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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to stay happy

I recently had a happy day.  A really happy day.  A zip-a-de-doo-da day.  It was so great I wouldn’t have blinked if a cartoon rabbit went hopping by and Uncle Remus himself was sitting on my front porch with a bluebird on his shoulder.
There wasn’t anything super special about the day.  Nothing really monumental had taken place and I didn’t have any huge upcoming plans.  Part of me wondered if somewhere in the great galaxy, the fourth moon of Jupiter had aligned with the magnetic pole at noon in China, causing this elated mood.  Another part of me wondered what I had eaten to change the chemicals in my brain—those levels of dopamine and serotonin and adrenaline and other things I can barely pronounce.  But the rest of me didn’t care because, hey, I was having a good day!  Life is good, the world is good, and I was floating on top of it all.
But as sadly expected, that fourth moon must have shifted or something and two days later I lost that feeling of shivery warmth that was the joy coming from deep within, for no good reason.  And I, the newly grumpified person, was bummed about it.  So like so many people with a mild ailment, I turned to the Internet to figure out how to regain that jubilant euphoria that I had, or at least to discover what the cause of this bliss really was.
Oh, the great wealth of knowledge that lies waiting for us to stumble upon…
Of all of the articles I came across, one of my favorites listed ten things that, according to “science,” make us happy.  
Science?  Happiness?  Being a girl with a heart of faith and a brain of reason, I had to read on and learn something new.
The article’s first tip was to savor everyday moments, doing more that just stopping to smell the roses.  It urges one to pause and enjoy the smallest of things, even mentioning watching children play.  (The author probably never had to clean a playroom, but that’s beside the point.)
The second suggestion was to avoid comparisons and focus on our own personal achievements, which sounds clear and fair to our own selves.
It also urges to put money low on the priority list and to seek less satisfaction in material goods.  Most practical people may disagree, but I know I fall into a category that puts money on a shelf, in an old mason jar.  The money I speak of comes directly out of the dryer.
Have meaningful goals, take initiative at work.  Smile even when you don’t feel like it.  (I’m assuming this does not mean gritting your teeth and saying even things without moving your smiling lips.)  Give it away and be charitable, say thank you like you mean it.  Get out and exercise.
And finally, make friends and treasure family.  Happier people have supportive, involved, happy families and friends, and I bet that those families are generally happy people.  Happy people that smile a lot, say thank you, play outside and get exercise and do all of those other things.  
Suddenly I realized my happiness was only partly my own—that the happiness I felt was coming from my family, friends, and my entire world.  It came from a coffee date with a cousin, the excitement of a new school year, even the sound of the cicadas singing all night long.  Happiness then becomes the most beautiful viscous cycle I’ve ever seen.  If mama ain’t happy, no one happy, and vice versa.
So, here’s an assignment for readers of this column.  Make a list of all of the things that make you happy.  Use nice paper and hang it on the refrigerator when you’re finished.  Write as many things as you can with as many pages as you wish.  I’ll share my list, and joy, with you next week.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hot sauce and birthdays

I know this photo has nothing to do with hot sauce.
It's just a matter of showing off my sweet 'stache.

I recently had yet another birthday, despite my best efforts at turning the calendar page one day before it was time.  Another year older isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just feel like it makes me feel like I have to work all that much harder to remain young.  So when it comes to my inevitable big day, I have no problem soaking up the love and letting my youngest daughter call me “queen” all day, which was totally her idea.  I swear.
This year for my birthday we happened to be traveling and staying with my husband’s aunt and uncle, who are just about the world’s best hosts.  They are also the world’s best chefs, and so I had no problem laying out a complete menu for them on by special day.  For lunch I asked to be taken to a Thai restaurant for a big bowl of spicy green curry.  For dinner, I politely begged for our uncle’s famous shrimp and grits, one of my many secret southern obsessions.
Sitting at lunch over my bowl of curry, I found it difficult to make decent conversation between the sniffles of spice, the frequent sips of beverage to extinguish the flames, and my constant commenting of how fantastic it all tasted.  “Oh, this *sniff * is so – pause to breathe and wipe nose and eyes—delicious!”
Over dinner I found myself giving hefty sprinkles of hot sauce and eating quickly before the grits swelled in my stomach and made me uncomfortably fat and happy.  Somewhere between the shakes of the tiny bottle of red it dawned on me.  Here I am, thirty-five, and a spice girl.
This is totally a revelation because I spent my entire life not liking anything spicy.  My disdain for all things peppery may very well stem from my father’s love for hot.   One day when I was around nine years old I simply walked through the kitchen while they attempted to concoct the latest heated crazy and before reaching the other side of the room my nose was bleeding and someone was yelling, “cover your eyes!  Cover your eyes!”  So thinking that spicy things could potentially kill me was fairly realistic to understand.
But motherhood does funny things to a person.  My first pregnancy found me eating all things salty.  (My daughter, however, is sweeter than the day is long.)  My second found me putting down multiple cream stick donuts without a blink.  (My son is filled with anything but sugar.)  My third, however, was a flavorful affair.  (I have to admit the logic doesn’t quite work here—she is one flavorful, full of spice kid.)
I found myself eating anything and, let’s be honest here, everything with any kind of zing.  Mustard, pickled peppers, Tabasco sauce, vinegar, and more.  There happened to be a sandwich special at our local cafĂ© that included salami, banana ring peppers, and mustard.  It got to be that people would call me when it was on the menu.  Even at this moment I’m finding it difficult to keep myself from drooling.
For all the drooling and sniffing and extinguishing, there are some serious perks to eating this hotness.  Doctors and researchers have been studying the health benefits of consuming capsicum, the stuff that makes peppers spicy.  They say it actually aids in digestion, can help with inflammation and fight infection, help stimulate heart and liver function, aid in weight loss and help keep depression at bay.  If only they would add in that it would keep me youthful, I’d be all set for many more birthdays to come.  
Just order up the queen another round of spicy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Needs and wants and dirty feet

