gnashed my teeth, I squared my shoulders and contacted the executive council - as an officer, I am trying to work out Skype details to attend any necessary meetings. (Ironically, this broke scholar is also treasurer of the Whedon Studies Association, a post I'm proud to hold.) Everyone has been, as always, kind and supportive, which both feels wonderful and terrible.

I will miss this gathering more than I can say and I will be eagerly refreshing my Twitter feed and scanning the internet for conference pictures and comments. Have fun, be clever, rant, compliment, disagree, and support!

Slayage Forever!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Radical - Starting the French Challenge

After the events of the last six weeks or so (which have included stressful events associated with work, family, career, finances, and Lord knows just what all else), something had to give. And I knew that, if I didn't Take Steps (as Pooh Bear might say), I was headed to a bad place. Already, my brain had been trying to get my attention - I was dropping things, forgetting where I'd put things down, that sort of thing. Everything seemed off-kilter and the many good habits I've been working so hard to incorporate into my life were just falling by the wayside.

So. Time to call a halt and re-group.

The end result of some serious pondering has been revelatory. It's taken some serious planning and some open discussion with FryDaddy, who has repeatedly agreed to support me in my hare-brained plan over the next four weeks, but I'm about to embark on 28 days of radical self-care by making some big-time shock-to-the-system changes to my diet, my approach to exercising, and my notion of taking time for myself. Since I've been having such good luck with my "going French," I've decided this may as well be the "28 Day French Challenge!" (I think the exclamation mark is key.)

Ooh la la!
With help, I'll be following a set plan for the next four weeks which will involve journaling, morning exercise, controlled portions of healthy, fresh food at meals and plenty of water. I'll also be clearing closets, straightening clutter, and using the "good stuff" around the house. (That one's thanks to my mom, who just gifted me with a veritable slew of fantastic linens - including a tablecloth decorated with a whimsical French town!) All this while also maintaining equilibrium at work and meeting writing deadlines on Dreams Given Form. Don't bother mentioning that I might be crazy; it's already been pointed out. Repeatedly. Yes, it's going to be difficult and that's fine with me. I'm tired of being tired and at the end of this challenge, I hope to have gotten back on "Good Habits Road" by making myself a priority. (Oh, and this challenge isn't the end of things - I've got some longer-term goals that are just kicking off with this.)

This is not a particularly good time to start this - the end of the semester looms, and that tends to be a busy, chaotic time. My anniversary is coming up, which is often an excuse to eat large quantities of rich food. Tomorrow, which is Day One, is also Book Club Night, which I've often used as an excuse to eat large quantities of rich food - and so on and so on. But a girl's gotta start somewhere, and this is where I find myself.

Look - it's not impossible to change. I know that better than some. I've got running friends a-plenty to help me. I've also got friends who can't run who inspire me. My parents are making changes in their own diets to help Dad's recovery and going through cookbooks with them made me realize how much processed junk I've been stuffing myself with. A couple of my friends are now full-fledged gym rats and have agreed to be my coach and stern taskmaster.

I'm excited about doing something so big, but - truth be told - I'm also nervous about going through with it all. That's why I'm writing and posting this. This way, it'll be harder for me to do "backsies" when things get tough. I said I'd do it, I told you that I'd do it and there it is in print, so I'll do it.

Look for weekly postings with summaries of what I've learned along the way!

En avant, mes amies!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Moving Your Feet!

Sometimes, there's so much to do that, if you're not paying attention, you wind up just running around pointlessly. However, with just a few conscious changes, you can turn that fruitless motion into something different. And add a little rhythm and you find that you're dancing.

Case in point - I'm getting into an intense 3-month period where multiple threads all converge. Responsibilities for my classes, responsibilities for the new book (oh, you'll be hearing about that), responsibilities for my academic work - all of these are about to crash into each other for about 12 weeks. (Of course, I also have a house, marriage, friendships, and other relationships and commitments to attend to. It's going to be a hoot!)

Then, just over a week ago, I got a stark reminder that you must always be careful to check whether the things that are driving you are actually important or if they just look that way at first glance. My dad suffered a mild-ish stroke and everything needed to be dropped or postponed in order to deal with immediate, important issues. My dad's condition is stable and his prognosis is excellent, although it's going to take some time and patience is not a strong suit amongst my people. (Some would argue it's not even a card in our deck, but that can be disputed.) So FryDaddy held down the fort here and I spent most of the last eight days up at my parents', lifting that barge and toting that bale, and I'll return there in a couple of days.

I can do this because (a) it's spring break at my college, so I didn't have to cancel much; (b) all of my classes have an online component, so I simply explained to my students that they're grown-ups and here's what they need to do, so go to it; (c) I have a marvelously supportive husband who understands the importance of family; and (c) I've been working on "being French" for a while now, so I can prioritize better than I used to.

One thing that fell by the wayside, though, was my commitment to self-care. I've been eating bad food, relying heavily on coffee, sugar, and processed food-esque substances, sleeping poorly, and exercise was hurled to the wayside like a golden apple flung by a desperate Paris. (Oooh, Greek mythology reference!) But last night I had a chance to change that and I'm proud to say I took it.

