Winning the Gold in the Olympics of Life


victory medalWhen I was little, I loved to watch the Olympic figure-skating and gymnastics competitions. I secretly imagined myself oneday winning the gold…standing on the podium taller than all the others with hand over my heart, watching them raise the American flag as our anthem played, with pride in my heart knowing that I was the best. Never mind that I could barely stand up straight in tennis shoes or walk down a flight of stairs without falling, much less glide effortlessly across the ice or contort my body like a balloon animal. I had that dream we all share to stand at the top of the heap…to be better than everyone else at something…to be the winner.

Fast forward to modern day: Here I sit blogging in my suburban townhouse wearing jeans, a t-shirt and reading glasses and realizing that I’m not–nor ever will be–especially great at anything. I’m not particularly beautiful, or wealthy, or athletic, or artistic, or famous, or brilliant, or saintly. In fact, a more accurate description of me would be an aging, poor, overweight, mediocre, unknown, ditsy sinner. But I am the best me there is, and after all these years, I finally get why that’s such a big deal.

This past year has been rough for me and my family because of numerous unexpected challenges. Like all challenges, these have been eye-opening lessons I’ve needed to learn as I hurtle through life toward yet another milestone birthday (I won’t say which one). They’ve jolted me out of my fantasy world–where I’m a long-legged supermodel with flowing locks and flawless skin, adored by my obedient children and attentive husband and admired by friends and strangers alike for my immaculate home, culinary prowess and pure altruism–and thrown me back into the reality of my middle-aged, frustrated, struggling existence. Somewhere along the journey, I finally understood and accepted these ten truths:

  1. Ten minutes is better spent catching up with my tired hubby before he drags himself off to bed after a night shift than putting on make up and styling my hair in order to feel more glamorous. There is no one else whose eye I need to catch, and his vision is too blurry after a 12-hour night shift to realize the difference.
  2. If I had a bigger house for entertaining, I probably wouldn’t invite people over because I wouldn’t have the time and energy to clean it and am too much of a control freak to let them see it when it’s dirty.
  3. I’m too selfish to make the sacrifices required for us to be rich. I’d rather be available to help my children with their homework while it’s still easy enough for me to understand. And let’s face it, with my mediocre intellect, we’re already at a point in grades 4 and 6 where it takes all of my concentration to help them with their math…gone are the days of being able to make dinner while simultaneously tutoring them in addition and subtraction.
  4. The definition of a “gourmet” family dinner is one that’s healthy, fast, simple, cheap and easy to clean up…in that order. The kids just want full bellies and to get back outside before it gets dark. The hubby just wants a full belly that won’t give him embarrassing gas, and I just want everyone to grow (or not) as expected, to still have some money leftover after grocery shopping, and to wash as few dishes as possible.
  5. I hate working out/playing sports. I’ll either do it or I won’t, but I will never enjoy it and there’s no point in trying to convince myself that I will. If it wasn’t fun when I had more flexibility, energy and stamina, it is unlikely that it will become so now that I have none. (I guess this has something to do with why I never realized those Olympic dreams, huh?)
  6. I don’t care that I’m not artistic. I enjoy other people’s art more than I enjoy creating my own, especially if it means I don’t have to clean up afterwards.
  7. Thank goodness I am not famous! If I were, I’d have to spend more time putting on makeup, styling my hair, working out and ironing. And people would be more likely to notice when my son wipes his snot on my shoulder instead of using a tissue.
  8. If I were truly brilliant, I’d look like an even bigger slacker to the outside world than I already do. The expectations of the world would crush me. So long as I can still put together furniture, understand board game instructions, salvage would-be baking disasters and create organization out of a client’s chaos, I figure that’s good enough for me.
  9. I’m impatient and I shout more than I should, especially at my children. But I am honest to a fault and have a pretty good heart filled with lots of compassion. I cry at Hallmark commercials and “Danny Boy” and I try to help people in need whenever I can. When I can’t, I pray for them earnestly. Thank goodness perfection isn’t required for entrance into heaven… I still expect them to let me in someday.
  10. “Winning” at life has nothing to do with my performance in comparison to others. Everyone who reaches a personal best gets the gold. And it’s never too late to stand on that podium feeling proud of what you’ve accomplished and who you’ve become.

