Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Two more articles

Somehow, in the bustle of ordinary life, I forgot to link to these two recent articles of mine:

The first, from Time Magazine, is about depression.

The second, also in Time, discusses the fact that infants understand more than we give them credit for.

Back soon with a real post.

Friday, March 18, 2016

To Catch a Leprechaun

If you know me at all, you know that I am not a holiday mom.

Holidays are just not my thing. I mean, I like them, sure.  But I'm not a mom who does themed birthday parties, or makes green eggs on Dr. Seuss day, or hides an elf on a shelf, or any of those other over-and-above things.

I have no problem with other moms doing those things. You want a Little Mermaid party, complete with mermaid cake topped with fondant fishies? Go for it. Is your elf layout Pinterest worthy? Great. But I lack the creativity - and the patience - to pull off those kinds of things. I know this about myself, so I don't even try to compete on that level.

In our house, even the tooth fairy is a slacker.  She seldom remembers to come the first night the tooth is under the pillow, and she never left a note in her life until the kids starting writing to her and requesting answers.

Santa does pretty well. He actually has different handwriting from mine, so they can tell it's from him and not us.  And he always shows up on time - unless the pouch mail is stuck in the States.

The Easter bunny does a great job around here.  But that's mostly because my husband is in charge of that, jelly bean trail and all.  If it were up to me, they'd get quite a bit less candy in those baskets - and more of it would be the kind of candy I could steal from them while they were away at school.  Seriously, Peeps? Waxy milk chocolate bunnies? And don't even get me started on Cadbury eggs. Disgusting. What's wrong with a simple box of Fran's dark chocolate caramels?

St. Patrick's Day is what I'd consider a Level Three holiday.  I know it exists, but it doesn't require any effort whatsoever on my part. I don't own a single item of green clothing, and I'd never drink a green beer.  It's just another day to me.

Last year, for the first time ever, my kids seemed aware of the holiday. My daughters were a bit disappointed when they came home from school that day because all of their friends were talking about the green cereal and the green milk that they'd had for breakfast, and the frosted green cakes their moms made for dessert.  Why, they wanted to know, didn't we do anything green for St. Patrick's Day? So I quickly put a drop of green food coloring in the bottom of each of their dinner glasses.  At dinner, when I poured sparkling water into the cups, the water fizzed green.  They were delighted with the magic, and so was I - such an easy trick!

This year, on the evening of the 16th, A started scrounging around for tape and boxes and scissors.

"I'm making a leprechaun trap,"  she explained.

"Hmmmm..." I replied non-commitally.  I don't even know what a leprechaun trap is.  She cut and glued and taped for a few hours while I got dinner organized and cleaned up afterwards.  Then we all went to bed and I gave the trap exactly zero thoughts.

Until the next morning, that is.

On the morning of the 17th, she ran downstairs to check the trap.  I felt a vague sense of unease as she bolted past me on the stairs.  Leprechaun trap?  Was I supposed to participate in some way in this trapping thing?

She reached the dining room, where her complex pile of boxes sat on the table, untouched by leprechaun hands.  The look of disappointment on her face just about killed me. She had apparently genuinely believed that there was going to be a leprechaun in that box when she woke up. And here I'd thought it was a mere art project. She went off to school in a foul, foul mood.

Later that morning at the gym, I told my friend AG about the morning's trauma.

"No problem," she said.  "My mom used to toss gold glitter around and tell me the leprechauns had made the mess.  You just need to find some glitter and she'll be happy."

So I posted a plea on Facebook - where else would one turn to find glitter at the last moment in Moscow? Within minutes, another friend, MP, replied that she was on her way with glitter and foil shamrocks.

Soon enough, she rang the bell (wearing a perfectly festive green coat because of course she had the right outfit, too), holding a bag of glitter, shamrocks and gold chocolate coins. And she explained to me that the trick to the leprechaun trap is that it doesn't actually catch any leprechauns.  Apparently, her daughters build a trap every year, and every year they awake to discover that once again, the leprechaun has managed to escape the trap.

"You have to destroy the trap," she explained, "so they can see that the leprechaun escaped.  Sprinkle the glitter all around. Then they'll try to figure out how to build a better trap next year."

