Monthly Archives: November 2012

The 55 Days of Christmas? Twelve Survival Tips! (my annual tradition)

And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Did you notice the Christmas decorations going up on Halloween? Did a chill run down your spine? The holiday season seems to be getting longer and longer and shorter. Yes, shorter. Look at the expectations this season puts on you.

Yes, this post is now an annual tradition.

Fifty five days are nowhere near enough to achieve Countess MarthaRachelNigelaPaula FoodNetwork perfection. I’m not sure I’m even up to Real Simple standards. So much to do! Are your cards out? Did you shop ’til you dropped on Black Friday? Did you make wonderful decorations out of recycled materials? Have you picked the absolutely perfect gift for everyone on your list? Do you have color-coordinated wrapping paper, tags, and ribbon? Can you tie a perfect bow?

When will you be having your holiday party? What will you serve? What will you wear to everyone else’s event? Do you know what to tip your hairdresser? What’s the politically correct holiday greeting? So many questions, so little time!

Holiday madness really set in when I visited a friend for Thanksgiving a few years back. She had decided that she didn’t feel up to cooking, so she ordered from her local supermarket. And then began to obsess. It wouldn’t taste good. There wouldn’t be enough. Turkey, cranberry sauce, whole wheat rolls, roasted butternut squash, mashed potatoes and a pumpkin pie clearly was not enough for five people.

We added extra side dishes – home made cranberry sauce, candied chestnuts, fruit stuffing, baked onions, candied sweets, baked sweets, peas with fresh mushrooms and three more pies. Oh – and at the last minute she ran back for a turkey breast – just in case.

Everything tasted great, and we all had a good time, but it really made me think about how easy it is to get caught up in holiday excess. So – how will you have a peaceful holiday season? Here are a few simple suggestions.

1. Just like Santa, make a list and check it twice. While you’re checking, do a little reality check. Are you buying gifts for too many people? Are you planning on spending an unrealistic amount on each? Have you burdened yourself with impossible-to-find items? (No, my cousin will probably NOT get that antique fruit bowl this year.)

2. Only accept invitations that make you happy. If that means none, go for it! An unbreakable prior engagement is always a valid excuse. No one needs to know that the engagement may be with your couch.

3. Wear comfortable clothes. Always. Don’t let tight shoes or a dubious neckline spoil your fun.

4. Shop in comfortable shoes. Carry your wallet someplace easy for you to reach but hard for anyone else to get at. Don’t burden yourself down with too many packages.

5. Buy on line. Presents, dinner, cards, reservations – all just a click away.

6. If you must send packages, remember that the Postal Service will now pick up packages at your home.

7. Don’t bake unless you would go into a serious depression if deprived of the experience. If you do bake, set limits. I will never again have more containers of cookies than can fit on a fully extended kitchen table.

8. This one is for next year. Pick up interesting gifts throughout the year. If you travel, this is a great way to have truly unique gifts. Just don’t forget where you put them. Last year I gave several lovely objects I’d bought in Sicily three years ago. I’d put them in a safe place. At least they eventually surfaced.

9. Simplicity is very classy. Repeat that twenty times, then start cutting back on your plans.

10. Gift cards are a wonderful thing. Want to give the perfect gift? Not only are gift cards perfect, but you can fit them in your carry-on luggage.

11. Travel light. Carry your pills, jewelry and one-ounce containers or the liquids you need. Wear something comfortable and a bit classy so that if your luggage is lost you’re reasonably prepared.

12. Block out time on your calendar to do absolutely nothing but take care of yourself – whether that means go to a movie, meditate, get a massage, or just take a nap. Pace yourself.

Turning a Bad Habit Good

Have you ever left home to do one simple thing and return exhausted five or six hours later? For a long time, this was my story. I had a close friend living down the hall and we regularly went grocery shopping and did other errands together. As we headed out to drop off the laundry, one of us would mention that we were near the Italian grocery store, so maybe we could just squeeze that in … and the bakery … and that great discount store … and … and … and. The simplest trip became an excursion. On the way to the Greenmarket, why don’t we stop at the coffee store – and maybe sit down for a cup of something while we’re there. And maybe we can look at that sound system. And the dress I need for the wedding. And stop at the Strand to see what great books are on sale, etc. etc.

It finally occurred to me that this might be a bad habit. It wasn’t serving either one of us well to hold the fantasy that we were doing only one thing. Or that we’d be home in an hour. We left a wake of undone chores and cranky people and usually came home to tired to do anything else.

We learned to set limits. And to stick to them. We set time limits that allowed for some flexibility in terms of the number of activities we might add to the schedule. We set a limit on the number of things we would do and committed to holding ourselves to it. It worked. We had enough flexibility to enjoy ourselves and allow for surprises and reasonable boundaries to keep the rest of our lives on schedule.

