About Me

My Photo
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, July 7, 2014

Big Little Change digest - July, 2014

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - 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 2 - 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 well 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 clean up. So what 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. And if your state doesn’t have recycling incentives, you can get together with your neighbors or friends and set up a pizza and/or ice cream party for your helpers to reward them.

Week 3 - 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. 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.

Week 4 - 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.

Member contributions

Big little change at work - imagine if all people with adequate means would do this for others.

After a lively discussion and a bit of research from my faithful and fierce Facebook friends, we have all come to a conclusion - you all MUST get some of these tomatoes. Plant some, grow them, and enjoy. I have some growing in my green house, and they are AMAZING.

Public service announcements

Another power girl with a new invention.

Feed the butterflies - save the eco system.

The elements - wind, water, and heat - working together to bring energy and water to the desert.

Solar-powered water wheel goes to work cleaning out the Baltimore Harbor.

Last year's renewable energy breakthroughs.

Recommended reading

- Key to living the law of attraction by Jack Canfield

- The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mama Masha's Kitchen - variations on the theme of pickling

We have talked about canning and pickling in the past. But just in case people have forgotten what we talked about, I'd like to remind you to approach pickling seriously. It is great fun and - done right - the results are very rewarding. It's always awesome to pope a jar of home-made pickles in the middle of winter and enjoy that summertime crunch or offer your guests a fantastic veggie spread and tell them you've done your own pickling. But in order to get good results, one must have a solid process, with great discipline, organization, coordination, and thoroughness for each step.

I am not going to talk about jar sterilization and pressurization - there are tons of instructions for that on the internet, and printed on a leaflet sold with just about any canning product, including jar caps. Rather, I would like to suggest a few variations on the basic pickling solution to expand your range of flavors.

The basic pickling brine recipe goes as follows:

- 3 cups of water

- 2 cups of vinegar

- 1/4 cup of pickling salt (regular salt is acceptable, but pickling salt gives you a clearer, more transparent brine)

- A pinch of sugar (I use brown sugar)

Now, let us build up on the basic...

For savory, slightly spicy pickles, start with the basic brine and add the following to each jar:

- 2 black pepper corns

- 1 clove of garlic

- 1 bay leaf

- 1 sprig of fresh parsley

- 1 sprig of fresh dill

Note: If you don't have fresh herbs, make it a pinch of dried parsley and a pinch of dried dill. Do consider growing them - they are not that hard to maintain, and they smell great!

For sweet and tangy pickles:

- Instead of a pinch of sugar in the basic brine recipe, add 1 cup of sugar per each cup of vinegar. So in our basic recipe above, we would have 3 cups of water, 2 cups of vinegar, 1/4 cup of salt, and 2 cups of sugar.

- Also add to the brine, 1/4 teaspoon ground tumeric and 1/2 teaspoon of one of these (not all of them - just whichever one you prefer): cayenne pepper, mustard seed, dried mustard, ground black pepper, chili pepper.

- Add 1 slice of a medium-size sweet onion to the jar.

- 2 black pepper corns

- 1 sprig of fresh parsley (or a pinch of dried)

- 1 sprig of fresh dill (or a pinch of dried)

Other things to add to the jar for slight variations of flavor and texture:

- Cherry leaves (for firmness and slightly sweeter flavor)

- Rosemary (fragrant and savory)

- Mint (fragrant and sweet)

- Lemon balm leaves (sweet and tangy)

- Sage and thyme (very heady, fragrant, savory scent and flavor)

- Lemon juice (a pop of tartness)

The good news is that all these additives are not only great for flavor enhancement but also good for you. Happy pickling!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Big Little Change digest - June, 2014

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - identify patterns that are not working for you.

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, put your phone to 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 2 - 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 appraised 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 3 - revise the meaning of "I'm only human".

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 in size 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. 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 your self 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 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 into an extreme, consider taking a pause and a deep breath to give yourself time to re-think.

Member contributions

A fantastic and inspiring example of paying it forward.

A fire department helps a couple in wheelchairs get to the prom.

It might be hard to feed the entire world, but one man takes steps to make sure kids in his neighborhood are not starving.

Public service announcements

Reduce, reuse, upcycle!

Boxes for those who like to think outside the box.

Urban farming.

Recommended reading

- Freakin' Fabulous on a Budget by Clinton Kelly

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Big Little Change digest - May, 2014

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - tell your postal worker you appreciate what he or she does.

It doesn't have to be a postal worker - 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 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 your wrote down. That is amazing. And it's been around 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 2 - make it more than the pounds.

A few months ago, my employer ran a very cool wellness initiative for all the employees. It was entirely up to every individual to join, folks could track it on their own or join a team, and after you have reached a certain goal, you got a $40 Amazon gift certificate (that's free books, y'all).

Yeah, sure, it was a big corporate thing in an attempt to lower health insurance rates. However, one of my favorite things about it was that you could track your fitness in more than one way. Yes, the amount of weight you have lost was one of the options. But you could also track the number of minutes you exercised per day, or the number of steps you walked (a free - albeit somewhat crap - pedometer was sent to you at the beginning of the program). Also, there were challenges that team members could issue to each other, and those ranged from exercising a certain number of minutes per day, to doing a random act of kindness, to reading 30 minutes per day.

It was very cool to watch, how people chose to implement their fitness goals, and how many opted to issue challenges that were not directly related to one's physical activities.

The number on the bathroom scale and the number on your clothing label have both gained A LOT of negativity associated with them. So, as you consider setting up your fitness routine, make it about something else. Steps. Minutes. Miles. Reading. Hiking. Acts of kindness. Anything goes.

Week 3 - 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 a possible huge emotional tantrum or a real medical emergency.

Week 4 - re-set 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. Does that sound like a fun way to live? Didn't think so. 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 will not work.

Member contributions

Another kind of hanging garden.

When a small group of people gets a chance to change someone's life.

Recycling at its best.

Landscaping fun - and the decorative flowers can always be replaced with edible ones.

Public service announcements

Regrow your lettuce - here is how.

Got a good tasty veggie from a local farm? Save the seeds.

Worn out or stuck in a rut? This might help.

Recommended reading

The Difference Maker by John Maxwell

Why Women Should Rule the World by Dee Dee Myers

It's All Too Much by Peter Walsh

The Noticer by Andy Andrews

Dress Your Best by Stacey London and Clinton Kelly

More Big Little Change ideas, support, and interaction can be had at our Facebook group. Big Little Change merchandize including the Earth-friendly grocery bags and American-manufactured casualwear is available at our Zazzle store.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mama Masha's Kitchen - vegetable fabulousness

This super-healthy dinner is easily adjustable for vegetarians and meat eaters. It's also colorful, delicious, and great fun - both to prepare and to eat.

Pre-dinner snacks

- Large radishes - flattened at the bottom and cored. If making this for an average-size group, allow 2-3 radishes per person. Once the radishes are cleaned and prepped, fill each one with butter, mozzarella, or feta. Sprinkle the ones with butter with coarse salt (Murray River salt and Himalayan Pink or Red work well.)

- Large tomato slices arranged on a plate, each topped with a slice of mozzarella and a fresh basil leaf.

Dinner

- Spaghetti squash - cleaned, cooked, and scooped

- Spaghetti from the spaghetti squash used as stir fry noodles with thinly sliced bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and any meet of your choice (or none). We made ours with yellow curry, but you can also opt for a sweet and sour option.

Dessert

- Yogurt in small cups, with strawberry slices, dark chocolate shavings, a touch of espresso sugar, and a sprig of apple mint.