About Me

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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.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Big Little Change digest - September, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - Have an anthem.

It doesn't necessarily have to be your favorite song. But maybe something that brings your life into focus. Something you put on during hard times, when you struggle to achieve what you need to achieve.

I personally found the idea silly, until I stumbled onto the anthem of my own one day, and, somehow, it stuck. I kept returning to it for all sorts of reasons - when I worked on my fitness goals, when I tried to define my purpose in life, when I struggled to explain to people why I work on the things I work on. Somehow, one song, helped me bring it all into focus, and now, when I find my attention diffusing, I play it, and it pulls me back together.

Week 2 - Keep track of things

My husband makes fun of my propensity to keep spreadsheets for EVERYTHING, but even he cannot deny that keeping a close record of things that are important comes in useful. The household account spreadsheet is always there to let us know what we have in the bank, what's been spent, what's been saved, and can we splurge on a date night. The book-related file helps me keep track of promotions, book sales, and royalties. The fitness spreadsheet is for staying on top of my fitness goals and recording my accomplishments.

There is something about pulling information together that organizes your mind and helps you find new ways to do things more efficiently. I am not saying EVERYONE should have these elaborate files - with pivot tables and graphs - I have constructed for myself. But I do encourage keeping track of things - even if you decide to do so in a journal or an old-fashioned ledger.

It can also be fun. Here are some amusing things from my fitness spreadsheet:

• In April, 2014 I lifted the total of 131,275 pounds - the equivalent of 11 male African elephants.

• Between January and August, 2014, between treadmill and outside walks, I have walked 71.83 miles.

• Between June, 2014 and June, 2015 I have walked 2,466,164 steps totaling 1,167 miles, which is just under half the distance from New York to Los Angeles.

Week 3 - Have a list.

Even those of us with phenomenal memory cannot remember everything they need to do. And most of us do not have phenomenal memory. So, let's all do ourselves a favor and save ourselves some frustration and write things down.

Grocery lists. To-do lists. They are quaint but effective. Not only do they save us from having to keep everything in our heads - they also carry with them the sense of accomplishment when you start crossing things off. Doesn't it feel good, when you take a BIG marker and just cross off that laundry, or vacuuming, or weeding, or whatever else needs to get done? Yeah! The visual appeal of a list with stuff crossed off is undeniable.

Another list worth having is savings list. I saw this at the home of a family member - they had it on the wall. "Things to save for" with the list of items and prices. It can be anything - from a new coffee maker to a replacement washer and dryer. What I liked about my relatives' list was that it was placed prominently, where all members of the household could see it. So, the next time one of the kids was of the mind to whine about a new phone or some such, they could glance at that list and reconsider - new phone vs. setting aside a bit more for that snorkeling trip. I thought it was a great idea and we are working on implementing something similar at our house.

Week 4 - Decide what you want to be known as.

While watching a documentary about the creation of the show Fraggle Rock, I discovered Jim Henson was known as "The Great Appreciator". Even when someone was messing up, he somehow found something nice to say - and the best part about it was, it was always sincere and genuine. That's a great thing to be known as, isn't it? Give some thought to what you would like to be known as. A Great Motivator? A Great Collaborator? A Great Facilitator? A Great Innovator? The possibilities are endless.

Big little stories

Little libraries and little pantries - we need more of both.

Let's plant some shit!

Later this afternoon a representative from Hope's Closet, a local thrift store whose proceeds support the domestic violence shelter they also run, is coming by to pick up a donation of items I no longer need including some furniture. One day a week the residences come in and shop for free. I decided to go with them due to the local impact. Next time you have a donation consider the small charity thrift store. Make a small change for you and a big change for others!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Big Little Change digest - August, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - Resist the temptation to troubleshoot

Life is not perfect. Nor should it be – it would be awfully boring if everything went our way 100% of the time. And so, we all have days when something goes awry – sometimes more than one thing. Social animals that we are, we need to tell someone. Sometimes we seek advice and sometimes we just want to talk it out and let out the steam.