Well, recently, I’ve been thinking about an issue that needs resolving. I really enjoy a clean, neat apartment. I hate carving out huge chunks of time for cleaning. And I’m not ready to hire someone to clean for me. Inconvenient. Involves a lot of pre-cleaning. (Yes, you know what I mean.)

I’m recycling my “bad” habit of adding things on to a simple journey. Since coaching and writing are both sedentary occupations, I’m working hard at getting up out of the chair at least every two hours so I don’t turn into a pillar of stone. Why not make that a productive time? Why not add a little housekeeping to each walk through the apartment? So, I’m back to adopting the add on routine. Now, whenever I get up, I find one thing that needs to be returned to it’s proper home or one thing that can be dusted or cleaned or recycled. Instead of spending half a day cleaning, I’m spending a manageable 30 minutes to an hour a day without even noticing it.

Hey, it’s working! I don’t notice the time invested in this way and the place is looking good. It’s almost better than magic elves coming in the middle of the night. I’m going to apply it to work projects I dislike as well.

Living In a Disposable World

Somehow, it seems that fewer and fewer things are built to last. Phones change from month to month. Computers need constant updating – and, after a while, they don’t support yet another update so you need a new one. It’s often less expensive to replace things than to repair them.

Lately, clothing has taken this trend towards disposability further than ever. Chains like Zara and H & M trade on the need for whatever is new and trendy. Zara’s strategy is to have a smaller inventory with a shorter shelf-life. They change their entire stock every few months, so the old strategy of waiting for sales doesn’t work here. Like it? Better buy it today, because it will probably be gone tomorrow, replaced by an even newer trend.

These new stores keep prices down, too. It’s easy to buy too many things at Zara or H & M or Joe Fresh or Uniqlo – after all, it’s only $19 … or $29 … or, at the most, $69. Sticker shock doesn’t hit until you check out and see how all these “it’s only” prices add up.

For those who grew up on hand-me-downs or learned how to stretch a limited budget by carefully selecting new items that would integrate well into an existing wardrobe, this age of disposability is a very different world. We still look for durability, and many of these items will last a season or two. Some are even classic enough to not become obsolete.

Still, what’s the larger impact of living in a disposable world? A recent New York Times article points out that it’s sometimes easier to replace a stained garment than to clean it. Why pass along your baby clothes when new ones are so inexpensive? Why take good care of garments that will be out of fashion in weeks? How much of this is recyclable? Where will all the garbage go? Are antiques going to disappear too? Will all our cherished mementos be digital?

I wonder if this will seep into how we think as well. If everything is impermanent, there’s always room for change and new beginnings. On the other hand, if everything is impermanent, are there still consequences?

Just wondering.

Autumn Comfort Food and Ancestors

It’s autumn and the thermometer has dropped, so, as I sit bundled in a sweater, my thoughts go to comfort food. Specifically, to soup. Memories of my mother making escarole soup rise to the surface like steam off the soup pot. She made her own beef stock, so escarole soup also meant marrow bones. I can still taste that marrow, spread thick on a piece of bakery rye bread, then heavily peppered. And then the soup! Thick with escarole, scented with garlic and heavily ladened with Parmesan.

I will make my own soup today. It is a distant relative of my mother’s recipe, adapted to my expanded waistline and desire to minimize cholesterol, and it will be delicious in its own way. My grandmother’s spirit is at my side as I saute cabbage with onions to create a base. Next come tomatoes, bok choy, carrots and butternut squash. Pepper, perhaps a touch of dill, a few red pepper flakes. Green beans and cauliflower, if the spirit moves me. These are my own additions to replace the heartiness of the beef marrow.

Finally, I will add lots and lots of escarole. My mother’s spirit nods in approval. The soup will simmer on until all the flavors have blended. I may thicken it with some turnip puree (thinking of the old children’s book Rutabaga Tales). Later, I will feast on my soup, trying to avoid dipping in too many huge chunks of sourdough bread.

It’s a good day to bake some apples, too. I think of Auntie Adelaide, who made the best apple pie in the world, and honor her as I core apples. As they bake, I smell Auntie’s pie.

Autumn days are perfect for comfort and memories. Family members long absent visit in my kitchen on days like this and I am content.

Shame Prom Revisited

Even as this post appeared, Super Storm Sandy captured our full attention. As we continue to recover, these personal stories of recovery are even more relevant.

Twenty seven courageous women write about their dance in the moving compilation of personal stories that is Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small. Some of the stories made me laugh; some made me cry. All of them moved me.

How, I wondered, could some of these women have survived such abuse? Could I move on from seal abuse passed off as “God’s will?” What would me life have become if my alcoholic grandfather had escheated from verbal abuse to physical? If he had poured a jar of sauerkraut over my head? These were powerful tales of survival. Some shocked me; some made me cringe.

