Summertime and the living is easy

Even songwriters agree, it is easier to be happy and stress-free in the summertime. Traditionally, this has probably been due to the warmer weather and the resulting abundance of food. Now, even though we have fresh food and meat available year round, we still seem to be more in touch with our bliss during these long, warm days.

For us high school teachers, the living is all the more easy, given the months off we get. The summer months off present us with an opportunity to let go of all the stress the school year brings. It also is a time for reflection on what worked and what didn’t work throughout the year, and a time to just forget any negative feelings we might have incurred dealing with the behavior problems and apathy we encounter.

One thing I appreciate about my chosen career is the opportunity for renewal that each summer brings. Sure, it is hard to say goodbye to those graduating seniors we’ve watched growing up over the years, but being able to start again fresh each year is a great thing. Any negative interactions can be forgotten about, and we can begin again with a brand new set of students. We can try new things without the awkwardness of interrupting the routine.

So here’s to summer and a chance to relax, destress, and renew.

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Trick yourself into mindfulness: Be who you want to be

Here’s a thought: What if you just pretended, for a moment, that you were exactly the person you wanted to be, right now?

I got this idea from a friend of mine who was a guidance counselor at my school, until she was so rudely laid off due to budget cuts (and an unsupportive principal). She ended up finding a position teaching educational psych classes at a local university, and posted this radical notion on Facebook last night.

So, what if you just decided, okay, I’m exactly who I want to be, just the way I am? What would you do differently? How would you approach the world, knowing that you had already achieved your maximum, found your bliss, etc.? How would you face your loved ones, friends, colleagues?

Do you ever feel like you don’t live up to your own expectations? If so, why not change your expectations so that they live up to you?

There is no sense in beating ourselves up over the fact that we are not the person we think we could/should/would be if that or the other thing was/was not/will be. At the same time, there is no sense in following down destructive paths that we’ve worn so well under our feet.

So if we pretend that we are exactly who we want to be, then maybe we won’t see a need to follow those destructive paths. Why destroy something that is perfect?

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Mindfulness, Mother’s Day, and how to cope with holidays

I can’t help but to have cynical feelings about Mother’s Day every year. My inner cynic tells me that it is a commercial holiday, one of the many that keep our economy stimulated by forcing us to buy crap for our relatives out of guilt. Not only that, but holidays are a time of stress due to our having high expectations of how they should play out. Picture that classic Folgers commercial, where the son comes home for the holidays just in time to get a fresh cup of coffee from his well-heeled, serene-looking mother. Personally, that peaceful scenerio is not how holidays look in my family. How about yours? Are holidays a Folgers moment, a total disaster, or somewhere in between?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Mother and feel eternal gratitude for her giving me life and raising me to become at least a mostly functional, semi-normal adult. But Mother’s Day, and pretty much every other holiday, leaves me feeling stressed out, even before the joyous day begins (sarcasm intended). I don’t know why, but even though Christmas is months away, I already feel anxiety about it. Why can’t I seem to apply my mindfulness strategies to cope with holidays?

I think the reason holidays are so stressful and drive mindfulness right out the door are a) they entail so much emotional “baggage” (both positive and negative) and b) because of the Folger’s commercial fantasy-induced high expectations. Then, there is the feedback effect of everyone in the family’s emotions and expectations playing off of one another’s and building into a maddening crescendo of anxiety, making enjoying the holiday almost impossible.

In the past, I thought someday I would become a bird so I could fly far, far away from the holidays and not have to deal with them. I also sometimes dream of going on vacation during Christmas, but not only is it not in my budget, I’m not quite that heartless. So realistically, what can I do to experience the holidays in a more peaceful way? Here are some possible strategies. Feel free to add your own:

  • Accept people for who they are (don’t expect your family to act like a bunch of Mother Teresas when they are closer on the consciousness evolutionary scale to Lindsay Lohans).
  • Keep your own side of the street clean (don’t behave like a jerk yourself and add to the negativity).
  • Dwell on the positive and funny memories (try to remember the time you made your Dad’s weird friend puke at the thought of eating okra instead of the one time your Mom threw a fit, accused everyone of being alcoholics, and shut herself in her room on Thanksgiving).
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously (yes, we all know holidays are commercial…get over it! They’re not going anywhere, and neither are you).
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Dinner with Dad: Beans ‘n’ Kielbasa

Well, this wasn’t my favorite dinner with dad.

First of all, I was dead tired, as in I-cannot-keep-my-eyes-open, can-I-get-caffeine-in-IV-drip, bone-ass tired. For some reason, the end of the school year and the allergy season have combined in some kind of double whammy effect that has knocked me on my ass with fatigue.

