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.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Big Little Change digest - February, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - Smile on the treadmill

Or on the elliptical. Or while stretching on a mat. Or on the running track. Wherever you happen to be exercising. Seriously, why do so many people look so glum when they exercise? I can understand a look of grim determination – because fitness is a challenge, and I get that. But some people look like they would rather be hanged by the neck than be exercising. The last time I checked there were significantly worse things one could be doing. Hauling cement. Cleaning elephant poop. You know... it's a long list.

No, exercise is not easy. Establishing a steady fitness routine is SERIOUSLY not easy. But one thing to remember is that by doing that, you are doing something well and truly incredible for yourself. You are doing your future self a huge favor, by keeping your current self in the best possible shape, by getting some muscle, by boosting your metabolism, by keeping your joints moving. Considering all that is involved in the physical process of exercise, that is an awesome thing! And you get free endorphins on top of it.

Smile. Put some kick-ass uplifting music on, visualize whatever you have to, but smile. People will notice. First they will think you are insane. Then they will think you are up to something. And then they will realize it's possible to be happy while exercising, and might even decide to give it a shot as well. Smile.

Week 2 - Don't be afraid to be seen

I love Facebook. While many people find it annoying and frustrating, to me, it's whatever you make of it. Minor technical glitches don't bother me for the most part, and having that community at my fingertips truly is priceless.

That said, I am frequently puzzled when people do not use their actual photos as their Facebook profile image. Some use cartoons. Some use pictures of their children or pets. And I don't understand that.

Look, folks, you are not a cartoon. You are not your children. You are not your pets. You are you – first and foremost. So, ask yourself, why are you so reluctant to present your actual face to the world?

Unless you are one of those Facebook "people collectors" with thousands of "friends", you like and appreciate people in your social network community. Given an opportunity, you would probably like to meet them face-to-face. And when that happens, you are not going to hold up a cartoon, or a dog, or a child, or a flower, or a house, or a panda in front of you. You will just... be you. Wrinkles and all. So why not pretend like you are already meeting face-to-face – and put your own wonderful unique face out there for your friends to relate to and enjoy?

Week 3 - Your place in line

Believe me, I know all about after work grocery shopping – tired, hungry, stuck behind a bunch of people with outdated coupons and cranky children, NOT looking forward loading 40-pound bags of dog food and cat litter in the rain, the works. I know.

That said, how about we summon our willpower, pay attention to our surroundings and, if the person behind us only has a couple of items, let him or her go ahead of us? Yes, I know you want to get out of there ASAP. I understand. But watch the face of that person you allow to get ahead of you in line. How their eyes light up, how they smile. It's worth it.

Week 4 - Micro-give

I am utterly and unabashedly in love with Kiva, Heifer, NPR, and other organizations, where a small amount of money is combined with other small amounts to make great things happen. Their operation is the very cornerstone of making big changes by starting with small ones. This is, after all, the premise of so many non-profit organizations.

Kiva, in this sense, is my favorite. Their minimum donation is $25; it goes not to the organization’s operating costs, but directly toward someone’s business loan all around the world; and, being a loan – not a grant – it eventually returns to you. Once a loan is fully repaid, you can take the same $25 and invest it into another loan. And another one. And another… several. You can choose to make additional contributions, or you can just stick with the original money you put in – knowing all the while that the little bit you contributed is helping someone somewhere get on his or her feet. And that, as they say in the MasterCard commercials, is priceless.

Big little stories

- Sometimes, the next best thing starts with saying hello to someone.

- Go Apple!

- Motivation done right.

- Sometimes slow is the way to go.

- Big little libraries - you can start one today.

Reminder: For all things Big Little Change, books, stories, on-line store, and Facebook group please visit our web site.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Writer interview - Suzanna Burke

Our latest guest is writer Suzanna Burke (pen name Stacey Danson), the author of Empty Chairs and Faint Echoes of Laughter as well as a fascinating blog Sooz Says Stuff.


What is your favorite virtue? The ability to feel compassion. Empathy.

Your favorite qualities in a man. A man must have the ability to laugh at himself, to laugh with me, at life. Most importantly is a man being strong enough to be gentle, unashamedly. Strong enough to be honest with himself-and-by extension, me.

Your favorite qualities in a woman. I believe that all of us, irrespective of gender, need to learn and acquire the ability to accept that they can be happy and fulfilled, without a traditional significant other.

Your chief characteristic. Adaptability. That particular characteristic has saved my skinny-ass, more times than I care to remember.