As a type A engineer-analyst, I am constantly in the "what can I fix" mode. So, when someone tells me about a problem, it is VERY hard for me to not to go all Wonder Woman on them and start spewing solutions at the rate of ten per minute. However, with time, I had to discipline myself to pause, take a breath, and ask, "Are you looking for advice or do you just need to vent?" That's all it takes, really.

I cannot tell you, how much difference this makes in your interactions. People appreciate you more because you listen better and you respect their right to find their own solution. So, if you are a troubleshooter, like me, consider forming this habit. Repeat after me, "Are you looking for advice or do you just need to vent?"

Week 2 - Thank your postman

It doesn't have to be a postman – can be any other service provider. But for me, it started with a postal worker. I've done my best trying to thank people for a job well-done in the past. But this one incident at the post office made it come into focus for me.

A few months ago I was sending some heart-health-oriented vitamins to my Dad in Ukraine. It was really important for me to get the package out quickly, because my Dad was beginning to exhibit the signs of the same heart disease that haunted his father – my grandfather. I was dropping the package off at the post office and filling out the customs form, when someone came in and dropped off a huge stack of packages of all weights and sizes. I said to the man working at the post office that day, "Wow, that will keep you busy."

And he said, "Not that anyone will care anyway."

I said, "Are you kidding? I love the postal service – I think it's cooler than the internet."

His whole face changed. He asked, "Really? How so?"

"Well, you write a few lines and numbers on a box or an envelope – and a few days later someone on the other side of the world gets it. Just because of the stuff you wrote down. That is amazing. And it's been around since way before all the technology. I love it."

He said, "You know, you are right."

I finished with my package handed it in and left, but when I was leaving, I saw that the man was smiling now. It was great.

Noticing crucial things about services people provide us with is a very cool and important thing. Let's all do that more often.

Week 3 - Follow through

The biggest disappointments over the course of my life were invariably delivered to me by people who talked a good game and then did nothing. These people were of various ages, various origins, various positions in life – there was no pattern in who they were. They only had one thing in common – they liked to make great, elaborate plans, with a multitude of details, engage others, and then forget about it all. One such individual managed to drive me to a point where I almost lost my faith in humanity.

Know your limitations. If you don't think you can do something – don't take it on until you are ready, especially if it's something that involves other people. If you have made a commitment – follow through. And make certain to keep whoever is on the receiving end of your work apprised of your progress. If you get to a certain point in the project and realize it's starting to be too much, and you are not sure how to move on, let your recipient know. See what you can revamp, see what can be adjusted.

Never, never, never promise something, then let it lapse, and then pretend as if it was all just... talk for talk's sake. The world is severely undermined by unfulfilled promises and unfinished projects. Let us not add to that collection.

Week 4 - Know when to stop

Some time ago a social media campaign for makeup-free selfies took place. Some of my virtual friends participated. Some looked great, some looked ok, but appearances aside, everyone involved appeared to have fun.

What struck me was the number of truly negative, vitriolic comments following this wave of bare-faced images, directed against people who do use makeup. Generalizations. Exaggerations. Attempted humiliations. You name it, it was there. “Let’s show those women who spend three hours getting ready!” “Makeup is stupid as are those who wear it.” I was stunned by how quickly a seemingly positive trend turned into a storm of negativity.

First of all, with the exception of movie and theater actors and fashion models preparing for a show, NOBODY spends three hours getting ready. Yes, some of us take longer than others, but let’s not be ridiculous – we all have lives.

Second, wanting to enhance one’s appearance with makeup has nothing to do with his or hers intellectual abilities. Yes – “his” too. Johnny Depp wears makeup on set and in life. Eddie Izzard does too. I dare you to call them stupid.

The selfie-related wave of shame is not an exception. Somehow, somewhere harmless things became turned upside down and inside out and stamped with a ridiculous label. News item: not all people who dress well are financially irresponsible and mentally superficial; not all wealthy people are evil and corrupt; not all lovers of organic foods are hairy hippies; and not all meat-eaters are thoughtless, brutal beasts.

It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s lifestyle. It’s something else entirely to start showering people with mud because they do something generally harmless you disagree with. When tempted to go to an extreme, consider taking a pause and a deep breath to give yourself time to re-think.

Big Little Stories

- Doing good for the sake of good.

- Share your blessings.