Other stories were much lighter. I laughed at one woman’s revelation of what happened in the sandbox. I smiled in understanding as I read about the beautiful but dumb boyfriend. Some seemed beyond my understanding. I will never truly understand what it is to be biracial, but the story reminded me of what it was like to be excluded for not being Jewish enough or Italian enough or Waspy enough. There are so many ways to not quite fit and you too are likely to find emotional connections to stories that are outside your life experience.

Sometimes, it was hard to not be a little judgmental – is that really a shameful experience, I asked myself a few times. It is in these stories, though, that I found the greatest learning. I had no problem relating to the body dysmorphia shame stories, but I had a hard time seeing frizzy/curly hair as a cause for shame. Of course, I must admit I have plenty of body issues of my own but happen to really love my hair, so that has something to do with it.

So, it was a surprise to find that the hair story was one that had a strong impact on me. Every time I have recommended this wonderful book to friends, I’ve mentioned that story. I love the author’s act of courage – jumping into a pool because she promised her daughters she would and emerging with no further though about how her hair looked. Don’t go with my oversimplification – read the whole story. Read the whole book. Share it. Buy it for your friends.

Finally, think about your own participation at the shame prom. Are you a wallflower? Are you pretending you weren’t there at all? Or are you ready to speak up, own your shame and move on? I want to be as brave as these women. What about you?

Now What? Feeling Stuck After the Storm

It’s a couple of weeks since the storm; less since the snow. And it’s a gloomy, drizzly day. Many neighborhoods are cleaned up. Some have a long way to go. I’m finding a lot of gloom in the people I speak to as well. Cab drivers, strangers on the bus, friends are all sharing disaster stories. Most of these are not personal. They’re about people we’ve seen on television or read about. Some are about friends and family. Few are about personal loss.

What all these story-tellers have in common is a feeling of frustration and loss without any feeling of being entitled to feel this way. It’s an odd sort of depression – and maybe a degree of PTSD. It’s hard to not think of earlier catastrophes – all those people trying to recover in Breezy Point are also living in the shadow of the plane crash ten years ago. Homes that survived that have now been leveled. Many who lost their homes and belongings are the bedroom communities that sent loved ones off to work in the World Trade Center. And now this.

We think we’ve moved on, but maybe not. After our earthquake experience last year, I noticed something interesting in people’s reactions. In midtown Manhattan, people were making jokes about the experience. One woman on the bus was telling a friend on the phone that yeah, she was buried under a heap of rubble, but she had water, so she was fine. In lower Manhattan, though, people boarding the bus were silent and ashen-faced. Too many memories, even ten years later.

As we try to help those who suffered the direct impact of the storm, we might also take a little time for those on the periphery – including, perhaps, ourselves. We’ve contributed to the funds. Packed up supplies. Donated online. Volunteered. And it doesn’t feel like enough. We can help, but we can’t bring back the little, most important things – the keepsakes, the photos, and in some cases, the loved ones. We’re helpless and many of us are sad.

Sad. And feeling like that’s wrong. What, some of us are asking, do I have to complain about? My problems are so small. There’s something flawed in that logic, though. It’s a little like cleaning your plate as a kid because children in China were starving. How did your finishing the vegetables help those kids? Acknowledge that you are feeling lost and stuck if that’s how you feel.

This is a good time to reach out and help everyone you can. And a good time to be happy about doing that. And to know that you can’t do everything, yet every little bit contributes to the overall rebuilding.

It’s also a good time to take care of yourself. Reach out to your friends who are feeling the way you feel. Be kind to each other. Celebrating the love around you puts more love out into the world. Being happy doesn’t steal happiness away from someone else – it expands the pool of happiness.

WoW – Pascale Kavanagh: From Chemical Engineering to People Engineering

Pascale brings a varied background to her current practice. She’s gone from chemical engineer, biotech executive, health coach, yoga business owner and spiritual teacher to facilitator of personal transitions. As she says,

I am a passsionate storyteller, globe trotter and spiritual adventure guide. I’ve been known to break out in song (or dance) while purging you of the crappy stuff holding you back. I’lll grab your attention (and maybe your hand) as you go trotting into your blazingly bright future.

Pascale comes from a family of doctors, so a health-related calling was a natural choice. Since she hated guts and gore but loved science and discovery, she gravitated to the biotech industry, where she spent fifteen years. Early retirement allowed her to explore other ways to help people.

I began to look for what was that thing I wanted to do. And I really didn’t know. I had an idea of one could help people physically, spiritually emotionally, but what do you call that person who does that?

She began to study. She studied psychology, alternative medicine, energy healing, got certified as a holistic health counselor, and immersed herself in all different aspects of health and healing. This enabled her to put together a multi-faceted business, which included seeing clients privately, as a counselor and a therapist, and putting together wellness programs for big corporations and opening two health and yoga centers with access to a range of alternative healing practitioners.

