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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.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Big Little Change digest - July, 2015

Weekly small change challenges

Week 1 - share a thought.

We spend a lot of time curbing our thoughts. Between political correctness and self-policing ("Oh, that's just stupid!" or "They'll just laugh at me!") there are many fascinating thoughts and ideas that go unspoken and are lost forever.

Dare yourself to express a thought you wouldn't ordinarily mention. See what comes out of it.

Week 2 - who are you?

One of the most challenging, thought-provoking, and profoundly fascinating exercises I did at Jack Canfield's Breakthrough to Success seminar in 2014 was the "who are you?" exercise. People paired up, and one of the partners asked the other "Who are you?" repeatedly for 90 seconds.

For a minute and a half, we had to come up with things about ourselves that defined us. Some were easy: wife, mother, working woman, etc. But that only filled in a few seconds. There was a lot more time left, and a lot more to remember about ourselves - roles we didn't even realize we took on, day in - day out: family account manager, homework assistant, household chef...

Pair up with a friend, or your child, or your spouse and try this out. You are bound to learn much about each other and about yourselves.

Week 3 - do something you don't want to.

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.

Week 4 - say what you mean.

I am currently rereading the biography of Chopin by Faina Orzhekhovskaya (for the two hundredth time). At one point, Chopin becomes frustrated by the increasing wordiness of his then-fiancee Maria Vodzinskaya. Instead of "I am waiting for you. I love you," she writes "We shall be delighted to have the pleasure of your presence," and so on.

Ditch. That. Stuff. I am not suggesting being rude or overusing profanity (although, even that has its time and place). But say what you mean and how you mean it. Too often, the meaning gets lost in the profusion of words. This is particularly detrimental in our age of electronic communications, because, without visual, and auditory interaction, we lose over 90% of our communication tools. This makes saying what you mean in a way that cannot be misunderstood all the more important.

It is an art. It is not easy. But it is necessary, for the evidence of constantly worsening communication between individuals, companies, and entire nations is mounting. It's time to speak plainly - we'll all be better for it.

Week 5 - start something.

Kiva web site and Uncommon Goods catalog are among my greatest sources of inspiration, because they often talk about people and group who started businesses and initiated fundamental changes in their communities with hardly anything at all. A sewing circle. A cooking club. A study group. It started small but, somehow, struck just the right chord with people in the community and grew into something the originators never even imagined.

Another great example is the "surprise gift" initiative that sometimes circles Facebook. People commit to send surprise gifts to others who, in turn, commit to the same. So, what could you start today that would have a positive impact on your community - be it a real or a virtual one? It might not catch on. It might not "explode". But there has to be something you could launch today that could change someone's life for the better tomorrow.

Big little stories

- If you have a few shoe boxes lying around, save them - they make awesome shipping boxes for anything small. We like to use them for sending around home-made pickles, preserves and Christmas coffee cakes.

- A different approach toward mental health.

- We still have some awesome cops out there.

- Pet shop owner goes beyond just selling pet stuff.

- Learn to make paper airplanes, hats, boats, and frogs. It's the easiest and cheapest way to make friends with a child.

- Strangers make certain a homeless man doesn't lose his money.

- Maasai women lead a solar revolution.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Today... we judge

Several days ago, I called Justice Scalia a moron following his vile and scatterbrained remarks regarding Supreme Court's gay marriage decision. Someone reproached me for doing so and told me "I had not right to judge".

To refresh everyone's memory, per dictionary.com,


noun 1.Informal. a person who is notably stupid or lacking in good judgment: I wonder why they elected that narrow-minded moron to Congress.

2.Psychology. (no longer in technical use; now considered offensive) a person of borderline intelligence in a former and discarded classification of mental retardation, having an intelligence quotient of 50 to 69.

First of all, anyone who has read Justice Scalia's statement would agree - that is not something written by an intelligent person. It's particularly remarkable, since those who participated in Justice Scalia's appointment hearing made a point of how smart he was. One of the senators said humorously, "He's like a really smart... rock." Well, apparently, a smart rock does not a smart person make. What he wrote in his statement barely speaks of awareness - let alone intelligence. It is bursting at the seams with grossly inaccurate generalizations and questionable metaphors. So, my judgment stands - Scalia is a moron because with his statement he clearly demonstrated lack of intelligence and, most certainly, lack of good judgment.

Second, telling someone they have no right to judge is a paradoxical statement because it is, in fact, a judgement in and of itself.