If there's one thing I'm good at, it's destroying arts n' crafts projects.  You should see me try to make a play dough farm animal.  It's ridiculous how much effort I put into it, when the end result always looks like the same sticky blob propped on 4 smaller leg-shaped blobs.

So I destroyed the trap. I punched a hole in the side, pulled the ladder out, stole the coin and buried the whole thing in glitter.  It looked pretty good when I was done.

When A came home that night and saw the trap, she was overjoyed.  A leprechaun! She'd almost caught a leprechaun! Now she could tell Bobby at school that he was wrong when he said there's no such thing.

The only problem? Well, she reallyreally wanted to write the leprechaun a note.  I explained that it was too late - the day was almost over, and there'd be no more leprechauns for a year.

Dear reader, she wrote it anyway.

What to do? I decided that I could safely ignore the letter because the holiday was practically over.  So I left it on the table and went to bed.

March 18th. Holiday over, with only a bit of disappointment about the fact that the leprechaun didn't write back.  I'm starting to write this blog post about leprechaun traps.  I hear K from the study: "mommy, how do you spell leprechaun?"

I tell her, and go back to making dinner.

A half hour passes.  Suddenly - a bloodcurdling scream from the dining room.  It's A.  I have no idea what has happened, and I run to her in a panic.

A is standing in the middle of the room, shaking and waving a paper at me. "Sally!" she screams.  "She wrote to me! SALLY THE LEPRECHAUN WROTE TO ME!!"

I look at the paper, and sure enough, it's a note, typed in green ink, signed by Sally the leprechaun.  And it's addressed to A.  It wasn't there just an hour ago, but it's there now, no mistaking it.

A reads it aloud, and the detail is astounding.  Sally the leprechaun mentions the fishbowl in A's classroom, tells how clever she thought the trap was, and finishes by writing "tell your cool sister I really loved her leprechaun drawing."

A is thrilled.  K is standing next to her, reading over her shoulder, grinning ear to ear.

"Mom," K whispers in my ear later on, "you know it wasn't really a leprechaun who wrote that letter, right?" She smiles proudly.

Yes, K, I know.  But did you know that your little sister already wrote another note to Sally, asking for a photo?  You'd better get busy.

See that hole? I made it myself. Don't tell A, though. She thinks Sally did it.









Friday, March 11, 2016

Beijing Friends in London

There are a lot of different types of people in the Foreign Service.  Well, duh.  There are loads of types out in the world in general.  But there aren't many other places you could choose to work where you get tossed together so closely with these other types.  You don't get to choose who goes to post with you (if only!), and once you arrive, you have to find your tribe of friends from among the "types" that are already there. There are a few types who show up at every post, and your job is to sort out which of them you want to avoid. Your job is to find your tribe amongst the teeming herd of strangers.

Avoid the Complainer.  Sure, everyone complains sometimes.  But the person who never stops complaining is going to bring you down, hard.  Smile broadly when you see her coming, and refuse to engage, on any topic. The Complainer is related to the Last-Poster, the person who constantly tells you how much better life was at their last post. (Confession:  I've got quite a bit of Last-Poster in me.  What can I say? I'm working on it.) Then there's the Food Critic. She takes great pride in the fact that she only eats local food, to include scorpions, sea urchins, rooster feet or whatever revolting thing may be on the menu in your country, and she looks at you in disdain if you decline to partake. And then have you met the spouse who wants to know where your spouse works before she can decide whether you're worthy of her attention?  Best to avoid her, too.

The worst is when you meet someone you really like, but it turns out she's a Short-Timer.  If she's leaving soon, you'll never break into her orbit because she's already focused on the next place and she doesn't have any desire or need to make new friends.

No, you want to find people who arrived around the same time you did, who have kids around the same ages as yours, whose spouses work with - but probably not for - your spouse, and who are genuinely excited to be at post, hardships notwithstanding.  As for the rest of it - religious affiliation? political party? hobbies?  - you'll have to work with what you've got. Some of my oldest and best FS friends are what I would describe as "conservative Christian" - pretty much the opposite of me in terms of world view.  And yet we had so much fun together at post, arguing politics as we explored our new city together. They were smart about their views, as I am about mine, so we could discuss big topics in a way I can't with most people. They ended up becoming the godparents to our second child, and we've stayed in touch ever since.

