HOW TO OVERCOME YOUR FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING

June 29, 2012 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

If you’re afraid of public speaking, it’s ok! So is everyone else, including me.

Standing up in front of a group of people with nothing better to do than make instantaneous judgments about the kind of person you are and the level of your intelligence… Public speaking? You should be scared.

Fear is a good thing: it protects you from danger. Other than snakes, I can’t imagine a more dangerous situation than speaking in front of an audience. Pounding heart, clammy hands, inability to catch your breath, trembling limbs, flushed face…these are all your body’s way of telling you that you should be at home instead, curled under the covers with a good book and perhaps a small bag of M&Ms.

However, there are times in life when public speaking is unavoidable, and I’m going to show you how to get through your public speaking event alive.

The first thing you need to do is find a group of kindergartners. Any group will do. Plan a speech lasting no more than five minutes. Between the kindergartners’ short attention span and the health of your nervous system, five minutes is plenty to start with.

Now all you have to do is give your speech.

“But I’m scared!” you’ll say. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of five and six-year olds. I can’t do it!”

Yes, you can, and here’s why: They will not pay any attention to you whatsoever. Seriously. Not a word.

Watch what happens when I give one of my art lessons to the kids:

ME: I’m so excited to talk to you about Vincent Van Gogh! He was a brilliant painter a long time ago and he loved painting! He painted all day, and talked about painting with his good friend all night. He didn’t sleep at all for weeks! And so he got sick. His mind got sick, and one day he got into a fight with his friend and somehow ended up cutting off his own ear with a razor blade! Yes, Susie?

SUSIE: Last night, a raccoon ran across the fence in our backyard!

ME: Umm…ok. But Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear! He could walk around carrying his own ear in his hand! Isn’t that shocking? Johnny, you have something to say?

JOHNNY: David’s sitting in my spot and he’s not supposed to be there. He got in trouble and now he’s supposed to be sitting in the back.

ME: (pause) Does anyone have anything to say about Vincent Van Gogh? Yes, Michelle?

MICHELLE: My mom packed me three chocolate chip cookies for snack today!

See? They’re not paying attention to me at all.

Kindergartners won’t judge you. They’re not thinking you’re doing a bad job, and they don’t even notice that you have to take deep breaths in between your sentences because your heart is beating so fast you’re in danger of becoming oxygen depleted.

Practice speaking in front of kindergartners several times and you will notice something unusual: your heart will stop beating as fast. You’ll be able to breathe easier and you won’t be as clammy and nervous.

It’s now time to take the next step: present to a group of 6th graders! I know. It’s sounds scary, doesn’t it? They’re older and they will judge anything and everything that comes into their path. But here’s a secret: they won’t pay any attention to you either. They are older, to be sure, and are now capable of devoting 5% of their brain to you, so it seems like they’re paying attention, but they’re not. They’re far too busy posturing for the opposite sex and trying to look cool for their own sex.

After you present to 6th graders a couple of times, you will come to an important realization: you work hard on your presentations. You practice to infuse the right balance of information and humor, and you scour the internet for beautiful images to add to your PowerPoint presentations. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could present your material to a group of people who actually listened to you?

And might that group of people be of the adult variety?

This will seem like a good idea right up until the moment you find yourself standing before your adult audience with a vacant stare in your eyes and your heart pounding out of your chest.

You see, fear doesn’t go away. But, you can learn to manage it. Instead of imagining them naked, which depending on your audience, could be frightening, imagine they are kindergartners, with nothing else on their minds than who they are going to play with at recess, and I promise you you’ll get through it.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION IS THE NEW BLACK

June 27, 2012 in On Writing, Reflections on Pop Culture

When my oldest son was in 4th grade, I strongly suggested that he (ok, I forced him to) participate in his school’s Global Reading Challenge. It seemed like a great program: as a team, each group of students reads the same ten books, and then they compete against other teams in a quiz format about the books they read. He didn’t want to do it because the practice sessions took place during lunch recess, but since a lot of his friends were participating, he came around. I, as a helpful parent (aka wanna-be Global Reading Challenge Participant), generously offered to read all ten books with him.

One was called Gregor the Overlander, the first in a series about a boy who finds an underground world through a vent in his apartment building’s laundry room. Beneath the ground, an entire society with warring factions exists: people, bats, rats, mice, spiders, and cockroaches battle over territory and for power. Gregor finds himself enmeshed in the middle of it while trying to find his missing father. I devoured it, and then the next four. For a young adult series, it was surprisingly sophisticated in terms of mirroring the wars that exist between societies today. Who wrote it? A little known author named Suzanne Collins before she exploded onto the scene with her Hunger Games trilogy.

Also on the list, to my son’s chagrin, was a novel entitled Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. I didn’t want to read it either: I’m not the Barbie, princess-y type of girl. But since I’m the one that suggested (forced) him to do this in the first place, and it is a Newberry Award winner, I thought I should be a good role model and picked up the book.