Despite this new-found acceptance of who I am and what I am not, I continue to seek and embrace every opportunity to use my unique gifts and talents to become the best me I can be…to make the world a better place than it would have been without me. There is no other person on the planet with the exact same set of tools as mine or who can wield them in quite the same manner that I do. That’s what makes me special, even if I’ll never be great! Using those talents to the best of my ability is what makes me a winner.

“Seek not greatness, but seek truth and you will find both.” -Horace Mann


Happiness is Finding a Hidden Blessing

It’s never a gooddishwashing1 sign when it starts raining in your garage…especially when your kitchen is above the garage and you’ve just stepped in a wet patch near the dishwasher!

So yes, we need a new dishwasher and no, there is no room for one in our budget right now. At first I was so busy being grateful that it wasn’t an issue with the kitchen plumbing that I forgot to groan about having to hand wash all my dishes for the foreseeable future. It didn’t take long for me to remember just how much I hate it. I mostly hate not having any room on my tiny counter to put all the clean dishes and how quickly I run out of dry dish towels since I don’t have a drainer and have to drain them on a towel. (I’m actually anti-dish drainer because I think they invite you to leave the job unfinished and take up valuable space even when not in use.) But once I figured out that I could use the empty dishwasher as my drying rack, my perspective began to change. I began to see the silver lining to this cloud and realized that what at first seemed like a curse may indeed become a blessing.

For one thing, washing and drying dishes is something everyone in my family can do…even the more “spatially challenged” among them. My kids have finally completed the Dishwashing Badge in our Life Skills Badge Program. My husband is more sensitive about helping with dinner clean up, and I don’t have to worry about whether the bowl I really want to use is going to take up too much space in the dishwasher later. Maybe now we won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the water bills that also fund my daughter’s showers. (She’s the only 11-year-old I know with permanently wrinkled hands.) And once the kitchen cleanup is done, it’s done…no more dishes to put away later since I ascribe to the dry-them-and-put-them-away-now philosophy.

Best of all, I’m no longer worrying about what will happen if my dishwasher breaks…I already know. My children will enjoy an excuse to play in some sudsy water before school. My husband and I will giggle and flirt as we snap dish towels at each other. I’ll imagine my mother, now gone to her rest, washing that very same serving spoon back in our kitchen on Timber Trail Rd. The clean scent of the dish washing liquid will remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen.

Sometimes we need something to break to realize how truly unimportant it is. And often in our never-ending quest to simplify our lives, we end up complicating them instead. The modern conveniences designed to free up our time wind up stealing our opportunities to forge that time into something memorable. Think about your funniest family anecdotes. Chances are they felt like catastrophes at the time. (Someday I’ll share my “Mom in a Manhole” story…a real family classic.) Next time “disaster” strikes, look for the hidden blessing instead of feeling cursed.

I suppose we will replace the dishwasher eventually, but I’m not in any hurry. It might be kind of fun to share KP duty with my sister after a family holiday meal just like the old days. But only if she dries.




The Inconvenience of Conveniences

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late ’80’s, how a drive-thru bank worked. I’m not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.

Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more “convenience”. As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can’t wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.

But if we aren’t careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those “convenience” kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming valuable the real estate in your home?

As with anything else, it’s all about choices. Choose which convenience you want…drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you’ll use it “someday”. If “someday” ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there’s no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it’s Grandma’s old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons…but that’s another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice–time, money, space, accessibility–so choose wisely.

I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and  have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that’s a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.

By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.

“Where’s the Beef?” in Your Thanksgiving?

It’s almost Halloween, and that can only mean one thing: Time to start thinking about Christmas! (Or so the retailers would have you believe.)

But what about that other holiday…you know, the one where we watch football and stuff our faces so that we have plenty of energy to shop til we drop on Black Friday?…the one that heralds the coming of the Christmas season and the official start of the decorating wars?…when we get the green light to start spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need? What’s that called again? Oh yeah…Thanksgiving! Thanks giving…giving thanks.

Thanksgiving is unique among the end-of-year holidays because it really lasts for only one day (okay, maybe two or even three if you are the one doing the cooking for the feast). Even Halloween gets bigger billing these days, with all the Halloween decorations, parties, costume preparations, and spooky movie marathons on TV. By the time the big Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, we are usually so focused on football and eating and planning out our 4AM shopping strategy that we forget what it is really supposed to be about. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Well, it is not about extravagant spreads of food. It is not about beautiful, impressive tablescapes a la Martha Stewart. It is not about kickoff time or fires in the fireplace or putting up the Christmas tree. It is not about traveling or pumpkin pie or gourds or falling leaves. It is not even about pilgrims or native Americans or survival. It is about gratitude…gratitude for life and whatever it has handed you…gratitude for blessings and gratitude for the hardships that make you appreciate the blessings…gratitude for what you have now and gratitude for what you once had…gratitude for the love of others and for the ability to love them back…gratitude for hope and for the ability to keep on hoping even in the most hopeless of situations.

