Final Fruition Update

It's been a good year. In the last decade, the number of years I could say that about have been far outnumbered by those that I couldn't wait to see the ass end of. But this-- this was a good year.

My one-word focus for the year-- fruition-- manifested amazing, powerful changes in my life. In our lives. I can't believe how many projects finally came to completion this year, many of which have been milling about for years without any forward motion.

Making a new life in a new state.
Working from home, full-time. As a full-time writer.
Kicking anxiety's ass. That's right, folks. I shop at CostCo now like it's no big deal.

And this month we finally sold our house, our last tie to Boulder City and our former life. FINALLY. After only 2.5 years on the market (under contract for the full two, just waiting for the bank to approve the short sale) and 1.5 years before that trying to modify the loan.


It was such a magical year that I debated for a while about keeping fruition on for my 2014 word too.

Then I realized that "fruition" itself has been brought to fruition. Its purpose has been fulfilled. It's bloomed. It's prospered. It's ripened on the bough, nourished us, strengthened us.

I've never felt more positive about heading into a new year. Not because I'm happy to leave this year behind, but because I really sucked the marrow out of this one. Of this year, and this word.

See you on the flip side, over at www.fillingyourniche.com.


Christmas Traditions

When I was a kid, and through most of my adult life, Christmas was steeped in inviolable tradition:

  • Celebrations begin at 4pm sharp on Christmas Eve-- no earlier, no later. 
  • At 4pm sharp (no earlier, no later), you may open a single present. 
  • Remaining presents wait until after Christmas dinner.
  • Christmas dinner is not a dinner, but is in fact a conglomeration of Norwegian Christmas cookies, delicious savory meatballs and my Grandpa's sparkly Christmas punch bobbing with raw cranberries. 
  • At some point in the evening, you hold hands and walk around the Christmas tree, singing a Norwegian song that some people know a few words to, but most of us mumble. (This is more charming than it sounds.)
  • At another point in the evening, we wind up the ancient piebald toy named Jolly Mouse for his single annual somersault. 
  • Christmas morning, we open Santa presents, and presents from immediate family. 
Of these traditions, I have carried on none. I used to feel bad about it, but now-- now our new traditions have taken on their own sanctity. 

Our blended family of four celebrates together, just us, on December 30th. And we've established, quite by accident, our own list of inviolable traditions:
  • Celebrations begin on December 29th with the playing of "Blue Christmas." 
  • At that time, we begin hanging paper ornaments on our paper tree. 
  • Mandatory holiday movie-watching takes place while wrapping presents, in this order: Elf,  Scrooged, Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Love Actually. All present wrapping must be completed before Love Actually, because it's the best movie EVER.
  • The morning of December 30th, we find that Santa made a special visit just for our kids, because blended families deserve to celebrate with just as much Christmas spirit as other families, even though it's not on the same calendar day. 
  • Christmas morning, we open Santa presents. And we have lemony French toast for breakfast. 
With every year that we continue these traditions, they become more deeply ingrained for our kids. Maybe even to pass down to their kids. Maybe my stepdaughter will make lemony French toast for breakfast at Christmas for her own family, or maybe my daughter will play Blue Christmas for hers. 

Or maybe we'll all keep celebrating our Paper Christmas together on the 30th, and keep our own traditions inviolable. Sacred. And something entirely ours. 

Merry Calendar Christmas!


Some Announcements

I mentioned last week that 50,000 words or not, I still felt like a winner. And I meant it. I even meant it at midnight November 30th, aka "Stomach Flu Day 3: Still 10,000 Words Behind."

So I didn't win NaNo this year, the first since I've been participating. I don't feel disappointed though-- or, okay, I'm a little bummed of course. But more on principle than in reality. Because I learned a lot of very cool things this year from NaNo (and my reflective stomach flu days, during which I didn't go near the computer), and particularly one big thing:

If there's one thing I don't need to be doing more of every day, it's writing. If I have extra time every day, I'd rather be doing something different. Something not at the computer. Something like painting or art projects. But not more writing.

Penn Vet / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

And another thing: I'm not all that keen on writing fiction. You know how they say you should choose your career based on how you'd spend your time if you didn't have to work for money and instead you do whatever you want for fun? Yeah. For me "writing fiction" is nowhere on the fun list. I can do it. I even like reading my own stuff; I think it's pretty good. But I don't care about it. I see writing fiction for a living as just one more corner I'd write myself into, stuck somewhere because I'm good at something even though it's not necessarily what I want to be doing.

I love writing nonfiction though. Things that happened. Stuff that's in my head. Blog posts. Those things, I would write even if Dan and I were hopping into a hot tub full of money every night. And so I think if I am going to focus on more me-writing as opposed to work-writing then, as my niece used to say when she was learning to talk, "More of THAT."

Which brings me to my next piece of news.

As much as I love this blog, it's time for it to move along. I've gone from 2 views a day on a good day to around 40 per post on a slow day without any effort on my part (and really, a pretty severe lack of dedication, what with posting at random times and on totally disconnected subjects and all). My top posts have over a thousand views each. That sounds like a high number, but it's pretty low when you think about how big the Internet is. Low, but telling. And it makes me wonder how many views I could get if I actually focused on this.