- This needs to be implemented NOW.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Big Little Change digest - July, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - Another 15 minutes

How often do you hit the “snooze” button on your alarm clock? Or think, “Ugh, I wish I had another 15 minutes.” Make it happen.

So many of us tend to run at top speed, collapse into bed in sheer exhaustion, and then drag ourselves up and out to do it all again. The more we do this, the more we hate it, and the more hopeless it all feels.

Downsize your hobbies, con your kids by changing every clock in the house, negotiate with your spouse around chores – in short, do whatever you have to do, but challenge yourself to go to bed 15 minutes early. With time, discipline, and structure, your organism will happily accept this small gift and become accustomed to making itself ready for rest, which means you’ll fall asleep easier, sleep better, and wake up the next morning more refreshed and less stressed.

Week 2 - Glamorize the ordinary

There are few things more commonplace than getting out of bed and getting ready every morning. Unless you are Batman suiting up to save Gotham City, Sir Lancelot preparing for the jousts, or Sauri getting ready for her initiation as a maiko. Then it’s no longer ordinary – then it’s cool.

We do this very well as children – transform ordinary events of the day into adventures. I have no idea why we give up on it as adults. We really shouldn’t. Sure it may seem ridiculous – but who cares? Nobody knows what goes on in your head when your brush your teeth or drive off to get groceries. If having Eye of the Tiger playing in your head (or in your headphones) helps you start your day better – then play it. If you want to button your buttons, tie your shoe laces, and buckle your belt like Aragorn before the Battle of Morannon – then do so.

So many things have gotten so pragmatic, so analyzed and practical these days. There is nothing wrong if you decide to add some fun to life through effective use of your imagination and sense of humor.

Week 3 - Use your turn signal.

Yes, I know – there are areas where using your turn signal is just begging to be treated like crap on the road. And that is precisely what we are trying to overturn here. Many accidents take place every year because someone failed to communicate which way they were going. Many more are just barely averted, because another driver has split-second reaction and really good anti-lock brakes.

I have no idea, how using your turn signal suddenly became uncool or weak, and why doing so means having a harder time making lane changes or being allowed into a parking spot. In the spirit of big change by way of small change, let us all start using our turn signals. The more of us do so, the more people will take notice and start doing the same.

Week 4 - What works for you may not work for others

Finding any job can be tough these days, let alone one's dream job. For those of you who managed this feat and found your perfect employment: congratulations! I am happy and proud of you. Have fantastic fun at work – you'll be awesome.

My current job is only half my dream job. It is in the sense that I LOVE being an analyst. I eat, drink, sleep, and breathe numbers, and that is fantastic. I don't care if the rest of the world thinks my job is boring – I love what I do. It is not quite as dreamy, because of being a part of a corporate workplace, complete with the pompousness, and politics, and other traits thereof that make it less than palatable at times. All things considered, most time, the love of what I do and the benefits (such as the ability to work from home) vastly outweigh the issues.

That said, while I might ask people whether they have considered a career as an analyst, I am certainly not going to insist that it's the best thing since sliced bread if they show no natural inclination for it. The same goes for any other job. Much as you may love your career in programming, or life insurance, or real estate, or online marketing – or anything else – recognize that it is YOUR dream job. It works for you. It might not work for others. It seems easy, pleasant and rewarding to YOU. But it may not appear the same way to others.

If you tell other people about your job, try to recruit them into the same field, and feel pushback from them, don't get offended and, more importantly, don't get snooty as in, "Fine, I'll collect my paycheck and yours while I am at it."

There is a reason why there is such a vast multitude of various professions in the world. Many things need to be done, and many different people get to do them. We can't all be astronauts, or writers, or ballet dancers, or college professors. There are jobs out there for all of us.

Big Little Stories

I've been taking herb bundles to work lately - freshly-cut herbs from the deck garden. I cut several different kinds and took them to work in glass bottles I saved up from various sauces and such. It's amazing how something so small brighten's people's day. It's like giving them flowers, except with the herb bundle bouquet - you can eat it too! :-)

- Mini-farm at one's front lawn - brilliant!

- If we are going to litter - let's at least do this with biodegradable materials.

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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!