When you go to her website, you will discover that Pascale has been a professional dancer, chef, personal fitness trainer, and has been immersed in yoga for over 20 years. Her accreditations include an advanced yoga certification (RYT-500), a Holistic Health Counselor certification from the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, and a graduate certificate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NY. She has founded and run two yoga centers, a cutting-edge children’s school and Feed Your Soul – A Wellness Company, Inc.

Pascale’s energy is amazing, as is her passion to help people lead their best lives. You’ll be glad you’ve met her.


I have always been impressed with something I heard about the Mennonites. When disaster strikes, I was told, the Mennonites just show up and start working. They don’t ask disaster victims what they need. They just ask which room to start in and do what needs to be done. This impressed me both because of the kindness and because of the practicality. Survivors of any disaster are in a special kind of suspended animation. they are in shock. They aren’t always in the best position to articulate their needs, and, for the most part, those needs are glaringly clear. So having someone show up and pitch in restores an element of calm and comfort.

Many years ago, I heard a similar story about a small town. When someone died, people just showed up at the family home armed with cleaning supplies and got to work. Anyone can bring food or send flowers, but it takes a different perspective to understand that maintaining a clean house is likely, while a nagging concern, low on the bereaved’s action list. And that people are going to be showing up at the house.

This week, in the aftermath of Sandy, people just showed up. Local people showed up with food. Marathon runners ran to Staten Island with backpacks full of supplies. Neighborhood organizations of every sort collected food and clothing. People from other states – not nearby – packed up trucks of supplies and headed to the tri-state area. One of my favorites is a man from Georgia who packed up a load of supplies and has been cooking up some southern comfort – grits and biscuits with sausage gravy – to hearten a New Jersey community. A couple in my building, both unemployed students with no money to spare, packed up a shopping cart full of clothing and food – and took a load from me as well – to a local drop-off point.

I’m not a big believer that every cloud has a silver lining, but often some small good does come out of disaster. Events like Sandy remind us that we’re all connected and that we all need each other. There’s some small thing that needs doing every day – some act of kindness, some small courtesy that will make someone smile, if only for a moment. Will you find one today?

It’s Lonely at the Top and It’s Crowded

Three non-profit heads walk into a bar …

Well, not exactly, although that might have given us a different perspective. My coach, my client and I all share the same dilemma. We each head a non-profit. And we each find ourself drowning under the weight of the position.

These are small non-profits, two with working Boards, one closer to the formative state and not quite ready for a full Board. All three of us are suffering from the Harry Truman syndrome, though – the buck stops here. Remember that old adage about stuff rolling downhill? Well, that’s not always true. Many small non-profits defy the laws of gravity. Work rolls uphill and lands squarely on the desk of the Founder or Chair or President. There are committee chairs and officers who may or may not play their assigned roles. There may be a cadre of volunteers. And still, there are too many projects on my plate. And my client’s plate.

My coach has found a partial solution. She she has an excellent virtual assistant She’s appointed a general manager and a project manager. These two people have the responsibility for organizing how the work of the organization gets done and tracking progress. It’s a good starting place. My client and I are discussing the advantages of hiring a virtual assistant while the client looks for the perfect right-hand person. I have an excellent virtual assistant.

Still, it comes right back to how we organize, what we delegate and how we follow through – the same issues faced by most managers. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Heads of organizations need to be divorced from the day-to-day operational aspects of the organization for the most part. They need to strategize and to be a public presence. They need to make contacts, maintain smooth relationships, instill a sense of mission. They do not need to do the scheduling, bookkeeping, collating and editing.

2. Even small non-profits need an operations or a project manager. Someone needs to track progress, find support as needed, and do follow-up work with committees. They, too, do not need to do the scheduling, bookkeeping, collating and editing. They should, however, supervise the people who do these tasks. The head person should not take on this role too.

3. A good virtual assistant saves endless hours. A good virtual assistant is great at all the things that a leader either isn’t good at or shouldn’t be doing. It’s time to get beyond the notion that VAs are some kind of disembodied clericals. Many are eager to understand the organization’s mission and become an external partner. They can not only keep things off the leader’s desk, they can also give valuable advice on systems and processes that will move the organization forward.

4. Volunteers need to keep their commitments. Every time. No exceptions. (See work rolling uphill.)

5. Someone other than the leader should be following up with committee chairs and volunteers to be sure they are making deadlines. (See project manager above.)

6. Leaders need to learn to sit on their hands. Just because you have a good idea, it doesn’t mean that you have to implement it.

7. Projects, assignments, etc. should all go out with due dates and interim reporting dates so that they can be tracked.

8. If crowded means your desk, your office, your inbox, your brain is/are crowded with other people’s responsibilities, learn to delegate and stick to it.

9. Sometimes, lonely is better.

Excuse me – I’m going off to take my own advice now.