I really love writing these posts. I even love finding the stock photos, adding quotes to pictures... combining words and images: my two great loves. I feel like I'm building something, even if it's only for me and my two or three loyal readers. So, back to the doing what you love thing-- well, I love this; maybe it's time to get serious.

So this blog is moving to a new home and will also be getting a facelift. I guess if I can get up early every stupid day to write more words for NaNo, I could also get up early and learn WordPress, build myself an actual website.

The blog is getting a new name too. One day I was talking to my sister, back when Dan and I were just dating. And I said "You know, the kids were playing, and they were actually getting along for a change and Dan and I were sitting there holding hands, and his phone was off so there were no nasty calls from his ex, and we were happy for a minute. It was almost like we were an actual family. Almost like... like..."

"Almost like real life?" she suggested.

"Yeah," I said. "Exactly."

And I knew when I started this blog, that was the only name it could have.

Over the past year, though, I feel like I've cheapened my all-the-way-real life by describing it as only almost real. My life may not match what I thought it'd be like (does anyone's?) but it's definitely real. And by saying it's only almost real, I keep this carrot out there for myself like I'm going to get to actual life at some point. Like I'm not there yet.

Except I am.

I'm sure I put way too much thought into this. But that's okay, because I'm a writer; if I didn't put too much thought into everything, what the hell would I have to write about?

Anyway, I'll keep you posted on the new blog name (that's a surprise) and the new address (once I have it), but the grand plan is to make the big move for the first post of the New Year. In between then and now, stay tuned. We still need to talk about how the second half of my Year of Fruition went.

I might also be self-pubbing a little collection of favorite posts from this blog before it's retired. If anyone's interested in that, you should let me know. Also if you have any particular posts you'd like to see included, let me know that too.


The Only Way Out Is Through

Since it's the last Tuesday of November, that means we're going to talk about NaNoWriMo and how far behind I am. 

Here's a screenshot of my progress: 

This is what the graph of a busy procrastinator looks like.
I think my favorite part of the month is the four days that just go straight across the top with zero progress, not coincidentally overlapping my monthly work deadline of November 20th. Also, I took this screen shot after writing over 5,000 words today, making the graph only slightly less bleak than it was mere hours ago. 

So I should feel stressed. Yesterday I was stressed, and also super bummed because I really love NaNoWriMo, for so many reasons. 

I love that an entire virtual community comes together every year to finally attempt the dream of writing a novel. Many are successful, many not, but all of them are thousands of words closer to that goal than they were on October 31st, and many of those for the first time ever. 

And I love the camaraderie, the feeling of everyone finally chucking the perfectionism we all heap on ourselves and focusing instead on tapping in to whatever stream of consciousness inspirational mecca is out there, the thing that you can't mistake for anything but divinity when it hits you and grabs you by the lapels and pulls you wherever it wants you to go. There is a fabulous TED talk on this concept of elusive genius, by the way.

I love boycotting the constant self-editing, both literal and figurative, that populates my life and so many other people's lives, writers or no, and instead just focusing on words on page. Pen to paper. (Okay, fingers to keyboard. You know what I mean.) Even if it's just for 30 days.

Because there are so many reasons not to follow through on your plans.

photo credit

Many of them valid. 

But the thing is, even if I don't get there-- even if I don't reach my 50,000 words-- as of this moment, I have put 29,816 words toward my own goals this month. That's nearly 30,000 words slammed out toward a future of my own making, without killing myself or staying up till midnight like I did last year (yet). And that feels amazing, whether or not I make it to 50,000. 

At the same time, I haven't had to sacrifice a huge amount of family time, and I managed to please my notoriously picky client-- who was so happy with my work this month he actually sent me an email thanking me, a huge turnaround from last month

Oh, and this nearly 30,000 words is of course in addition to the 65,663 words I wrote for work in November. So far. Not including lengthy emails or edits or rewrites. 

My 10 minute plan is working, my back is still unhappy but not impossible to work around, and I feel like I'm through the crunch. I feel like I won. I really do. Even with 20,000 words ahead of me over the next-- oh my god, only four freaking days, I have to finish this blog IMMEDIATELY and get back to work. 

Arrgh, no. I can't leave without a conclusion. DAMMIT.

Okay, so here it is. 

Sometimes the only way out is through. And the interim is impossible and murky and ridiculous in every respect. But then once you're out the other side, inevitably you look back at all the thorny, brambly nonsense and think "Huh, that wasn't so bad. I don't know why I was such a baby about this back on the other side." 

It's not because you were wrong about it being hard and sticky and scary. You were totally right. It was all of those things. But on the way through, you change. You grow. And by the time you reach the other side, you're someone who is less scared. Who is more capable. Because you know now that things that seemed impossible from one end are, in fact, possible. You know this because you just did it. And then you start to wonder what other things are possible that you always thought were impossible. 

And if anyone would know, it's Muhammad Ali.

And then life gets real amazing, real quick. Just as soon as you push through to the other side.


Making Time for Thanfulness

So, as you may remember from my last couple of posts, things have been absurdly nuts for me lately. Work was already crazy stressful, plus it's NaNo month, and you can see from my little word widget over there on the right that I'm way, way behind. Which sucks because NaNo is really (and totally disproportionately) important to me.

