Sunday, September 29, 2013

Dealing with Stressors

For the past two weeks, I've been dealing with a couple of specific stressors; one is a recurring cause of stress (more on that later), and the other was (I hope) a one-time event.

The first event that caused me considerable stress was one I thought I was prepared for. A person (non-relative, non-friend) entered my life for just two weeks. To be fair to that person, I won't share details other than to say that their brief "stay" threw all of my personal routines off kilter and made my home less "mine".

The second stress-inducer was different in a couple of ways. First, it was work-related; second, it occurs at least once every semester. As part of the course I teach, students submit a finished piece of writing approximately 6 times throughout the semester. As part of preparing those 6 texts, they prewrite and submit outlines; I provide feedback on those outlines so students can then write a rough draft of their paper. Responding to the outlines is fairly simple; responding to their rough drafts (so they can make the necessary revisions i.e. create further drafts and, eventually, a final draft) and conferencing with students on those rough drafts can be immensely stressful.

Each semester, each class, each paper is different, but the first go-round or two is typically the most difficult for a myriad of reasons. I know that, I mentally prepare for that, and yet each semester I'm thrown for the proverbial loop when I arrive at this point in the semester.

This semester when it was time to respond and return their first rough drafts and conference with students, I did what I have done almost every semester since I began teaching at this level. I hunkered down.

That -- "hunker down" -- is my term for how I tend to handle stress. It's a half-way point between the two extremes of "fight" and "flight". I don't run away, although I often wish I could. In fact, last week during a conference with a student who stated quite casually that Los Angeles and Washington, DC are states, I briefly considered excusing myself, grabbing my purse, walking out of the office, and driving to North Carolina to sit on the beach. But I kept my face blank, explained gently that the two places are cities, and continued the conference.

I also don't fight, but I do irritate and sometimes even anger students when I persist in doing what is best for them -- help them find errors, ask them to consider what we've covered in class so they can understand  why they are errors, and draw out from them how they can/should correct those errors.

The hunkering down process is quite simple. I focus the bulk of my attention, time, and energies to doing whatever I need to do to survive the stressful task (in this case, working through the rough draft stage of the assignment). When I get home in the evening, I have no remaining mental or emotional energy for much of anything, so I perform mindless, soothing tasks such as knitting, re-reading a favorite book, or watching sports on television, and I consume easily-prepared foods I find comforting. I would share what they are, but the nutrition-police would surely arrest me.

Each semester, once that stressful week (whether the process has to be repeated a second, or even a third, time depends on the class) has passed, I get back into my routine. And each semester, I promise myself that I won't do that again, that I won't allow my job to derail me to that extent.

I realize that my method for dealing with a stressful period in my life may not be the healthiest, but it's what I've got, and it's worked fairly well up to now. But I've decided "fairly well" isn't good enough. This time through, I kept a log of what was happening, how it made me feel, how I responded, and the effect of my response. I think Dr. Sheldon Cooper ("The Big Bang Theory") has rubbed off on me! Once a few weeks have passed and I have some perspective, I plan to look over these notes and see if I can come up with some strategies for heading off the entire situation to begin with.

Hopefully, I will have a few new strategies to employ next semester. I'll give them a try and let you know how things worked out.

On a more light-hearted, fun note, I'm excited that "my" beloved St. Louis Cardinals clinched the National League Central Division title Friday night with a win over our arch-rival Chicago Cubs. It was a great game, and I was there!! If you're a baseball fan -- I hope you, too, are enjoying this part of the season and that "your" team is heading to the play-offs as well.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cultivating Joy

Warning, personal disclosure ahead! Although I've always found great happiness in specific events -- almost any time spent with my family, watching a favorite television show, reading a good book, etc -- I have never been what you might call a "joyful" person. Throughout my life, I've known some people who exude joy, and I've been in awe of how, even in the most trying circumstances (ones that would make me extremely grouchy, at best), their joy didn't waver. Oh, it may be toned down a bit and appear more like a "calm peace", but the joy was still there.

I could go back and talk about my upbringing -- it wasn't horrible by any means, but ours was not what I would call a "joy-filled" household -- but that would be just an excuse. The time came when I was old enough to see that others were filled with joy and I wasn't, and from that point on, my perspective on life was my responsibility.

