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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, December 5, 2014

Writer interview - Vivienne Tuffnell

Vivienne Tuffnell is a woman of many talents and interests, writing being not the least of them. This holiday season, we sat down to pick the mind of this fascinating woman.


What is your favorite virtue? Kindness to those unable to return the favour.

Your favorite qualities in a man. Integrity of heart and soul.

Your favorite qualities in a woman. Ditto. I think they're equally important for all genders. Women can often be quite nasty to other women, so I'd add something about sisterliness to off-set that terrible problem.

Your chief characteristic. My spiritual teacher once told me he thought I was a visionary, a mystic. This side of my soul infuses everything I do. It's often very hard to define what a mystic is but Evelyn Underhill managed to contain it all in one neat sound bite anyone could understand: Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.

What do you appreciate the most about your friends? Loyalty and tolerance.

Your main fault. Pessimism and a temper that takes a lot to fan the flames but which is hard to halt once someone gets me really angry. Ooops, that's two.

Your favorite occupation. Day dreaming.

Your idea of happiness. A bluebell wood in May.

Your idea of misery. Being forced to watch musical theatre with no escape, alongside people who love it, sing along and try to get me to sing along, or even, (shudder) dance.

If not yourself, who would you be? A nun. Probably an anchorite. I considered a vocation to the conventual life when I was 19.

Your favorite heroes in fiction. Can I be a bit narcissistic and say my favourite heroes are the ones I created myself?

Your favorite heroes in real life. That's harder. Most of the real heroes are the unsung ones, who don't get lauded in public. They don't like being singled out and praised, either.

Your favorite food and drink. I really love Green Chartreuse, the teeny tiny bottle that comes at some astronomical strength and is a glorious green. It's like a kaleidoscope of tastes when you have a sip, and you can identify dozens of the several hundred herbs used to make it. Food? Anything with tomatoes. My feel-better comfort food is cream of tomato soup.

What is your present state of mind? Bouncing between depression and elation. Welcome to bi-polar world.

Your personal motto. “If life is a journey, then any short cut is a death trap.”


You can find Vivienne's books on Amazon.

There is always something fascinating going on at her blog Zen and the art of tightrope walking.

You can also catch up with Vivienne on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Big Little Change digest - December, 2014

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - learn how to tell people what you do and own it.

Considering how much quicker connections between people are made these days and how much more extensive their networks, it is truly puzzling, why doesn't everyone have their elevator speech prepared and memorized. In this world, where it is so much easier to find the right person to help out with the right thing at the right time, the ability to explain what you do and why it's important has to be essential.

Many of us who can explain our occupation in under two minutes have a tendency to undermine it. "Oh, I'm just an admin." "Oh, I'm just an editor." "Oh, I'm just a project manager." Stop it! Even if you are not passionately in love with your job (yes, I've been there, I know what it's like), as far as anyone else is concerned, what you do is fascinating, important, and crucial to... well... maybe not the survival of mankind but definitely the survival of the company you work for. You are tough, you are knowledgeable, you are confident, and you are ready to take on anything. If you are, indeed, not in love with your current job - those are the characteristics that will help you find another one.

If you are self-employed, the well-worded, to-the-point, competently delivered elevator speech is just as important, because your next client, next referral, or next reader might be just around the corner.


Week 2 - know what you want and ask for it.

You might not always get a positive answer, but hey, you'll be no worse than you were before you asked. On the other hand, you never know who and when might come up with just the thing or the idea you've been looking for.

Consider all aspects of your life - home, family, work, income, health, responsibilities, etc. Think of the challenges you are facing in each of these areas. For each area, write down on a card, what needs to be done or has to change to alleviate the challenges.

And then start asking. Obviously, it's not as if you can just walk up to anyone and say, "Give me a million dollars to solve my financial problems". BUT you can share with your circle of friends or with a group you are a member of - here is my problem, here is how I want to solve it, any ideas what would make the solution possible? The brainstorming is bound to be all over the place and generate a lot of ridiculous ideas. But there are bound to be some good ones that you haven't thought about because you have been looking at the problem for too long.


Week 3 - let go of something you used to love.

It might be your wedding dress. A CD given to you by your ex. An outfit you wore when you christened your children. It might be something that still evokes positive memories, or something that used to mean something positive but no longer does. You don't love the object itself anymore - you are only holding on to it out of guilt, or duty, or for sentimental reasons.

In fact, consider everything in your home - do you truly love all you have or are these things just debris of years past, the "has beens", the things that are only there because of their past claims to fame in your life? Let it go. The memories won't go anywhere. If you want to have some sort of a reminder, take pictures of them and make a "my past" scrapbook. Only surround yourself with things you well and truly love, things that reflect the best of you and the best of your life.


Week 4 - replace one thing on your grocery list.

It's tough keeping yourself and your family eating well and healthfully. First of all, so-so eating habits are tough to change, and second, with demand still low, organic and gluten-free products still cost significantly more than the regular stuff.