The staying in touch thing?  That's really really hard.  There are always seasonal friends - the ones you bond with at post but then drift away from afterwards, until you can't even quite remember their names.  But if you're lucky, and you work at it, you'll end up making a few lifelong friends every time you move to a new post.

For me, Beijing was the place where I acquired the biggest pile of lifelong friends.  The stars just lined up there: a solid group of people arrived at the same time as I did.  Our spouses all knew each other, our kids all played together, we started Chinese language classes together, we lived just a few doors down from one another.

Then there was the fact that Beijing was a hard place to live. The language, the pollution, the size of the city, the fact of never being able to blend in, of being constantly watched, and photographed, and criticized.  You try learning to drive in a city of almost 12 million people, with multi-lane highways and road signs you can't read. Chances are you'll bond pretty hard with the person who is brave enough to navigate from the passenger seat. That time J and I made a wrong turn and ended up trapped in a closed-off bike lane, driving the minivan about 2 miles an hour behind an old guy on a three-wheeled bike? Well, it was the first time I'd ever tried to drive in downtown Beijing, and the two of us are still laughing about it all these years later.  I made a lifelong friend that day, along with starting a string of traffic tickets.  J's the person who went with me to pay those tickets when the time came, too.


M was new to post - she and I were still getting to know each other that day when she burst into my house, frantic and barefoot, carrying a critically sick baby in her arms. She brought him in and I talked her down as we tried to summon emergency help, together. We don't really talk much about that day, but it's there, between us.

When I brought my baby home from the hospital, S was the one who showed up to rock her so I could get some rest.  She was the one who lined up her kids as babysitters when I needed a break.  And, because she's forgotten more about fashion than I'll ever know, she was the one who helped me navigate the tailors and the fabric stores and the jewelry makers.

When J lost the baby, sweet baby Lily, the rest of us sat with her and held her hand, looking at the tiny newborn pictures and crying with her. When I lost my hearing - a small thing compared to losing a baby - these women brought casseroles for the family while I was on medevac. Later on, when the deaf thing became a part of who I was rather than a medical emergency, these women helped me find ways to make it funny.

So many things about Beijing made it the hardest place I've ever lived.  But having people to share the hardship with? That made it one of the best places I've ever lived.  People always ask me: would you go back there?  I'd go visit, sure.  But to live? Absolutely not.  I feel fortunate to have escaped with most of my health still intact. Also, there's the fact that it wouldn't be the same without my tribe, and I have no interest in starting over without those ladies by my side.

Last week I flew to London, where I met up with M, J and S - three of my closest Beijing friends.  One lives in London now.  Another is elsewhere in Europe. And the third recently moved back to the States from South America.

It's been a long while since we've seen each other.  The last time I saw J was when we hugged goodbye in her driveway in Shunyi, back in 2010. Yet we picked up right where we left off, with laughter and "remember whens?".

We wandered around London, hitting a few major sites like Kensington Palace, Big Ben and Covent Gardens. But mostly what we did was find a cozy table in a pub somewhere, eating (and eating! and eating!), drinking and reminiscing.  We weren't speaking Chinese, but what we were saying surely sounded like a foreign language to everyone within earshot.  Jenny Lou's.  The Nut Hut.  The Dooz. Remember the restaurant with the tiny little plates?  The guy with the x-rated DVD shop? The dead watch batteries? The dead car battery.  Sunny Gold Uggs. The Elvira hairdo.  The bozo tie at the Marine Ball. The ball pit.  Hungry Horse.  The smell of Pinnacle Plaza on a smoggy morning. The seizure. The ambulance ride. That one weird neighbor. Topless Euros at the kiddie pool.

I haven't laughed so hard, or so inappropriately, in a long, long time.