Miss G is flunking a class. Miss L has some weird skin rash exactly over her lymph nodes. Dan was laid off last week. Plus, this upcoming weekend is our family's Thanksgiving celebration, so I'm cooking a big vat of French onion soup for a crowd. You know, in all my spare time.

In short, much like every other day in life, there are many things happening all at the same time that all deserve priority and are all getting shortchanged.

As always, it is so easy to feel overwhelmed by whatever. Work. NaNo. Family. Things. If not these things than other things.

Dan just shrugs and says "Well, honey, you've pulled bigger rabbits out of smaller hats before. I have no doubt everything will work out just fine."

This is both exasperating and sort of complimentary.

And dead on.

With Thankful French Onion Soup Day just 12 hours away, I find my thoughts turning toward thankfulness, despite everything. Because really, there are so many things to feel thankful for.
  • I'm thankful for my boss, who is all around awesome and who also hired some minions to ease up my workload. 
  • I'm thankful for my job; despite the current crunch, I do love what I do and I'm thankful to work from home.  
  • Dan's layoff came at the perfect time to spend the entire week at home while Miss L is here; they haven't seen each other since Labor Day. I'm thankful they can reconnect this week.
Most importantly, I'm thankful we're happy. Even if there's some graininess upon close examination, when we take a step back and look at the big picture, we're happy. And our lives are moving in the right direction, even if we feel all squished wiggling on through the current bottleneck. 

The stressful times are the hardest in which to be thankful. They're also the most important times in which to make thankfulness a priority.

When things keep piling up, step away. Just for a second. Take 10 minutes. Breathe.

Make time for thankfulness.


What Can You Do in 10 Minutes?

In an effort to alleviate at least the physical crux portion of my discomfort zone, I changed up my work schedule. Before, I'd force myself through two or three hours before talking a break. Only far too often, that "break" was still spent at the computer: paying bills, checking emails and whatnot. Always the damned whatnot.

And then I wonder why I'm so sore and miserable at the end of my 10-12 hour day.

My new schedule is to work for an hour, then leave the computer for at least 10 minutes before returning to work. In that 10 minutes, I have to find things to do. Things that are not computery things. And I set my timer so I don't get distracted; 10 minutes bloats out to an hour a lot faster than you'd expect.

I started small:
  • Dump out my clean laundry on the bed; start folding. 
  • Chop potatoes and onions to cook up in a big batch for breakfasts during the week. 
  • Sweep up gross dog hair. 
  • Clean the bathroom. 
And before I knew it, a bunch of stuff that regularly gets pushed to the back burner is actually taken care of. My kitchen is cleaner. My desk is more organized. Little nagging projects I never found time to take care of are getting completed. 

Slowly. In 10-minute segments. But getting there. 

The most interesting thing about this (besides the fact that my neck pain is actually tolerable now, even if not entirely resolved) is learning just how much I can accomplish in 10 minute chunks.

It's so easy to put stuff off until I have time for this or time for that. I keep wanting a week off to just write my own stuff and work on art projects. Catch up on movies. And I think society trains us to think this way, too-- how much more do you hear about planning for your retirement compared to making your life work for you right now? There's so much emphasis put on work first and other stuff later. But I don't want to wait till I'm 65 to do cool stuff.  

And I'm not getting a week off anytime soon to just indulge in the things I actually want to do. I have to make room for them right now. In among everything else. And these 10 minute breaks give me the perfect opportunity.

Life is never going to go on hold so you can live your "real" life. This is it. You're already living it. If you want your right-now life to evolve into your ideal life, you'll have to carve enough room out of your day for a good foothold, then launch yourself toward that ideal. Even 10 minutes can be enough.

  • First 10 minute break: Set up a canvas, some clean water, some brushes.
  • Next 10 minute break: Mix a glaze; brush a coat on.
  • 10 minute break after that: Work on NaNo outline... in longhand.
  • The following 10 minute break: Find my journal. Write until my timer goes off.

In the few days I've been doing this schedule, I can't believe how much more I'm getting done-- and how many more of the things I am doing are the exact things I am always irritated at not having enough time for.

Turns out, there is time. Even if it's only 10 minutes.

What can you do in 10 minutes?


Your Discomfort Zone

Just as we all have our comfort zone, we all have our discomfort zone. It's located between this rock and that hard place. Mine has been particularly discomfortable lately. [Yes, apparently 'discomfortable' is an actual word.]

My job took a turn for the crazy stressful right around when it went full time about 3 months ago. I'm happy that it's gone full time; I've wanted this to happen for a long time now. And actually, it's kinda sorta miraculous that this job I never exactly planned on applying for is now supporting my family, so I have a lot to feel thankful for. At the same time, it's brought a level of pressure with it that is decidedly unpleasant.

Full time shouldn't be that much different from part-time. Right? Other than more hours. Except it is so different, and so much more stressful.

My client is giving me more work, which means his business is growing. Becaue I put in more time, his business is able to expand further. My boss is also giving me more work, which means our business is growing too. Because I put in more time, our company is also able to expand further. The stakes are steadily increasing from both directions; both companies are completely dependent on me, without exaggeration.

And as far as I can tell, neither of them realizes that this level of intensity is untenable and unsustainable for me. Probably because I've been sustaining it just fine. Until this past month. This month, the hairline stress fractures widened enough that everyone felt the shift.

