TWO DOZEN RULES OF MARRIAGE

Wedding 5:25:85 I Wanna Marry You by Bruce Springsteen (retro first wedding dance)

Wedding bells are ringing. We must be at “that age”, or rather our kids’ friends and friends’ kids are. Nary a week goes by that news of yet another recent engagement or wedding reaches our household. But closer to home – actually in the house, as they say – we are gearing up for the pending nuptials of my brother-in-law, just days away. My husband’s youngest brother has always been the consummate charming, incorrigible bachelor, and after 49 years he has finally not only embraced love but is committing to love. It took him almost five decades and the right woman at the perfect time to help him realize that life is better shared, both the good and the bad times. Such a momentous turning point deserves a tremendous celebration. It warms my heart that the institution of marriage is alive and well, and it’s given me pause and cause to think about my own marriage of 28+ years.

Back when our nest was full, Tony and I made an effort to “date” on a regular basis, once a week if we were lucky. No movie nights or elaborate plans necessary – we were happy with long lingering dinners to pull together our scattered lives. That was exactly what we needed to stay connected and keep the home fires burning brightly. Our nest is relatively empty now, and we have much more time together. The real effort has become making that time more meaningful and special. So we went on a “date” this weekend, once again just a simple dinner out, just the two of us. We bellied up to the bar while we waited for our table and were engaged by another couple out doing the same thing. Through our conversation with them, their passion for each other was quite evident, even after 19 years. It was the second marriage for both, and it became clear that they were each others’ saving graces after horrific pasts. We were amazed to learn that the husband (who by the way is 20 years her senior) has written a love note to his wife once a week for 19 years. She is the subject and keeper of 900 pages of amorous declarations of devotion! Such the epitome of romance, and a lovely legacy to leave for their family.

Alas, there is no such legacy in our marriage. It’s fair to say we are too busy living it to write about it. But as I am putting the finishing touches on my soon-to-be-sister-in-law’s bridal tea party and Tony is contemplating his best man toast, the subject of marriage has been first and foremost in our minds and hearts.

Marriage is like baseball. It may be a game of individual performances, but the real difference between winning and losing is not the sum total of each player’s stats but rather the team spirit and camaraderie that comes from everyone working together for the good of the whole. It’s not so much about keeping score as it is about bringing your best to the field every day and picking each other up when someone hits a slump. It’s about finding the fun, remembering what you love about the game, and being grateful that you actually get to spend your time doing something you enjoy so much. And like any game worth playing, you’ve got to follow the rules for maximum enjoyment…

TWO DOZEN RULES OF MARRIAGE

1. Foster teamwork and camaraderie.

2. Play fair.

3. Never take each other or your love for granted.

4. Continue to go on dates.

5. Try something new together every so often.

6. Remember why you fell in love.

7. Embrace spontaneity and humor.

8. Celebrate the wins and the special days.

9. End an argument as soon as possible, and if someone has to win the battle, let it be your spouse.

10. Grow old – and laugh – together.

11. Choose to be happy.

12. Don’t yell at each other unless the house is on fire.

13. If you have to criticize, do it lovingly.

14. Respect each other and make your marriage a true partnership.

15. Forgive and forget.

16. Find fulfillment within yourself and take care of your own needs too.

17. Neglect the whole world if you must, but never each other.

18. At least once a day, say a kind word or a compliment to your spouse.

19. When you’ve done something wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness.

20. Hold hands, with feeling.

21. Be willing to compromise and agree to disagree.

22. Compete to win the contest of generosity.

23. Look each other in the eyes when you talk.

24. Say “I love you”… lots and often.

Yes, I know this all may sound obvious, or worse, trite. But it really is that simple and that difficult. Those mandates are easy to follow once in a while, but to sustain them day in and day out for as long as you both shall live is the true challenge, the richest reward, and the best game in life.

FEATHER YOUR NEST WITH DOG HAIR

Like My Dog by Billy Currington (click to play)

The morning play session is in full swing, and white fluff is floating on the sunbeams that stream in with the dawn’s early light. Our two golden retrievers are revved up on their breakfast kibble and engaged in their daily romp-around-the-kitchen that winds down with a roll-around-the-floor love fest. Their antics never fail to make me laugh and warm my heart, despite the endless clumps of dog hair that gather under the tables and chairs, in every corner of the house, and all over my clothes. Life with dogs is certainly a nuisance, an inconvenience, and a costly proposition… but I simply cannot imagine a life without the unconditional, utterly devoted love that a dog dishes out.