We all judge. We need to learn to live with the fact. When we choose between two cars we judge one car manufacturer to be superior to another. When we choose between two cans of fruit at the grocery store we judge between two canned fruit companies. If you think that sort of everyday judgment doesn't affect anyone - think again. Your decision, added up with the decisions of other people adds up to welfare of huge organizations, millions of dollars, and countless jobs. The relationship is described very well in the "cerulean" scene of the movie The Devil Wears Prada.

We judge and it impacts others. We are not unique in this. A monkey judges when choosing between two bananas. A dung beetle judges when choosing a mate. We do both of the above and a lot more. Even Jesus, who advised against judging? Couldn't help being a little judgmental when he kicked the merchants out of the temple, calling them thieves.

The point is not to stop judging entirely - since we have just established it's impossible. The point is changing howwe judge. Judge all you want as long as you do so intelligently, objectively, based on well-researched evidence. As long is your methodology for judging meets these criteria, judge away and don't feel bad about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Today... we are not confused

A few years ago, I reconnected with an old school friend. I knew he became a born-again Christian between the time we graduated and the time we reconnected. It didn't bother me - many of us went through our own spiritual journeys during that time. I became a witch. Someone else became a Buddhist. So, why not a born-again Christian? What I didn't realize was - he became one of the more obnoxious born-again Christian types. When the matter of faith came up in a conversation, it was insults galore on his part. I attempted to disregard the negative and disrespectful comments as mere jokes and educate the man, but eventually I broke off the friendship. It wasn't much of a friendship, when every conversation began with, "Done with your heresy yet?" or "How's the witchcraft going? Are they coming to burn you on a stake?" At more serious times it was, "I shall pray to God to help you find your way to Him." Some time later, the gentleman in question died - very suddenly and tragically, of a heart attack. Our other friends and classmates mourned his death, and so did I, but in a sort of detached way. I felt awful for his family, but, sadly, my last memory of him remained that of an insensitive jerk who treated my beliefs with great disrespect.

Over time, I discovered this to be mostly a Christian affliction. I can't think of a single time I heard someone say "I shall pray to Allah/Buddha/the Great Mother to help you find your way because you are clearly lost." Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. Presently, I want to make this perfectly clear - we, the non-Christian people, are not confused. We are not lost. We are not seeking. Sure, there are people who transition between faiths, but for many of us this is something very established and very thoroughly thought out. For the latter group, the faith of choice has been arrived at after years of contemplation and study. We don't practice our beliefs because they are somehow less demanding - we practice them because that is what we chose, following our hearts and minds.

So please stop offering to pray for us to change our faith - that is rude and disrespectful. Like anyone else, we'll happily offer good vibes and positive thoughts at the time of trouble. We also welcome all forms of positive energy - prayers, chants, positive vibes, etc. - when we need support. The power of good, supportive thoughts in all their variations has been proven scientifically, and that is just cool.

Offering to pray for us to abandon our beliefs because you think yours are somehow superior is neither positive nor supportive. The next time you are tempted to do that, I encourage you to pause and think. Consider what it took for you to arrive at your beliefs and what a long, profound journey it has been. Consider the journey of the person in front of you and assume his or hers was every bit as long and profound as yours. Respect the other person's choice and be supportive.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Big Little Change digest - June, 2015

Weekly small change challenges


Week 1 - 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, that, and roads paved with gold. 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 ponds 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)? These are all important questions to ask before committing to help - be it helping someone move, helping promote someone's work, or helping with a fundraiser.

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 2 - 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 3 - apologize.

Have you been carrying something in your heart - maybe not particularly big or grevious, but nevertheless troublesome? Like a little splinter that just refused to come out because you have inadvertently stepped on someone's foot (be it metaphorically or literally)?

Apologize. Even if it was a long time ago, and there have been no hard feelings. Even if the other person doesn't even remember the incident. Do it for yourself. Explain why whatever it is has been bothering you and say you are sorry. You'll feel better.

Week 4 - adopt a...

I love seeing the "Adopt a highway" signs. Somebody somewhere found a responsibility that wasn't even theirs to begin with, and stuck with it to make our world a little better.

Find something you feel is routinely neglected and adopt it. For example, whenever my husband and his business partner travel somewhere for a long-term consulting project, they adopt the coffee maker for the duration of the project. They make a point to clean it and keep it running at all times. Technically, they don't even work at the place - they are just consultants. They don't own the coffee maker. But they adopt it to make their clients' lives easier for a little bit.