This month, I was exhausted. This month, for the first time, my client told me I need to up my game. This month, for the first time, I had to tell my boss that my client wasn't happy. My boss then told me that it is my job to figure out how to make the client happy again.

And he's right. It is exactly my job. I just have no idea if I can do it, because I am totally mentally and physically exhausted. I cannot string two more words together. I'm positive I have written the same sentences over and over again a thousand times. I no longer know how to keep my writing fresh and engaging on the same subjects again and again. I have nothing left to say.

Plus my neck is freaking killing me from sitting at a computer all day. I'm on my second desk and my third office chair with only minor physical improvements. Unlike a job I physically go to, I clock every minute when working at home. To put in 8 hours of work takes at least 10 actual hours, because I clock out to get up and grab some water or send a text message. An 8 hour day takes even longer than 10 hours when my brain is fried like it has been and I can't concentrate.

I'm missing time with my family in the evenings. I regularly end up putting in a few hours on weekends, which has more than once led me to working 2 straight weeks with no days off. I am totally invested in and thrilled about the success of both of these companies, and at the same time feel trapped because I cannot see a way out of this. Their success means me continuing to sit at the computer for long hours every day. I don't think my body can handle it. I have no idea what to do to support myself instead. And it's so incredibly disheartening to find out the thing you've wanted and worked toward for years may not be the answer after all.

I even debate about spending the usual hour or so I put in on this blog every week because every second at the computer needs to count; every second adds up to more back pain. But ultimately, I do my weekly posts here because I need to have just one thing that is fun to write. JUST ONE.

I'm not pleased about ruining my body for another job. It's still pretty ruined from construction. If I'm spending 12+ hours further destroying my back, I want it to be working on my own stuff. And that could really pay off big-time; I'm still pulling in monthly cash off the smut I published almost 2 years ago. If I put up a few more titles, I would be making just enough that I could cut down on some work hours maybe. So then I feel committed to finishing up those three or four nearly-done books I wrote for last year's National Novel Writing Month. Except I can't. Be. At. The. Computer. Another. Second.

And yet I have to push through all of this. Because I am committed to my job. And I don't just have to maintain the course. I have to up my game.

No pressure or anything.

Last spring or so I got a cold and skipped yoga for a few days. Then my shoulder was hurting and I thought I'd injured it so I skipped for a few weeks. Then summer came and I gave up on it entirely. Just this past few weeks I feel committed to my mat again-- mostly in an effort to uncrick my body from long hours at a keyboard every day.

And even yoga irritates me. What used to be a physical and mental solace now feels like weird and awkward stretches.

This is the last straw; if the thing that used to ground you and bring you peace fails you, what the hell is left? 

This moment, this moment when everything is falling on your head at once and you see zero solutions-- this is your discomfort zone. There is no visible escape route. There are no clearly marked exits. You can't move in any direction far enough to unkink your life, even though what you really need is a good long stretch.

So I'm cranky and on my yoga mat, angry at my body's inability to do what was so easy just six months ago, and the teacher says "It's easy, in this pose, to get frustrated with yourself, to think 'Oh my gosh, I'm so weak.' But you're not weak. You're getting stronger. If you were weak, you wouldn't even be trying."

Then my practice dissolved into tears, about the 23rd time I've been in tears this month. Only this was the good kind of cry, the kind that cleanses and centers and heals and isn't just your work-related stress running around in circles chasing its own tail.

And I thought, damn straight I can up my game.

After all, wavering is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign that you're finding your balance.

When life is discomfortable, every instinct tells us to fight that unease. But the truth is, the discomfort is essential; as my mom said the other day when I was venting to her, "Well, we don't change positions until we're uncomfortable." And she's right. I do know that. I know that release doesn't come until after the stretch, I believe in the importance of pushing your comfort zone.

With NaNo just a few days away, I am more determined than ever to figure out how to carve a space in my rock and/or my hard place that's large enough for me to fit comfortably. I know exactly the future I want. There will never be more hours in the day to get there. It's up to me to find a way, and sometimes the only way out is through. 


Becoming a "No Problem" Person

One of the things I love most about my husband is that he always says yes, and never yes but.

Yes, but just this once.
Yes, but I can only stay until 8.
Yes, but lemme check on some stuff first.

Dan's eternal yes is also one of the things that irritated me the most when we first started dating. He would ask the girls what they wanted for dessert. One kid would ask for a little tiny Häagen-Dazs from the grocery store. Another wanted a Blizzard from DQ. Dan himself wanted coffee ice cream from the local candy shop. And I wanted a caramel apple empanada from Taco Bell.

"Ugh, there's never any CHOICES around this house!"

I grew up in a house with 3 kids who never liked the same things, so this is nothing new to me. My dad handled this scenario with "If you kids can't agree on something, no one's getting any dessert." Very practical. Even a dessert you don't like is still a treat, right? As such, I suffered through many a horrible vanilla milkshake as a kid. Besides, what parent in their right mind wants to drive around town for an hour getting everyone their own separate dessert?

No one except Dan.

It's isn't that he's an indulgent parent (although that is certainly true). He's just a no problem person. A yes person. He says yes to everything. There is never a but. There is never an attached string. His generosity is utterly unconditional.

