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Posts Tagged ‘Life skills’

As We Change Presidents…..

Monday, January 30th, 2017

It’s just a new President.  Really.  The Constitution is still in place.  The Congress is still there.  (I was going to say “functioning”, but that would be a new development of late.)  The Judiciary branch is still doing its thing.  We have just changed one piece of this amazing puzzle of a democracy that has worked so well for over 200 years.  The sky is not falling.  Really.  It may be rattling a bit with the change in how the wind is blowing, but it’s not falling.

The angst with this particular election outcome is unique.  It’s as if the whole country has forgotten that one party wins and the other loses every time we do this.  To the “victors” each time comes the hopes that they are going to get things exactly as they want.  To the “defeated” comes the frustrating truth that they will have to wait.  And that’s never the way it turns out.  Neither party ever gets  things exactly as they wanted!  Because we are all part of this.  Not just the “winners.”

It’s as if people are assuming the President is an absolute ruler who does whatever he wants and has the right and the role to change whatever he chooses.  Donald Trump may even believe that.  It doesn’t matter.  That’s not the way we roll as the United States of America.

This is about ALL of us doing what we can to make this country a place we can all live together–fairly and at peace with each other.

If you want a great country, add some effort of your own.  Little easy things can help a lot.  Donald Trump may say he is going to Make America Great Again.  But that ain’t gonna happen if it’s just him trying to pull it off.  Particularly if what he thinks would be “great” isn’t what the rest of us have in mind.

If you refuse to do anything to improve the situation because you hate Donald Trump, you’re missing the point:  It’s not his country!  It belongs to all of us.  Refusing to make things better because he is part of the picture makes about as much sense as refusing to plant a garden because you don’t want to eat the peas you spouse always plants.  SAVOR THE REST!

Martha Beck once wrote: “The happier you are, the more joyful the whole world becomes.”  At a minimum, do something to generate joy.  In  your loved ones.  In  yourself.  In the people you meet while waiting in line for your coffee.  We can start to turn this around just by being nice to people every time we can.

We do not need to let this become a war.  If we become happy enough, Donald Trump will be superfluous.  If he truly is about “making America great again” even he would be happy with that.

Come on!  Smile at somebody!

 

The ONE THING None of Us Should Eat

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Okay, okay, you’re tired of all the do’s and don’ts about what to eat.  One week coffee is bad for you, the next “they” are saying two cups a day will help avoid dementia.  Red wine is good…but not too much…or maybe only on Sundays.  And what’s the deal with kale? Or whatever. All this advice leads us to consume large quantities of the one thing we really do not need to be eating: FEAR.

There’s a lot of “information” out there about how eating this will stave off some awful illness and about how eating that other thing will trigger something terrible. Such advice is everywhere and often in contraction to other advice.  So you can’t do all of it (and who in the world really wants to?)  Still, “they” say this is important.  We want to be safe, to avoid the horrible “maybe” mentioned.  So instead of acting on our own behalf, we worry.  Worry is just another word for being afraid (passively).  Have another helping of fear, my dear!

Our current culture is very good at fretting about damn near everything. What if I take that job, and then there’s a lay-off?  What if I say the wrong thing, and I get a reputation for being policially incorrect?  What if the incoming Presidential adminstration is as terrible as my favorite news site says it will be?  Oh so much can go wrong.

And it may.  But that’s not the biggest problem here.  When we take this stuff in and let it define how we live, life becomes a prison cell.  There will always be something dangerous that might hurt us.  Trying to avoid all of it is like trying to avoid breathing nitrogen–which is a normal and major component of air–but not what we need to live on.  We don’t use the nitrogen but it doesn’t harm us if we are doing the natural thing–breathing it back out.  Same deal with fear.  It’s out there, and we need to notice it. Then the natural thing is to let it go. When we worry instead, we hold it.  And it imprisons and weakens us.

Life is dangerous.  Standing there paralyzed with fear is not going to change that. All it does is remove the chance to live happy and free.

It’s not just the nutrition experts  force-feeding us this bad stuff.  We get far more information about the “dangers” inherent in being alive than has ever been the case before.  We have access to massive amounts of information from a wide array of sources on devices we can use 24/7.  The message of “Be afraid” comes through loud and clear–and often.