They bring out the best in me, these friends of mine.  S is the same age as me, but she's more like a wise older sister: calm, steady, always there to listen when you need to talk. You will never hear a critical word about anyone come out of her mouth. Steadfast in her faith but never preachy.  She is someone whose path never would've crossed mine in the States. But I am a better person because of her example.  M is a tough woman: fierce, smart and sometimes raunchily inappropriate. It takes a long time to break through that exterior and get her to admit her weaknesses, but once you're in, you're in.  You'll feel as though you've earned that friendship, because she doesn't pass it out to just anyone. J can make anybody laugh. Even when she's wading through the toughest times possible, she's still smiling. She wears all of her emotions on her (always fashionable) sleeve, and she's not afraid to make a fool of herself. She taught me the art of being silly and not giving a damn whether the rest of the world likes it. And me? I am braver, goofier, smarter and kinder than I used to be because these women made me so.

Thank you, my friends.  I'm so lucky that the stars lined up and brought you all to my Chinese doorstep. Let's not wait so long for the next reunion.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Peredelkino Writers' Colony

Take Kutuzovsky Prospect - a ten-lane, traffic-choked boulevard - about 10 miles out of Moscow, hang a left, and you'll find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of a forest, surrounded by dachas (Russian summer cottages).

You're in the Peredelkino writers' colony.

I'm not sure how many writers actually live and work there these days, but back in the last century it was home to several famous writers, and that's why we made the short trek out there last weekend.

Our first stop was the Pasternak dacha, home to Boris Pasternak (known to most Americans as the writer of Doctor Zhivago). If you're a fan of Russian literature, you absolutely must make a stop here.


It was a neat little house. Pasternak lived there in the 1950s -  he died there in 1960 and was buried in a cemetery just down the road. The house was left pretty much just as it looked when he died, right down to the ancient (still working) refrigerator and an old Soviet tube television set. 

He has kind of a sad little history.  He was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 - there is a photograph in the dining room showing him as he received the news and was giving a toast - but he was forced by the Soviet government to turn down the prize. He fell in love and began a relationship with Olga Ivinskaya while he was married to Zinaida Pasternak (his second wife).  The guide talked of their great love for one another but that, quite frankly, depressed me a little bit.  I mean, nobody mentioned the wife, who was stuck with him until he died even though he was in love with somebody else.  His lover spent quite a few years in a prison camp because of her relationship with him - the government saw her as a way to get to him.

All quite depressing really.

But the house was beautiful.  Quiet, simple, unadorned.  When we visit the house-museums of Russian writers, I always like to see the desks where the writers worked, just to get a sense of their personalities.  His office was austere, but I liked it.

The view of the dacha from the main road.

... and up close.

The office where Pasternak worked.

Soviet tube television.  Our guide said she'd had one of these as a girl.  Apparently you fill up the glass front with water to make the image on the screen appear bigger.

Pasternak's death mask.

Smiling.  They survived the tour, with all of the talk of Soviet repression, and prison camps, and awards turned down, and cancer, and death.

Next stop:  the dacha of children's writer Kornei Chukovsky, just down the road. Now this place was seriously cool.


All Russians know Kornei Chukovsky from childhood.  I guess he's sort of their version of Dr. Seuss.  There were bunches of kids at his dacha, taking tours and running around on the grounds.  The vibe was totally different from Pasternak's place.  It wasn't pristine and quiet.  It was a bit chaotic, eclectic, books everywhere, children's toys, fun decorations. 

That's the shoe tree behind the kids, in front of the dacha. The idea of the shoe tree comes from one of Chukovsky's famous stories. As I recall, it's a tree upon which grow shoes, not fruit.

Shoe tree up close.

Running in the yard behind the house.

A lamp in his office, painted with images from his stories.

Chukovsky's work space.

"What's that?" A wanted to know.  "A telephone? But? How does it work?"

From there we went to the nearby church complex housing the Patriarch's dacha for some tea and a quick look around.






And finally, we stopped at the cemetery next to the church, where both Pasternak and Chukovsky are buried. It was quiet - we were the only visitors, perhaps because everyone else knew the paths were covered in slick sheets of ice. Really treacherous in places.

Pasternak's simple tombstone, which is said to change in appearance as the light changes during the day.  His wife is buried to the right. No idea where his mistress ended up.
...up close.

Tombstones for Chukovsky and his wife.  One of their daughters, Lydia, herself a famous writer, is buried right next to them.

