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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Big Little Change digest - June, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - "I'm only human" – you are only awesome

I hear that a lot. "I wish I could do this, that, and the other thing – but I'm only human". Or, "I tried not to get angry – but I'm only human." Since when did being human become something inferior? Why "only human"?

Physically, chemically, physiologically, neurologically, and in many other ways a human organism is so complex and sophisticated that scientists have yet to figure out how to create an artificial equivalent thereof that would be comparable and functionality without being a moving mountain of sensors, processors and tubing. As "only humans" we are capable of performing hundreds of thousands of operations at once, without even thinking about it (we receive about 30,000 pieces of sensory data input every minute!). Our systems function on a variety of levels carrying us from one day to the next for decades.

As "only humans" we take care of our homes, our families, our pets, ourselves (not enough of the latter, sometimes). We do our jobs, we write books and music, we create paintings, sculptures, and beautiful buildings.

As "only humans" we determine the course of history and the fate of future generations – human and otherwise – on this planet. "Only human" is not so little after all. So, consider thinking about yourself not as "only human" but just "human". Because "human" is awesome in so many ways – and in many more ways we have yet to discover.

Week 2 - What is not working?

Do you always do things the same way? And after you have done them, do you feel as if you are running behind schedule or unduly tired? It is possible that the way you line up your daily tasks is not the best.

Don't get me wrong – I love routine. As a borderline patient, with constant chaos going on in my head, routine is the cornerstone of my existence. However, not all routines are good. For example, get up + turn on computer + become drowned in Facebook and e-mail = bad routine. Many of us have done this – and before we know it, it's almost noon, and we are still in our pajamas, nothing else has been done, and all that is left is frustration about the time that mysteriously disappeared on us. If you feel like Alice in Through the Looking Glass – having to run as fast as you can just to remain in place, and having to run even faster to actually move forward – then maybe it's time to sit down and reconsider how you do things.

Turn off your computer, let your phone go to voice mail, focus. Write down your standard order of operation every day and look for "bottlenecks". Where do you get stuck? Where do you waste time? What tasks can be "nested"?

There are only 24 hours in the day, we do have to eat and sleep – so it's really up to us to either invent a TARDIS or to figure out how to use the time we have in the best possible way and with the least amount of frustration.

Week 3 - Promote the work of others.

Despite broken links, “stupid Wal Mart people” web sites and an occasional creepy stalker, I do love the Internet. It has made so many things possible, including making the world wide open for small independent writers and artists. We now have the freedom to by-pass the agents, the publishers, and the lawyers, and just put our work out there.

That said, people are not telepathic. There is no way for them to know that the work is there, unless someone tells them so. As all of you know very well, I do encourage everyone to promote their own work. I have heard many writers say they found tooting their own horn distasteful and then complain about poor sales within the next five minutes. There is no way around it – if you want your work to be seen and bought, you have to promote.

In addition, it also helps to promote the work of other creative individuals. Now, I am not saying you should tell everyone about Aunt Martha's hideous holiday sweaters, just because she is your aunt. No. If you think the sweaters are hideous and would never wear them yourself, then you shouldn't tell other people about them. However, if you have friends whose books you enjoy reading, or whose art you gladly hang on the wall – then tell others about them.

This accomplishes two things. First, it helps you feel better about promotions, because now you are not just pushing your own work, but also helping others. Second, you start creating a kind of network of creative individuals, where they can find out about each other and, in turn, start putting out word about each other's work. Everyone wins.

Week 4 - Read to learn.

Identify an area where you know you need improvement or a skill you want to learn. Find a book about it – and don’t be lazy about it, do your research and make sure it’s really the right one for you and what you want to learn. Make a point to read one page or one chapter every day. Some of the best books out there are conveniently divided into small sections, perfect for perusing during lunch or sneaking in just before bed.

Week 5 - Reset your "wealth thermometer".

