Friday, April 29, 2011

I'd Rather (Not) Be Cruising

Sometime in our lives my husband and I must have angered Poseidon, mythological god of the sea. We’ve been on three cruises together, and all three have featured the unexpected, if not the downright awful.

It all started on our honeymoon. My father had given us a four-night cruise as a wedding present. After embarking from San Pedro (CA) the day after our wedding, we were to visit San Diego, Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. We’d endured a wild rainstorm on our wedding day, but the next morning dawned sunny and bright. The sea was a little choppy, but nothing Dramamine couldn’t handle.

Our first shore excursion, to the San Diego Zoo, provided us with a clue that the storm had left lasting effects. Many of the animal habitats lay strewn with tree limbs and other by-products of the wind and rain. We saw quite a few bewildered-looking animals exploring their “redecorated” homes.

The zoo was a bit messy, but otherwise fine, and our stop at Catalina was uneventful. But when we reached Ensenada, we were told the port was torn up and we weren’t able to dock. Our planned horseback-riding-on-the-beach excursion was exchanged for a day at anchor in the harbor where my new husband tried to teach me to play chess.

Two years later, we braved a second cruise, a more ambitious one: from Venice to ports in Turkey and Greece. Our troubles began before we even boarded the ship. We flew from our home in California to New York City, where we planned a couple of days’ sight-seeing before flying to Milan. A medical emergency on board forced us to make an emergency landing in Denver, where the size of the plane and the shortness of the runway destroyed our landing gear. The airline had to fly parts and mechanics to Denver to fix the plane, and an eight-hour unplanned layover—spent entirely in the airport, waiting for news about when we would fly out—ensued. 

Next, when we disembarked in Milan, I left our contact lens solution on the airplane. After we moved on to Venice before our cruise, it rained constantly as we tried to explore the beautiful old city. Pictures from this trip feature us wearing chic green plastic bag slickers—and glasses!

When we finally boarded the ship, our cabin was situated next door to crews' quarters where they argued constantly and loudly. It featured a wall-mounted toilet-flushing button so stiff I had to use my foot in order to press it hard enough to do the job. Another storm delayed the cruise so that our shore excursions took place at night. We “saw” Greece from a bus in the dark. On the trip home, which took more than 24 hours, I came down with a cold. While waiting for our connecting flight at JFK, we were reduced to eating out of vending machines and drinking our souvenir Greek Metaxa out of a paper bag.

One thing we did see: Corinth Canal
Our last attempt at cruising occurred about seven years ago. We sold our business and to celebrate, decided to take a cruise to Alaska, a dream of my husband’s. This time, our son, my mom and step dad and my husband’s mom joined us.

While we were on the land portion of our tour, news reports of a “sick ship”—our ship!—reached us. The illness, Norovirus, was described as “a mild gastrointestinal illness,” but the cruise before ours had to head back early because so many passengers became ill, and so the ship could be disinfected before our cruise began.

We were a little nervous about boarding, but all seemed fine. Aside from industrial-sized containers of hand sanitizer on every deck and not being able to serve ourselves from the buffet, there seemed to be no sign of the previous passengers’ illness. The ship was lovely, our stateroom comfortable (with an easily-flushed toilet) and to our son’s joy and our eventual thankfulness, two TVs. We enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and cushy shipboard amenities. Our son gloried in the freedom of the kids’ programs, and roaming the ship with new friends and a walkie-talkie to keep in touch with us.

It was just after a stop at Glacier Bay that I started to feel a little queasy. I popped some additional seasickness medicine, but it didn’t help. I quickly went from sipping champagne and eating chocolate-dipped strawberries to being confined to my bathroom. My son didn’t even make it back to the cabin—he threw up in the elevator. My poor husband had to take care of him while I collapsed in bed. “Mild” illness? I've never been so sick in my life.

A “cabin call” from the medical staff distributed shots and other medications to battle the virus. Just as I started to feel a little better, my husband began to fall ill.

Aside from feeling so bad, between the actual illness and quarantine days, we missed two out of three ports of call, including our helicopter/glacier/sled dog shore excursion. (We couldn’t have been sick or quarantined during one of our days at sea, oh no.) When we finally staggered off the boat, we vowed never again. The only bright spot in this horrific trip was that our parents, who were all in their late 60s, did not get the virus, and by all accounts, had a marvelous time.