Even worse, those who want us as potential customers–for them or their advertisers– will hype that “news” so it becomes even more terrifying.  This is NOT good for any one of us.  (It may, however, be very good for business.)

And it’s not the natural way for us to feel fear either.  When there is a real and present danger, fear is an ally.  Fight or flight–DO something.  All this “informational fear” isn’t like that.  When we are encouraged to be afraid of things that might happen, we move to a situation that denies any chance to effectively eliminate the fear by acting on it.  The possible terrible thing has not happened.  All you can do is worry that it might. We take the fear in and hold it.  Some day we may learn that doing that is the leading cause of heart attacks…  Fear generates stress.  We know stress messes us up a lot physically.

So, instead of actually eating and holding all that fear, we might be better off with something like the following:

  • Avoid clicking on all the sensationalized headlines about whatever thing to avoid, remove, etc.
  • Ask yourself if whatever advice you just read feels right to you.  Intuition is one of the best fear interceptors going.
  • Can you reasonably mitigate what they have said might go wrong?  If so, do that. If not, FORGET ABOUT IT.

Repeat after me: I will not eat fear.

Ahem…about Your “Stuff”…

Monday, July 7th, 2014

It’s time to admit something important. At some point, someone is going to have to deal with your “stuff”. We don’t seem to be aware of this as we keep adding belongings.  Clutter is just a fact of life, right?

We keep stuff for all kinds of reasons–  “I might need it…”  “It was Grandma’s…” “I might decide to go back into that line of work…”  But the ongoing accumulation of “things” is a slow motion disaster.  A few weeks ago, a woman in Connecticut was killed when the floor of her house collapsed—because of the weight of the stuff she had on it.  They didn’t find her until two days later; the volume was so massive that it looked like the floor was still there when the police checked initially.

That’s an extreme case, but we’re all affected by “stuff.” If you haven’t had to deal with someone else’s after they’ve died, count yourself lucky. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. But here’s the deal. If you can’t face dealing with it, how can someone else—who knows a whole lot less about it–manage to do it after you’re gone?

My family just went through this. Six siblings plus a dear and unflinching sister-in-law hauled load after load out of my youngest brother’s 900-square-foot home for five full days. We got rid of over 100 cubic yards of “stuff.” Don’t naively assume it was just a case of walking it to the dumpster again and again either. Landfills have rules these days. You must dispose of electronics, assorted batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, oil-based paint, other hazardous materials, etc. in very specific ways—or face a fine. There’s a whole different routine for latex paint. Plus, if those doing the disposing have half a conscience about environmental stewardship, there will be trips to the local food bank, Goodwill or a similar second-hand store, and perhaps the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore to donate appropriate “stuff.” And there will be lots of trips to the recycle center.

Accumulated “stuff” is not the benign, minor flaw we want to believe it is. Letting stuff you don’t need, don’t use, and don’t care about pile up, leaves less space, resources, and time for what could bring you joy now. Holding onto too many things from the past means you don’t have faith in the present–or the future. It’s also a waste of money if you’re insuring, maintaining, paying for space to keep, and otherwise lavishing resources on all that “stuff.”

My loved one didn’t set out to leave a huge mess for the rest of us to clean up. He felt he needed everything he acquired. That’s how we usually amass stuff…a teeny bit at a time, time after time. But “stuff” doesn’t go away on its own. Somebody is going to have to deal with it eventually.

All six of us siblings came home vowing “I’m not going to do that to anybody!” so I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do make getting rid of my “stuff” less of a burden when I depart. Everyone’s list will be unique, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Clean out the file drawers! Going through files is huge time sink for next of kin and I can find most of what I’m keeping online if I do need it.
2. Make sure my kids really want what I’m keeping for them.
3. Whenever I learn someone needs what I’ve discovered I have (and don’t need), give it to them.
4. Mark the contents of boxes I do keep. Include a “Get rid of after ___” date to avoid going through boxes again myself when I can.
5. Donate to the food bank from my pantry. (This gets food I bought for a unique reason and then didn’t use onto someone’s plate rather than sitting on my pantry shelf until it expires.)
6. Dispose of the old paint immediately when I repaint. (But do keep the new paint for repairs.)
7. Be honest with stuff I get as gifts. If I’m not going to use it, return it, donate it, or regift it.
8. Remove anything I haven’t worn in the last year from my closet. Donate what I’m willing to part with. Put the rest in a separate stack. If I don’t wear it in another 12 months, donate it then.
9. Go through my bookshelves quarterly. Pass on anything I don’t expect to read again.
10. Leave notes for my loved ones about what’s what and how to get rid of it.
I want to do this right. From what I’ve seen lately, it’s a really good way to say “I love you.”