I have always hated asking anyone for anything. Until I met Dan I didn't realize that this was not just because I'm obnoxiously independent (again, certainly true), but because I dreaded the strings. The conditions. The guilt trips. The inevitable extraneous nonsense that comes with even the simplest request.

"Hey, could you grab some milk on the way home?"
"Weren't you just at the store yesterday? Never mind, it's fine. I guess I'll just be a little late for dinner."

"Hey, can you drop me on your way past my house?"
"Well, I was planning on running some errands right now but I'm sure I could make time. Hop in!"

"Hey, could we reschedule our meeting next week?"
"Yeah, I can probably move some stuff around to make that happen."

Not one of those answers sound like a real yes, even though they technically all are.

Asking Dan anything-- still, even after 8 years together-- is like when you expect closed-door resistance and, finding none, stumble across the threshold in surprise.

"Did you guys know there's, like, awesomeness out here?"

I never realized how much all those non-yes yesses wore on me. From every single person. Every single day. And it's not like I just hang out with sucky people; we ALL do this. I do it myself. We want everyone to know exactly what they owe us. Exactly how much we should be worth to them. Or how much they're worth to us, as measured by the amount of effort we're willing to put forth.

Dan's simple yes is a such a powerful and welcome presence in my life that I've decided to try and become a no problem person myself. I practice saying yes when people ask me things.

No excuses.
No temporizing.
No subtle punishments hidden between words.

Just yes. No problem.


Focus on What's Good Instead

A couple months ago, I found out that I have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. At the same time, I found out I probably have a lactose or casein intolerance of some kind.

"It'll be way easier for me to give up gluten than dairy," I said to my doctor. I'm hypoglycemic, so I have problems maintaining my blood sugar at reasonable levels. Lots of protein helps with this; dairy is one of my major protein sources. And also because of the blood sugar thing, I'm not a huge carb eater anyway.

"We can start with that," she said.

Farewell, my friends. Farewell.

It turns out that going gluten-free-- while about a million times easier today than it would have been even 5 or 10 years ago-- is way more of a pain in the ass than I realized it would be.

Gluten, by its nature, is all sticky and gluey, so it hides in things like wooden cutting boards. Also, if you live with other people who are still eating gluten, there are all kinds of cross-contamination concerns. Like, bread crumbs in the butter. Dipping a knife into the mayo, spreading it on bread, dipping it in mayo again. Learning that there's gluten in soy sauce, of all places. And my grocery trips take twice as long now, because I have to read every single ingredient on every single package. Modified food starch? Usually wheat-based, and a common ingredient in things like salad dressings. Oh, and malt vinegar is out too.

Fun quiz: Is this safe or not?

As involved as all this is, I will also say that it is far, far less of a pain for me than it is for many. I'm not a carb queen, I don't eat many things with long ingredient lists anyway, and I cook most things from scratch rather than using dips, mixes, or eating out. And I'm not so sensitive that just opening a bag of flour has me sick for days. Plus I don't actually have celiac disease, so that's good.

That being said, it's still a pain in the ass.

One of the things that every single book or website about celiac disease, non-celiac sensitivity, and eating gluten free says again and again is to think about all the great foods you ARE allowed instead of bemoaning all the stuff you can't eat.

You just focus on the good instead.

And it's true that the list of things that do have gluten in them is much, much shorter than the list of things that don't:
  • Fresh fruits and veggies
  • Homemade chili
  • Split pea soup
  • Steak, baked potatoes loaded with butter and sour cream, and a green salad with tons of avocado and a nice balsamic vinaigrette on the side
  • Enchiladas, if I use corn tortillas and buy gluten-free enchilada sauce
  • Homemade granola, if I use gluten-free oats
  • 15-bean soup, with a handful of sautéed apple-gouda sausage and kale tossed in
  • Roasted autumn vegetable bake-- sweet potatoes, parsnips, yukon gold potatoes, onions
  • Pasticcio made with this pasta, my favorite of all the brands I've tried so far
  • Mushroom alfredo over chicken instead of fettuccini
  • Gluten-free pizza from Beau Jo's that's actually delicious
  • Sushi, dipped in tamari instead of soy sauce

Sushi actually freaks me out, but it's so pretty I eat it anyway.

Much like gluten, the less-ideal things in our lives feel sticky and everywhere a lot of the time. Relationship problems. Money stress. Dull cubicle jobs. The daily grind. It's easy to get hung up on these things, give them weight, dwell on what you wish they were. Mire yourself in lack.

But, just like wishing my unpleasantly dry and crumbly gluten-free toast were a thick slab of delicious whole-grain goodness slathered with fresh apple butter, wishing doesn't make it so.

I focus on what's good instead.
  • A husband who puts up with my nonsense and makes me laugh every day
  • My teenage daughter who, as yet, is not doing drugs or having sex, and has decent grades to boot (except in Spanish, and I'm willing to overlook that) 
  • Ever-decreasing back pain; ever-improving overall health (quirky gluten issues notwithstanding)
  • A job that has become the impossible pipe dream I would've sold my soul for two years ago
  • Fruition everywhere
Every day, my life looks a little closer to ideal.