Secondly, my Dad specifically asked for Bush’s beans, kielbasa sausage, and roasted potatoes. As I mentioned on a previous post, I’m not the biggest fan of cooking with canned foods, especially the likes of Bush’s beans, chock full of sweeteners and artifical flavors and soggy-looking bacon pieces. So needless to say, I was feeling none too inspired about this dinner.

However, we ended up making the best of it. I peeled and cut up red potatoes, and seasoned them with several cloves of fresh minced garlic, olive oil, honey, chili powder, onion salt, and paprika. I cooked them for about one hour in the oven, then broiled them at the end to crisp and brown them just a tad. I augmented and improved the beans with diced red, green, and orange bell peppers and a little chopped red onion. Finally, I cooked the kielbasa on the grill so it would get crispy outside and have a nice grilled flavor. So it came out pretty well, and my Dad enjoyed it immensely.

The mindfulness lesson in all this is that dinners with Dad are not about me. They’re about Dad. I need to keep my ego and perfectionism out of it. I don’t always have to cook from scratch, and I don’t always have to make something gourmet or elaborate or all-natural.

So even though it wasn’t my favorite dinner with Dad, it came out okay. The important thing was that he was happy and we had a nice time and a good chat. And I learned everything I never ever wanted to know about major market baseball teams and how free agency has ruined baseball!

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Pushing your agenda: Good or bad?

When religious people come to my door to attempt to proselytize me, I feel peeved. How dare they push their agendas on me? Why do they think their way is better than my way? But at the same time, I find myself sometimes trying to push my agenda on others, or in other words, trying to influence the way people think. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should I strive, in trying to be a more mindful person, to not push my agenda on people? Or is it good to try to educate people about their choices?

We all know the adage “you can’t change people,” yet it doesn’t stop us from trying, even in subtle ways. For example, I go grocery shopping for my Dad, and he usually wants me to buy tons and tons of frozen meals, cases of water and soda, and other overly packaged, processed, expensive items. I have to fight the urge to try to proselytize him about his shopping choices.

In another instance, I took my sister grocery shopping with me, and she bought all these frozen meals and packaged snacks, and yet she didn’t bag her fruits and veggies. She said it was her attempt to cut down on bag consumption. At that point, I couldn’t resist pointing out to her the fact that it is kind of strange to buy tons of packaged foods, and yet balk at using a couple of bags to make the checker’s life easier. Should I have held my tongue? When is it okay to educate people about their choices, and when is it just plain rude? I regretted saying anything about my sister’s no-bag choice, because I’m pretty sure it made her feel like an ass, which was not my intention.

It is difficult to filter your own reactions to people’s choices and behavior. This is especially true when you teach teenagers, like I do, especially when your students come from a different cultural and economic background. When I first started teaching, I thought that everyone should go to a four-year college right after high school, that that was the right path to take in life, and virtually the only path that could lead to a comfortable income, barring winning the lottery or becoming an actor or professional athlete. So while teaching my geometry classes, I would try to motivate my students by telling them that they needed to understand geometry in order to do well on the SAT and to develop the reasoning skills they would need in college. One time, one kid told me, “I don’t want to go to college. I just want to go work with my dad.” So I realized that I shouldn’t try to always push my college-going agenda on kids, and just continue to provide them the opportunity and to educate them on how to get to college, without jamming it down their throats.

Another thing I encounter with my students that makes me have to bite my tongue is that all the girls want to become a nurse or an elementary school teacher or a psychologist, or some other traditionally female occupation. Even the exceptionally bright, all-star students want to be nurses in large numbers, and I think to myself, why not become a doctor? They have the capability to get through the schooling, so why do they limit themselves? But who am I to second-guess their choices? Maybe becoming a nurse is more aligned with their families’ expectations of them. And that’s okay.

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Dinner with Dad: Green Enchiladas

This January, I began a new family tradition. Every Wednesday after work, I cook dinner at my Dad’s house. I started this tradition for three reasons, number one I wanted to improve the quality of time spent with my family. Number two, my Dad is disabled with Multiple Sclerosis and can no longer cook for himself. He can make himself a sandwich, but cooking is out, and who wants to live on sandwiches alone (except maybe Jared from Subway)? Reason number three is I wanted an excuse to cook a nice meal during the week, instead of impulsively getting fast food on my way home from work. Since my boyfriend eats at his mother’s during the week, I have no other person at home to motivate me to cook during the week.

I’ve been cooking dinner for my Dad almost every Wednesday for going on five months now. This alone has gone a long way in enabling me to establish positive, life-affirming, healthy routines in my life. Making a commitment and following through with it is a mindfulness exercise in-and-of-itself. It’s been a huge hit with my Dad, too. It’s also cut back on my fast food consumption, and my Dad’s frozen TV dinner consumption (yuck!).