What do you appreciate the most about your friends? The fact that my friends not only tolerate, but, accept me with all my faults. They don't need to agree with me on everything, that is not true friendship, however I prefer that we can agree to disagree on things, on life, I expect them to ask questions...for friendship is a constant learning curve, I don't believe that ever stops.

Your main fault. Engaging my big mouth, before engaging my brain.

Your favorite occupation. Writing. I love experimenting with different genres. Sometimes I'll take one scene, and I'll try writing it as a comedy...a thriller, paranormal, romance...about the only thing I haven't tried on for fit is Science Fiction...I have insufficient knowledge to make that work. The researching of my books takes a long time...the devil is in the details, and I hate books when I see something that is glaringly wrong...like the seasons in different parts of the world being ignored ... and no obvious knowledge of the terrain etc. I read one recently where the author had the character dressed in fur coats and feeling very cold in the midst of the Australian Summer in the tropical north of our country. Seriously! It made me angry.

Your idea of happiness. That changes almost daily .Ultimately, I think knowing that my Daughter and Grandson are safe and doing well, will always cause me to smile. Just kicking back and chilling out with a book I'm enjoying; or, the end of a day where I have managed to be satisfied that I have achieved all I set out to do within that time frame. Yeah, these things make me happy. On the bigger stage...I guess what most caring people want, a world where pain, poverty, war and hatred no longer exist. Given that humankind has never managed to achieve that I think it's a rather sad and forlorn idea of happiness, nonetheless the very idea of it being possible, makes me happy.

Your idea of misery. A world without laughter.

If not yourself, who would you be? In fiction? Character ... hmm...Let's see, I think I'm more than a little pig headed, and at times I go way over the top; and I've never managed to fall in love with the right guy at the right time ... so...Scarlett O'Hara. As for Non-fictional...I have no idea.

Your favorite heroes in fiction. Male heroes include but are not restricted to...Atticus Finch...To Kill a Mockingbird. Rocky Balboa in all the Rocky films. Rhett Butler...Gone with the Wind Jack Ryan ... (All of Tom Clancy's fictional novels ) Yuri Zhivago... Doctor Zhivago - they are all flawed, imperfect, heroes. That makes them memorable.

Your favorite heroes in real life. I don't have heroes. I just have fallible humans I admire greatly because they will never stay down for the count.

Your favorite food and drink. Seafood in all forms, Lobster, prawns, crab, Barramundi, Squid ... If it's an unprotected species, in the oceans and streams, and is edible, I'll try it. I'm a recovering Alcoholic, my favorite liquid used to be a great Chardonnay...these days it's a pot of good black tea and endless amounts of Coffee.

What is your present state of mind? I battle depression on a daily basis...but, today is a good day. I'm in a positive state of mind.

Your personal motto. If you always do, what you have always done...then you will always get what you always got.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Big Little Change digest - January, 2016

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - exercise your mind.

My dad always said, "Mathematics is gymnastics for the brain. When you exercise, walk, or lift weights, you might not be training for the Olympics, but it's still a good idea, because it helps you stay healthy and strong. It's the same way with mathematics. You might not be going for the Nobel Prize, but it's still a helpful thing to do for your mind."

I am not asking you to start solving systems of differential equations for fun – that's my job. And I know some of you would rather fold fitted sheets than do anything mathematical. However, I do encourage you to find a series of things that help keep your brain in shape. Crosswords. Puzzles. Sudoku. Memorizing and reciting poetry. Playing adventure games with lots of riddles and hidden object scenes. Reading books that challenge you and make you think. Find SOMETHING.

There is a lot of research out there that suggests that exercising and challenging our minds in a variety of ways helps stave off aging and the onset of dementia. So, let's do ourselves a favor and start whipping our brains into shape.

Week 2 - Park that cart!

You are going to roll your eyes and say, "That's too easy!" Agreed. It's very easy. Which makes it all the more mysterious why more people don't do it. So, the next time you are at the grocery store, please do return the cart either into the parking lot stall or all the way to the store. If you see someone who had just gotten out of their car and is headed to the store, ask them, "Hey do you need a cart?" and let them have your cart. Easy-peasy!

Week 3 - clean it up.

I love the states that encourage people to recycle by charging a little extra per container and then reimbursing shoppers for each can and bottle at the grocery store recycling stations and machines.

