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, December 2, 2016

Big Little Change digest - December 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - Do something nice for yourself.

So many of us spend our lives taking care of others. "My family needs me." "My kids need me." "My boss needs me." Well, what about you? Don't you need you too? What will happen if, in caring for others, you neglect yourself to a point where you just collapse?

At least once a month, schedule something just for yourself. It can be a champagne lunch. It can be going off to buy a new book. It can be a bubble bath. A box of top-of-the-line chocolate truffles. A slice of strawberry shortcake from the best bakery in town. Something. Make it yours - and only yours. Indulge. Enjoy.

Week 2 - Know your limitations

In Glory Road Robert Heinlein jokingly refers to the US presidential campaigns as "anything you can do I can do better". For months on end, we are showered with promises of this and that, of roads paved with gold and emerald cities. The same goes for other public service offices, businesses, radio stations ("The best classic rock station EVER!"), foods ("It replaces a full meal!"), cosmetic products ("Take years off your face!"), clothes ("Look ten pounds lighter in seconds!") and pretty much everything else we use. Of course... none of them deliver. Which is why so many of us are so disillusioned and reluctant to ask for help - we feel as if whatever is promised, even if it's by a friend, will never be delivered.

Sometimes overpromising occurs because someone really is very eager to help, excited, and swept up in the moment - forgetting umpteen things already on their plate. This has happened to me a few times - when I was in the middle of something, and a friend eagerly offered to help, only to drop the ball, leaving me not only disappointed, but sometimes in a financial hole.

I do not discourage offering help - not at all. It's wonderful when people offer to help without having to be asked. But before you do - consider what you already have going on. Do you have time? Can you add this new thing to your schedule without jeopardizing your existing commitments? Are you prepared to treat it as you would a work commitment and deliver on time? If something unexpected comes up and you need more time or need to bow out altogether, are you prepared to be honest and own up to it (some people just "disappear" and hope the thing just goes away)?

It's ok to say "You know, I would love to help, but I am just too swamped right now." Or, "Is this something urgent or can I help you with it later - when I have more time?" An unfulfilled promise is worse than no promise at all.

Week 3 - Give something up.

We are not talking about becoming a hermit or going on a diet here. Rather, consider something you really like, set a limited time period, and give it up for that period. More than anything else, it's a discipline exercise and a good time to ponder some important questions.

Can you do without whatever it is? Why or why not? Just how important is the thing in your life? Do you still have other things to occupy you and keep you happy? Will not having (or doing) whatever it is for a time make you treat it differently? Appreciate it differently?

The answers might not only surprise you but send your thoughts down new unexplored paths.

Week 4 - Do something you don’t want to do.

That exercise you've been meaning to start doing regularly. That attic you know needs to be cleaned up and organized. That bunch of things with missing buttons and falling down hems waiting to be fixed up and returned to wearable. You know they are there. They are bugging you. You hate them. You don't want to deal with any of them, but your dislike for them doesn't make them go away miraculously.

Pick one. Do it. Get it off your plate for good. Some other time pick another one. Do it. Cross it off your list. Put a big, fat, luscious check mark next to it. And buy yourself ice cream to celebrate.

Big Little Stories

- Putting old buildings to work - the right way.

- Helping non-humans is great too.

- A couple of days ago, I submitted an inquiry to Kiva about offering education-related loans and grants. They wrote back to me, and here is their response. It sounds like they are already working on it, which is awesome.


Thanks so much for your email and your interest in supporting education loans on Kiva. Great news, we do already have a number of education loans fundraising on Kiva, and if you ever aren't seeing them, it's likely just because they're relatively popular on Kiva. But as we continue to grow, one of the areas we're looking to expand our impact in is education, which means that we're continually looking for new partners in this space. Education loans oftentimes can be seasonal in nature, matching times of the year when school fees are due, so please continue to check back for more education loans that you can support here:http://kiva.org/lend#/?sectors%5B%5D=15

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Big Little Change digest - October, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - 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 I am not talking about just 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 2 - 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 3 - 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 that everyone doesn't 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 4 - 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.

Big Little Stories

- When science fiction becomes life.

- When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

- Being a gentleman is back in fashion.

- Give someone a gift of home.

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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