So, to soften the blow, start with just one thing. Next month, replace just one thing with a better, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly option. For example, replace General Mills' Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal with one from Cascadian Farms or Kashi. Replace regular rice with brown rice. Replace regular pasta with a gluten-free one. Replace soda with a sparkling-water-and-fruit-juice combo. After a month, replace another regular item. Then next month - another one. In a year, you will have replaced 12 things on your shopping list with something that's better for you and yours.

Member contributions

Thanksgiving might be over - but many people cook a turkey for Christmas as well. In case you can't remember cook times and are suffering a whole bird...a bit of help. And no, I did not write this, but I only cook a turkey once a year...and thought you all might be in the same (and if you're living in leftovers--I have recipes that will take out ALL of the LEFTOVERS (even the lima beans) over several meals--that aren't soup.)


Madison, Wisconsin takes a new, fantastic, and positive approach to helping the homeless.


Just had this thought while talking about voter challenges.

If you have a kid in high school or in college - that would be an interesting project for him or her. Especially, if the school is in or near a poor neighborhood. Organize a voter literacy program. Many colleges (especially community colleges) now have a community service requirement as part of the standard curriculum. I am sure something like that would absolutely count toward that requirement.

Some years ago, I had a chance to work for a college located in the inner city Charlotte, NC - one of the toughest, poorest, grittiest areas of the city. The kids at the college helped out with several programs - like tutoring school children from the neighborhood (since schools there were pretty awful - and not because of the teachers. Think movie "Dangerous Minds" but first-graders.), grocery collections for the poorest households, summer camps, as well as resume and job search assistance for the grownups, free writing tutorials, etc.

A high school or a community college - someplace with classrooms and a library - is a good place to set something like this up. If you are a grownup of some means, and have the ability to do so, or have a community that can get behind this - consider doing this as well. I am spread a little thin right now, however, if you do go for it - let me know, and I'll be happy to help you promote the effort and spread the word.

Public Service Announcements

'Tis the season when not everyone gets to celebrate the season. Here is one of the ways you can help.

DeviantArt is once again running its holiday card project for people stuck in hospitals over the holidays.

Red Cross is also running a Holiday Cards for Heroes project.

Friends! If you do a lot of your holiday (and other) shopping on line - go through eBates and see if you can get a discount. I've saved a lot of money with them overtime.

Off-the-beaten-path holiday shopping

- Kim Caudell's etsy store

- Uncommon Goods

- Viva Terra

- Bittersweet Herb Farm

- Old World Specialties

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bit Little Change digest - November, 2014

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - declare war on somewhat-bad habits.

Some bad habits are obvious - smoking, doing drugs, drinking too much alcohol, driving around without your seat belt on. Some, however, are not so straightforward. In some cases, they are rather nice, in fact. Just... little indulgences, pick-me-ups and such.

The Starbucks addiction. An occasional high-end cup of coffee - I can dig that. "Occasional" being the key word here. But every day - twice, sometimes three times a day? Even if all you get is one basic coffee first thing in the morning, every morning - say a tall Caffe Americano for $2.49. That's over $900 a year. You can buy a top-of-the-line coffee maker AND take a nice weekend vacation. And for most people it's not just one cup and it's far from basic. There are now coffee makers that can be programmed in the evening and have your coffee ready for you in the morning. Get one and set that money aside for something fun - like enrolling in a foreign language course, going somewhere you've always wanted to go, or paying off your debt (yes, it IS fun - when you see that zero balance on your credit card statement).

Daily TV watching is another time waster and health underminder. Someone said to me recently "sitting is the new smoking". True. People sit for their jobs, sit in the car on the way to and from work, and then come home and sit there in front of the TV. Stop it. You don't need to waste 730 - 2190 hours a year doing that. (That's 30 - 91 days, by the way, or 1-3 months per year an average American watches the damn box.) You can get all the world news in 10-15 minutes from BBC web site, your shows - from Netflix, and your games - over the internet. The rest is celebrity gossip, political wrangling, and other stuff you don't need to wast your time on.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to seek and destroy these sneaky habits and, as The Oatmeal would say, defeat your Blerch.

Week 2 - make one radical change.

This doesn't seem so small, does it? But I am not talking about anything like picking up and moving to Antarctica, or quitting your job to take up professional salsa dancing, or running off with the handsome UPS guy. There are plenty of "I've always done it this way" things in our lives that can be altered. The reason? Thought pattern interrupt.

While I am a huge fan of routine and stability, I must acknowledge - it can and does lead to the staleness of thought and stupor of new ideas. Sometimes, a minor jolt is required to get yourself unstuck.

Let's say, you've always had the same thing for lunch - a ham and cheese sandwich, an apple, maybe a cup of coffee. Have a champagne lunch with crab cakes instead. Ok, so you might want to pick a non-work day for that - but do it.

If you always shop at the same store - pick a time and go somewhere different. Make a point to thoroughly check it out and see everything they have to offer. This particularly applies to clothes shopping - a lot of people, men and women, ALWAYS shop at the same places, afraid of disappointment elsewhere.