 

How Do I Know?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This post is mostly an e-mail from my sister Kathryn Winz, retired professor and part-time caregiver to two beautiful special needs grandsons.  It grew out of a conversation we’d had the week prior about how to know when you are no longer able to do what you’ve been doing effectively.  She did such an eloquent job of bringing an even larger issue to light–that sometimes the pros who are supposed to be telling you how don’t know themselves–that I asked her permission to use her words.

You remember how worried I was, when we talked last, about installing a deadbolt lock keyed from the inside, to keep Ezra from running away in the middle of the night? I installed the lock, even though there is a chance of a medical emergency in which I won’t be able to open it.  A week later Kelly told me this while she was cutting my hair: her Uncle Jimmy, who is 42 and has Down syndrome, needs another hip surgery because he has a difficult time getting up and down stairs. He and his 85-year-old mom live alone in the big old family farmhouse, where the only bathroom is upstairs. Isn’t your family worried? I asked. They have always been this way, and they’re fine, Kelly said.

Well, I don’t think they are fine. Nobody manages forever in such a difficult situation. So I scheduled an appointment at my local counseling center to talk about how to recognize signs that age has started impinging on one’s abilities.  I asked if they had an expert on the problems of aging, and the receptionist assured me that they did.

I met lovely, fragile Gloria in the waiting room. Her long silk skirt billowed a little in the air conditioning. She looked carefully around the empty space (it was late in the day – the receptionist had gone home), going down the short flight of stairs to look near the front door. She came back toward me and said, “You must be Kathryn.”

Her office would have pleased Bilbo Baggins, or Merlin. Things were arranged four-deep on every surface. Pictures of adorable children and grandchildren, toys that I believe belonged to the kids back in the 1970s. Mementos of travel. Diplomas from everywhere, including Masters and Johnson. I was looking at a rich, full life, I knew. I tried the leather chair, and sank so far I knew I would have trouble getting out at the end of the hour.  So I moved to the couch, and sank again.

I told my story. “Don’t borrow worry,” Gloria said. “Do you have your grandsons living with you?” No, they visit every weekend, I told her, again.

“How old do you think I am?” Mid-fifties, I answered. ” I’m seventy three,” she said. “I don’t worry.”

“Your daughter must really need help,” she said after fifteen minutes of somewhat inane conversation. “Are you able to help her at all?” Yes, I said, the boys often stay overnight with me. But I don’t know how I will be able to tell if that is not safe anymore.  “Don’t borrow worry”, she responded.  I wondered if in her intro she just picked an age one year older than the client in front of her.  Maybe she didn’t even know how old she was.

I remembered my colleague who in the final years of teaching his crime lab course made his students fingerprint each other for an hour every class for the whole semester. That’s all, just taking fingerprints, even after the messy process of inking had become obsolete.  He doesn’t even recognize his children any more.

And then there was another friend and long time prof who infuriated the dean because he could talk for an hour about anything, but when the hour was done, you couldn’t pull out a single point that he had made.

How will I know? How can I tell when I am no longer making sense and providing for others safely?  When someone grabs me by my spindly shoulders and says, “Get it together!” I guess.  Or maybe I won’t know, and there will be a disaster.  I won’t borrow worry.

But this is a legitimate worry and an issue worthy of a good plan.  So what do you do?  How do you know?  She and I had another exchange of e-mail where we took it beyond “asking a professional” (who might be beyond that needed awareness personally).  Professional counseling is good for many things, but for this, you need people who have known you for some time and care about you.  People who can say, “Your driving is deteriorating.”  Or “Do you realize you’ve said that three times since I stopped by to visit?”

This is the work of the courageous and the members of that advisory council need to be carefully chosen.  We need to find them and sincerely ask for their help before it starts to become a concern.  This isn’t a way of giving someone else the authority to limit our lives.  It’s the most effective means we have of accurately seeing reality if our own grasp of it starts to loosen.