When I lived in Rochester, NY, paid recycling had an entire culture around it. Like all large American cities, Rochester did have its homeless. But they knew they could always gather up a bag of bottles and cans by the side of the road, turn them in at the grocery store, and get enough money to buy a sandwich and a cup of hot coffee. College campuses and apartment complexes often let their minimum-wage groundskeepers and night concierges have their recycling to help boost their earnings. Parents could always send the kids out to clean a section of their street and a few yards and let them keep the recycling money for movies and ice cream. In a small way, that ever-present, ever-rewarded recycling habit impacted almost every area of life.

I understand not all of us live in states that offer this wonderful option. We can all start petitions to our state governments to implement this. We can all become ruthless to litterers throwing trash out of their cars and onto our streets and report them whenever possible. In the meantime, it’s still not a bad idea to gather up your kids and their friends and go on a cleaning walk around your neighborhood. Those of us living along smaller country roads are all familiar with the frustration of dealing with inconsiderate people using our roadsides as trash bins. But we do have a choice to work off that frustration by taking the initiative to clean up. So what if we weren’t the ones who made the mess? We are the ones who have to live there – we might as well clean it up.

Week 4 - Go primitive and rough it.

My husband and I live in the mountains of North Carolina, in a no man's land between the small towns of Hendersonville, Mountain Home, and Fletcher. There is no cable where we live (they literally haven't pulled it this far up the mountain yet), the satellite reception is sketchy, and frequent thunderstorms often knock out electricity. As we are on a well, no electricity means no operational well pump, ergo, no water. Excessive rainfall also causes flooding on the roads, which can make it impossible for us to get down the mountain. The same thing happens when there is a snowfall or an ice storm – the roads become impassable and one must simply wait and be patient.

While all this can be rather inconvenient, we do our best not to freak out when these things happen. Keeping ice, drinking water, plenty of canned goods and firewood for the woodburning stove on hand is routine. People in this area are seldom daunted by having to haul water from the nearest creek or using camping stoves to prepare meals when Mother Nature is feeling cranky.

Of course, this area, with its mountains and vast national parks, draws many tree huggers, hikers and campers, because half the time, living here is like being on a camping trip where you can bring along your house. And you know what? I recommend it.

You can rough it by going hiking or camping, or you can try it at home, if you want a safety net. Consider what you would do if you had to entertain yourself without any electronic devices. What sort of a meal can you prepare on a grill or on a camp stove? Can you bake potatoes on hot coals?

And what about your kids? Are they so plugged in that they would go nuts without their game consoles and cell phones? What would you give them to do? It's amazing how much you find out about yourself and people around you when you have to go without modern conveniences. It's also an excellent tool to prepare for true emergencies.

Big Little Stories

- All hail the Doctor!

- We've done this a couple of times - it's an awesome feeling.

- Turning Things Around level - Expert.

- Because everyone deserves a holiday.

- It doesn't all suck.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Big Little Change digest - December, 2015

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - “Just because” gifts

Ok, I admit it – I am a pathological gift giver. I love surprising people. I love feeding people. It's just fun for me. And I am not alone in this. When a friend of mine was moving, she let me have some of her fantastic vintage stuff she was not using. In exchange, once she moved, I sent her some books, some wall art and some homemade goodies to help her feel more at home in the new place.

Another friend and I routinely try to outdo each other in terms of who sends more food to whom. I make a lot of home-made jams and pickles, but she has a Russian food store nearby. So, we keep sending care packages back and forth.

In general, there is just something about having something that someone else doesn't have, and being able to share. For instance, if you have friends that got hit by this summer's weird weather (extreme drought on one side of the country, and extreme rain on the other), send them some home-grown veggies and herbs, because theirs probably didn't survive. If someone you know is sick, recovering from a surgery, or just feeling lonely and going through a tough time, put together a little box of things for them – maybe a humorous book, some good cookies and hot chocolate.

USPS has an awesome Click-n-Ship option, where you can print out your own shipping labels. I use it constantly. I even replaced my broken postal scale for this very reason – to be able to weigh packages and be my own one-person post office. There are many small boxes that fit into regular mail boxes, and there are many nice and thoughtful things you can fit into a small box. So, stay tuned to your friends and family, and become a "make someone's day" expert. It is absolutely worth it.

Week 2 - Just park it

How tired are we of people endlessly circling parking lots of America looking for THE SPOT? Cutting each other off… shouting… getting frustrated… hovering behind someone who appears to be loading up his car and getting ready to leave…

Look, unless you have a valid medical reason (no, “I don’t feel like walking” is not a valid medical reason) to need a parking spot near the entrance of a building you need to get into, just park the car wherever. And walk. In fact, do it on purpose – enter the parking lot from the back and park in the first empty spot you see from that direction.