There are few things as humorous as trying to explain the difference between “needs” and “wants” to a group of young children.  For reasons our adult brains cannot understand, they honestly believe they need certain things to survive, including the newest plastic doll, video game, or the latest in absurd fashion crazes.  
I remember this feeling quite well, trying to convince my parents in the early 1980’s that I needed parachute pants or else life would just not go on.
In my attempt to avoid having to enlighten my own kids, I find that nothing better puts life into perspective than a good ol’ family camping trip.  And I’m not talking about loading up an RV and driving to campground where you plug in your satellite dish and the dangly Christmas-type lights from your instant front porch.  I’m talking about the sort of camping that involves a tent, a fire, the hum of a Coleman lantern, and walking a half a mile to use the bathroom.
It’s a beautiful thing, really.
With the limits of our smallish vehicle, once we load the tent, sleeping bags, food and other essentials, there’s barely enough room for our children.  
“Kids, you each have a shoebox to pack your things in for the weekend.  Be wise, and even though I know what you’re thinking, yes, you need to take a toothbrush and extra underwear.”
Suddenly, the differences between needs and wants become quite an important thing to think about.  In an instant, a large game is traded for a deck of cards.   An extensive wardrobe is exchanged for simple clothes, all which can hold a bit of dirt and still be presentable.  And in the great crusade against video games, you can honestly tell them that there is no real way of charging those awful things in the wilderness, so best to leave them at home.
Once reality sets in and the shoeboxes are packed, the family camping trip ensues, with all of its glory and frustrations.
We had the pleasure of taking a weekend long trip lumped in with a family reunion earlier this summer.  Amid the RV’s and pop-ups, we found ourselves one of the only tents on the campground road.  At night, the song of the cicadas just about drowned out the buzz of the air conditioner two sites down, and my kids got yet another lesson in the subject of needs versus wants.  True camping is the essence of living simply, taking only what you need, and making use of everything you brought.  
And for what it’s worth, my kids had a great time with absolutely nothing.  Sitting back and watching a family worth of children, they fought with sticks, jumped over holes, invented games and a million other things, some of which I’m glad I don’t know about.  After a long morning of playing, we headed to the actual family reunion gathering, filled with table upon table of potluck goodies and a heap of silly games for all of the kids to play.  Balloons were popped and relays raced, but when there were a few prizes remaining, someone other than myself shouted out, “ok, last game.  Which kid has the dirtiest feet?”
The contestants instantly thrust their feet in the air and there, at the end of the line, were the two big winners… My daughters.
I couldn’t have been prouder if they just won a gold medal in the Olympics.
In a world of overprotecting our children, the primping of girls and getting sucked into the astonishing need for material things, there were my daughters, wearing a cloak of complete filth on their tootsies.
“What?” said my oldest.  “I didn’t think I needed to wash my feet.  I brushed my teeth and I thought that was good enough until I got home.”
Oh, that one.  She’s one smart (and grimy) cookie.