It is absolutely lovely, and about as non-princess-y as you can get considering the girls whisked away from their homes are actually in training to become the next princess. Hale’s language is lush and poetic, and she takes her time building a mini-world on top of a mountain, introducing you to these young girls and their cruel headmistress, showing you their world of serious study, before jolting you with a conclusion so suspenseful that I yelled at my children for daring to interrupt me while I was finishing it. I can’t say that my son ever liked this book, but I sure did, and my advice to you is this: ignore the title and settle in for a gorgeous, leisurely stroll through an entirely new world.

 

Since then I have delved into Young Adult fiction with a vengeance. I recently re-read William Sleator’s House of Stairs, a favorite from my own childhood. Five orphaned teenagers in a futuristic dystopian society are brought to a place with no answers for why they are there. All they have are stairs, leading up, down, and nowhere, a toilet, a machine, and each other. They soon learn that if they please the machine by doing certain behaviors, it will reward them with food. It becomes a Pavlovian experiment that turns dark: the machine begins rewarding cruelty to each other. How far will these kids go to eat? And what happens if some decide to no longer play the game?

 

I shamelessly steal my son’s books for myself, like N.D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards. A Narnia-esque tale of a young boy with questions about his past discovers a series of cupboards behind the plaster in his attic room. Each cupboard seems to house a different world: one pours salt water from an unknown sea into his room when its door is opened, one beckons with warmth, sunshine, and bright yellow dandelions, and one breathes coldness and evil into his soul until he can’t close the door fast enough or without a fight. Where the cupboards came from is a mystery, but seeing as he accidentally unleashed that ancient, cold evil when he opened that particular door, it’s a question that will have to wait. The only good thing about this book coming to a close is that it is the first in a trilogy, so there is more to read. (I’ve read the entire trilogy twice in one year, and I plan on reading it again this summer…it’s that good.)

As I look around now, I see that I’m not the only one who continues to be enamored with Young Adult fiction even though I’m well into adulthood. Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight are all Young Adult series that have taken our culture by storm, and adult authors such as James Patterson and John Grisham are diving into the genre themselves by writing for a younger audience. I think the lesson to be learned here is that there is no age limit on a good story.

My son is now well trained. I might pass him on the stairs carrying up my laundry basket, and he’ll carelessly toss a book on top of the pile of clothes. “Mom, you should read this. It’s really good.”

And I will.

PICK A MANTRA, ANY MANTRA

June 25, 2012 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself, Random Thoughts

There is a reason my son’s kindergarten classroom walls are adorned with mantras: they’re short, sweet, and easy to remember in the throes of a heated argument over whose turn it is to use the purple crayon. Mantras cut straight through all the extraneous emotional baggage to a simple ten-words-or-less problem-solving equation. For example:

Should Billy chuck a block at Susie’s head because she took the purple crayon? Hmmm… One wall sign says Be safe. The other wall sign says Be kind. So maybe the wisest course of action would be to put the block down?

Of course, that assumes that kindergartners a) are going to have enough control over themselves to stop what they’re doing and look at the signs on the wall; b) can actually read the sign; and c) are known for their wisdom in the face of emotional crises.

As an adult, I can read! And hopefully I have enough self-control and wisdom to use a good mantra now and then. I can Be safe. I can Be kind if I’ve eaten regularly to keep that annoying low-blood sugar beast at bay.

Even better, I can follow this mantra that’s posted in the writing workshop section of the classroom: When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun! How’s that for a great writing mantra? You’re done with the first draft…great! Now, revise. Done? Edit for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Now get rid of all those pesky adverbs you’re exceptionally fond of, and while you’re at it, cut out all the exclamation points. Done? Ha ha ha! Think again! You’ve just begun! Now revise…

What about this mantra/proverb I’ve heard about from the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”: (I’m paraphrasing here.) It will all be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.

Can I just tell you how comforting I find that? I’ve been playing that one in my head on repeat.

My soon-to-be-12-year-old graduated from 6th grade last week. I was on the graduation committee and helped prepare and hang up the decorations in the gym, transforming it from an industrial-looking brick rectangle of depression to a brightly colored blue, yellow, and orange scene complete with beach balls, 2-feet high photographic cut-outs of the kids, and sunbursts covering each wall. It was stunning. Until the weight of the decorations and the fans blowing air from the vents in the floor began pulling the duct tape away from the brick wall. After spending hours placing everything perfectly the night before, we arrived at the gym the next morning, in our skirts, dresses, and high heels, only to find our hard work gathered into heaps on the gym floor.

Was it ok? Absolutely not.

Was it the end?

No, it wasn’t. We gathered together as many 6th grade parents as we could find and whipped that gym back into shape in less than 30 minutes. The graduates, looking entirely too grown up for my liking, filed in wearing beautiful dresses, khaki or black slacks, and button-down shirts. One by one, they crossed the stage, delivering their speech and accepting their certificate. I stood on one side of the stage, taking pictures, choking back tears of pride when it was my son’s turn to shine on the stage, and surreptitiously sliding pieces of duct tape behind any decoration that looked like it was threatening to fall.

In the end, it was all ok.