I hear this a lot, "Oh, I don't want to be rich, I just want to have enough to pay the bills." It always rubs me the wrong way, because I have to wonder whether people saying this realize how much they are limiting themselves. "Enough to pay the bills" means no money for emergencies, no vacations, no gifts, no pets, no movies, no books, no extraneous expenses of any kind. That's not really living as much as subsisting or eking out a kind of existence.

While many things in our lives depend on things outside of our control – weather, government, state and world events – there is now ample scientific proof that the way we set our "wealth thermometer" can and will impact our financial decisions and our income. When we repeatedly say, "I just want to have enough to pay the bills," somehow, somewhere, we are tripping something in our subconscious that would eventually lead us to being stuck at that financial level, and wondering why. Consider doing two things. One, stop saying "I just want enough to pay my bills" and change it to "I want to find ways to have enough income for the life of my dreams". It may not propel you to instant millionaire status, but it is bound to change your financial outlook and make your eyes and ears more attuned to opportunities for improving your life.

Two, if you have a family, sit down and brainstorm what all of you can do together to improve your financial situation. Be totally outrageous – write down everything from selling lemonade to robbing a bank. Somewhere in that pile of ridiculousness are bound to be a few pearls – real, viable ideas you can put to work and bring about some improvements. The caveat, of course, is that everyone participating in the discussion must commit to participating in the implementation. It can't be, "Oh, great idea! Now, you go do it, mom (or dad)." Everyone has to have skin in the game. Otherwise, it won’t work.

Big little stories

- It works!

- Good cop - excellent cop.

- Use existing systems to do double duty.

- Let's do this EVERYWHERE!

- Talk about thinking out of the box!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Big Little Change digest - May, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - pay compliments to strangers.

This is a really tough one for me, and I am still working on it. I am very shy of strangers, terrified of large groups and of meeting new people. However, in order to overcome my social anxiety, I have been training myself to observe strangers and say something nice, when appropriate.

For example, when I am at the grocery store and the person helping me at checkout is a woman, I always pay attention to her jewelry – earrings, hair clips, necklaces, rings, etc. Usually, I can see something that I can sincerely compliment her on. I also pay attention to the name tags, because many people have beautiful and unusual names, and I make note of that. I am not suggesting that you turn into Polyanna or become creepy. But learning to say something nice to people you've never met, when appropriate, is kind of fun.

Week 2 - don't ignore your problems.

I am still struggling with this one myself – being bothered by something for a long time, trying to "handle" it, until it gets to a point where I just lose it. Not a good approach. I am getting better at trying not to let my problems escalate to critical mass, but I still have a lot of work to do.

So, come along with me on this self-improvement journey, and let's all learn to recognize and mitigate our problems before they drive us nuts. Sometimes, it's something we can fix ourselves. Sometimes, the solution may require the involvement of others. Perhaps, you have a recurring ache and need to go see a doctor. Perhaps, your kid has been leaving dirty dishes sitting all over the place and inviting ants and cockroaches into the house. Or maybe you are just feeling tired (it happens to everyone) and need to ask your spouse to help out around the house more. Whatever it is – believe me, it's never too small.

Don't get me wrong – I am not inviting you to become an emotional and physical hypochondriac who constantly whines about everything. However, if you feel something is escalating and the cumulative effect is starting to get to you – don't wait. Speak up. Get help. Don't be shy about explaining what's going on and why you need a break. Being nice to yourself, especially when something is constantly grating on you and weighing you down, is not a weakness or a selfish act. In the long run, you are not only helping yourself, but also sparing people around you what might turn into a huge, emotional tantrum or a real medical emergency.

Week 3 - It's NOT going to be one of THOSE days

Sometimes, you get up and slide your foot into your slippers only to discover that a dog threw up into one and a cat left you a dead mouse in the other. Sometimes, you go to brush your teeth and stub your toe on the nightstand leg. Sometimes, you go to get dressed for work only to discover that the shirt you were going to wear is missing a button, your jacket needs to be dry-cleaned and your shoes are scuffed. When things like that happen, what's the first thing many people are tempted to say? "Oh, sheesh. It's going to be one of THOSE days."