Looking back, I can recognize a couple of reasons I did nothing about my more serious outlook. One, for many years I didn't even consider that it was possible to make that type of change. Perhaps I watched too many Popeye cartoons as a child, but if asked, I would probably have simply said, "I am what I am" and left it at that. By the time I realized that a more positive outlook could be learned, I had quite a few years of habit to change. Between that and a busy life of family, kids' activities, work, etc., I simply kept going as I was. Also, I was comfortable as I was. I read once that in order to make a change, a person's current situation must be more troubling/difficult than the process required to change it. I wasn't miserable, by any means, and I found great joy much of the time, so I was content as I was.

Recently, though, I've decided enough is enough! After my husband's death, I struggled for a few years, and when I began emerging from that fog of sadness, I decided I didn't want to just go back to where I had been before. Melodramatic perhaps, but like Scarlett O'Hara, I vowed I was not going to settle for less-than-joyful-living the remainder of my life!

As always when I don't know how to do something, I went to my go-to strategy -- books. I visited a local large bookseller and wandered through the aisles of Christian and self-help books, reading the backs and inside flaps of dust jackets to get a feel for the volumes in those two sections. Because of my personal belief system, I put aside anything that was New Age in philosophy; still yet, I was amazed at the sheer number of books on the topic of joy-filled living. I eventually whittled my list down to a manageable number and then headed to my local library, where I checked out 10 of the 22 books on my list. I also used a Bible concordance to find all the Scriptures that have anything to do with joy or happiness.

I eventually read 17 of the 22 books (my local library is requesting the remaining 5 through inter-library loan), and I read 5 or 6 others that were referenced more than a few times in those 17. I also read every Scripture on the list I had made. I found that while various writers used different terminology and exampes, the basic principles outlined are consistent.

First, having a joyful outlook is learnable. That was both good and bad news. The good news is that there's hope for me and others like me who have over the years developed a more "melancholic" personality (there are 4 basic personality types: sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric). The bad news is it isn't easy. The other bad news is that because change is possible, I have no excuse for not becoming the person I want to be. In other words, I knew it was time for me to buckle down, stop journalling about this, and get to work.

Second, there are many strategies. Again, this was both good and bad news. On one hand, that gave me lots of options in case one or a few (or more) strategies didn't appeal to me or didn't work well when applied. On the other hand, I don't do well with options! lol  I like "neat and tidy" and "just tell me what to do and I'll do it" type of directions. Becoming more joy-filled, I learned, was not going to be quite so sequential and cut-and-dried as I had hoped.

I created a master list of strategies that most appealed to me, and I began implementing them about 2 months ago. I have a long way to go, of course (it's not easy to change 50+ years of habit), but I have seen progress already. I'm taking this a day at a time, even an hour at a time. Here are a few of the strategies I've implemented.

1. I'm watching less television. Before I embarked on this journey, I turned the television on as soon as I got home from work or, on weekends, after I finished eating breakfast. I didn't necessarily sit down and watch hours of programs; rather, television kept my company. I realized, though, that it's ever-present voice was a kind of audio clutter. I'm also making a deliberate effort to search for programs that will be uplfting, enlightening, or informative or that will make me laugh.

2. I've begun listening to podcasts on topics that add value to my life. Through a few google searches, I found podcasts on topics I'm interested in such Dave Ramsey's on personal finance and several NPR podcasts. While I'm cleaning house or cooking supper, I now listen to programs that educate me, cause me to think more deeply about issues important to me, or  simply make me laugh.

3. I've begun listening to types of music that I haven't listened to in the past. Through another google search, I happened upon a list of pieces that make up a primer on classical music, and I've made a point of listening to a piece or two when I'm journaling or grading papers. I'm hoping to find a list of must-hear jazz selections and explore other types of music as well.

4. I visit facebook less frequently and, when there, I engage less frequently. Not only has this freed up time for other, more productive activities, but eliminating the various political posts and social justice (for want of better word) posts has eliminated quite a bit of agitation on my part.

I also just finished reading a fantastic book, and I'll share more about that at a later time. I'm enjoying these changes in routine and the gradual changes I'm seeing in myself.