Here’s another mantra I’m determined to live my life by: Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

There have been times in my life when I’ve woken up, taken a good look around, and asked myself “What am I doing here?” It is so easy to get caught up in obligations and “doing the right thing” that I sometimes forget to consider if it’s something I even enjoy. Then I find myself dreading the meeting for the committee I volunteered for, or dreading the task I promised I would do. Living my life carrying dread around on my shoulders isn’t the most enjoyable way to spend my days.

Wouldn’t I be happier if I chose to do things I did enjoy?

As I go forward in my quest to figure out what I want to do with my life from here on out, that’s the mantra I’m going to apply. Can I go there with my whole heart and…

Write? Absolutely.

Help with the art program at our elementary school? Oh yes.

Help with the PTSA Board? No thanks.

Do anything with numbers or accounting? Not on your life.

Eat entirely too many Whoppers as a reward for folding four loads of laundry? With pleasure!

 

What’s your favorite mantra?

MY VERSION OF AN ALL-NIGHTER

June 22, 2012 in Random Thoughts

It’s been a long time since I pulled an all-nighter.

I used to do it in college during Finals week. It was fun, in a weird way.

Some nights I’d camp out in my dorm room, sitting at my cubicle-like desk surrounded on three sides by close walls with a single light embedded in the underside of the shelf above my head,

Other times, I’d sprawl on my bed, spreading textbooks, spiral-bound notebooks, highlighters, pencils, and pens all around, barely leaving room in my twin bed for me to climb in. I talked to myself incessantly, memorizing, recalling, and muttering about things that made no sense.

Sometimes the joyous celebrations of those done with their Finals before me drove me across campus to the library, open 24 hours during Finals week. It was a chiropractor’s dream: 1000s of us sitting hunched over textbooks, elbows bent on the desk supporting hands gripping either side of our heads, trying to will the last pieces of information into brains that were over-tired and over-full, our squinty eyes blinded by the glaring tract lighting trying to trick us into believing it was any time other than the middle of the night.

I’d always take a break around 1:30am, already stiff and bleary-eyed with hours left to go, to place my Roberto’s order: a cheesy quesadilla with guacamole from the “open late” joint down the street. It was a middle-of-the-night rite of passage in our dorm: Who had a car? Who did we have to pay gas money to so they would bring us back some food? Who was going to write down everyone’s order? Because if someone forgot my guacamole there would be hell to pay…

I think that’s why I remember my collegiate all-nighters so fondly: we all did it together. Yes, I was up all night, but so was everyone else. Sure, I was a stress ball and had to drink a wine cooler now and then to calm down enough to face another textbook, but since all my friends were doing the same thing, there was a certain amount of camaraderie in the experience.

Plus I was young and stupid…I mean, resilient. I could stay up all night, ace my Finals the next day, and then stay up all night again to celebrate.

That is not the case now.

Wednesday night, I pulled my mature adult version of an all-nighter: I stayed up until 2:00am finishing end-of-the-year projects that ranged from teachers’ gifts, art portfolios for the students, end-of-the-year slideshows for my sons’ classes, and the 6th Grade Graduation slideshow for my son’s ceremony on Friday.

Things have changed: no one offered to pick me up a cheesy quesadilla with guacamole, primarily because no one else was up. There were no wine coolers to be found either. (Do they still exist? Must find out.)  It was dark and still, and the vision of my comfortable bed waiting for me upstairs beckoned so strongly it was almost painful to deny it until my work was finished.

Thursday dawned early, for there was the beat-the-garbage-truck game to play, 25 water balloons to fill before my middle son’s year-end party, and many DVDS to burn. I was up and running on pure adrenalin after only four hours of sleep, pushing through my to do lists, and then taking the time to sit back and enjoy watching my youngest son walk across the stage in a cardboard graduation cap, leaving his kindergartner status behind.

Then it was time to transition from my kindergartner’s graduation to my 6th grader’s, which involved a complete transformation of our school’s gym using beautiful decorations and massive amounts of duct tape.

It looks stunning, but I’m exhausted. My eyes feel sticky and at half-mast, although that may be due to allergies and/or the tears I tried to hide as my kindergartner graduated. My shoulders ache, and my lower back is sending me warning signals. My stomach’s mildly upset because I tried to stave off falling asleep at the wheel while driving the soccer carpool with too many Whoppers, and the one thing I want to do more than anything else…sleep…is 6 DVDs to burn and a load of laundry away.

Boy, how times have changed!

Or have they? Do I look back on my college years through the hazy lens of nostalgia, forgetting how miserable it was to be sleepless and stressed? Might I look back on this week as an amazing one, filled with memories of my two sons’ graduations, and forget this one tiny blip of fatigue?

I think I already have. Memories I have made as my last kindergartner traveled across the stage, and the memories I’ll make on Friday as my first 6th grader leaves elementary school behind make this temporary sleep-deprived state inconsequential.

Although my mind has forgotten, my body hasn’t, and a nap isn’t going to cut it. I’m counting on a whole weekend of slothdom! (Is that a word? Who cares! Fatigue can be incredibly freeing.)