So when it’s time to plan our next vacation and one of us says, “Hey, let’s go on a cruise,” we laugh ourselves silly and make different plans. Land plans.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."
Albert Schweitzer

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Four Factors of Happiness

Is it possible to make yourself happier? Lots of people think so, including Gretchen Rubin, who wrote about trying to increase her happiness level in The Happiness Project. She quotes research that indicates that between 30 and 40 percent of a person’s level of happiness comes from that person’s thoughts and actions. (The remaining 60 to 70 percent is determined by genetics and life’s circumstances.)

If it is possible to increase happiness, how do you do it? Rubin’s “First Splendid Truth” gives us this framework: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.” Let’s look more closely at the parts of this statement.

“Feeling good”
Increase sources of happiness. This is probably the simplest and most obvious way to feel happier. My greatest sources of feeling good include spending time with friends, playing with Tank, reading and sketching. What gives you joy? What do you like to do? How can you have more fun? To feel happier, we should include one or more of our favorite pastimes every day.

Watercolor sketch from Laure Ferlita's class
“Feeling bad”
Decrease sources of unhappiness and bad feelings. Maybe that means tackling some unfinished business or dealing with a difficult situation. Since I’ve found the importance of mindset in how I feel about my life, I’ve been examining some of my feelings and attitudes, and banishing the ones that aren’t true or are bringing me pain or discomfort. Replacing old ways of thinking with new ones can feel a little unsettling, but getting rid of the sources of nagging bad feelings frees up space in our hearts for happiness.

“Feeling right”
This means feeling as if you are doing what you are meant to do. I ask myself frequently, Am I the person I want to be? Do I respect myself? Am I doing work that feels “right”? These past few months I’ve questioned whether or not I really want to continue to write, and wondered if I still have anything to say (that anyone would want to read). For now, I still keep returning to the keyboard because writing is too much a part of who I am for me to easily cast it aside. It still feels “right,” even when it’s hard. How comfortable are you with who you are? Sometimes “feeling right” makes us happy in the face of frustration and obstacles.


“Atmosphere of growth”
Deep and lasting happiness comes more easily in an atmosphere of growth. That is, when you’re learning something new, increasing your skills, stepping outside your comfort zone, or challenging yourself. Yes, there’s definitely a time for simple relaxation, for “noodling,” for “fun” fun that doesn’t put too many demands on you. But that shouldn’t be the extent of your fun. Owning Tank is a perfect example of this. There is a good deal of “fun” fun to be had in horse ownership—but I’d be lying if I said everything about it was easy. I’m pushed outside my comfort zone nearly every time I get on his back, because correct English-style riding is challenging. It’s not simply sitting on the horse’s back and letting him do the work. Being the leader in our herd of two requires vigilance, consistency, patience and firmness. However, I don’t believe I would find horse ownership quite so deeply satisfying if I was not being gently challenged to grow. If you consider the times you’ve been happiest, chances are you’ve been engrossed in something that was just the tiniest bit challenging.

Whaddya mean, it's not all easy?
I found Rubin’s way of breaking happiness into these four sections helpful in looking at my own level of happiness, and seeing where I could make changes to improve it. What about your happiness level? Can you bump it up a notch? What will you do (or stop doing) to increase your level of happiness? Which of these areas do you need to address?

If you haven’t already, check out Gretchen Rubin’s blog here.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spare Parts

Photo courtesy stock.xchng.com
In this endearing short poem by Californian Trish Dugger, we can imagine “what if?” What if we had been given “a baker’s dozen of hearts?” I imagine many more and various love poems would be written. Here Ms. Dugger, Poet Laureate of the City of Encinitas, makes fine use of the one patched but good heart she has. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Spare Parts

We barge out of the womb
with two of them: eyes, ears,

arms, hands, legs, feet.
Only one heart. Not a good

plan. God should know we
need at least a dozen,

a baker’s dozen of hearts.
They break like Easter eggs

hidden in the grass,
stepped on and smashed.

My own heart is patched,
bandaged, taped, barely

the same shape it once was
when it beat fast for you.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2006 by Trish Dugger. Reprinted from Magee Park Poets: Anthology 2007, No. 18, Friends of the Carlsbad City Library, 2006, by permission of Trish Dugger. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. 

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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Power of the Playlist

While I vacuum, I like to listen to music on my iPod—it muffles the noise, and the right songs keep me moving and make me feel cheerful. I usually just put the iPod on “shuffle,” but certain songs slow down my rhythm. I like to vacuum to something a bit more upbeat, so I decided I should make myself a “vacuuming playlist.” The songs on it would be the ones that make me feel like dancing around the vacuum cleaner, like Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” or Rob Thomas’ “This is How a Heart Breaks” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.”