***************

Kathryn Winz is retired and is a delightfully diverse fiber artist.  Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more see Mary’s website.

Savoring Summer

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I just caught myself doing the unthinkable–worrying that summer is going to be over before it’s even started! Time for me to refocus on how to savor the pluses of the moment instead of worrying about what’s likely to come after them.

I live in the Pacific Northwest–with some of the best summer weather you will ever find anywhere. In addition, because of where we sit on the globe, we get really long summer days (balanced, of course, by really short winter days, but we don’t need to get into that right now).  We do have rainy days and cool weather as part of the overall summer pattern, but summer here is largely a matter of moderately warm, mostly dry, and more often than not sunny.

The last few days of May were a delightful hint of what my particular environment will be like for coming months–sunny with highs in the mid- to high 70’s.  As I looked out at all the gorgeous green and listened to the bird song, I caught myself in a disconcertingly negative thought though.  In 20 days, we will begin the progression of shorter days again.  Once summer starts, we’re marching toward winter.

Oh come on!

There is always a progression going on.  Sometimes we know what the next thing is going to be (drizzly gray days that go dark at 5:00).  Sometimes we just project what we’re afraid it’s going to be (boring, scary, not-fun, demanding…whatever).  The point is the same regardless:  When you fail to notice the good stuff going on right now and focus instead on worrying about something less positive that’s on the way, you are squandering your life.

Most of us learn to worry before we even make it to high school.  Noticing that something might go wrong is useful–it gives you a heads-up so you can do what’s needed to make it go right instead.  But not noticing that things are going right at this very moment makes you miss the real sweetness of life–the delight of really living those moments where “all’s right with the world.”  That is a tragic waste.

The sun is shining.  The sky is blue.  The birds are singing.  I’m on it.  I’ll worry about winter later.

 

Grieving by Peeling Onions

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Sometimes you have to peel onions–not to make stew, to make sense of what’s just happened.

Last week, my youngest brother died unexpexctedly. It was a massive coronary event and we’ve been assured he didn’t suffer. But he only got half of the “Live long; die fast” mantra to work. He wasn’t even 60 yet.

Shock comes first. Deep sadness quickly after. Then a whole bunch of stuff that you never expected that feels an awful lot like peeling onions. When your family dynamics get adjusted, lots of stuff bubbles up through the new cracks.

I am part of a fiercely loyal family with seven kids. We take care of each other, whether it was running for help when a neighborhood bully was hurting a sibling at the playground or anteing up to cover expenses for someone who truly needed an assist. That doesn’t mean the relationships have all been smooth as gourmet ice cream. That was particularly true of this brother since he had both physical and mental health challenges of significant proportions.

So in addition to the sadness of losing a family member, there are assorted versions of relief, some of which don’t feel very noble.  I am relieved that he won’t have to go into assisted living.  We weren’t even sure we could find a place that would accept someone with as many challenges as he had.  I am relieved that he got “home safe.”  He lived life differently than most and that made him vulnerable to physical attack from someone bigger and afraid of those differences.  But I am also relieved that I don’t have to worry about what he will need next.  That’s the not-so-noble one.  They are all part of peeling the onion.

What I definitely did not expect was the flood of memories that have come that have nothing directly to do with this brother.  He wasn’t even in the band.  But in talking with one of my other brothers, the memory of a band director who died in my junior year of high school returned.  My brother worshipped him and still does.  I thought his death was a miracle.  Much as I didn’t have the words then–and was way too naïve to use my brain to figure it out–I knew the man was grooming me.  Now we call those people sexual predators, and they go to jail.  When I was in Catholic high school?  Not gonna happen.  But then he died and I was safe.  Why is my other brother’s death making me experience all that again?

There are other traumas, experienced long ago and buried that are bubbling back up now, too.  I was not ready for that, but I need to let it happen.  Perhaps my outer shell is more easily cracked because of the primary loss.  Perhaps it’s just time.

I want to honor my brother for who he was–and he was a rarity.  He was amazing with his grasp of physics and mathematics.  The web of fantasy he constructed inside our reality was in a class by itself.  He was not a “regular guy” but he was, even with the distortions his mental illness caused, a good person.