So this Wednesday (yesterday) I made cheese enchiladas with green sauce. I decided to go to the local Mexican market chain to buy the ingredients. Originally, I planned to buy canned enchilada sauce, but when I looked at the ingredients and saw MSG, thickening agents, and food dyes, I thought, you know the heck with this crap, I’ll just make it from scratch. What’s the point in cooking if you’re just putting canned ingredients together anyway? So I ended up buying a big bag of tomatillos and a couple of fresh chili peppers. I also picked up some fresh, hand-made corn tortillas and queso fresco, fresh Mexican cheese. I was able to make two 9″x13″ pans of enchiladas for only $16 dollars! This could have easily fed up to 10 people, but I like to make a lot so that my whole family can have leftovers for at least a couple of nights.

Cheese Enchiladas with Green Sauce, from scratch!

To make the sauce, I first wrapped my tomatillos in a foil pouch, and assembled another pouch with several whole garlic cloves, a halved onion, and the two peppers. I roasted the foil packets for about 20-30 minutes on the barbeque grill. Be careful if you try this, because the tomatillos will expel their juices. Not only can the hot juices burn you, but you should retain them for your enchilada sauce, so put the foil packet in a casserole dish to transfer it back to your kitchen. You will absolutely die for the smell this roasting process produces!

Cheese Enchiladas with Green Sauce

While the vegetables were roasting, I assembled the enchiladas (and enjoyed the smell). I wrapped two or three long, thin slices of cheese in each tortilla and laid them in the baking dish. Then, when the vegetables were done, I placed them in a blender with some lemon juice and salt, and voila! Fresh, natural enchilada sauce with zero-zip-zilch MSG.

When the sauce was done, I poured it on top of the assembled enchiladas. Then I crumbled up some of the remaining cheese and sprinkled it on top. I baked the enchiladas at 425° F for about 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbly and slightly brown. In hindsight, I wish I would have baked them at about 350° F because the bottoms were slightly hard. Then I could have crisped them up under the broiler for a minute or two…Next time, Gadget, next time.

Now, I don’t always cook everything from scratch, and if I really wanted to be a from-scratch purist about it, I would have had to have made the tortillas from scratch as well. But whether to use canned ingredients versus preparing ingredients yourself is always an interesting dilemma. Usually, I will only buy something canned if it is all-natural, and I will only buy an all-natural canned good if it is on sale or the price is right. If there are more than five or so ingredients in the can, and if there are any ingredients I can’t pronounce, or if there is MSG, I try to avoid it. Also, some stores try to charge outrageous amounts for natural foods, and it’s just not worth it. Furthermore, there are things that are just better fresh and not too much extra trouble, such as salsa. It really wasn’t too difficult to roast the ingredients and blend them, and it only took me about 30 minutes altogether.

My strategies when cooking are to maximize flavor and convenience while minimizing cost, packaging, and processed ingredients. I also love to cook “off the beaten path” and make up my own recipes as I go along. It feels adventuresome, and if it comes out well, you gain a sense of pride. What are your priorities when it comes to cooking a meal? Do you prioritize convenience, cost, or quality first?

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Tying up loose ends: Get ‘er done!

There is almost nothing that can shatter your peace of mind like leaving things undone. Larry the Cable Guy was right about this one… “Get ‘er done” is mindful wisdom that cannot be denied (although his plaid shirt-vest creations and trucker hats are truly unforgivable).

Getting things done in a timely manner is a choice, and there are time management strategies that can help (so I’ve heard). Scheduling your day so that you spend pre-allotted amounts of time on certain activities is one strategy. Personally, I have never tried this strategy. It just doesn’t fit with my personality type. My behavior pattern is to act on impulse, and I even do so at work. I flit and float from one task to another, usually not quite finishing any one thing, or I get lured in to doing something I don’t need to do, but that seems more appealling than what I really need to do.  Then at some particular moment, I realize, “Oh my god, I really need to be getting X done, because X has to be done pronto, and Y and Z can wait.” This behavior pattern is not exactly conducive to a stress-free existence, as you can imagine. Can you relate?

When we procrastinate, we often have to pay a price to finally finish the task. This price almost always involves extra stress, usually extra time, and often, extra money. Case in point: I was supposed to finish my Master’s in Education in the summer of 2007. Here we are, in 2010 as you are well aware. Is the Master’s degree done? Nope. Why not? One lousy paper did not get finished. *Smack* (the sound of your hand grazing my face at a high velocity) Now, you can imagine how much time, energy, and money I will now have to put in to taking another class so I can finish my degree (did I mention it is a private university?). Why didn’t I just listen to Larry the Cable Guy and get ‘er done?

So, I wonder, what strategies do you use to keep on top of things in your life? What is your most embarrassing, insane procrastination story? Maybe you are one of those people who never procrastinates, always did their homework, graduated college at 20, bought a home at 25, got it paid off in 20 years, and is able to retire at 50? If so, perhaps you can share a bit of your wisdom on how to ‘get ‘er done’.

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