What about you? Would you characterize yourself as "joyful"? What do you do to cultivate joy in your life? 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Personal Safety (part 2)

Personal safety options are varied; opinions on personal safety options are even more wide-ranging. My opinions are purely that -- my personal opinions based on my own experience, knowledge, and situation. I realize many will disagree with what I write today and the decisions I made, and I certainly respect other people's opinions and hope those who disagree (and agree!) with me will share their thoughts via a comment. 

As I shared in my previous post, I became more aware (concerned is probably too strong a word) of my own personal safety considerations more than a year ago and finally gave it more serious thought earlier this year, after yet another cross-country trip by car. I knew my "surface knowledge" wasn't enough and began doing more serious investigation into my options. While there are certainly more than I will address here, for the sake of space and time, I'll touch on the more basic options.

The first option I considered was a personal safety dog. Dazey, my Norwich Terrier, barks when someone knocks on the door (or, if she's awake and hears them, as soon as they step onto my porch). While that's great, I wasn't sure whether or not she'd hear an intruder at night, so nighttime security wasn't ensured. Also, she's a fairly timid, sweet dog, so she would not provide protection if an undeterred burglar entered the home. She also does not like to travel, so I would still be on my own in the very situations I was most concerned about. I checked into purchasing a 2nd dog, one trained for personal safety (the "lowest" tier of guard dog security) that would travel with me. After doing some research and choosing several well-respected canine protection companies, I visited their websites, where I discovered that the type of dog I was seeking would cost between $20,000-$50,000. That option was quickly discarded without any further consideration.

I checked into a home security system. The price for the configuration I would be most interested in was within my budget. However, as with the guard dog, the home security system would address only the issue of home security (obviously), which I wasn't as concerned about. It would provide me with no personal security when I'm away from my home, and that was my biggest concern.

I considered the next two options -- a stun gun and mace -- simultaneously, and to be quite honest, I was predisposed against them to begin with.  I know several people who carry mace, and my husband and I actually bought a container of mace for my daughter when she moved to the city to attend college. When I spoke to several personal security consultants, they agreed that mace is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that the person using the mace is often just as negatively affected a the person the mace is intended for. Even a slight stirring of air will blow the mace back on the person using it, and it could seriously affect their ability to escape the threat. Of course, mace must be used in fairly close proximity to the person it's being used on. In short, it would only be effective if my attacker was much, much closer than I wanted them to get. Additionally, most mace containers are small and easily lost in a purse, even when attached to a key chain, so being able to grab it when needed was a concern. Mace was out. Those same considerations -- the taser's size and being lost in a purse as well as the need for proximity to the person being tasered -- applied to a stun gun. I realized I could attach the mace or the stun gun to a snap or o-ring on my purse so that it was more readily accessible, but then it would be "attached", creating another issue of usability. As a result of the various problems, I eliminated both the stun gun and taser from consideration.

Martial arts were quickly considered and also quickly discarded, at least as a singular safety method. My initial concern was not of my size and ability. On the contrary, I knew enough about various martial arts to know that my small stature (just under 5'2") would not keep me from being effective against a larger opponent. What concerned me initially and even after speaking to several instructors and reading various articles on the topic, was the fact that the martial arts all rely on personal proximity. I would only be able to use my as-yet-unattained skills on an attacker or would-be abductor if they got close enough for me to touch them. I didn't want them to get that close! However, I did decide that martial arts would be a great additional strategy, one to be used in a situation in which someone snuck up on me from behind or grabbed me while walking past.

I had finally worked through my list to the one option that most appealed to me and, at the same time, caused me greatest pause -- a handgun. It met my list of "wants" -- portable, easy to use, and fairly inexpensive (even with the rising cost of ammunition). Even more importantly, to me at least, was that it was the one portable option that didn't require that an attacker be within arms length for it to be anything more than a threat -- it could be used before the attacker was close enough to disarm me or do me any initial harm. Furthermore, it could be used effectively and easily when dealing with more than one attacker.