Gratitude is an attitude. It is the only thing that makes it possible to get through even the worst of days and still want to wake up and try again tomorrow. Want the secret to “easy peasy living”? It’s gratitude, and it deserves your full attention on at least one day of the year. So this year, before you dive head first into that turkey with all the trimmings, take a little time to ponder all you have instead of all you wish you had, and have a truly Happy Thanksgiving!

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Avoidance

Have you ever noticed that things always tend to break when you are broke…and when you really, really, really, really need them the most?

That’s what happened this morning. My husband returned home from his first night shift back at work after a much-needed two weeks off and reported that the brakes in his car were making that dreaded grinding sound. You know the one. It means “Cough up at least $250 immediately” in car language. And of course it didn’t happen while he was off and we didn’t need both cars so that each of us could get to work. It happened right in the middle of a particularly tight budget week.

But it is what it is, and there was no getting around it. We needed that car and couldn’t avoid the necessary repairs, so we put our heads together and came up with a solution within five minutes. I was so proud of my husband (aka “Mañana Man”) for facing the issue head on instead of avoiding it the way he has often done in the past. I used to tease him about how whenever he noticed the car making a funny noise, he’d just turn up the radio so that he didn’t have to hear it anymore. Job done…right?!!

We all have stuff we avoid. I avoided our finished basement for years because the carpet and sofa were stained, the kids’ toys had taken over, and it was dark and dingy and ugly, and I didn’t have the money to get new carpeting or a new sofa. I found myself trying to fit all my stuff into the main level of our house, making that more cluttered than I wanted, just so that I didn’t have to go down there as often to get  the things I needed. I dreaded doing the laundry, because it meant I had to spend time in that depressing environment. I refused to hang out with my husband or children down there. It felt like a dungeon.

Eventually, I got so annoyed at having to relinquish the use of one-third of my house just because it was ugly that I finally decided to do something about it. I painted it, bought slip covers and new drapes, purged  all the toys the kids had outgrown and re-organized the rest, and cleaned the carpet. When I was done, I not only liked it again, I spent most of my days working down there. I even made sure we had a Christmas tree down there so that we could open up our gifts in front of the fireplace. It was awesome, and I was left wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner…why I had wasted all that precious time avoiding the thing that would lead to such a positive outcome. The work and inconvenience of it was far worse in my head than it was in reality and was well-worth it. It took about three days but I have now been able to enjoy that part of my house for over a year. Winning!

One of my favorite shows on TV is “Buried Alive” on Discovery Health Channel. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show about extreme hoarders who decide it’s time to get the psychiatric and organizational help they need to clear up their clutter. Avoidance is the main M.O. for practically all of them. They have developed hoarding behaviors as a means of covering up, or avoiding, their emotional pain. They avoid cleaning up and putting things away. They literally build up barriers of stuff to avoid dealing with their nagging spouse or kids. They avoid the reality of their financial issues by continuing to shop for more stuff they don’t need with money they don’t  have. They avoid making repairs in their home and thus often go without power or water for years. Then they begin avoiding relationships because they have to hide their hoarding problem. Life eventually becomes so miserable, the smallest tasks so cumbersome, the mess so paralyzing and their self-esteem so low that they are forced to confront the issue and fix it. And most of them do and then can’t believe how wonderful it is not to have maggots all over their kitchen and to be able to take a shower in their own bathroom or sleep in a bed again. They spent so many years bathing in the sink or eating takeout and robbing their kids of their childhoods that they couldn’t remember how incredibly easy normal life could be in comparison.

One of my clients this week told me that she found herself avoiding looking at  the new “Action” folder we set up for her incoming mail and other papers. After asking her several probing questions to get to the bottom of the issue, it came to light that she was afraid she’d make a mistake in filling out a form or would not be able to find some important document she needed in order to submit her health insurance claims. I pointed out to her that there are very few mistakes in life that cannot be corrected, and there is almost always someone somewhere who has a copy of any missing document or who can help you figure out how to achieve your goal without it. Perhaps it will require some inconvenience or may cost time or money you think you don’t have, but there is always a solution as long as you look for it instead of avoiding it. But more importantly, finding the solution is how we grow and learn, and isn’t that the whole point of living in the first place? To avoid the problem only avoids finding the solution, which in turn avoids learning and growing and living.