No. No, it's not. Do not pre-program your day to be lousy. It's just a mouse – if you have pets, you know things like that happen.

Yes, that stubbed toe hurts – put some ice on it, make sure nothing is broken, and take an anti-inflammatory. Wear comfortable shoes to keep from bothering it too much.

It's just a button – it takes five minutes to sew back on.

The dry-cleaning can wait a day – just brush your jacket as well as you can, maybe steam it if there is time (hanging it in the bathroom while you take a shower and closing the door to trap the steam actually works quite well).

Give your shoes a quick shine – another couple of minutes. Done!

No, it is NOT going to be one of THOSE days just because the start was rough. Unless your roof fell in, a tree fell on top of your car, or a loved one had just gotten hurt or something equally disastrous happened, other things are small by comparison

Week 4 - Hold the door

There are days when I do great at being aware of my surroundings, and then there are days when I appear to be blind and deaf, and just plow right through people. So, while I do my best to hold the door in or out of the building for someone following me, I am not always consistent at it – it's still a work in progress.

That said, I do encourage you all to try and do this on a consistent basis – hold the door for someone, whether they are struggling with a bunch of packages, or a baby stroller, or just because they happen to be entering or exiting behind you. It's a nice thing to do and requires very little effort.

Big little stories

- Yesterday I was heading home from work when I saw a gentleman asking how to get to the airport from where we were. He didn't get the answer he was looking for so I asked him where he was going, he told me the airport. So I walked him over the the RTD map they have at the station and showed him the two easiest way to the airport. He thanked me so much and tried to give me money for helping him but I turned him down and asked him to pay it forward. About 5 minutes later, he had come the to the light rail and insisted I took his can of pop and a bag of snacks that he couldn't take on the plane and continued to thank me. You don't need to be the nicest person in the world to help people, you just have to be willing to help a fellow human being.

- Homelessness - it's not incurable.

- What a great idea!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Writer interview - Jessica Degarmo

What is your favorite virtue? I think perseverance would have to top my list. Life more often than not challenges your very sanity, and it takes a lot of guts to just keep plugging away. One of my favorite expressions is, “Fall seven times, get up eight.” We just have to keep getting up.

Your favorite qualities in a man. My husband has so many qualities I admire. He’s strong but gentle. He’s quietly loyal and hardworking and values his family over everything else. He’s smart and funny, and so absolutely caring and patient and kind. He’s my dream guy!

Your favorite qualities in a woman. Hmmm…I think grace under pressure would be a good one. Intelligence would be another one. And I think independence. I admire women who make no apologies for being smart and headstrong, and who don’t pretend to be helpless just to get or keep a guy. If you have to act that way to get or keep him, why do you want him?

Your chief characteristic. I’m strong but flexible, and I truly, truly care about my fellow human beings. When I see someone struggling, I don’t stand idly by (usually). Instead, I try to help.

What do you appreciate the most about your friends? My friends are awesome! No matter how long it has been since we’ve seen each other, we can pick right up where we left off. They’re steady and understanding.

Your main fault. I over-analyze everything. I can’t help but pick things apart. I can’t ever accept a simple explanation. I have to see it from all angles.I also spend a lot of time in my head. I can’t turn my brain off. It’s always going forty miles an hour and I drift off and forget to pay attention to what is going on or who is talking around me. I feel terrible about it!

Your favorite occupation. I think I’m built for customer service. That’s what I excel at in real life. If I had to choose my ideal job, it would have to be running a dog rescue organization. I love animals!!!

Your idea of happiness. Running a dog rescue! Seriously, though, I think it would make me happy to just be comfortable, to not have to worry about money. I’d love to be able to live without feeling like we’re merely surviving. I’d love to be able to take care of my entire family so that they can feel comfortable as well. This is a “What-if” of course. But I do have a lot of things to be thankful for in my life right now, such as my husband, my kids, my 3 dogs and five chickens, and my health.