He is giving me something in death that I could never had gotten out of conversation with him.  His death has presented the chance to peel another onion–to go deeper into who I am because of what I have already experienced.

I will miss him–do miss him.  And I will keep on peeling onions.  I promise.

 

What Do I Want to Do Next?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

“What do I want to do next?” We all need to ask ourselves that question on a regular basis. Not so much as we work through the tasks on that pesky To Do list as to keep the sense of adventure in our lives.

What do I want to do next?  Next year?  Next as a focus for learning something?  Next as a way to “give back?”

Asking that question can seem kind of pointless when you are stuck in the daily grind of work, kids’ needs, and then more work.  It still needs to be asked then–as a way to visualize the “brass ring” of getting beyond the hectic schedules and overwork that modern culture expects of us during our career years.

Maybe we don’t ask that key question very often when we’re younger, but after retirement, asking that question becomes critical.  Otherwise you end up in a boring rut of “same old same old.”

When I left the corporate world, my answer to “What do I want to do next?” was easy–write novels.  I set about learning how to do that with the same intensity I’d used to succeed in business.  It didn’t work out the same way though.  Other things came along that deserved my attention.  I had time, and I willingly gave it.  A month wandering around Florida in January makes perfect sense for a resident of Colorado.  Helping sort my deceased brother-in-law’s household so his only brother (my then husband) could get it on the market?  Of course I will do that.  A world cruise?  Of course!

When I finally got back to writing with any kind of regularity, I decided that what I really needed to write was screenplays.  So I took a year-long course online with UCLA.  I do love screenplays.  You have to tell the story in images.  What you write is just the blueprint; a whole team has to use that to actually create the desired product–a movie.  I love teamwork.  This was my last best thing to do.

Then reality intervened again.  You know those complaints about Hollywood ignoring screenwriters over 30?  They’re real.  I was furious after one particularly blatant ageist encounter.  Then “What do I want to do next” was answered with Change this attitude!  After I calmed down, I could see that the Hollywood attitude toward older people wasn’t the most important thing to change.  The important change was with the older people themselves.  So I worked on what eventually became Supercharged Retirement.  And I pushed myself to get it out there as fast as I could rather than writing it and then putting it in a drawer.  (Which is a lot easier, trust me.)

When that book came out, there wasn’t much about how to get the stuff other than money figured out for when you retire.   What I had to offer did make a difference.  I went back to using other skills I’d developed in the workforce to do seminars and promote the book.  Now there are a lot more resources for people to use and that’s good.  For them and for me.  With plenty available, I can look around for “What do I want to do next?” again.

This time, the answer is a rerun.  I want to write novels.

So I am going back to following that bliss.  I think.  The retirement stuff is still important and there are still issues and insights that need to be explored and explained though.  So I’m going to do both.

How this is going to work is anyone’s guess.  I just know it’s time to try.  Stay tuned.

 

Solving the Symptom

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

For the past 10 days, I’ve been getting bids for dealing with water in my crawlspace. It’s been a great refresher course in the difference between solving a problem and treating the symptom.

To be sure, I don’t like having standing water under the house. But if I want to solve this for good, I need to think in terms of what put it there instead of just how to get it out. I can get it out on my own–a submersible pump and then the Shop Vac (both borrowed from my older son) are all I needed.  I got th water all out myself a week ago.

But after getting it “squeegee dry” on a Saturday evening, it was already starting to come back in the next morning. That’s when I started asking for bids.

I’ve had four different outfits look at it. Two had variations of the same approach in mind–because they were selling the same patented system (which I did not know when I asked them both to bid). That system is great at solving the symptom–water in the crawlspace–or more often, in someone’s basement. It just collects it and pumps it back out automatically, using a largely inconspicuous collection system.  It even has a double back up on the sump pump to be sure it keeps pumping under all circumstances.

My landscape guy suggested there’s enough slope on the lot that we can channel the water to a corner of the crawl (which has a concrete floor) via grooves and get it out with just a gravity drain. That’s lots cheaper and would probably be just as effective–at solving the symptom.

Day before yesterday, a general contractor I’ve used for remodel projects took a look at it. He really looked at it.  He checked where the drainage from the underground downspout system was coming out.  He looked at the outlet for the surface drainage.  He dug down on the lowest corner of the house to see what was actually going on at the foundation/footing contact.  Then he suggested a cost-effective way to solve the problem.  

