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I have a relative who fell during the ice storm in Alabama. She was in the hospital, then a rehabilitation center. She’s now home but confined to bed and has to have people with her all the time.

This would be a stressful situation under any circumstances, but my poor relative is so engrossed in her own suffering that she is unintentionally chasing off all those who want to help her. If you wash her dishes, she’ll send you to the grocery store. If you bring her groceries, she’ll demand that you take out her garbage. Nothing is ever good enough. And the emphasis in any discussion must be about her condition.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine just had major surgery, which has also put her out of commission. When I visited her, she told me the story of her surgery, but then she wanted to know about me. The next time I went to see her, she remembered the gift I had brought her and told me how much she’d enjoyed it.

Now I sympathize with my relative. She is in pain, she’s bored, and she’s scared. That’s enough to make any of us selfish and more than a little whiny. And I can be selfish and whiny with much less provocation. But there are a couple of ways to deal when our self-absorption threatens to isolate us.

One is to simply express gratitude. Once when I had a stomach virus, a colleague brought me chicken soup, sherbet, and ice cream (for when I was better). Although I could not yet eat any of that food, I was so grateful that I instantly felt not only emotionally but physically better.

The second way is to think of others. By ignoring your pain for just long enough to care about someone else’s well-being, you can often lift your own spirits.

It’s hard when we feel the world pressing down on us. But one sure way to feel better is to get outside yourself, even if just for a few seconds.

Last week, I learned that I had not been chosen for a committee. Considering that I didn’t even know this committee existed, my response was interesting.

My mental process went something like this: Wow. I didn’t know about this committee. I wasn’t chosen. Why were those people chosen? Is the message that I can’t be trusted to be objective on this committee? I would be objective. I would be a good team member. Well, now I’m offended.

Luckily, one of my few good qualities is to be able to laugh at myself. And my jump from “Hey, I wasn’t chosen for a committee that I didn’t know existed and that I don’t particularly want to be on anyway” to “These folks don’t respect my ability to be impartial and trustworthy” was pretty laughable.

More than one social commentator has mentioned our propensity for being offended. And I think being offended gives a certain weight to our hurt feelings. People might expect you to be an adult about feelings and rise above them. But once you’re offended, well, that encompasses more than feelings. It can include your professionalism, your ethics, etc., etc., etc.

Always being ready to be offended can make for some pretty unhappy workplaces and relationships. Maybe it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way. Instead of being the first to be offended, how about being the first to overlook and forgive?

After a long weekend, the weather seems to be as unhappy with the beginning of a new work as some of our students and faculty. It is dreary and rainy with a threat of storms. Even worse, it seems that the air conditioner has kicked on, leaving us shivering at our desks. What to do?

Luckily, yesterday, I visited Cheekwood Botanical Garden to see their yearly tulips display.  Tulips are my favorite flower; unfortunately, I don’t have much luck with growing them myself. So it’s always a treat to see the thousands in bloom during April. But there is an added bonus today. The memory of the yellow, red, and purple flowers just brightens up my mood on this rainy day. And the photos I took make me smile. I hope they do the same for you.more tulipspurpletulip close up

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”–Henry David Thoreau

It was one of those coincidences that stay with you. I had just read an article about Americans and their stuff. (Did you know that American children own 40% of the world’s toys?) That night, I went for coffee with two of my friends who make a living by writing, which, in case you don’t know, is not an easy way to earn money, let alone lots of money. So I asked them how they did it. They told me the usual stuff, taking on editing jobs and corporate gigs when they could. But then they both added that they had learned to live simply. As one said, “I’ve always known I wanted to write, so I do whatever gives me time to have that sort of life. And part of that is not often eating out, wearing the same clothes for several years, and driving the car until it dies. It’s a trade off, but I’m happy to do it because I love writing.”

There are two basic ways to have more money, says one of my friends. Make more. Or spend less. And that’s wise advice. But perhaps the goal should not just be making more money, but examining the amount of time/life that goes into each purchase. Now don’t misunderstand me. Anyone who knows me can tell you I like my stuff. But is this stuff worth the time it takes to earn the money to pay for it? That is the question to ask.

My writing friends look at purchases this way: A $100 dress means an extra book review, which means two-three hours of reading the book and another couple of hours writing and editing. That means at least four hours of not working on the writing projects close to their hearts. For them, the choice is easy. They are more than willing to forego being the best-dressed person at a function if it means they’ll have four more hours of novel-writing time.