Your idea of misery. Being without my family. Not being able to hug my kids and talk to them every day and spend time with them.

If not yourself, who would you be? Someone rich? I honestly don’t know. I’m not a perfect person (far from it, actually) but I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to be anyone other than myself. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and stupid decisions, but they’ve all led me to exactly where I am right now. And that’s a pretty good place to be. 

Your favorite heroes in fiction. Lieutenant Eve Dallas and Roarke from the In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb.

Your favorite heroes in real life. My dad. He’s amazing. He’s been fighting cancer for about 10 years now, and has had just as many operations to remove tumors. And these operations have been ugly, very painful. He embodies the “Fall seven times, get up eight” quote I love so much. He’s got a lot of medical issues and probably shouldn’t even be walking due to the severe nature of his spinal injuries, but he just keeps going. He’s always there for me and will literally drop everything and run if I need him. He’s kind and gentle and patient, and he always has a smile for me, despite how much pain he is in every single day. He never fails to let me know that he loves me and is proud of me. I wish I could be half the person he is.

Your favorite food and drink. Whatever doesn’t run away. Honestly, I love seafood. I love shrimp and lobster so much! And I have two favorite drinks: cherry icees (like you used to get at the department store when you were a kid?) and Seven Daughters Moscato. I like the sweet stuff. Oh, and coffee! How can I forget my morning fuel? Coffee!!!!

What is your present state of mind? Introspective.

Your personal motto. Obviously the one about falling and getting up, but also, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” It was something my dad always said to me, and I appreciate it so much more now that I’m older. It’s now something I say to my kids.

For all things Jessica including her fabulous book selection, check out her web site.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Big Little Change digest - April, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - pretend you are on vacation.

This is equally tough for those of us who work at the office and those who work from home. We get bogged down in a daily routine, where everything takes place the same way, day after day, week after week. We yearn for something different, but there is no time to break away – SERIOUSLY break away.

So fake it. Working from home and being the primary person responsible for most household duties, I rarely go anywhere, and believe me – it does get old, even living in a beautiful house in the middle of lovely woods. So, when I go to the post office, or to the grocery store, or to run some other errand, I pretend like I am on a mini-vacation. I purposely take a slightly longer route to get there, crank up my most upbeat music, and let my mind roam free. Sometimes it's only a 20-30 minute trip, but it's a great way to re-set and re-focus.

Week 2 - "That’s easy for you to say” is never true

The truth of the matter is that everyone has problems. Life is wonderful and exciting, but easy it is definitely not. Nor is it straightforward. Sometimes, the cheeriest exterior hides the darkest secrets and the worst tragedies. Some people like to wear their lives on their sleeve. Some don't. Nothing wrong with either way of handling life's challenges. However, one thing to remember is – just because someone doesn't complain as much doesn't mean they have nothing to complain about. They just choose not to.

So, please, never, never, never, assume that someone's life is easier than yours.

Week 3 - one more thing.

"Never put off until tomorrow what you put off yesterday until today." So says a Georgian proverb. But what if we became intentional about this? What if we made a point of tackling our tasks in such a way, that playing catch-up with the seemingly never-ending list of stuff to do became obsolete?

As you are wrapping up for the day, find a small task you initially set aside for another day – nothing more than five or ten minutes – and do it. Trust me, I totally understand what it's like to be out of energy and dragging your feet at the end of the day. Which is why the task can be something really small. Like loading the dishwasher and letting it run overnight. Or putting away dishes you washed after dinner. Folding a small load of laundry. Paying a bill. That sort of thing.

It's quite amazing when you wake up the next morning and realize you have one less thing to do. It's almost as if a good fairy came by and did you a favor – except you also have the satisfaction of knowing that you were your own good fairy.

Week 4 - be nice to yourself.