Monday, February 22, 2016

St. Petersburg weekend



The kids had a week off of school. (Again! They are forever getting holidays over here...) All of their friends were planning to spend the week touring exotic places like Thailand, Prague and Morocco.  We are in save-for-the-states mode, so we're not going anywhere that fancy any time soon.  We decided that a quick trip to St. Petersburg would be more in the financial realm of possibility, and so, two days ahead of the holiday, we swung into action and bought train tickets.

The Sapsan train is great.  It's a high-speed train, hitting speeds over 200 km/hr, so it only takes 4 hours to get to St. Pete from here. It's clean, it's comfy, it's easy - so much better than the overnight trains we used to take all those years ago - and it costs a bit over $100 per person.

B has some friends in St. Pete, and when we told them where we were planning to stay, one of them said, "No, no. let me make the reservations for you. I know a place." And that is how we ended up forking over about $450 dollars for one night in a two-bedroom suite at the Astoria, a 5-star hotel directly across the street from St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Okay, so $450 isn't cheap.  But we would have needed 2 separate rooms at the other hotel, which was perfectly serviceable, if a bit less conveniently located. So we were already planning on spending around $250 over there, plus cab fare to get around town.  We decided to splurge, because when will get a chance to do this again? And it was just one night after all.

Well, perhaps because it's slow season for tourists over here and the hotel wasn't full, or perhaps because B's friend is more well-connected that we know, we showed up at the hotel to discover that we'd been upgraded.  Same price, but they put us in the presidential suite.

You guys.  I've been in exactly one hotel room ever that was fancier than this (the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, if you must know, for a business trip, when I was also upgraded to some crazy fancy suite because of how much money my company was spending to be there one week long ago).  The room was beautiful. Correction: the rooms were beautiful. An entry hall, a dining area, a sitting room, and two bedrooms, each with an amazing view of the city below.

K feeling posh as she admires the fruit platter and chocolates in one (yes, one) of the living areas between the bedrooms.

The view from my bedroom in our suite. St. Isaac's, the fourth largest cathedral in the world and the largest orthodox cathedral anywhere.

More to the point, the hotel staff were awesome.  Seriously awesome.  When they did the turndown service in the evening, they left milk and cookies for each of the kids, plus little stuffed dogs on all of their pillows.  They were so kind to the girls, bringing them chocolates and chatting with them as we waited for our ride back to the train station the second day.

Totally worth the splurge.  Except I wish we'd stayed long enough to try out their spa.  It was definitely different from the living accommodations in my old dorm, just a few minute's walk down the road.

So anyway.  Stay in the Astoria if you get a chance. You will love it.  On to our trip, though.

We left our bags and ventured out. ("Why can't we just stay in the hotel, mom? Pleeeease??")

We walked and walked and walked some more, down the canals, past my old dormitory and on into Starbucks, because it was seriously cold and I needed tea! Then on to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, and then still further, to a vegetarian restaurant that we discovered the last time we went to St. Pete.  There was a serious lot of walking involved.

Kids at the beginning of our walk, in front of St. Isaac's.  Still smiling.

A, in front of Kazanskii Sobor, trying to recover from the massive meltdown she had when I wouldn't buy her a gold coin in Starbucks. Seriously, kid. Isn't cocoa enough?

Made it to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. K isn't in the picture because by now she was angry about some random thing. Isn't traveling with kids fun?

Us. Happy.

After an early dinner, we walked back along the canals to the Faberge Museum. We didn't get tickets in advance because somebody didn't get her act together to buy them before they sold out.  I'm not going to say whose fault that was, but let me say in her defense that she had an appointment to get her hair cut for the first time in months and she figured she could buy the tickets when she got back from the appointment but apparently the museum is super popular so it sold out by mid-morning but her hair looks great so it all worked out in the end.

(Unless you count the fact that we had to stand in line for an hour to buy tickets to get in. Bygones.)

The museum is not big - it takes longer to buy tickets than it does to walk through it.  But it is so worth a visit.  They have a collection of jeweled Faberge eggs, which were made for Tsars Alexander and Nicholas before the Russian Revolution. The museum also houses dishes, silver and other interesting items. And the building itself, the Shuvalov Palace, is amazing - a pre-revolutionary mansion that was beautifully preserved. 