One of my "annual intentions" for this year was to learn a dance called the "shag." It's a dance born on the Carolina coast and its modern form is a type of smooth swing dancing. Like all dance, it looks deceptively easy and the basic step isn't that hard, but the beauty of shag lies in the unspoken communication of the dancers as they improvise - and that IS hard! FryDaddy and I signed up for lessons - these are easy to find in our neck of the woods and they're not expensive - and started to learn the basic steps and turns. Around here, every little town has a shag group and we'd been invited to several get-togethers, but we always refused. Finally, we tried our steps out in public last night.

Now, the shag is a male-led dance and I kept anticipating the turns and not letting him lead, which results in a shambles. But we had fun, both dancing and socializing. We hope to keep it up and actually become members of the group. As I said, the groups are easy to find - just look here!

See how the pros do it . . .

I'm also keeping up with my "trying to learn French" goal. Turns out there's an informal group in town that meets once a month (the third Wednesday) at a local wine bar to chit-chat in a melange of French and English. They were VERY kind to the newbie and I could understand a word or two. (According to Memrise, the app I'm using, I've mastered 349 words. Not too shabby, since it turns out that with a vocabulary of about 600, you can stumble around. Fluency, of course, requires many, many more.)

I'm also working on a cross-stitch project - my first in decades - and I really am finding that doing these things keeps me better able to help my mom and the rest of my family during this difficult time. So honestly - don't overlook the importance of taking care of yourself! Wearing yourself down to a nub may make you a martyr, but that's all it's gonna get you.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Pulling Focus

In film, to "pull focus" means to slowly adjust the focus of the camera lens to get the very sharpest clarity of image. In life, as well as in film, this can be an incredibly valuable thing to do. All too often, I'm going around like a junior dervish (you know, whirling, but without the deep-seated calm of an actual whirling dervish for whom the spinning is a form of worship), just rushing from one thing to another without a clear idea of why I'm doing these things, aside from some sort of half-hearted idea that it's just the Way Things Are to have my hair be on fire. It's an excellent way to get confused about what's important and what just looks like it is. Really - take some time to pull focus and slow down enough to get true clarity of situations. The big stuff might not be what you're looking at.

Since I've started "going French, " I have to admit that I have more quiet moments, but I'm still a dervish, junior grade sometimes. And that's okay, too. It's where I am right now and I must be there for a reason, or I'd be somewhere else. Right? Right. So let me tell you a story about how I got yanked out of my whirling today.

It's been a wild few weeks here at the Nest. Busy, busy, busy. Then I caught a cold and was laid low for a few days, which put me behind at work. Work got stressful, mostly for reasons that had nothing to do with me and my ego reared its wart-covered head to whine, "Me! Me! Mememe!!!" Finances are tight here at the end of the month, I have several projects all vying for my attention, then FryDaddy caught the cold I had just gotten over, so he's down and needs some babying (we all like babying when we're just a little sick, I think). It's been rainy lately, so mud and leaves have been tracked in from outside, the critters are shedding, AHHHHH!!

As I'm whirling from one chore to another (bringing out the Spooky-dog's food bowl while muttering my list of Things to Do to myself, actually), there's an old man standing in my driveway. He comes around from time to time asking everyone on the street if we need any yard work done. We've had him do stuff before; he does a great job. And yes, I'd love to have someone do some raking from the windstorms last week, but payday isn't until Monday, so no dice. I snap, "Nope. Nothing today, but we'll use you again" and keep going. He can be persistent, and (as I've mentioned) I'm Very Busy, so I yell "Another time" over my shoulder and keep moving. I realize that I've been rude, but really - I'm Very Busy.

Still, it bugs me a little, so after I get the food bowl to Spooky's pen, I come back around the corner, determined to be a bit nicer. He's still in my driveway, and I walk up to him and say, "I didn't mean to be rude, but my husband's sick, my house is a mess, and I don't have any money until Monday, so really - there's nothing today."

Think about how much guts it took for him to say what came next. "Ma'am, I'll do the yard for a sandwich."

I. Just. Stopped. I've been hungry, sure. I've even skipped a meal before, generally in my student days so I'd have money for more fun things. I've never not eaten because I had no other way to feed myself than by doing chores for a stranger. Oh, I know. Maybe he was lying. Try to take a kinder view of things, okay? I've got a hungry man in my driveway. And that's what it comes down to. What am I made of? What am I actually going to do when faced with this situation? Who am I? And if you don't think this was "pulling focus," go back to the start of this post and begin again.

I reassured him that the yard was fine and that we'd need him next weekend, I told him I'd be back in a minute, then I marched my over-privileged self into the kitchen, made two ham and cheese sandwiches, added chips, an orange, a Cheerwine, and a healthy portion of the peanut M&Ms I'd bought yesterday thinking FryDaddy might like them. I put everything in a bag and walked back out to the old man, who was still standing in my driveway.

Was I entertaining an angel unawares? Maybe. Was I being a gullible idiot? Maybe. But I also know I did what I would have wanted someone to do for me, if that had been me. And I know enough about the workings of this world to know that one day, that might be me. My current circumstances - the ones where I have the luxury of whining about wanting new linens, or repainting the bathroom, or kvetching about personalities at work, or my husband's near-total inability to remember that there's laundry in the dryer - are the stuff dreams are made of for plenty of people.

So I really ought to just shut up and help out more often.

Yes, I'm still behind on grading. My house is still cluttered (and furry). I worry about my bank balance and wish I was more diligent about exercising. But when faced with a challenge about who I am, I'm pretty sure I answered correctly. I very well may have "broken my penitence a hundred times," but the Divine still welcomes me and gives me another chance to Get It Right.

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.