Or, let's say, you always wear black - wear color. And we are not talking - adding a white shirt under a black suit. That's cheating. No. Color. Something other than black. No black garment of any sort anywhere on you.

These are minor envelope pushers - but you might be pleasantly surprised how they impact you. You might discover your thoughts going in new and fascinating directions, your mind acquiring a new sort of clarity and teeming with ideas. It's not an easy task - but very worth it.

Week 3 - let go of other people's stuff.

You probably don't even know this - but your house is full of things that should belong to someone else. Some are obvious - like books or tools you or someone in your household borrowed from a friend or a neighbor and forgot to return. Find them and return them.

Then there are other things. Books, for instance, that you have read and not particularly liked, or thought you might read but didn't, but you hold on to them because they are books, and you can't bear to part with books. Why not give them to people who will read them and like them, and possibly even keep them for the right reasons?

There are clothes that feel good and look fabulous - on someone else. So, what are they doing in your closet? They don't fit you - but you hold on to them in case someday they might, even though, at the bottom of your heart, you know that is unlikely. They don't look good on you - but you can't let them go, because you paid too much for them. Sell them on eBay or take them to a thrift store so that their actual owners might find them and give them a new lease on life.

If your kids are grown up, their baby clothes no longer belong to them or to you ("but what if my children have children!") - they belong to a new mom trying to find good, sturdy baby clothes at a discount. Duplicates and triplicates (or even more-plicates) of hammers, screwdrivers, saw blades, and fastener sets don't belong to you - they belong to a young family trying to whip their fixer-upper starter home into shape. Old magazines, unopened bills and advertisements belong to a recycling facility. Old sheets and blankets you no longer use even for the guests belong to a local homeless shelter. Leftover cans of paint, rolls of insulation, and sheets of plywood really belong to Habitat's ReStore.

Free your home from things that belong to other people and make room for your own life.

Week 4 - read to improve your life.

Many self-help books have a bad reputation, because, it's true, a lot of them are crap. However, that is not a good reason to discard them altogether. They are not all the same and many can well and truly change your life in a positive way.

Pretty much everyone in this group is an avid reader - with more than one book going on at the same time. Make a point to identify the area of your life you would like to improve and add a book on that subject to your current reading material. Here are some ideas:

- Self-esteem, discipline, goal-setting, follow-through, life changes - "Success Principles" by Jack Canfield, "The difference maker" by John Maxwell, "What to say when you talk to yourself" by Shad Helmstetter

- Turning dreams into plans - "Put your dream to the test" by John Maxwell, "Change" by Brandon Burchard

- Style, clothes that fit, dressing appropriately for various occasions - "What not to wear" books by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine (for women); "Off the cuff" by Carson Kressley and "Dressing in the dark" by Marion Maneker (for men); "Dress your best" by Stacey London and Clinton Kelly (for both men and women)

- How to decorate and entertain (including on a budget) - "Freaking Fabulous" books by Clinton Kelly and "Queer eye for the straight guy" by the Fab Five

- Making a house a home, making the most of small spaces - "Style" by Thom Filicia and "Not so big house" books by Sarah Susanka

- Life in general - biography of any person you admire and whose achievements inspire you.

Member contributions

Small-scale gardening with unbelievable results.

Tea bags working double time.

Whether or not you like and buy Dove products, I do rather like the message in their new "real beauty" series of videos. Particularly prominent is the reminder that we really should take care of how we talk about ourselves in front of our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. We might not realize it - but they do listen, and they often inherit our own insecurities.

All hail amazing earthships!

Recommended reading

The Charge by Brendon Burchard

Current initiatives

Operation "Moving Mandy"

Nicola Tesla museum

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mama Masha - a menu for the weekend of food and friendship

My husband and I love to entertain, but it's been a while since we had anyone over. So, when a friend of mine came to visit with her parents (they hosted us after the Warrior Dash, gave us hot showers, and steak!), we went a bit hedonistic with food. Still it was great fun, and good time was had by all.


- 3 kinds of pirozhki: potatoes, mushrooms, and scallions; red cabbage, red onion, smoked sausage; dates wrapped in mozzarella cheese and prosciutto. (You can find a recipe for the pirozhki dough here).

- Borshch (the hot, red version).

- Herring in a fur coat.

- Veggie platter: locally grown organic pink tomatoes, home-made sweet and tangy pickled cucumber spears; home-made savory pickled yellow squash with extra dill.

- Iced tea: a mix of white herbal tea and black Russian tea.

All of these, except the veggie platter were made a day in advance, so all we had to do was heat up the borshch.


This was fun - after dark on the porch, in candle light, with chimnea going for warmth and lovely, fragrant smoke.

- Whole-wheat pasta with browned beef and home-made, coconut-milk-based tomato pasta sauce.

- Caprese - tomato slices, mozzarella, fresh basil leaves on toothpicks, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

- Sauteed pickled squash, carrots, sugar peas, broccoli and portobello mushrooms on a bed of fresh spinach leaves.

- A choice of chablis or merlot.