Now mind you, I am not a natural born dog lover. Not like my sister who spent many childhood hours dressing up our little beagles, coddling them like they were her babies. And not like my dear friend the dog rescuer who has an uncanny knack for returning lost dogs to their rightful owners. Make no mistake – she does not find the lost dogs – they find her with their amazing instinct to sniff out the person who cares enough to coax strange dogs into her car and house until she can help them find their way home. Not me – I’m a late-blooming dog lover, or as one of my Book-O buddies dubbed herself, a born-again dog lover. My doggie-loving tendencies were always there, gently simmering throughout the first half of my life, but it wasn’t until my kids left home that it reached a rolling boil.

In the beginning, I was actually afraid of dogs. Big, scary, barking Kujo terrorized our neighborhood – if only in my five-year-old mind – and I had to sprint past his house with my eyes closed while he snarled through the bars of the fence. I was absolutely certain that he was capable of squeezing through those bars at will and ripping me to shreds. That was one of the reasons my parents brought home a cute little beagle one day – to prove to me that not all dogs are fearsome. But it wasn’t until that little beagle brought puppies of her own into the world that my heart truly opened up. I slept outside with the puppies for a week, so worried I was about those helpless little creatures. There is something about feeling needed to bring out the nurturing qualities that linger deep within us all.

My teens and twenties were a self-absorbed time of life when I was far too foot-loose and fancy-free to care much for dogs beyond my family’s cute beagles and the occasional irresistible puppy that crossed my path. When my husband and I had three babies within five years, my life was way too full of dirty diapers, park outings, play dates, bedtime stories, and glorious kid chaos to even glance at a passing pup. But then my daughter developed an irrational fear of dogs to the point where her friends had to put their adorable pets in the garage when she came over to play, and I knew that the surest remedy was a dog in our own home. A sweet and gentle one-year-old black lab appeared in our life as if by magic, and the only stumbling block was to convince my husband that we really needed this dog.

“A dog is nothing but heartbreak,” he claimed. “Brick got hit by a guy on a motorcycle, Boston Blackie almost attacked a kid in front of the house, Cleo ran away, and Lucy was run over by the milkman on my brother’s birthday.”

“Well, that’s what happens when you keep a dog in a fenceless yard with four rambunctious boys,” I reasoned with perplexity. (Wouldn’t that be just a little obvious after the first dog ran into the street?)

The kids and I cajoled and bargained and wheedled until we finally struck a deal with Tony to bring Poe, daughter of Raven and sister of Edgar & Allen, into our lives. To our good fortune, Poe was The World’s Easiest Dog. She cured Haley’s dog fear and made incurable dog lovers of everyone who knew her. Tony became her biggest champion, and in return he was her favorite companion. Poe made life without dogs impossible for us.

The benefits of dog ownership are boundless. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that owning a pet can improve your blood pressure, cholesterol balance, and triglyceride levels. The British Medical Journal called dogs “social catalysts” when discussing how they help reduce stress and alleviate loneliness by being devoted playmates and creating greater interaction between people. Dogs also keep their owners more physically active because they need to be walked and romped. Just amble on over to the nearest dog park and take a look around. You’ll see happy people enjoying the fresh air, chuckling at the animal antics, and swapping tail-wagger stories.

To be sure, a dog is not for everyone. I admonish my young adult kids, “Do NOT tie yourself down with a dog”  that needs a surplus of time and money. Our golden Eddie ate all sorts of junk as a puppy and racked up thousands of dollars in hospital bills. And our showdog-flunkie Bella just adores a good roll in the cow patties and foxtail weeds on our hikes, which requires at least an hour of de-stinking-de-stickering afterwards. Nevertheless, tending to their dogly care instills in us that cozy feeling of being needed and helps us to forget our own worries. There is nothing like a four-legged buddy to give a sense of belonging, companionship, and meaningful existence, especially for us empty nesters.

We have so much to learn from our devoted doggies about giving and receiving unconditional love. Canines have an innate sense of human heartache. They just seem to know when our spirits are down, and they have a way of simply being there for us with a warm nuzzle and a soulful gaze into our eyes that sears straight into the crux of our angst and softens the sharp edges of anguish. The ardent fidelity we receive from our furry friends is one of the great powers that give us courage and peace to see us through countless ordeals. Walking in the door at the end of a stressful day to an enthusiastic greeting from your ever-lovin’ pooch is one the most heartwarming gifts life has to offer. If we love each other like our dogs do, we’ll be doing the happy Snoopy dance for life.