The problem in this case is that water is using the foundation of my house as the easiest way downhill when it rains.  I need to create an easier way for it to go–and make the route next to the house harder.  It looks like we can do that for less than what the guys with the razzle dazzle system would charge.

What I do or don’t do with my water issue isn’t the point here.  How often do we “solve the symptom” when we think we’re really solving the problem?  The doctor says your blood pressure is high.  He recommends taking medication for that.  Symptom solved.  But what’s causing the high blood pressure?  Stress?  And undetected underlying medical condition?  For one of my sons, it was caffeine. You can help yourself better if you know the problem and deal with that.  Foregoing caffeinated coffee has a whole low fewer risks than taking blood pressure medicine, for example.

Same idea in a financial context:  You don’t have enough money at the end of the month to make the mortgage payment.  So you change that payment to earlier in the month.  The symptom is no longer creating discomfort but the problem remains.  Why wasn’t there enough money at the end of the month?  Are you spending more than you realize?  Is someone who has access to your funds using them for a drug or gambling addiction?  Is your lifestyle more than you can afford?  Is someone just plain stealing from you?  You won’t discover these things if you just deal with the symptom and move on.

As a nation, we’ve become focused on eliminating symptoms instead of solving problems.  We vote to extend unemployment benefits rather than getting on with the reforms that are needed to get the economy humming on a stronger note.  We make laws about carrying guns and then leave the epidemic of mental health problems unaddressed.

As individuals, we can choose better every day.  Let’s solve problems.  That eliminates the pesky symptom but goes a whole lot farther toward keeping things on the right track over time.

 

Happy Shoes

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Do you have a pair of “happy shoes?” Maybe you need one.

I am blessed to have a son who is  one of the world’s happiest people.  If left to his own sense of how the world works, he always manages to see something good to focus on.  He clued me in to the idea of happy shoes.  He’s a tall guy and wears size 13’s.  When you see him in a pair of bright yellow vinyl sneakers with happy faces on them, you can bet something wonderful has happened in his life.  He recently wore them for his daughter’s birthday party.   But the real reason for the shoes was adversity that dogged him for five years.

He was the nice guy in the wrong place when the financial markets turned to goo.  He’s financially conservative but the company he’d been working for had gone in a bad direction and ended up imploding.  Prior to that event, he’d been able to find another job in a matter of days if not hours.  But with gazillions of financial professionals out of work, most of the jobs drying up, and the blot of “that company name” on his resume, the months turned into years.

His financial conservatism meant they’d been saving for this potential disaster.  Plus his wife still had a well-paying job.  The hit was ugly for the family wallet, but it pegged to downright grotesque in terms of its potential for destroying his self esteem.  He was a professional with good credentials.   In the aftermath of the finance sector’s meltdown, that probably worked against him even more–the “overqualified” issue.

But he didn’t sit on his hands while he waited for the right job to come along.  He  did all the things they advise doing.  (You will never find a guy more effective at networking.)  And when things didn’t turn around quickly, he didn’t head for the bar in frustration.  He just kept on believing it was going to work out while he did everything he could think of as the process dragged on and on.

He started studying for the CFA–an arduous credentialing process that some say is more demanding than an MBA.  He also remodeled their entire downstairs and  rebuilt a rock wall in the backyard.  He was in the middle of remodeling the kitchen when “the right job” finally materialized.

At some point in all that, he found these shoes–for when he would begin to celebrate the wins again.  He believed things were going to go right eventually. And they have.  When he passed the CFA’s (which really does take years), he sent a photo of his foot–in a happy shoe.  The image filled me with joy–and I wasn’t even the one who’d gone through the massive work effort to make the achievement happen.

I have a pair of silly shoes–pink suede, slide-on, sneaker style, 3″ platform shoes.  I got them for a costume party and they make me laugh.  (I am 5 foot 8.)  So I keep them.  But are they my happy shoes–or just my silly shoes?  What would it take to make them my happy shoes?

That’s beside the point.  The question here is how do you–and I–celebrate our wins?  And are our loved ones in on that?

Early in my writing career, I would treat my husband to dinner out when I finished a book  manuscript–simply because I wanted to celebrate that.  (Let’s not quibble about who’s “supposed” to buy in such circumstances.  Reality is often less romantic than we’d prefer.)