The next day, we walked to the (mercifully much closer) Central Naval Museum.  We'd never been before, but it was recommended to us by some colleagues at the Consulate.  And it was great. We spent the whole morning there and could have stayed longer.  All of the kids were riveted.  The museum houses Peter the Great's own boat - the first boat of the Russian Navy.  It continues on through the centuries, exhibiting weaponry and uniforms from Peter the Great's time up through modern times. It was a huge space, with multiple galleries.  If you ever get a chance to go, do it. But note that there is no signage is English.  If you don't speak Russian, you'll be guessing at what you're looking at.  It's tricky even if you do speak Russian - some of technical language in the displays was a bit beyond my reach.


Peter the Great's boat.

There were huge figureheads from ancient boats displayed along the walls of the main hall. Creepy and cool.



That's it. We ran out of time and trotted back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and catch a cab to the train station. While we waited for the cab, the hotel staff served us mint tea and fancy little cookies on china from the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Four-plus hours later, we were back to reality here in Moscow. No more fancy china.  No more homemade chocolates.  Just grilled cheese, veggies and a pile of laundry before bedtime.






Thursday, February 18, 2016

If you don't have anything nice to say...

Yes, I know, I've been unusually quiet over here.

But like your mother told you: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

And I have nothing nice to say about the dark cold days of winter here in Moscow.

I saw the sun maybe twice in January? Even then it was so low in the sky as to be nearly invisible, nothing more than a watery greyish orb trying to poke through the cloud cover just above the grey and beige rooftops.

Now, there are people who say all of this cold and dark doesn't bother them.

I am not one of those people.

There aren't enough vitamin D pills in the world to stop me from sinking into - well, not depression exactly. More like malaise. I wander the world, tired and grumpy and sad, eating every bit of sugar and fat that comes my way. Which of course only makes me tired-er and grumpier.

The only thing that cheers me up is working out hard. But there are only so many hours a day you can spend in the gym. Eventually you have to get out of the weight room and go to the grocery store, where the Doritos call to you from across the twilight expanse of shelves.

The kids get on the school bus in the dark.

The kids get off the school bus - at 4pm! - in the dark.

It is always either dark or getting dark. Dusk. Darkish. Twilight. Bleak.

But then, within a matter of days in February, the world starts shifting on its axis and the days grow longer with a speed that doesn't seem possible.  One day it is dark when you leave the house in the morning to go to the gym. The next day - you can see the sky.

And then, today, there was this:

The view from my living room: the Russian White House.

Blue skies! Sunshine! Granted, it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, so it's no Hawaii, but still - it's a literal light at the end of my Moscow tunnel.

And suddenly I am feeling healthy and hopeful.

It's a wakeup call for me, though.

All winter, my husband has been trying to get me to leave the house and go on adventures with him.  I've been coming up with every excuse I can muster to not leave the house, much to his chagrin. (What can I say? He's a New Yorker. I'm from Los Angeles. We're practically not even the same species.)

It's time to give up the excuses and get outside. We only have 19 more weekends left in Moscow.  19 weekends to see the last places on our list, or to re-visit our favorites. That's not a lot of time at all, especially when you consider that a large chunk of that time has to be spent preparing to leave: enrolling in new schools, organizing home leave, figuring out how to ship the pets, culling our belongings so we're within weight...

It hasn't been all Dorito dust and sadness around here! We took a great - if too-quick - trip to Petersburg last weekend, so I'll try to get those pictures up shortly. We've taken a few trips around town (my husband lures me outdoors with the promise of coffee or lunch I don't have to make myself...). We've had some fun movie nights and game nights with the kids. The girls and I are slowly making our way through the Little House series of books.

(And may I say it's a whole different experience reading those books as an adult? As a child, I loved reading about her adventures. As a parent, I'm horrified by how close they came to dying, so many times. As a wife, I'm amazed at the bottomless levels of patience Laura's mom had. And as a person living in Moscow during the winter, I realize I have absolutely no reason to ever complain about being cold or tired when I read about the things they had to do to survive that long winter.)

So that's it: our 2016 so far. I'm heading outside to turn my face up at the sun for awhile.  Enjoy your day, wherever you are. I hope you have some sunshine too.