I know quite a few people who take care of a disabled parent, child, or spouse. Having spent some time helping take care of my mom when her bone tumor resurfaced, I can understand the determination to devote all of yourself to your loved one. The problem with that is – you are not invincible. You need taking care of too.

Think about it. What will happen to people you take care of, if you overwork yourself and collapse? What will happen, if you can't get out of bed because you haven't had a decent sleep in days, and let's not even start on that vacation? Even the strongest of us need some sort of rest and relaxation. Two stories come to mind. In The Ring of Nine – my grandfather’s book about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II – there is a tough and endearing character of Nurse Lida. She caring for the sick and wounded soldiers in a hospital in besieged Leningrad. Sometime it took quite some time for Nurse Lida to get to the hospital. At one point, one of the soldiers reproached her for being late. However, she explained that she took a safer route through the city, sometimes taking a longer way around the areas that were more likely to be bombed by the Germans. She did that to make sure she stayed alive another day and actually made it there to take care of all those soldiers.

Another story is from my own life. We didn't celebrate my 14th birthday, because my mom was very sick by then, and it just didn't seem appropriate. However, my classmates held a celebration of Soviet Army Day – which was essentially a kind of boys/men's day – Saturday, February 25. I asked my dad if I could go. He initially resisted, but my grandparents reminded him that I'd been working very hard and deserved a break. I did go and had an amazing time – hadn’t laughed like that in months. My mom died the morning after. I think I dealt with that a lot better than expected because I had that little energy boost the night before....

Big little stories

- Sometimes, kids come up with the best ideas.

- Help us raise money to send books to schools and colleges.

- Don't forget - Big Little Change is also a Kiva team.

- Fresh water is a precious commodity. It is very encouraging that more inventors are coming up with ways to get water out of the air.

- Bacteria to the rescue!

For more great development, small change challenges, and big little stories, join our Facebook group.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Writer interview - Teresa Geering

In the great tradition of writerly camaraderie, author Teresa (Tee Gee) Geering and I have exchanged interviews to introduce each other to our mutual audiences.

What is your favorite virtue? Well Aristotle and Plato are guiding my hand here Maria. I’m going to go for Chastity I reckon because I’m as pure as the driven snow which when trodden underfoot becomes... [Interviewer promptly cracks a rib trying not to laugh.]

Your favorite qualities in a man. Honesty, Humour and he needs to be Romantic (I’m a Pisces)

Your favorite qualities in a woman. When I open a bottle of wine she says “one is never enough” and I’ve brought the nibbles”

Your chief characteristic. Total madness - what else?

What do you appreciate the most about your friends? We don’t live in each others pockets but when I need them they are there for me.

Your main fault. I’m probably too generous if that’s a fault. I hate to see anyone struggling for whatever reason.

Your favorite occupation. Writing when the muse flows.

Your idea of happiness. Watching the sea as it ebbs and flows against the beach, regardless of weather.

Your idea of misery. Having to work inside when it’s really hot, hot, hot, outside.

If not yourself, who would you be? Ooooh now that’s an interesting question. I would go back to Rome and be … one of the vestal virgins, keeping the sacred fire going, whilst causing a bit of mayhem on the side. (Nudge nudge wink wink)

Your favorite heroes in fiction. Midsomer Murders actors Gwilym Lee and Neil Dudgeon. They always solve every crime in Midsomer in an hour.

Your favorite heroes in real life. The guys and gals I work with in my volunteering role. They are truly awesome and have my greatest respect.

Your favorite food and drink.

Favourite food (hot) Steak any kind any size (but prefer biggggg)

Favourite food (cold) Cheese, savory biscuits, pate, (olives if I’m in the mood)[I think we need to start making a menu here.]

Favourite drink (hot) Green tea with coconut

Favourite drink (cold) Ice cold lager in the summer and red wine otherwise

What is your present state of mind? Calm but hungry (lunch time)

Your personal motto. You’re a long time pushing up daisies so have fun on a day-to-day basis!!

For more about Tee, her books, and other things, visit one of her (many) web sites.

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