The stuff that takes you further from your ideal? Get it out of there. At the very least, refuse to dwell. 

Focus on what's good instead.


Finding Your Niche

In Vegas, our shop was located just off the strip in the main industrial park neighborhood. There was this great Greek place right down the road. We'd stack our breaks so we could enjoy one long break (gorging on the best spanakopita I've ever had) instead of a lunch and and two short breaks.

Oh, yes.
Then our shop moved. Although we found new love at the Pizza Cafe (and an absurdly handsome barista named Pablo), it wasn't the same.

Then, lo and behold, the Greek place relocated too! RIGHT BY OUR NEW SHOP! So exciting! As soon as we found out we were neighbors again, we skipped our morning break to hit the hummus over an extended lunch. We ordered without looking at the menu first.

"No, no. No spanakopita. We got new things now." The guy puts a menu in my face and points a thick, furry finger at the grease-splotched paper. "See? We got subs. We got pizza."

We all expressed sorrow over the loss of our beloved spanakopita, but found other things to order. And they were delicious. Just not quite as delicious as before.

The next time we went back, a bunch of the Greek menu items were crossed out with a ballpoint pen, and the burly Greek guy who usually took (and cooked) our order was no longer in evidence.

Pasticio? Gone. Tabbouleh? Falafel? Gone and gone. And the top-notch quality that used to be in evidence had, like Elvis, left the building.

That was our last time visiting the Greek place.

I am always baffled by businesses-- and individuals-- who have a niche all nailed up, then water it down with some dumb crap that anyone could do. ANYone.

Like the disappointingly named VikingHus gift shop that had one small shelf of sorta-Scandinavian swag, and otherwise looked like a Hallmark store. Like the Pizza Cafe, our Greek restaurant replacement that started out as a fantastic high-end gourmet Italian bistro and worked its way down to a quasi-sports bar. Like the last couple seasons of just about any decent TV show where they lose their way and forget what made them stand out from the crowd in the first place.

The world does not need more bland, safe mediocrity.

When you have a thing you nail better than anyone, it's easy to doubt yourself. It's easy to think that the guy over there is seeing amazing success with his broader, less complicated vision that appeals to the public at large. Surely you should cater to the masses too, instead of your small niche market.


The people who invest in your goods, your services, your presence give you the gift of their time/money/support because they like what you're offering. What YOU are. Not what everyone else is.

Not despite your differences. Because of them.

They say you should write the book you want to read. I say find your niche, that niche that needs filling that no one else has filled. Then fill it.

This lives on my desk. It's an interesting story. I'll tell you sometime.


Gregarious Greg

After living here a week or so, it became clear that my neighbors were the townhome complex drug dealers.

Really nice guys though, Victor and D'Angelo. They're quiet and they keep their yard clean and always say hi to me. Yesterday D'Angelo was walking out of his front door at the same time I was headed out with a bag of smelly kitchen garbage.

"Oh, you want me to take that to the dumpster for you?" he asked, hoisting the bag out of my hands before I could even answer. He wasn't even going that way.

Yes, even the drug dealers are better in Colorado.

On our other side, we have the heavily pregnant girl who sits outside chain-smoking, waiting for her due date to arrive. At the end of the building is the family with the 4-year-old who runs around outside in diapers with no parents in sight.

In the next building over we have another chain-smoking mom with a baby on her hip plus a little boy and a young teenager who might be hers also (but I can't figure out how to make that math work) and an older lady who must be the grandma. Next to them are the 20-something construction worker potheads with the awesome big dog named Charlie Brown.

Sometime around July, I came home to a previously empty unit now all tidy with snappy porch furniture and a huge American flag hanging off the corner of the building.

Oh boy. They are not going to do well back in this corner of the complex, I thought.

Later that night I'm headed back out again and the new neighbors-- a nice couple in their youngish 30s, just as lovely as you'd expect from their porch furniture-- are sipping local craft beers out front.

We exchange greetings as I pass.

The next night, they're out there again, only with mix drinks and this time one of the 20-something construction worker pothead neighbors has joined them. The night after that, Victor the drug dealer is hanging out there too, along with both construction workers and Charlie Brown the dog.

After a couple weeks or so, Dan & I are the ones hanging out on the porch with all our neighbors and (all our dogs).

Greg and Brittany have a baby and a toddler. She stays at home and he commutes up to Boulder. Greg is a tax attorney, and Brittany is one of those women who always looks perfect and who apologizes for her messy kitchen when there's a single dirty plate and no crumbs. In her spare time she's starting her own home decorating business.

Despite these things, they're actually quite likable.

Dan and Greg carpool up to Boulder every morning now; Dan's new job is within a mile of Greg's office. Dan is teaching Greg how to climb. Greg loves it.

I'm positive if I had little kids, Brittany and I would be besties. As it is, I still stop to chit chat for a minute after dropping Miss G at school in the mornings, and our own girls are frothing at the mouth to babysit.

"I'm pretty sure Greg is short for Gregarious," Dan tells me.

In just a few months, Gregarious Greg has transformed our little corner of misfit toys into someplace that's practically neighborly. His wife has taken to feeding the malnourished construction workers dinner every night. We stop by their porch most evenings to spend some time catching up; we've switched to hot tea now though. The seasons are changing.