BOOK CLUBS: FRIEND OR FOE?

June 20, 2012 in On Writing, Reflections on Pop Culture

My favorite thing about book clubs is that it forces me to read books that I would never choose to read on my own, and I find that I love them.

My least favorite thing about book clubs is that it forces me to read books that I would never choose to read on my own, and I find that I loathe them.

As it turns out, belonging to a book club is a double-edged sword.

The first book club I ever belonged to was Oprah Winfrey’s. None of these books were what you’d consider light reading. They’re deep. They’re thought-provoking. And, let’s face it, they’re depressing. Themes of emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse …how much abuse can one person read about? Apparently a lot, as the popularity of Oprah Winfrey’s book club will attest to. I, however, was beginning to wonder if I needed a break.

Then came House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. There is no question that it is a well-written, thought-provoking literary achievement. But…did any of the characters have a happy ending? Were any higher callings met? Did any of them transcend their situation and reach a better place? Um…no. Two characters died horrific deaths and one ended up in jail unable to speak. Not exactly the sort of images I want to have in my mind right before I go to sleep…if I even slept after a novel like that.

So I quit Oprah’s book club with no regrets. I may have lost a few IQ points, but I was happier. Surely that counts for something?

The second book club I was in consisted of a group of  Women with a capital “W”. These women were educated. Accomplished. Bright. We were all moms with elementary school-aged children, but they somehow managed to take it to another level.

Among them, one started a math tutoring business, one co-owned an art gallery where she also sold her own artwork, and one zipped around the world working on a specially-fortified rice suitable for feeding the poverty-stricken in third-world countries.

And then, there was me. I volunteered in my kids’ classes and drove the soccer carpool. I did laundry, baked mini muffins for after school snacks, and I…what in heaven’s name did I do all day?

These women wanted to read serious works, like the complete 9/11 Commission Report and biographies about the suffering of women in horrific situations. I’m a woman; I can appreciate an inspiring tale of strength and redemption. However, reading in minute detail about the myriad of mutilations, tortures, humiliations, and indignities these women had to endure… I’m a visual person. Every word I read is immediately painted into a full Technicolor image in my brain, and it doesn’t go away!

(This, by the way, is why I’m currently on Stephen King probation.)

(But keep writing, Mr. King, because I love your books and as soon as I get my imagination under control, I’ll be reading your next novel…in broad daylight.)

Without even realizing it, I had landed myself in another Oprah Winfrey-esque book club, with women as bright and successful as she is. But all I wanted was to read a good story that was possibly a little uplifting.

I’m now in my third book club, which basically consists of my dear friend insisting we all read whatever she’s reading at the time.

I was hoping for selections like the Hunger Games trilogy, which is so riveting you can’t put it down. Or something light-hearted and funny, like Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? But did any of that happen? Of course not!

The first book selection was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, a 496-page non-fiction epic novel about one person’s experience in World War II.

 

World War II?

Non-fiction?

I went straight to our fearless book club leader to express my concerns.

ME: What the heck is this?

FRIEND: I know! Doesn’t it look good?

ME: Who picked this?

FRIEND: So-and-so’s husband.

ME: So-and-so’s husband? He’s not even in our book club! Why is a man picking our books?

FRIEND: Because he said it was the best book he’d ever read.

ME: So? My other friend’s husband enjoyed reading the complete 9/11 Commission Report. It doesn’t mean I want to read it!

FRIEND: How can we go wrong? He said it was the best book he had ever read. Ever.

ME: Do you think he’d want to read what I thought was the best book I’d ever read?

FRIEND: Just read it and stop whining. See you at our book club in two weeks.

ME: Two weeks? I can’t read this whole thing in two weeks!

FRIEND: Fine. I’ll give you three weeks.

Suffice it to say I was not amused.

But here’s the great thing about book clubs: Never in a million years would I have picked up that book. If it weren’t for my friend harassing me every morning at kindergarten drop-off, I probably never would have opened the book. But once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Louis Zamperini’s personality, determination, and spirit made me interested to see where his life would lead next. Once he entered the war, the details Laura Hillenbrand added made his missions and their inherent danger all the more compelling. At one point halfway through the book, Louis Zamperini was in such a dire situation, I wondered: What else could possibly happen to him that would take up 250 more pages?

You wouldn’t believe what else happened to him. You wouldn’t believe what a human being can survive and still manage to remain human.

I loved every second of reading this book. Was it light? Not hardly. Was it depressing? At times. Was it good? It was more than good. It was a life-changer.

Now I go around town to every one I know, and even people I don’t know, and urge them to read this book.

RANDOM PERSON: I don’t know. I like lighter things, like US Weekly.

ME: But it’s sooo good!

RANDOM PERSON: (skeptically) It looks really long. Wait…is that non-fiction?

ME: Just ignore that. Laura Hillenbrand writes so compellingly you won’t even know you’re reading non-fiction!

RANDOM PERSON: Is it funny?

ME: Ummm…who cares about that? This book is good, I’m telling you!