Friday, January 29, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions, Month 1

I didn’t make any New Year’s Resolutions this year. I didn’t choose a Word, either. Frankly, I was just too tired and busy at year’s end to figure out where I wanted to go next. So anything with a year-long arc was destined to fail.

I decided this year to make my plans month by month. Every month, I’m going to choose one (or maybe two) new things to see through to the end of the month. At month’s end, I’ll re-evaluate. I’ll either keep going with my new habit if it’s working for me, or I’ll drop it without regret if it’s not. Thirty days seems a bit more manageable than 365, after all. And since I tell my clients in the gym to take things week by week or month by month when they are setting goals for themselves, I figured I should do it, too.

You probably guessed by now that one of my first goals for the year wasn’t writing. I can’t even remember the last time I sat down to write for a solid chunk of time, but I’m pretty sure it was well before my computer died last December. (The computer, by the way, is still trying to recover from that particular trauma. For the most part, I am computer-free right now, alas.)

I spent the month purposefully not writing.  I thought about it, sure. And I mapped a few vague ideas for future articles or stories or blog posts. But I wrote exactly none of them. I just wasn’t feeling it.

No, January was my month to focus on family and personal health - which in retrospect is kind of ironic, considering how many nasty health issues we’ve run into this month. It’s been a long month. And H1N1 hit the community with a vengeance this week, so I’m not convinced we’re through our January string of illnesses yet.

Health. For my family, my goal was to make dinner at home every night. I gave myself one pass per week to go out if needed, but that’s it. I love cooking, but lately I’d been spending less time on cooking and more money on going out. Partly this was because the holidays were so busy - I didn’t always have time to make a good meal at the end of the day. And partly, well, vegetables can be harder to source in the dead of winter, which led me to some less-than-delicious meal choices. It’s sometimes easier to order a salad from the diner than to go out in search of fresh lettuce and make your own.

It’s January 29th as I type this, and I’ve more or less reached my goal of cooking every night.  So I think I’ll roll this goal over into February and try to do it again. It’s cheaper, it’s healthier, and really, I enjoy hanging out in my warm kitchen chopping vegetables and stirring pots. It’s therapeutic for me.

My personal health goal was to return to a focus on weightlifting in the gym. I’ve been slowly moving over to HIIT and bodyweight programming over the past 6 months, and my numbers in the gym were falling. So I wanted to get back into heavier weights on the bench press, the squat and the deadlift. I wanted to try to increase my pull-up numbers, too.  I failed on the pull-ups. For some reason I can’t seem to get past 7 or 8 consecutive pull-ups, which isn’t bad, but I’d like to get back up to 10+. My other numbers went up, though. I’m still not lifting as much weight as I was in Amman, but I’m getting back there, slowly. I added 15 pounds to my bench press just by hitting that lift hard this month. It’s still embarrassingly light, but I don’t think I can add more without a spotter, and I’m usually alone in our rinky-dink little weight room.

I think I’ll keep the weight lifting goal in February, too, just to see where it takes me. I don’t have specific numbers to hit; I just want to get a little bit stronger every week. And I’m adding in another health-related goal next month, but it’s a bit too personal to talk about. So no, that one’s going to be a secret.

And then Lent is starting soon! Do I want to make some Lenten changes this spring? Some years I do; some years I don’t. This year I’m thinking Lent might be a good time to change my social media habits. I’m kind of done with the drama that seems to surround Facebook, anyway. I’ve been unimpressed by the way a few of my colleagues and friends handle their Facebook accounts, gossiping and unfriending and generally behaving badly. Then, too, the people whom I most want to keep track of are often the very ones who don’t post frequently enough to make it worth my while to be on there looking for them. And of course, it’s an election year, which seems to bring out the worst in people. I find it all tiresome. So, while I don’t think I’ll disconnect from my social media accounts, I do think I’ll more or less disappear over Lent.

March? Who knows? I may get back to writing in March - especially if my computer is finally up and running by then. But I think it likely that by then I’ll be in countdown-to-USA mode. So my March goals may have more to do with move preparations. I don’t know yet. But I have some ideas. It’s good to know where I’m headed, literally and figuratively, one month at a time.


Please. Write your own stuff.