I did not take the issue of gun ownership lightly. I was raised in a home where there were no guns; when I married into a family of avid hunters and to a man who owned multiple long guns, I was initially uneasy. My initial objections -- animal cruelty -- were quickly dispelled with first-hand research I conducted. My other main concern -- safety -- were less quickly resolved. It was only after I saw first-hand how seriously my husband, his family members, and all of his friends took firearm safety and witnessed how they conducted themselves when hunting (no alcohol on the premises -- several hundred acres co-owned by family members, all laws scrupulously obeyed, etc.,) that I relaxed. My husband taught me how to handle a gun safely, how to ensure that the locks were on and the guns were not loaded, and how to lock the gun safe, etc. But all of that was a far cry from owning and carrying a handgun.

I spent months researching this issue. Proverbial long story short, I purchased a handgun that I could operate easily even with my small hands and short, chubby fingers; I took a gun safety class and spent time at the range (and I intend to go to the range on no less than a monthly bases as long as I own the gun); I purchased several safety devices, including a small safe for the gun itself and a separate lockable ammunition box; and I completed my state's concealed carry permit class and range qualifications.

Do I feel "safer"? Not yet. But I didn't feel unsafe in my home or in my community. The true test will come the next time I travel. I will move my billfold and other items from my purse and place them in the "special" purse I purchased that has a hidden compartment specially designed to conceal the handgun while still keeping it accessible, and I will carry it with me -- obeying the laws of every state and community I enter -- the next time I travel. That will be the true test as to whether or not I feel "safer". I'll keep you posted.

As I said in my opening comment, I welcome your comments on this topic. Only because I know spammers, etc. monitor blogs and comment to create a stir, I mention that disrespectful comments will be deleted. Thank you!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Personal Safety (part 1)

Even though my husband worked shifts and was gone overnight many nights throughout our almost-25-year marriage, I was never actually worried or fearful of my or the children's safety. We lived in average, middle-class neighborhoods where, I know, crime can and does occur. Perhaps it was because I wasn't totally alone even when he was at work; both children were right down the hall (or upstairs, in a more recent home), and even though they wouldn't have been any more able to disarm or fight off an intruder, I simply felt at peace and secure when other people were in the house. It might be because the neighborhoods we lived in throughout our marriage had little to no crime. Whatever the reason, I always felt safe in my home and, in fact, in the communities we lived in.

I continued to feel quite safe even after my husband passed away and both of my children returned to college/med school the week after his funeral. I didn't feel at all vulnerable, even though I was living alone on 65 acres in the middle of a very rural county and even though it was common knowledge that I was a middle-aged woman living alone. Perhaps I was still too numb to feel any fear, or even any unrest.

That changed the first time I travelled on my own. On the first night of a work-related trip to Minneapolis, I relaxed in my room with television and a book. Within about 30 minutes, I decided a soft drink and some junk food sounded heavenly, so I picked up my room key card and some dollar bills and headed out to find some vending machines. It wasn't until I got about 15' down the padded hallway that I realized how vulnerable I was. Anyone -- well, anyone looking for a middle-aged woman in fuzzy slippers, sweat pants, and an over-sized t-shirt -- could grab me, whisk me into a room, and do goodness-knows-what to me. As that fact sank in, I walked faster, keeping to the middle of the hall. I realized I had nothing with which to defend myself other than my lungs and not-very-muscled arms and legs. I'd learned years ago in some workshop or another that when walking to my car at the mall, for example, I should grip my keys in a way that would allow me to gouge out the eyes of an attacker; that wouldn't work with the door lock swipe card I clutched in my hand. I'd watched enough Law & Order and Criminal Minds (big mistake) to know I could disappear and never be seen again.

The rest of the week, I actually checked in at the desk (either in person or by phone) any time I left or returned to my room. I don't know what the front desk clerks thought of that, but they were very pleasant about my calls and visits to the desk. I also carried my cell phone with me everywhere, my finger poised to push 911 if necessary; I made sure that when I met people in the quiet hallways that I gestured "hello" with the hand holding my cell; I wanted them to see that I could summon help (or snap their picture) quickly if need be. I knew, though, that I needed to come up with a better plan.

I'd like to be able to say that I prudently addressed the matter of personal safety as soon as I returned from my trip. I didn't. In fact, I went on more than a few more trips -- work related and personal, flying to my destinations and driving alone across the country -- without doing a thing. Each time, the moment would come when I'd mentally kick myself for not addressing the issue of personal safety.