The old adage, “Never put off until tomorrow that which can be done today” really means, “Never put off the relief and joy and sense of accomplishment you feel when overcoming an obstacle if you can experience it today”. So next time you find yourself avoiding an unpleasant task, realize that you are also avoiding the sense of freedom that only comes from having completed it.

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” –- Linus Pauling

I try to make a point of going through my storage area at least once or twice a year to pare down things I no longer need and to stem the tide of the post-Christmas or post-party chaos that sometimes creeps in and threatens to take hold in there. I have a couple of “memorabilia” bins that had been added to quite a bit since the kids started school and had not been looked through in quite a few years, so I decided it was time to take a look and pare down the contents to just the items that were really worthy of taking up that valuable space.

One of the things I found in there was my old “idea folder” of holiday crafts, kid activities and recipes that I had begun collecting back when I was single and bored and hoping to someday have a family, which would naturally come with oodles and oodles of time and energy for executing all these brilliant ideas. It was pretty amusing to realize that there had once been a time when I actually thought I’d someday master the culinary expertise required for making individual edible violin desserts out of a pear half with chocolate frets and spun sugar strings like the one featured on the cover of a Harry & David catalogue. Seriously, Valerie?!!!

Clearly I was living in a fantasy world where work, laundry, grocery shopping, menu planning, homework tutoring and ironing do not exist and motherhood is all about making homemade herb and cheese crackers, cupcakes that look like Sesame Street characters, and hand printed wrapping paper. I obviously didn’t count on having children who were picky eaters with little desire to decorate sugar cookies and with more interest in finger painting outside in the mud and acting out a pretend episode of Scooby Doo Meets Darth Vader than creating faux stained glass Christmas tree ornaments out of tissue paper. If you had told me this cold, hard truth back then, I would have been devastated, but life has a funny way of changing your priorities. Sure, there are moments when I wish my kids shared my love of crafts and baking, but I wouldn’t trade my little actress and Picasso for anything in the world. I delight in watching them show their creativity in a million different ways that are uniquely their own and take pleasure in surprising them with mine on special occasions. The truth is that now that I am a wife and mother, I would rather spend my time cuddled up with my kids watching The Lion King or using my imagination to come up with creative ways to teach them their table manners.

Easy peasy living isn’t just about getting organized and managing your time more efficiently. It’s about keeping your goals in sync with your priorities and adapting them to life’s ever-changing perspectives. I thought about keeping the “idea folder” for a time in the future when the kids are grown and I once again have time to indulge in learning how to make individual edible violin desserts, but I quickly realized that I would prefer to keep that space available for remembering what my children and I actually did do together instead of what I might (or, more likely, might not) do someday in the future by myself.

How often do we hold onto things that might benefit us someday and by doing so give up something that most definitely will benefit us today? Throwing out the idea folder not only freed up about 6 inches of space in that bin, it freed me from my regrets at not having accomplished my outdated, unrealistic goals of yesteryear. And most importantly, it gave me permission to move onto new goals, to collect new memories, and to rid myself of all the “someday” stuff hogging up valuable space in my brain as well as my storage area. If you are storing materials for use in projects from your old someday idea folder, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How important is this project in the grand scheme of my life? If it is really that important, why haven’t I completed it yet?
  2. If it is truly important, do I have a firm plan in place for when and how I will complete the project?
  3. Do I have a clear vision for how I will use these materials, or is it just a vague sense that they might come in handy “someday”?
  4. Will completing this project improve my quality of life or that of someone I care about?
  5. Will completing this project make me feel more fulfilled or make me a better person?
  6. Could these materials be put to good use by someone else who is more likely to actually use them?
  7. Did I even remember that I had these materials or what I had been planning to use them for?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have dreams and visions for the future. I am a bona fide Pinterest addict, after all. Just be sure you update your “idea folder” from time to time, whether it be in your head, in your computer or stashed in some dark corner of your storage closet. Throw out those ideas that once made sense but are no longer relevant. Realize that storing a lot of stuff for “someday” carries overhead. Just how much overhead depends on how much you are storing and for how long. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate and delete an old dream that is no longer in sync with your current priorities. Life is too short and space is at too much of a premium to spend it on storing regrets.