This does tons of good things across the board. It gives you the opportunity to get in a little exercise. It leaves plenty of room for people who really do need to park closer to the store. It reduces the amount of exhaust you produce while creeping around the lot – creeping being the second least efficient mode, in which your car can operate, after idling.

Considering our ancestors had to walk or take a horse-and-buggy to go miles away in order to obtain the necessary supplies, surely most of us can be bothered to walk a hundred yards – the length of a football field, which we’ve seen traversed at a run multiple times within one hour by football players. It’s not that far. Park and walk.

Week 3 - Stop dreading Mondays

... Or any particular day of the week or month – like the bill paying day, for example. Or the grocery shopping day. Remember, when you say something is going to be an awful day – even as a joke (as in, "Sheesh, has this been a MONDAY or what?") – your subconscious doesn't know it's a joke. All it knows is that, for some reason, you are compelled to feel depressed on a specific day of the week or month, and so, it obligingly stores that information and acts on it every time that day arrives.

Don't do this to yourself. It's just a day. Another day to breathe, and walk, and hear, and see. Another day to wake up and grab the world by the tail. So, who cares what day of the week it is?

Week 4 - be nice to your car.

"WHAT?!" you might ask. "Weren't we all about saving the world and all that? What does that have to do with my car?"

Consider how much time you spend in your car. How do you feel when you have a long drive coming up? Is it something you look forward to or is it more like a sense of dread, complete with hamburger wrappers and water bottles on the inside, and a layer of last spring's pollen on the outside? And how long has this "check engine" light been on?

Your car is a part of your environment. So, make it the kind of environment that allows you to focus on your way to work and relax on the way home or to a vacation. Clean it out, discipline yourself to budget for regular car maintenance, find a car wash in the area, and give it a $5 wash every 2-3 weeks. You'd be amazed at the difference having a clean, well-cared-for car can make in your mental state.

Week 5 - - pick a song, any song.

Sometimes, it is tough to find time to exercise. Even when you already don't watch TV, there are still plenty of distractions, especially the ever-present Internet. I find that the easiest way to build any habit, including the exercise habit, is to start small.

So, find some songs that never fail to get you moving. Make a playlist on your MP3 player, your smartphone, or on your computer. Every morning, as you pop out of bed, queue up one song and come up with a little exercise routine to go with it. Most songs are less than five minutes long – surely, you can squeeze it in somewhere. Maybe set the alarm five minutes earlier – it's just a few minutes, it's not like it's a whole hour or half an hour.

This will get your heart pumping, get you moving, give you an energy boost, and start you off in a good mood.

Big Little Stories

- An awesome home for those who had nowhere else to go.

- Paying it forward at its best.

- A great step to put Detroit back on its feet.

- An awesome story - and it's true!

- Handicapped - NOT!

For more challenges and stories, please visit our web site or our Facebook group.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Writer interview - Rick Pieters

Having just read and reviewed the mind-bending novel Dark Light by Rick Pieters, I sat down to pick his brain on all things life.

What is your favorite virtue? (Do I have to choose only one?) Compassion. Empathy. Kindness.

Your favorite qualities in a man. Intelligence, strength with gentleness, loyalty, a wicked sense of humor, open-mindedness.

Your favorite qualities in a woman. The same as in a man.

Your chief characteristic. Compassion (I hope)

What do you appreciate the most about your friends? That they appreciate me, that we share ideas, humor, outlooks, and that we stick by each other. Genuine caring over the long haul.

Your main fault. Procrastination. Impatience with stupidity. (If I can choose two)

Your favorite occupation. An author of entertaining and meaningful work.

Your idea of happiness. A warm home full of love, good food, good music, and my man.

Your idea of misery. Being without those things.

If not yourself, who would you be? Hugh Jackman

Your favorite heroes in fiction. Besides Atticus?

Your favorite heroes in real life. Gandhi, Malala

Your favorite food and drink. Excellent steak, good red wine, single malt Islay scotch, martini made with good gin and blue cheese stuffed olives, authentic Mexican, Northern New Mexican Carne Adovada

What is your present state of mind? Sleep deprived, happy, content.

Your personal motto. The one I could repeat? Hmm. Keep going and always be kind. Something like that.