Going out to eat (at least if you don’t do it all the time) is a nice way to acknowledge completing a big job.  But you’re done  with the celebrating in an hour or two and the loved ones who are a thousand miles away don’t get to feel your joy.  Happy shoes send the message all day long and over the internet if you snap a photo.

I think I need some happy shoes.  I think you do, too.  Life is good–and when it’s even better for the moment because something good happened, it’s nice to mark that well.

 

Lessons from a Butterfly Cake

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Sometimes, it takes a while to “get it.” I learned that via my two-year old granddaughter’s birthday cake a few days ago.

I’ve coveted the role of designated birthday cake baker for four years now—ever since her older sister turned one.  But, alas, I am not the only grandma, and I’ve somehow ended up second in line until this most recent birthday.  So when I got to do this cake, I was ridiculously excited.

I have done plenty of birthday cakes.  I’m from a family of nine; I started making birthday cakes before I was ten.  Plus I made my own kids’ cakes.  But my children are sons.  I’ve done trucks and volcanoes and even manufactured enough fake pies for a birthday pie fight one year.  But I’ve never had the chance to make a little girl’s cake.  I really wanted to make a butterfly cake.

If you cut a round cake layer in half and then cut each half again on the diagonal so one piece is twice as big as the other, when you lay the four pieces on a tray with the curves on the inside and the small pieces below the big ones–ta da!–you have a butterfly.  Thank you, Internet.

But, of course, stopping with just frosting that in some pretty color wasn’t enough. A butterfly needs a body…and a head…and antennae.  I wanted those parts to look more real than the piece of stick candy the original pattern called for.  And the wings had to be beautiful, which meant colored sugars in the perfect hues and assorted sizes of colored candies.

I searched the baking and candy aisles at two grocery stores, the cake decorating section of two craft stores, the candy aisle at Toys R Us (a bonanza—unless you are into childhood nutrition), and the food section of an import store looking for this stuff.  It is not an exaggeration to say I spent more time trying to find the perfect materials for that cake than I did buying a couch.

Eventually, I hit on the idea of shaping pieces of cooked spaghetti into really cool antennae. They hold shape nicely once dry.    (They were probably the healthiest thing on the cake, too, since it was whole wheat spaghetti.)  I flattened neopolitan coconut candy with a rolling pin and cut circles for the head using an antique bouillon tube my mom kept for cutting donut holes.  By stacking four circles on top of each other, I could secure the antennae and eyes (candy coated, chocolate covered sunflower seeds).

The razzle dazzle, orange sparkly, store-bought decorating sugar looked like cellophane shreds on a trial run, so I de-emphasized that in the “wing design.”  I scuttled the sprinkles because the colors were too garish.  I ended up custom dyeing granulated sugar in an attempt to get just the right hues.  For five days, my highest priority was that cake.

All went well with the baking, frosting, etc.  I sorted candies by color and applied them one small piece at a time with a jeweler’s pliers. I put candy coated sunflower seeds around the base for extra effect.  I added more candy dots on the wings.  I fussed with it.  And fussed with it some more.  I was way past “overboard” by the time I decided I was finished.

And when it was done?   It was…well….just a cake.  A cake that looked like a butterfly.  A cake that was just a small piece of a fun day for an adorable little girl.  The two pink candles were blown out with wide-eyed innocence.  It tasted fine.

The cake served its purpose well.  But I felt oddly off balance.  Why I didn’t feel better about what I’d spent so much time creating?

Then I finally got it.  The obsession hadn’t been about a perfect cake for my granddaughter.  A burst of wild creativity had inundated me once the dam of “permission” had been breached. I didn’t need to be a grandma to make that cake.  I just needed to let myself “go play.”

I was happy I got to do Cora’s cake, but sad that I waited so long to bake a butterfly.

I liked being part of helping my granddaughter turn two.  But even better, I will bear no resentment if the other grandma wants to make all the cakes from here on.  She does it well.   (We’ve had a ladybug, a sand castle, a princess, and a fairy castle, all beautifully done.)  I don’t need “my turn” doing the girls’ birthday cakes.  My priority will be to encourage their own creativity.  The best way to start with that is to not wait for permission to indulge in creative play myself.