RANDOM PERSON: I don’t know…

ME: (forcing book into Random Person’s unwilling hands) Oh, just read it and stop whining! You’ll thank me. You really will.

A TOUR OF THEO CHOCOLATES IN SEATTLE

June 18, 2012 in Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences)

I have been hearing wonderful things about Theo Chocolates in the Fremont area of Seattle, so when my kids’ school had a teacher in-service day and my oldest son, who is allergic to nuts, was at a friend’s house for the day, I packed my two youngest sons in the car and off we went.

Chocolates are difficult for our family. Most contain nuts, and the ones that don’t are made in the same facility as those with nuts. Luckily, I have found my way around this with the aid of several great online nut-free chocolate resources, but a tour of a chocolate factory—with samples!—was a rare occasion for us.

We were early for our scheduled tour time, so we visited the retail store first.

We couldn’t believe it! For every chocolate bar on display, there was an open bin of chocolate pieces to sample. My boys and I looked around with wide eyes, the light dawning on just what kind of chocolate experience we were about to embark on. Walking briskly to the nearest table, we began sampling.

Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, cherry and almond chocolate, salted almond chocolate…we would have kept on going, but a worker reprimanded us.

“You know, I wouldn’t eat any more chocolate. You will be sampling chocolate on your tour, and you don’t want to eat too much or you’ll get sick. It has happened.”

Clearly, she had no idea how much chocolate I eat every day. Get sick off those tiny pieces of broken-up chocolate? Please.

Chastised, though, we left the store and went around to the factory entrance to wait for our tour to begin.

My six-year old had a minor conniption over having to wear a hairnet during the tour, so to distract him, I told him the brown-painted brick walls surrounding us were made of dark chocolate. This backfired when I had to pull him away from the wall because he was trying to lick it. (Note to self: Never lie to your kids, even in jest.)

All in all, our chocolate experience was not getting off to a great start.

Finally, our tour guide Val arrived and escorted us into a small room with folding chairs and proceeded to educate us on:

  • Why they’re called Theo (the scientific name of the cacao tree, where chocolate comes from)
  • The benefits of chocolate (which I cover more in depth here.)
  • The journey from the cacao tree pod to a wrapped chocolate bar.

As a chocolate lover, I was fascinated by this information.

As a mother, I was pleased to provide my kids with some educational content on a non-school day.

As six- and nine-year old boys, my sons were bored out of their skulls.

The only thing that held their attention were the two gentlemen wearing small chin masks in addition to their hairnets to cover their beards.

But then, Val saved us: she started passing around the samples!

The first was an 85% cacao dark chocolate. We all eagerly popped the sample into our mouths, except…it wasn’t great. It was quite bitter. Glancing at my sons, I could see they felt the same way.

“I want water,” they whispered into my ears.

“I don’t have any.”

Sample #2 was a Cherry and Chile chocolate: spicy.

“I need water!” the boys begged, fanning their tongues.

“I don’t have any,” I said apologetically, wishing I add some for myself as well.

Finally, Sample #3 provided some pleasure: Orange with orange essential oils and orange zest.

Sample #4 was even better and more intriguing: Fig, Fennel, and Almond.

The fifth sample of milk chocolate was divine.

Then it was time to tour the factory, where our tour guide Val made the equipment come alive. She was a sly humorist, one of those who delivers her line in the same intonation as all her other lines, so it’s not until a beat later that I’d realize “Hey…that was funny!”

The tour ended back at the retail store, and because we were with a large crowd, the worker was too busy to pay any attention to us, so we sampled to our heart’s content.

Hazelnut crunch…mmmmm.

Mint chocolate…mmmm.

Bread and chocolate…umm…not too sure about that.

Sea Salt Dark Chocolate…too salty.

Another taste of the Fig, Fennel and Almond….mmmm.

Did we get sick from eating too much chocolate? Not in the least!

If you’re ever in the Seattle area, I’d recommend a visit to Theo Chocolates. If you happen to get Val as your tour guide, settle in and enjoy the ride. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, be prepared: this is a dark chocolate haven. Even their milk chocolate is considered dark chocolate by industry standards.

And if you’re not from around here, don’t despair: they have an online store!

DARK CHOCOLATE IS GOOD FOR YOU!

June 15, 2012 in Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences)

 

Those who know me know that I love chocolate with a passion bordering on obsession. But with recent studies extolling the health benefits of eating dark chocolate, it may be that I’ve just been ahead of my time all these years.

Dark chocolate is GOOD for you!

It’s on the same playing field as blueberries in terms of being high in antioxidants, which lowers your risk of cancer. In fact, dark chocolate has nearly eight times the amount of antioxidants as strawberries. That’s probably why someone invented chocolate-covered strawberries. Sure, strawberries are delicious, but as a health food, you’re better off with that healthy coating of dark chocolate.

Stressed out? Dark chocolate lowers your blood pressure. Pop a square of rich, dark, creamy chocolate in your mouth, close your eyes, and pretty soon you’ll feel as relaxed as someone who just completed an hour’s worth of yoga or meditation.