The One You Feed

An old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson the ways of the world. He says, "Within all of us, there are two wolves. One wolf is good. He does no harm. He lives at peace in your heart, and finds harmony in the world.

"The other wolf-- he is full of anger, snarling, raging at everyone and everything. Yet all his anger changes nothing.

"These two wolves, they are battling in you, always. Always."

The boy is silent, then asks, "Which one will win?"

His grandfather answers, "The one you feed."

I never write about being a stepmom anymore. I can't think about the wasteland of the last several years of my life for longer than about eight seconds before I'm incoherent with anger.

Eight seconds. The same amount of time you have to hang onto a wild bull at the rodeo.

Last night Dan told me he is working on forgiving Miss L's mom, as if any of us needed more evidence that he is some kind of freakishly evolved, on-the-edge-of-enlightenment being.

"I don't see that ever happening for me," I say. "Being a honeybadger, yes. Not giving a crap, not letting it ruin my life, those things I can do. Forgiveness? No. I can't do it. I don't see how I can ever think how all the shit she's done is okay. I mean... ever."

He says he understands. He says he doesn't blame me. He says, "I'm still going to work toward forgiveness." Because he is a better human than anyone I know.

I'm not there. And not in a grudge-holding way. I am probably the least grudge-holdy person you'll ever meet. Not that I don't have a temper; I do. But it flares up and burns out real fast, and I always apologize immediately: a genuine apology. I am capable of grace.

I am not actively angry. Our everyday life is very cheerful these days. Peaceful. It's fun when Miss L is here, and she even keeps in touch with us when she's not now. All of the dark days are behind us. I know this. I believe it 100%.

Those dark days, though. They're molasses. They're sticky when you think you've cleaned everything up and put it all away.

I have forgiven worse. I have forgiven far less forgivable things. So why not these things?

Miss L is not my daughter; I should have no stake in this claim. For the love of pete, if I could forgive all the crap my actual biological daughter's other parent has dished out, I should be able to get over this. This woman who shouldn't even matter.

And still, there is just something about all the stupid bullshit that I cannot let go of. Maybe the using her daughter as a weapon. Maybe the calculating way she sabotaged our budding family when it was still so delicate, and destroyed our foundation so thoroughly that we will always be stunted as a result. Or maybe the myriad of other hypocritical, double standard, underhanded sneaky-ass things I can't even list here except to just say sometimes other parents just suck.

Every time, I expect that discussing these things will lance the infection and drain all those soupy, putrid toxins out, leave my mind light and airy the way venting so often does. But not this. It just festers.

It just feeds the wolf.

I think someday down the road, maybe it'll be safe to dwell. Eventually I'll find the minefield is dormant, and-- beyond the trenches-- I'll find forgiveness.

Until then, I'm starving it out.


Expanding Your Goldfish Bowl

Goldfish, unlike humans, never stop growing physically. They grow until they die. How much they grow is dependent upon the quality of their water, how well they're cared for and the size of their bowl.

"Well hot damn!"

Those of us who've seen Big Fish already know this. (Those of you who haven't need to watch it IMMEDIATELY.)

Yet, while humans are genetically predetermined to stop growing physically at some point, we possess an infinite capacity for inward growth.

Like goldfish, how much we grow is dependent upon the quality of our environment. How clean we keep our water. How well we care for ourselves. And the size of our bowl.

Small bowls are cozy. Small bowls create snug little comfort zones. It's easy to feel good in smaller enclosures. Keeping everything close helps us feel safe. Protected.

And small bowls are easier to control. The environment is predictable and unchallenging. You can let your guard down. Your entire world is well-defined.

I've got everything I need riiiight here.

The problem with small bowls is that predictable and controlled are just a hair away from confining and limiting. Without warning, the concept of Outside becomes scary in all its unpredictable, uncontrollable hugeness. And your bowl actually grows smaller. Then smaller still.

You think you're swimming around your plastic castle in a happy routine; in reality you're stuck in a real small bowl with real dirty water.

It happens so gradually it's easy to miss.

Maybe one day, you wake up. The walls of your goldfish bowl suddenly feel too thick, too close, too covered in greenish slime. That's when it's time to seek out larger shores.

I know it's time for a new bowl by gauging how scared I am to leave my current bowl at any given time. The more anxiety I feel about the unknown, the more critical it is for me to push my comfort zone. And I am always reluctant.

Then reluctance evolves to willing. Not always easily, because change is hard.

"Have suitcase. Will expand world view."

Once you choose expansion, you find that fresh water feels so much better than that murk you were sludging through a minute ago. Comfort becomes less important than growth; freedom feels far less scary than the dread of going back to that small bowl.

What seemed like the big bad Out There becomes just a bigger bowl. A bigger bowl with new scenery and different perspectives. A bowl so big you forget to feel constrained. A bowl so clear you can see for miles.

And it's right there.


Viva la Rentrée!

When I took French in high school, I remember learning that France takes August off. Like, the entire nation just goes on vacation the full month. I always wondered how shops shut down for a full third of summer and manage to stay in business. Also, August is probably a bad time to visit France.

Because of this long hiatus from work and school, going back to school in the fall is a big deal that carries more weight than here in the States. The first day back is called "la rentrée," which translates literally to "the reentrance."