Wouldn't it be fun to make a playlist for all my activities, like writing or driving, or just sitting and thinking? For writing, I prefer instrumental music, so I can hear my own words without being distracted by others’. My favorite writing songs come from guitarist Billy McLaughlin’s* album, Out of Hand.

When I’m driving, I want words and lots of them, because I like to sing along. Songs like Evanescence’s “My Immortal,”  and show tunes like “Good Morning Baltimore” from Hairspray and “For Good”  from Wicked are fantastic for belting out while driving down the road.

For sitting and thinking, there’s always Carbon Leaf’s “What About Everything?” or classical music, or something by Josh Groban.

You could make playlists for all kinds of experiences and emotions: feel-good songs, I-need-a-good-cry songs, revenge songs… you name it. My friend Marianne just made a playlist of hockey songs in honor of our local professional hockey team’s presence in the Stanley Cup playoffs! (I didn’t know there were that many songs about hockey!)

Does your life have a soundtrack? What’s on your favorite playlist?

*While checking the spelling of Mr. McLaughlin’s name for this blog post, I learned of his remarkable and inspiring comeback story—read about it here.)

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast...*

And so do I. Do you find yourself constantly hurrying, thinking of the next thing before the current thing is through? Are your days so tightly scheduled—even if you make the schedule, not someone else, as in my case—that one little unexpected event topples the schedule like a row of dominoes?

Yeah, me too.

I know better. We all do. What, exactly, do we expect ourselves to accomplish in our—let’s face it—limited time? This is one reason we have road rage and supermarket rage and rage rage. My husband recently reported that he fidgeted impatiently when he found himself standing in line behind someone at the grocery store who was writing a check. I’ve done the same, and we both admitted we’re moving too fast when the extra 30 seconds it takes the cashier to process a check rather than a debit or credit card transaction causes us to tap a foot in irritation.

Take time to smell me.
My 16-year-old is still learning the ropes of driving, and has already been honked at for not pulling out of a parking lot (in front of oncoming traffic on the main road in our town) quickly enough to suit the woman behind him.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
~Lao Tzu

I don’t know about you, but this is what happens when I rush:

I break things. Dishes, fingernails, even, recently, my laptop monitor because I rushed to pick it up. I nearly broke my new mini book light when at first I couldn’t figure out how to open the battery door. (Hint: it helps to look at the clearly labeled diagram.)

I hurt myself. I bruise my leg on the open dishwasher door, or the footboard of my son’s bed. I whack my forearm on the doorknob in the hallway, or the back of my head on a fence I’m leaning through.

I hurt others. Being in a rush means my mind is often elsewhere. When this is the case, I’m not looking at or listening to the person right in front of me. (And if I’ve done this to you, let me apologize right now.)

What's your hurry?
“Rushing blinds you to the obvious. Rushing comes from fear and is designed to keep you from looking down into the canyon and seeing how tenuous your perch on the wire is,” writes Heather Sellers, in Chapter After Chapter. She’s talking specifically here about rushing while writing, but I think it’s one reason so many of us rush through our own lives. We’re afraid. Afraid of letting someone down, afraid we’re not accomplishing enough, afraid life is passing us by—when it’s really us passing life by. It will not matter how much you “accomplish” if you’re not paying full attention when you accomplish it.

In order to slow down, I have to make some hard choices. I limit my activities, even, alas, the fun ones, so that I truly experience the ones that remain. I also cut the daily to-do list in half, and I don’t compare what I can get done in a day with what my friend down the street accomplishes. I lower my standards in certain areas. I’m not always successful—but I’m working on it.

Do you find yourself rushing through your days? What have you done, or do you plan to do to slow down?

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
~Soren Kierkegaard

*Thanks for the advice, Simon and Garfunkel

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011



“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
Frederick Koenig

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Field Trip!

Last week Laure Ferlita and I took a field trip to the University of South Florida’s Botanical Gardens. Laure’s preparing an online class, “An Imaginary Visit to the Garden,” and I haven’t been to the gardens since last year’s trip to the spring plant festival.