Dark chocolate prevents tooth decay. (I bet you didn’t see that coming!) It’s true: theobromine, an ingredient in dark chocolate, eliminates a type of bacteria prevalent in the mouth that causes tooth decay. It also seems to be more effective than fluoride at recrystallizing the enamel surface of the tooth. It is possible we may be seeing “chocolate” toothpaste in our future!

Or, at least, “an isolated ingredient in chocolate” toothpaste.

I already knew that dark chocolate makes you happy, but now the scientific community has caught up with me. This magical elixir in solid form contains serotonin, a natural anti-depressant, and it stimulates endorphin production, which makes you happy. So, it has been scientifically proven that you can eat yourself out of a bad mood. (The scientific community might take issue with how their data has been extrapolated to support this sentence.)

People who eat dark chocolate regularly also have better memory, lower cholesterol, a reduced risk of stroke, and they live longer.

Clearly, dark chocolate is the new multi-vitamin. The question is, how much should we be eating and how often?

Jeanne Louise Calmet ate 2 ½ pounds of dark chocolate a week. A normal sized Hershey bar (not dark chocolate, by the way, but it’s the only chocolate I have on hand with a weight measurement) weighs 1.55 ounces. This means that Jeanne Louise Calmet ate roughly the equivalent of 3 Hershey bars of chocolate a day. How did that work out for her? She lived to the ripe old age of 122, holding the record for the longest-lived person ever. Why wouldn’t she have a long life? She most likely didn’t have cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or clogged arteries. She probably kept her teeth for a lot longer than most, had her wits about her, and was relaxed and happy.

I can get behind eating the equivalent of 3 Hershey bars of chocolate a day, but I suspect my waistline might have something to say about that. Some studies suggest an ounce or two of dark chocolate several times a week should do the trick, but the pleasure-seeking centers of my brain would be rearing up in protest. Since there doesn’t seem to be a scientifically-agreed-upon amount/frequency, I am feeling quite confidant that I can make up my own regimen, somewhere between an ounce or two several times a week and 5 ounces daily.

The only sticky part is that studies agree that it’s the dark chocolate that provides the health benefits, not the truffle, nougat, caramel, or marshmallow filling that it’s covering. I might have to become a purist, downing a square of dark chocolate with my healthy breakfast of whole grain cereal, eating dark chocolate-covered strawberries as part of a sensible lunch,  and saving the ooey, gooey chocolate concoction as a special treat later in the day.

Now, that’s an eating plan I can do!

Stay tuned for Monday: A Tour of Theo Chocolates in Seattle.

GUEST POST BY CLAUDETTE YOUNG: IS TURNING A LIFE AS EASY AS TURNING A LEAF?

June 13, 2012 in On Writing

I am delighted to introduce you to the fabulous Claudette Young! I met her though Robert Lee Brewer’s April Platform Building Challenge. A lot of us participated, but a few rose to the top due to their experience, their wisdom, and their willingness to share both. I watch Claudsy as an example of how it’s done, and after reading her Guest Post for today, I’m even more sure that I’m doing the right thing. Thank you, Claudsy, for sharing this with us!

Claudette J. Young began life very early, sucking in information and experience like her mother’s vacuum inhaled grass stems and dandelion fluff after a day in the sun. She’s lived in many areas of the country, preferring to experience places for longer than vacations allow. Along the way, she’s collected characters, dialects, impressions, that get translated into poems, essays, and stories. Claudette began sharing those translations in 2009 and continues to write with passion and determination. Her success is defined by her own criteria and satisfaction.

You may find more of Claudette Young at:

Claudsy’s Blog

Claudsy’s Calliope

Trailing Inspirations

Sampling of published works:

Sea Giraffe Magazine [online] (Poetry)
Soft Whispers Magazine [online] (Poetry)
The River Literary Journal [online] (Poetry)
Small River Stones Journal [online] (Poetry)
Prompted: An International Collection of Poems (Poetry Anthology)
My Friend, Smories and other online magazines (Children’s stories)
ICL Newsletter (Articles for children’s writers)Yahoo News/Associated Content (Travel, op-ed, children’s story, Yahoo Writer Style Book)
SuperTeacher Worksheets (Math Word Problems and quizzes, incorporating reading comprehension with problem solving and logic skills)

Is Turning A Life As Easy As Turning A Leaf?

My life wasn’t anything unusual, spectacular, or especially inspiring. I was a former teacher, who’d left corporate before stress killed her, who’d left university with degrees that took her away from country living and family.

Retirement is boring. Dozens of people have told me that over the years. In the corporate sector I helped many new retirees segue into a new life of  “ease.” After leaving corporate for the more leisurely teaching realm, I thought of those vital, younger retirees who’d traded the daily grind of corporate for exhausting rounds of golf, tennis, classwork, social events, constant travel, etc.

I moved from teaching college level to working the elementary school level. I stayed with that for three years, until I came to a juncture in my life requiring a major change. Arizona and New Mexico called my name and I answered the call.