Early this past summer, after a cross-country drive to North Carolina and back again, with a late-night stop at a less-than upscale gas station on the outskirts of Nashville, I decided I needed to give serious thought to my personal safety both at home and when away from home. I already had a dog; Dazey may not be very big (she's a 16 lb Norwich Terrier), but her bark is pretty fierce and not at all yappy. A burglar hearing her bark would not know she's a small dog; on the other hand, they wouldn't mistake her bark for that of, say, a German Shepherd. However, I've read in numerous articles on the subject that just the sound of a barking dog inside the house will deter most intruders because they realize the element of surprise has been lost. However, I'm not sure if Dazey would hear an intruder in the middle of the night; other than having someone break in to see what she would do, I don't know how to find out.

I began researching various personal security options, not realizing how complicated this decision would be. I'll share more about what I learned and about the choice I finally made when I post again.

What about you? Have you shared my concerns for personal safety? If so, I hope you'll share your experience through the comments below. 


Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Best Laid Plans

The English teacher in me must first explain that the familiar phrase "the best laid plans" is actually a misquote of Burns' poem "To a Mouse"; the line actually reads "the best laid schemes". I probably shouldn't perpetuate the misquote, but "plans" works better for my title, so . . . (sorry, Mr. Burns)

I'll never forget when I saw one for the first time. I was a freshman in high school and was working as a library aide during 6th-hour study hall. One afternoon early in September, I saw the assistant librarian writing in a small calendar-like book and was intrigued;  my family didn't even have a calendar anywhere in the house, and I'd definitely never seen a book-like calendar with daily or weekly pages. Mrs. Zook saw my interest, showed me her personal planner, and told me where she had purchased it.

Already a list-maker who relished neatly checking off each item on my to-do list, I was hooked. I asked my dad to take me to the local office supply store, where I bought my first planner, and until this week, I've never looked back. In fact, I can't remember a single year in 40+ that have passed since then that I didn't have a personal organizer. Over the years, I found my planner invaluable in keeping track of first, my own work and social commitments, and eventually, the schedules and appointments for myself, my shift-working husband, and two children with a myriad of activities and appointments.

No matter what brand, size, or style I was using at the time, every summer I would purchase my new pages (and sometimes, new binder), and in late July I would spend an hour or so setting up my new planner (as a student and then a teacher, my "new year" always begins with August 1). I loved putting the new, blank pages in my binder and entering important dates and appointments in whatever writing utensil I was using. Before my son was born, I simply used a blue ink pen; after he was born, I switched to 4 colors -- one for each of the 3 of us and one for general, whole-family events. When my daughter was born, I added another color. And when the scrapbooking craze hit, I began creating my own divider pages out of card stock, and I loved the personalized look of my planners.

A few of years ago, I grew tired of the Franklin Covey style refills I was using and wanted something totally different, so I switched to a Filofax. The binders are beautiful, and although there were fewer refill styles, one in particular appealed to me. Unfortunately, the last two years I've run into problems getting refills, and this year, when I decided to change to a smaller size, I found that all of the binders I liked and could afford (alas, the $2300.00 alligator binder was out of the question, even though it's red) were out of stock and wouldn't be available until . . . well, nobody at filofaxusa had any idea when that would be.

By this past Wednesday, I was frustrated -- almost angry -- at being personal planner-less. And that's when the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I had become far too dependent on my planner; I was actually writing down on my to-do list such mundane tasks as "take shower", as if I wouldn't remember to do that if I didn't write it down! Just as bad, I was writing the same very-regular daily lineup of tasks ("trash out" on Monday, for example) every single week during my Sunday "planner time".

Yesterday, I took what is a very bold step for me. I removed my custom-made page dividers, plastic rulers, and other "extras" out of my planner and listed both of my binders (I would switch between a red leather binder and a teal one for variety) on, and I cancelled my order for the still-on-backorder binder and refill for 2013-2014. Last night I jotted down some ideas of what I really needed in a new "planner", and I got another surprise. I didn't really need any of the sections I had in my planner! I was using them out of habit, not out of necessity.