Back to school routine

Hooray!  Boo hoo!  Ugh!  Waa!  Cheers!  
The first day of school brings on many emotions for members of the family.  Kids may be apprehensive or nervous about a new school year, parents may have their heart strings pulled a bit as they watch their child embark on another older year of academics.  There are also the children who sprint away from their crazy mothers who have done nothing but yell at them for the past month, and the mothers who kick them onto the bus so that for once they can sit down and listen to the peace and quiet.
Thankfully I fall somewhere in the middle.  Having endured a long and fun-packed summer of sun, my family was more than ready for school to start.  By mid-August we all were vacation zombies, not able to function without running to the next bit of summer that we had to squeeze in before the first day of school.  No sleep, meals that consisted of cleaning out bags of potato chips and a scoop of peanut butter, and general brain mush had turned us into a moving glob of sunscreen and bug repellant.  We were all ready for this bit of normalcy and routine, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss our adventurous, care-free days of youthful bliss.
When my oldest daughter started kindergarten I was an emotional mess.  Through tears of joy and sadness, I decided to best fill my day with something productive and overdue – I cleaned out the car.  
I’d like to believe that saying about people with clean houses lead dull lives also applies to one’s vehicle, because if that’s true, I am one wild and exciting person.  Cleaning the car is no small feat, especially after a long summer of activity.  I remember that day so many years ago with disgusted vividness—pulling crusty french fries from beneath car seats, scrubbing mud from floor mats, and vacuuming the vacation sand from everywhere else.  It’s enough to make a person get a little angry, and maybe enough to make a person glad that summer is (sniff) over and that it’s about time those little dirty filthy kids of mine (sniff) got out of my car and messed up something else for a change.
But that is the bittersweetness of the first day of school, when suddenly they are messing up someone else’s stuff, and at the same time, that someone else is there to lead and guide them while you sit idly at home, with a bottle of Armor All, a rag, and a pocket of soggy tissues.  
Oh, and a clean car.
Ever since that day I have made it an annual routine, that on the first day that all of my children venture back into the hands of someone else, I use my first ounce of free time to de-summer and de-child the vehicle.  I clean the seats, the windows, the floors.  I haul out the trash and scrub dried up lemonade from the cup holders.  And when it’s all done I replenish supplies of hand sanitizer and granola bars for the extra curricular limousine that my car has instantly transformed into, now that school is back is session.
Just before I close the door, there’s something that catches my eye tucked up under the seat.  I reach and feel and tug, and it seems that the very act of pulling a stray kid meal toy out that has been somehow wedged beneath the driver’s seat is cleansing to more than my car, it also does wonders for my soul.  An act of finality of a summer well spent.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

20 miles and the tent giggles

We had been planning it for nearly four years, but because of babies and children, we were never able to sneak away for just two days until this summer.  There we were, two moms escaping the rigors of daily life in exchange for nearly 60 pounds of gear strapped to our backs and a daunting trail ahead of us. Boots snuggly tied on, we headed out for our first backpacking trip in what seemed like forever.
This sort of backpacking is like camping on steroids, and not to be confused with the lofty dreams of a graduate hoping to tour Europe via trains and hostels and find the meaning of life with a camera and some quick-drying clothes.  This is the sort of backpacking that takes you deep into the woods, miles away from other humans and cars and basic conveniences of life.  Minimalist doesn’t even begin to describe this sort of hobby.
But backpacking is something special.  It brings out the absolute rawness of a person, and I’m not talking about the rawness that is the giant pack rubbing on your shoulders or hips or your big toe. I’m talking about the rawness that is your true self, where you can hold nothing back and all truth and honesty comes pouring out with your gallons of sweat on a 90 degree day.  There is no room for modesty while you are on the trail.  You don’t politely excuse yourself if you need the restroom, you announce to all in your party to face the other way while you find an appropriate tree.  There’s no room for daintiness, either, as you guzzle your water and attempt to replace the calories you burn by hauling a tent 13 miles into the wilderness.  There’s no room for beauty contests, either, when your perfume of dirt, sweat, and bug spray heavily scents your snagged and crusty clothing.  
You ache, you moan.  You curse the weeds and the extra granola bars you brought which you are certain must weigh 20 pounds.  Insects constantly buzz your face and steep inclines and glances at how many miles you have left to go try their best to break your spirit.
But there’s something else on the trail with you—a friend.  A true friend.  For me, that’s the greatest thing about being backwoods with someone, far from the rest of humanity.  My friend and I spent a mere 24 hot and challenging hours in the hills of southern Ohio, wearing our motherly bodies out while we talked and shared and laughed mile after mile.  Connected in such a natural place, you become a stronger unit.  She stops when you need a break.  You take some weight when she’s feeling tired.  You share silence and strength at all the right times, until you finally make camp and collapse in the tent.
Physically and mentally weary, conversation was at a standstill as we drifted away between sentences.  At one point, I must have said something witty that didn’t register in my own foggy head, and my friend burst into a fantastic spell of contagious laughter.
“Someone’s got the tent giggles,” I snickered back, and though we were the only people for quite some way, our laughs rolled from that mountaintop as far as they could.  They rolled past the whippoorwill we heard calling at dusk, past the animals we sensed walking around at night, past the steep slopes and all the way up to the stars.
We hiked out the next morning, finishing our nearly 20 mile loop.  At some point an insect flew into my eye and set up camp and I spent the next day or so with a swollen irritated eye.  Our legs are covered with scratches and bites and poison ivy.  The physical demands were so much that I can barely walk up a flight of stairs without complaining, but if asked, I would do it all again…as soon as the muscles heal and as long as a friend is my number one packed item.

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