One of my goals for this year is to declutter. While I am not one of those people who rent storage units to house their excess stuff, I was uncomfortable with the amount of storage boxes, crammed closets, and overflowing bookcases that had become part of my home. Little by little, the excess is disappearing, and I am pleased with the result. But I am not happy at the things I’ve found in closets that I desired so badly a few years ago and now can’t remember the last time I used them. There are clothes with the tags still on. There are unread books that I had to have that minute, but somehow the desire to read them has passed. (Not to mention the amount of time it has taken to go through everything.)

So now, when looking at a purchase, I am determined to follow Thoreau’s lead. I’m not going to ask how much it costs, but how much of my life would I have to give up for it? Oh, I’m not worried about becoming an ascetic. I’ll still have more things than 90% of the world. But it will at least slow me down a little.

And, in the meantime, I have several (now empty) storage boxes if anyone needs them.

In the book Zig Zig: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, Keith Sawyer tells how the CEO of the Citrin Group, Jon Citrin assigns one person to be the “Blocker” in every meeting. “The Blocker’s job is to disagree with everything Citrin says. The result? Serious debate, and deep consideration of the issues. And best of all, it inhibits everyone’s natural instinct to always agree with the boss.”

Now, fortunately, I work in a division where people do not feel any natural instinct to always agree with me, so I’m safe on the job front. But I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a personal blocker. After all, it’s easy to get tied to an idea and not see all sides of it. And especially if we’re one of those who get a little huffy when contradicted, people may be hesitant to tell us the holes in our plans.

After all, we’re still in charge of our lives. If we decide our blocker is wrong, then we can proceed as planned. But I know in my life, a clear signal that I haven’t thought things through is my anger with someone who disagrees with me. But usually, I do end up listening and realize the concerns were also some of my own, just unvoiced and repressed deep into the darkest recesses of my brain.

Sure, it’s good to have cheerleaders urging us on, but it’s also useful to have someone who says, “Wait a minute. Have you considered . . .?”

I once didn’t change my air conditioner filter for almost two years. I know this because I write the date on the new one when I change them out.

I knew it needed changing because I often thought about it. I would be going up to bed when the heat switched on and think, “Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve put in a filter. I should really do that.” Or I would see the new filter sitting in the closet and reprimand myself for not getting to it, but since I was about to go to the Y, I’d decide to wait until I returned from exercising. And, well, you get the picture. Day after day, week after week, month after month went by with my never changing that filter. And that’s how I removed the dirtiest filter in the history of air conditioning filters.

Last week, I started reading The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology by Gregg Krech. He reminded me that folks could get a lot done (and get rid of a lot of mental baggage)  if they simply did a task the moment they noticed it.

This weekend, I saw a stain on a tshirt in my closet. My first thought was to put it in a pile of clothes needing care. But wasn’t the pile itself an indication of my past failures? So I took the tshirt downstairs and rubbed stain remover on it.Then on coming home from the gym, I noticed my iPod needed charging. I immediately plugged it into my computer instead of tossing it on a table as usual. For the first time in a long time, I will not have to worry about my iPod dying when I’m on the track.

These are not revolutionary things, but both made my life a little easier. And I can see that if I keep it up, lots of little irritations will disappear from my life. And with those irritations gone, I will probably be less grumpy. And that’s always a good thing.

I recently downloaded MyFitnessPal onto my iPad. Now I regularly input the foods I eat in the hope that I will lose weight. I am going for twenty pounds but will be satisfied if I can wear my pants and still be able to breathe normally.

The thing about any of these calorie counters is that they simply make you face the truth about food and exercise. Here is what I’ve learned:

  • A hour’s worth of exercise (running and brisk walking) doesn’t even burn off the calories of a simple breakfast of cereal and a latte, let alone give one carte blanche to eat like a maniac the rest of the day.
  • The Sweet Tarts that I’ve been addicted to since third grade are not my friends when it comes to calories. Ten small Sweet Tart ducks (Easter version) have 50 calories. I can easily eat a hundred of them.
  • Wine has calories.
  • I can (and have done so) consume 3000 calories in a day.

Basically, despite the stories I’ve told myself about why I’ve gained weight (all which basically put the blame on anything but my eating and exercise habits), MyFitnessPal has made me face the ugly truth: On a regular basis, I eat more calories than I burn. (And my addiction to Sweetarts and French fries will have to be managed before I have a chance at losing weight.)

But if I can so completely deceive myself over something as straightforward as food and weight gain, I’m wondering if there are other areas of my life where I do so as well? And I’m going to do a self-inventory.

Right after I go through my Sweet Tart withdrawal.


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