Today I purchased a "2-year plus" (August 2013 through December 2015) pocket calendar. Unable to completely give up my "daily tasks" list, I used 6 mini-index cards (1 each of 6 colors; 1 for every day except Sunday) to create 6 "daily" task cards and slipped them in the pocket of the plastic cover. My plan is to slide the current day to the front of the stack every morning; if a non-regular task arises, I'll put it on a sticky (I put a small, thin pad of mini sticky notes inside the back cover.

No more thick planner, no more sections for "finances" and "goals" and other things I really don't need. No more Sunday "planning sessions" and nightly planner-check. No more need for a purse large enough to carry my planner; my cute little calendar will fit even in the small cross-body bag I bought this summer but rarely carry because . . . you guessed it, my organizer wouldn't fit.

This change feels right. It fits my pared-down, only-me life. It fits my desire to simplify as much as possible. My new calendar is already tucked into my cross-body purse, and I'm ready to spend less time planning and more time doing!

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Monday, September 2, 2013

An Anniversary after All


: a date that is remembered or celebrated because a special or notable event occurred on that date in a previous year

Even though the Merriam-Webste online dictionary doesn't specify that the "special or notable event" must be a positive one, when I hear the word "anniversary", I think of a happy event, one to be celebrated. Of course, the word can be used for sad or even tragic events, but in my experience those more somber events are more generally historic in nature. The bombing of Pearl Harbor comes to mind, for example.

So I'll simply say that four years ago today, my husband passed away. Such a short, simple statement that can in no way come even close to encapsulating the magnitude of that day on my life and the life of my two children.

Of course, the day didn't sneak up on me. Not at all. As soon as I turned the calendar to August, a vague but relentless countdown began. Every morning, when I glanced at the calendar on the side of my refrigerator, I would notice I was one more square closer to the last day of the month, the day my husband and I returned to the cancer treatment center where he was to get his 2nd round of chemo. And, of course, it went without saying -- or even thinking -- that 2 days later would be the day he passed away. The events of that week, from August 31 to September 5 (the day of his funeral), remain vivid in my memory; I believe they will remain that way as long as I'm alive or still have memories at all.

My daughter came to my house last night after she and some friends went out for awhile; she's always careful to spend at least part of the more difficult days -- today, our anniversary, her father's birthday, etc -- with me, and today was no different. We went out for breakfast and spent some time together before she had to leave. I spent the rest of the day here at the house, doing some chores, reading, and watching the Cardinals' game on television.

I waited cautiously, but nothing happened. No tears, no heavy grief, no heavy weight of the blues. Instead, after I got home from breakfast, I searched in my photos for a few pictures to post on facebook, and I found some wonderful shots of my husband. In one, he and our children are on the train at, I think, Silver Dollar City. He has a quiet 1/2 smile on his face and is flanked by the children. My 3 favorite people in the world.

The other two are of him alone. The four of us -- he, our son and daughter, and I -- were in our back yard playing wiffleball. I had grabbed the camera on my way out the door and was snapping pictures more than I was playing. My then-12-year-old son had come up to bat; a great baseball player, his dad (also a great baseball player) was no longer able to strike him out when playing wiffleball. They always did the guy-thing -- my husband always making "I'm going to strike you out" noises, and my son celebrating every hit.

That afternoon, though, the gods were smiling on my husband. I don't remember the count, but I do remember the tension mounting as my son let some pitches pass by between fouling off several. And then my husband threw a pitch, my son swung, and he missed. Strike 3! I snapped a shot as my husband punched his elbow down, fist clenched and again when his face lit up with one of his spontaneously joy-filled smiles. If I remember correctly, he grinned and strutted around all day long!

I'm glad I found those pictures this morning -- they set the tone of the day, I believe. This year, instead of my mind going back again and again to what is no longer, it was filled with thoughts of what wonderful memories there are

Yes, I realize that those two are actually one and the same, but the perspective is so very different. When I sat down tonight to write this entry, I originally titled it "What do I Call Today?", and I thought I would talk about how the term "anniversary" doesn't seem appropriate to me. But as I wrote the paragraph before this one, I realized that even this day -- the one marking the worst day of my life so far -- can be one of celebration. Celebration of the life of a wonderful husband, a fantastic father, and a man who was loved by many, many people.