I have several friends who have taken upon themselves to help feed, capture, an neuter feral cats in their area. They've adopted their local feline herd, even though nobody asked them to - just because they felt it was the right thing to do. This week, look for something to adopt. And adopt it.


Big Little stories

In Japan, restaurants take their leftover food (which is a huge amount due to cultural ideas of generosity when treating people to dinner) and make it available to homeless people at the end of each day.

When people rock a bus for all the right reasons.

Medicinal plants hard at work.

Putting kitchen scraps to work.

We were at the grocery store earlier and just happened to see one of the store's displays of flavored water fall. Not sure if someone bumped it or if something was out of balance and it just happened. What I really liked was seeing how many customers (including myself) picked in to pick the plastic bottles up and help the employees. Just because it's not your job, doesn't excuse you from helping.

Big Little Change - Colbert style.

Students helping students.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Big Little Change digest - May, 2015

Weekly small change challenges


Week 1 - do something nice just 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 - share what you know.

This is bad for you - no, this is good for you! No, seriously it's bad. And while you are at it - don't do that! No, it's ok. Or maybe not. This is what surrounds us seemingly all the time these days - a truckload of warnings and instructions on what not to do. It is all, of course useless, because it's been proven and documented that human brain is hard-wired not to follow negative instructions. So, when told "don't do this, that, the other thing, and that thing over there", it skips the "don't" and either prods us to do the opposite or, at best becomes very confused and frustrated.

So, how about we focus on what we can and should do. If you know of what we CAN eat and drink - share that, instead of the endless lists of companies, whose products we should swear of for good. If you know safe, reliable ways to exercise without overstraining and getting hurt - share those, instead of page upon page of warnings of what is bad for us. Whatever area you wish to pick - housekeeping, gardening, cooking, education, child rearing - share freely what has worked for you, what you have tested, what you have succeeded at.

Positive instructions galore! We'll learn and improve a lot faster that way. After all - that's what our brain is set to do.

Week 3 - say good bye to the "buts".

Studies of language and how it impacts our ability to process information indicate: when you put a "but" in the middle of your statement, the brain just ditches everything said before the "but", retaining only the part after the "but". So, if someone says "You are smart but not very good -looking", the only thing the recipient's brain will end up retaining is "you are not very good-looking". (I know it's a meh example, but you see the point.)

It works the same in reverse. When someone showers you with compliments, and, instead of saying "thank you", you reply with, "Yes, but..." and then list all the things you perceive to be wrong with you - your own brain retains only that. Not the compliments so generously bestowed upon you, but the part where you ripped yourself to pieces. So, when someone says, "You have a beautiful house!" and you reply, "Yes, but the basement is a mess," the "beautiful house" but leaves no positive trace in your mind. All it zeroes in on is the messy basement.

Let's say "no" to "but"s. Get rid of them when sharing information, trying to empower someone or receiving positive feedback yourself. When, say, beta reading a friend's manuscript, instead of "Chapter 10 is brilliant, but chapter 11 needs to be revamped," say, "Chapter 10 is brilliant and chapter 11 needs some work." That way, the recipient of the statement shall retain both parts of it and won't feel as if you had just bashed them and nothing else. When someone says, "You have a beautiful house," say, "Thank you - I am very glad you enjoy being here. We are working all the time to make it even better - just wait till we finish up that basement!" Boom - positive. Yes, the basement needs work, but your brain is left with the feeling of progress instead of a neverending challenge that yields few results.

Off with the "but"s!

Week 4 - read that name tag.

As Hercule Poirot points out in Agatha Christie's "Yellow Iris", we seldom notice people who serve us. Waiters, bank clerks, checkout clerks and baggers at grocery stores, mechanics - they are just... there. People in uniform. We come in contact with them to have them do something for us and walk away. Those of us who are polite and nice make a point to say "thank you", but there are some who can't even be bothered with that.

Let's go an extra step. First of all, saying thank you should be a given. Second, when someone is helping you, read their name tag, or, if they don't have one, ask their name. Dale Carnegie says there is no sound to a person sweeter than the sound of his or her own name. Adding a name to that thank you can well and truly make someone's day. If the person had an unusual name - remark on that too. If it suggests something grand or beautiful to you - tell them. You'll see their entire face light up. Read the name tag - it's important.


Big Little Stories


Changing one life in a big way, and starting an even bigger change.

Appearances matter, and this hairstylist takes the notion to a whole new - and very positive - level.

Someone took five minutes to help another person - and changed a life (or several lives) forever.

A restaurant offers free meals to people down on their luck.