And that phrase has further evolved into the idiom "à la rentrée," which sort of means "See you when school starts up again" and is thrown around a lot in May.

On a deeper level, à la rentrée is much more than a calendar date. It's about moving forward with new focus come September. It's time to pull your big girl boots on, roll up your sleeves and get serious.

VERY serious.

Playtime is over. It's time to leave long lazy summer days behind and reenter reality.

Viva la rentrée!


From the Badlands and Back Again

For our super-involved family vacation this year, we drove from Denver through the Badlands over to my hometown of Bemidji, MN, then up to tour an old iron ore mine in Tower-Soudan, then on over to the North Shore of Lake Superior to a yurt in Grand Marais, then cruised up to the amethyst mines past Thunder Bay, headed back down the North Shore to Duluth and over to Bemidji again where we celebrated Miss G turning 15 (gah!) and eventually made our way back to Denver.

It's actually just as exhausting reading the description over again as the trip itself. Well, almost.

So, every time we make this drive, we don't go through the Badlands, either because we're sleepy or short on time or some other random excuse. This year was the year we finally committed. And deeply regretted having not stopped sooner.

It's so beautiful, one of those places (much like the Grand Canyon, or even Mt. Rushmore) where the majesty truly cannot be conveyed with a photograph. And it is very eerie; it feels like an alien landscape. 

In the instructional brochure we were handed at the ticket booth, I learned that the Badlands used to be the bottom of an ocean, back before the Great Plains were plains; then the place made more sense to me visually. Someday I'd like to go back and spend time hiking through there. So, so otherworldly and breathtaking.

The rest of South Dakota, as always, was a dull and uneventful drive. 

Along the way, I kept telling Dan & the kids how Minnesota is easily the best-smelling state in the Union. They scoffed at me, so I pulled over to the Minnesota Tourist Center as soon as we crossed the border and forced them to inhale. 

They believe me now, all right.

We arrived in my hometown, the birthplace of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. (Despite Brainerd's claims to the contrary. We Bemidjians know the truth. Or is it Bemidjiites?)

The kids went sailing with Miss G's parental grandparents.

And then we moved onto Phase 2 of the trip: the North Shore!

The night before leaving, my dad off-handedly asked if we were going to tour the iron ore mines. I remembered doing this as a kid, in a vague way that had me wondering if it had just been a nightmare, because I couldn't for the life of me remember *where* I had taken an open-walled elevator down a sheer stone shaft and then riding a mine cart train. Mystery solved!

The second the words "iron ore mine" came out of my dad's mouth, Dan was all over it. So we changed up our route at the last minute to drive through Tower-Soudan and tour the mine.

Then, onward and-- er, over-wards to the North Shore. 

This is a good time to mention that Dan hates Minnesota. It makes him feel claustrophobic, he says. Too many trees. Not enough hills. Nothing to do in Bemidji. All very valid points. When I tell Minnesotans these complaints, they always say, "But have you taken him up the North Shore?" Because the North Shore is really the solution for all of these problems. Previous years we've hit MN, we just haven't had time to make it over to Duluth. This year, though, the state was our oyster.

I found this awesome little yurt to stay in up past Grand Marais. We would've stayed at my first pick, Naniboujou, but they foolishly do not allow dogs there. It ended up being fantastic, because the yurt was absolutely perfect. 

*insert happy sigh here*

Also, it was only a few minutes from Naniboujou, so we still got to enjoy their fabulous French onion soup.

For the next couple days, the yurt was home base. From there, we drove up to Thunder Bay to check out the open pit amethyst mines.

They're really more fun than this photo conveys.

And hiked the Devil's Kettle trail a few minutes up the road.

The first luna moth any of us have ever seen!

It's not defacing property if *everyone* carves their names.

And of course, made time to enjoy some good food.

Then it was time to head back south. 

We stopped at Palisade Head to prove to Dan that, yes, there are indeed climbable things in Minnesota. 

I had to take dramamine and a xanax to get this photo.
Just for scale, that tiny yellow dot down there is Dan.

After the climb, we stopped at a random coffee place along the road to get Dan his fix. I saw a sign on the window that said Bridgeman's.

"I didn't even know they still had Bridgeman's!" I said, as we walked up to the place. "When I was a kid, we used to drive from our cabins into town to get Bridgeman's, then walk around by the college finishing our ice cream before driving back. I always got butter brickle, but they don't make that flavor anymore. I look for it whenever I'm at an ice cream shop."

We push the door open and I peruse the ice cream while Dan checks out the coffee situation. And there, a hundred miles from Bemidji and about a million from my childhood, is Butter Brittle ice cream. Okay, so not butter brickle, but I am positive it's the right flavor.

"Oh my god," I say, grabbing Dan's arm and pointing. 

"We'll need a scoop of the butter brittle ice cream too," he tells the girl at the register.


Then back to ol' Bemidge for some bday shenanigans. Although Miss G started out with a bit of a rough morning on her big day, we managed to turn the day around.

...by finding pig sprinkles at Leuken's!

She's not type A at all. Nope.

All in all, a super fun family vacation. One of our best. We came home with many pounds of amethyst, a sheet of birch bark the size of a small cot, gobs of mosquito bites and a ton of dirty laundry.

Everything a vacation should be.