The USFBG is a relaxed and friendly sort of garden. Mostly cared for by volunteers, it’s the perfect place to wander aimlessly, forgetting the world speeding by on the major streets that run on two sides of the garden. The carnivorous plants bloomed


and this lovely gentleman


presided over the meditation garden. (Unfortunately, the seating was damp and slimy-looking after the recent rains. We paid our respects and moved on.)

But of all the areas of the garden we visited, my favorite this time was:

Fairies are invisible and inaudible like angels. But their magic sparkles in nature. ~Lynn Holland

Faery (or fairy) houses, musical frogs, gnomes and fairies of all sorts peeked out from the plantings of impatiens, violas, ornamental cabbage and other magical plants.




(Check out Laure’s blog post confirming this!)

Taking a few hours to explore and unwind invigorated us both. And there’s always a little touch of magic in a garden. Who knows--maybe it’s fairy magic!

Where do you go to unwind?

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Low-Tech Pleasures in a High-Tech World

After last week's power outage, I've been thinking about how dependent we are on electricity and technology.  While I’m grateful for the technological advances we take for granted—I’m typing this on a laptop computer instead of a manual typewriter, and don’t know how I’d cope without the internet, for example—sometimes I long for a simpler, quieter, less electronic atmosphere. So this weekend, I'm going to unplug and do some of the following:

Chat with my visiting mother-in-law.
Cuddle with my dog.

I'm snuggle-icious!
Lean into Tank’s body and feel his warmth and strength.
Sip a cup of tea.
Take a walk for pleasure, not for exercise.

This looks like a good place to walk.
Play a game.
Hug someone.
Put together a jigsaw puzzle.
Take a nap.
Work a crossword puzzle.


Sketch.
Watch birds in the backyard.
Write in my journal.
And, of course, read a book.


These are some of my favorite low-tech pleasures. What are yours?

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011


April is National Poetry Month, and if you have even the slightest interest in poetry, this is the perfect time to explore. Throughout the month, poetry lovers will be celebrating in all kinds of fun ways. Click here for 30 ways to join in.

To get you started, here is a poem from American Life in Poetry, introduction by Ted Kooser:

So often, reading a poem can in itself feel like a thing overheard. Here, Mary-Sherman Willis of Virginia describes the feeling of being stilled by conversation, in this case barely audible and nearly indecipherable.

The Laughter of Women

From over the wall I could hear the laughter of women
in a foreign tongue, in the sun-rinsed air of the city.
They sat (so I thought) perfumed in their hats and their silks,

in chairs on the grass amid flowers glowing and swaying.
One spoke and the others rang like bells, oh so witty,
like bells till the sound filled up the garden and lifted

like bubbles spilling over the bricks that enclosed them,
their happiness holding them, even if just for the moment.
Although I did not understand a word they were saying,

their sound surrounded me, fell on my shoulders and hair,
and burst on my cheeks like kisses, and continued to fall,
holding me there where I stood on the sidewalk listening.

As I could not move, I had to hear them grow silent,
and adjust myself to the clouds and the cooling air.
The mumble of thunder rumbled out of the wall
and the smacking of drops as the rain fell everywhere.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2007 by Mary-Sherman Willis. Reprinted from The Hudson Review, Vol. LX, no. 3, (Autumn 2007), by permission of Mary-Sherman Willis. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Routine or Rut-ine?

I was standing in the shower, puddle of body wash in one hand, nylon pouf in the other when I remembered that I hadn’t yet put the John Frieda glaze in my hair. This glaze requires three minutes of time on the hair to do its job, according to the packaging, and therefore during my shower, it must go on before the body wash step for it to have that time. My mind had been elsewhere, apparently, because OMG! I’ve already reached body wash stage and I HAVEN’T YET PUT THE GLAZE IN MY HAIR!

Armageddon. (This is what it’s like to be me.)

(Let me back up and explain the importance of the JF glaze in my life. My hair is thick and coarse, and the minute it detects any humidity in the air, it doubles in size like a frightened cat. Let me remind you I live in Florida, and it’s a rare day when the humidity isn’t detectible. Using this glaze helps keep my hair under at least partial control.)

So I stood there in the shower, debating—put down the pouf, put the glaze in my hair and hope I leave it on long enough, even though I’ve clearly missed the ideal moment? (I’ve never actually timed the process, so maybe I NEVER leave it in long enough, who knows?) Do I skip the glaze altogether? (Nope, today I’m running errands and going out to dinner so the hair needs all the anti-frizz help it can get).