I found retirement at forty-eight. I had little to my name, having divested myself of much I owned over the years. I desired little for my life. I was tired. I needed serious rest, and I took it until I was sixty. That’s when boredom set in with a vengeance.

A tiny ad caught my failing eye. I can’t remember whether it was in a magazine or online, but in that instant, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to turn my hand back to writing.

Mailing out the self-stamped postcard, I began the wait for a packet of information promised. In that packet would be my future, at least for a while.

The Institute of Children’s Literature accepted me. I suddenly found myself a student once again. That was the beginning of a new life. I asked myself how many lives I would have in the end. This made my seventh. Would I be cut off at life number nine, like a member of the feline persuasion?

I studied, graduated, wrote stories, poems, articles, essays; all for children. I sold a story here and there, educational materials to teachers, the occasional craft article for children’s writers, and so on in that genre. Satisfaction though didn’t come as expected. The genre was too limiting for me. My interests were broader and farther reaching than children’s literature afforded.

Other writers kept telling me that I was a literary writer. The assessment threw me. I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant. Did they mean I was boring, too high-brow, too something undefined that meant my work would only be appreciated by academics?

I learned to do travel articles as a way of breaking up that literary title. I was half afraid of the word “Literary.” Whatever genre would allow me to stretch my writer’s finger span was good for me, except for two genres; horror and men’s issues.

I took to writing for Associated Content and Yahoo! I continued to keep my two primary blogs and added a travel-oriented one to them. Poetry took a more profound chunk of my time, and always there was the learning of the craft, which gave me such pleasure.

Five months and 20 states within a country tour gave me all the material I would need for a series of inspirational books. Gathering these materials and photos to go with them had me outlining and testing the inspirational waters. All of a sudden I was working harder than I ever imagined, trying to juggle all of the projects clamoring for my attention.

During this past six months, I’ve been working on three books of poetry, one done exclusively in sestina format, the other two in epic poem form. Along with them is the first installment of “Failures to Blessings: Finding the Silver Lining,” and a women’s cozy mystery. Hanging out backstage is a YA fantasy or two where I’ve written several chapters already. My first non-fiction book to be completed will be a cookbook, which will go to the publisher this summer.

I’m told by “experts” that I must have a platform, social media coverage, and networking skills that rival a Hollywood promoter. I’ve designed my multi-genre platform, built the blogs, and co-host a website. I’ve written material until words blur before me, for readers who follow, give me pingbacks, trackbacks, and general comments.

Discussions rise and fall with subject matter. I’ve gone with guest blogs—to and from—interviews, articles, essays, travel pieces, non-fiction, flash fiction, and seemingly everything in between. I submit as quickly as I can and continue writing, knowing that rejection or acceptance will come in its own time.

Today, four years and six months after I began this journey, I am now—as I started—a student. Coursework continues, even as I perfect blogging. Editorial calendars tame chaos. Long-term projects vie with lengthy ones for space on my writer’s cook stove.

Along the way I’ve made fantastic friends in this business. Some began when I did. Others have been busy, productive writers for decades. In the mix are editors, publishers, poets, a few agents, and those who watch the process and wonder why anyone would ever want to leap into the maelstrom and try to swim the tide.

Would I do it over again, knowing the time crunches of deadlines, editor’s pencils, and rejection slips? You betcha! I could no more give this up than stop breathing voluntarily.

I am a writer. Money doesn’t enter the picture when I’m working. Could I support myself with writing right now? No, I couldn’t. Do I care? Not really.

I know that when the time is right, everything will fall into place. This business takes as much faith as birthing a child. Each is a creation; one of body, the other of mind. Both are priceless.

I SURVIVED THE 2012 5K SURVIVOR MUD RUN!

June 11, 2012 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

I’ve done several 5K and 10K races, and even a half-marathon once, but I’ve never participated in a race like this: a 5K with obstacles. Considering my name is Muddy and this was a Mud Run, how could I not do it?

After I picked up my bib number and commemorative T-shirt, I had a chance to look around. I could tell this was not your typical race crowd. No one was stretching, stocking up on protein bars, or dressed in streamlined race gear designed to shave seconds off your time.

These folks wore baggy shorts and T-shirts. There was a Beer Garden instead of a Gatorade station. I overheard one woman tell her friend that the only reason her husband was there was because he had agreed to do the race after a few too many beers and she registered him before he had a chance to sober up

My bib told its own tale: a perforated coupon for a Free Beer!

Considering my heat went off at 9:00am, this wasn’t as exciting as you would think.

The day was gray, cold, and drizzly. While I did not harbor any illusions that I would stay dry throughout this race, it did make for a chilly wait at the starting line. Luckily, my friend was there to keep me company. As we waited for our heat to go off, we made a pact: we’d stay together, no matter what obstacles came our way.

We started off like any other race, darting and weaving among our fellow participants until we found enough room to hit our stride. At which point, I began to regret my decision to stay with my friend, for her stride is long and quick.  I can sprint, I told myself. It’s only a 5K. Even if I sprint the whole way, I’ll make it out alive…barely.

My friend, bless her heart, was probably saying to herself: “It’s ok! I can go slow. This is just for fun!”

Finally, we turned a corner and there it was: the first obstacle. Thick, black intersecting ropes undulated up and down some six feet off the ground. Some brave souls were walking upright across it, but considering I prefer my ankles to remain unsprained, I opted to crawl on my hands and knees, like a less-than nimble spider across its crowded web. Jumping off the obstacle at the other end presented its own challenge: it was high!

And then we were off, slogging through thigh-deep mud…at least, I hope it was mud. Seeing as we were on a farm and the stench was so foul, I wondered what else I might have splattered across my face.

But there was no time to think about that. I had other things to focus on, like scrambling over boulders, leaping through tires, and crawling on bare knees through narrow pipes and under ropes stretched across an asphalt sidewalk. I scampered through forests with no trails and plenty of logs and twigs to trip over, and climbed sky-high walls with only a knotted rope for assistance.

And yes, I crawled through a lot of mud, sometimes on my hands and knees, sometimes climbing up a series of mud mountains where I had to dig into the mud just to get some traction, and sometimes climbing over a series of waist-high blue pipes only to plunge back into muddy water in between each one.

I loved every minute of it!

Sure, the heights were a little scary, and I’m not fond of small spaces, so crawling through the tunnels was concerning, and my shoes made an odd squishing sound every time I took a step, but I had a blast, and I am so thankful my friend was there to run it with me!

There is another race in our area at the end of June that sounds similar and my sons want to do it.

I tell you, I’m all in!

Except this time, I’ll be wearing kneepads.

 

 

 

IT’S OK TO BE LAZY: DEEPAK CHOPRA’S LAW OF LEAST EFFORT PLUS THE PANCAKE PEN GIVEAWAY RESULTS!

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Making Life A Little Easier

Life is hard. It throws you curve balls that force you to reconfigure your entire schedule. It showers you with rain when you are planning an outside party for 40 of your closest friends. It has no problem flinging a few bacteria your son’s way so he has to miss his own birthday party, and it can turn the simplest computer task into an hour-and-a-half phone call to tech support.

When I’m at my busiest, like now during the end-of-school madness, I often wonder: Why can’t things be easy? Why can’t the 10-minute task actually take 10 minutes, instead of turning into a 75-minute event? Why can’t the parents of our graduating 6th graders send in their child’s baby photo by the deadline so I don’t have to spend my precious time hunting them down? Why does my water pump have to pick this exact moment to fuse itself to the engine?

So many times in my life things become more difficult than I think they should, and so it’s a revelation when something, despite the odds, goes according to plan. It’s almost…miraculous!

That’s how I feel about the electric griddle and the pancake pen for making pancakes: it turned a not-so-pleasant task into something fun and easy. I went from struggling against my children and their pancake demands to going with the pancake flow in an effortless way.

This ease doesn’t apply only to making pancakes. Deepak Chopra, in his The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, addresses this in his “Law of Least Effort.” He points out that:

“Grass doesn’t try to grow, it just grows. Fish don’t try to swim, they just swim.”

To me it sounds suspiciously like a Nike commercial: Just do it! As in, stop complaining about all the tasks you have to do and do them already!

But he also says The Law of Least Effort is about doing less and accomplishing more.

Expend less energy, but get more done? How, Deepak? Well, he tells you, sort of, in a spiritual, zen, relinquish-yourself-to-the-present kind of way: “…least effort is expended when your actions are motivated by love…”

Well, I love making pancakes now, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to love taking my car to the mechanic. But, ok, Deepak, I’ll try. As I’m wrapping up the bzillion end-of-school projects I’ve got going on, I will take three deep, calming breaths, and I’ll remind myself who I’m doing this for: my kids, their fellow classmates, and their teachers. I’ll remind myself that these tasks aren’t torture devices designed to beat me down, but great projects that I dreamed up and volunteered for because I loved the idea back in September. I will practice loving my computer and the iDVD movie program even when glitches occur, and I won’t try not to throw my computer out the window when something goes wrong, I just won’t do it.

Sometimes, though, practical tips can work wonders too:

1)    If per chance you should get candle wax on your carpet, which I have managed to do twice so far this year, here is an easy way to get it out…but be prepared! It’s so easy, your jaw will drop open in amazement, and you might purposefully drip more candle wax on your carpet just to have a chance to perform this magic trick again.

Spread paper towels over the wax. Run over with a warm iron. The wax will be absorbed into the paper towel, leaving your carpet completely clean.

2)    To get stubborn stains out of clothing, mix up a paste of Oxiclean and Resolve (formerly Spray ‘n’ Wash). Apply it to the stain and scrub with a toothbrush designated for laundry. That’s it! Easy and effective!

In the spirit of decreasing our effort, I am delighted to present the Pancake Pen to the person who left the #5 comment (based on the Random Number Generator): Linda Hatton! Congratulations! If you send me your address in an email or in a Direct Message on Facebook, I’ll get that right out to you!

I wish you all an effortless day!