Routines can be helpful, essential, even. Routines and habits offer comfort and stability. Having a routine to deal with daily tasks can often speed them up and make you more efficient. I can shower, dry my hair, put on makeup, dress and be out the door in half an hour (on a good, non-glaze-dilemma day) and routine is what enables me to do that. Laundry and cleaning have their routines. Without them, I’d be buried in filth.

Many small and sometimes unnoticed routines add pleasure to the day. They become rituals that add to the beauty of life. I spend the first half-hour of my day with coffee, a few bites of scone or muffin, and a notebook and pen. I love this ritual and find it centers me before I begin to work.

Routines can become ruts, however. Ruts can make you feel bored, trapped, or locked into a certain path and unable to alter the course of life. (Or they can leave you feeling plain silly while you stand in the shower with body wash dripping down your arm.)

It pays to examine routines now and then to see if they still serve you, or to see if you’ve become slave instead of master. My shower/glaze moment reminded me that I’m in charge of my routines, not the other way around. It’s also possible you’ve stuck with a routine that has become outdated—your life has changed, but your routine hasn’t, and maybe it should.

Also, occasionally stepping outside routine makes life more interesting and exciting, keeping routines from becoming ruts. You might change anything from the route you take to work to the day you do your grocery shopping. Order a different sandwich at your favorite lunch spot…or choose another lunch spot altogether. Listen to a different type of music, read a magazine you wouldn’t normally pick up, or stop into that little antiques store you keep promising yourself you’ll visit. Maintain the routines that keep your life humming along, but also do something “different” every week—or even every day!

Now I’m off to take a shower…and I won’t forget the glaze.


What are some of your favorite routines? What rut(s) would you like to escape from? What small change can you make to liven up your life?

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

How does this sound: 10 hours with no errands, laundry or grocery shopping, no TV blaring, no checking email or mindlessly surfing the ’net? Yeah, I would have thought so, too. I spent such a day yesterday, but I did not find it relaxing or refreshing. I found it frustrating…and then this morning, I realized how lucky we’d been.

A storm system blew through our area yesterday, drenching us, spinning off tornados, and cutting power to more than 100,000 people, some of whom will not get their electricity back until late today. Strong winds tipped over cars, trucks and small airplanes, flattened fences, tore apart pool cages and snapped power poles. Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured, according to the local paper. (To see photos, click here and scroll to "Links from the Times for April 1: Severe storm.")

Forecasters expected the storms to be strong, but not this extreme, so some people (including me) were caught off guard and unprepared. We were without electricity for 10 hours. I didn’t have my laptop battery fully charged and hadn’t taken a shower following my workout. Due to the power failure, our household alarm system caused all the smoke alarms to go off with nerve-shattering blasts. My husband and I ran through the house with a bar stool, disconnecting them. The two radios we have that take batteries didn’t work when we put the batteries in them. Since I didn't know what was happening, I didn't realize how serious this storm system was.

I couldn’t do any of the things I’d planned for the day. No power for doing laundry or working on the computer. The wind and rain made it too dangerous to run errands, and even with candles and battery-operated lamps, it was too dark in the house to do any real work.

I would have enjoyed this if I hadn’t felt worried about dinner and what we’d wear the next day if I couldn’t finish the load of laundry sitting in the washing machine. I worried about the survival of my freezer’s contents and how long we could go before we opened the fridge and let all the cold air out. I felt guilty about what I “should” be doing, and anxious that my Friday would now become too busy to manage.

The real problem here was not the power failure. It was my expectations and slavery to a schedule, my inflexibility and my inability to abandon myself to the moment. It took me nearly all day to wrestle my mind to the ground and relax and enjoy the experience. When I stayed in the moment, I enjoyed hearing the sound of the rain on the roof—something I can’t always hear when all the electrical things are humming. I admired three creamy gardenia blossoms glowing under a silvery white sky, while our oaks bobbed and bowed in the wind. I pulled out and reread one of my favorite books, 84 Charing Cross Road. I only became anxious when I began to think about what would happen if the power didn’t come on soon.

Yesterday, Gretchen Rubin’s emailed Moment of Happiness was this quote from Schopenhauer: “To be sensitive to trifles implies a state of well-being, since in misfortune we never feel them at all.” I realize I am fortunate. We have no damage to our home, and the boarding stable where we keep Tank is completely unscathed. Today, I can think about what I learned from my enforced idleness, catch up on everyday chores—and be thankful that we are all safe.


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