COMING HOME TO THE FÜNF LITER CLUB

Coming Home by k.d. lang (click to play)

HOME just may be one of the most emotional words in the English language. This simple four-letter word evokes complex sentiments – misty-eyed memories, frustrated anger, adolescent angst, deep and utter contentment. Thousands of songs have been written on the subject; I know because I recently made a playlist of forty-eight songs about home, and those are just the ones that I like. Home is a structure, a place, a feeling, maybe even a person. Home is not just where your heart is – it is IN your heart. Home may not be a necessity for human survival, but it is vital for human happiness. And since we can’t always control the home we live in, we have to make happy homes in our hearts.

It seems like home should be a solid, unchanging entity, but in reality, homes are in a constant state of flux. I suppose the home I grew up in is the epitome of the word home. My parents have lived there for fifty-three years now, and aside from a few minor changes, it looks and feels relatively the same as it did for the eighteen years I spent my childhood in it. The great Mulberry Tree I loved to climb has been chopped down, the succulent fig tree we plucked warm juicy figs from on hot summer days bit the dust, and long gone is the zipline that spanned our backyard. But the playhouse my dad built still stands proud even though it’s filled with gardening junk, and my old bedspread still covers my little twin bed although my mother thankfully painted out those bright orange walls that illuminated my teen years. My childhood home was the simplest of homes – a humble structure filled with pure, quiet love. Perhaps that is the secret to its longevity.

Haus Wartenberg ~ January 1982

I left my childhood home to go to college in California and essentially never moved back. Since then I have lived in a variety of homes, as have most of us over-thirty-somethings. The fun and funky Haus Wartenberg that I resided in during my study abroad in Salzburg wins the prize for the most distinctive home of my life. This traditional European house was built in 1654 and is located in the heart of Salzburg, one of the coolest medieval towns in the world, no exaggeration. It was my home-away-from-home for five magical months, and I have nothing but the fondest of memories from this quirky old place. The Salzburg Semester has been a beloved program at the University of Redlands for over fifty years, and I was fortunate to be among the group of thirty-five students during the Fall of ’81. I lived up in the penthouse suite with four friends, where the bathroom ceiling was sloped so low that we could barely stand upright, which is probably why we washed our hair maybe once a week and shaved our legs even less frequently. I loved the skylight window in the slanted ceiling above my bed where I spent hours daydreaming and gazing at the amazing Austrian scenery when I should have been studying my paltry German and European History. We all lived, studied, and made a lot of mischief in Haus Wartenberg, but our home-away-from-this-home was the Augustiner Bräustübl, the legendary local beer hall famous for its beers, brats and bosnas. The biggest accomplishment that was a must for every merrymaker on the program was to become a member of the Fünf Liter Club, which entailed drinking five liters of beer in one sitting. Heck yes, I joined this illustrious club one murky night, securing my rightful place in the Aug family home.

Was it any wonder that I wanted to re-visit these sentimental old homes – both Haus Wartenberg and the Aug – on a recent family vacation to Austria? I hadn’t been back to Salzburg in over thirty years, but that woozy comfy feeling of home flooded my heart as we drove into town. We stepped it up a notch and stayed at the exquisite Hotel Schloss Mönchstein on top of the Mönchsberg, a place I never even dreamed of back in my college days. And although I needed a map to sniff out my way back to the Aug, the smell of beer and bosnas nearly took my breath away the second I walked in. Home. My dreams of re-visiting the Fünf Liter Club, however, were dashed immediately after I ordered einem liter of beer. Holy cow, how did one scrawny girl drink five of those things? You can definitely go back home, but it might be a good idea to temper your expectations of that mystical place.

Haus Wartenberg ~ July 2012

The next day, my expectations were firmly in check as I took my daughters to see Haus Wartenberg. I really had no idea what to expect. I knew that the U of R Salzburg Program stopped using the old house years ago and I knew that it was now a family-owned hotel, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It was surreal that I had to consult with my iphone to find the place that I used to find my way home to on the murkiest of nights, especially since the only phone available back then to call home was in the post office. But the second we stumbled upon my old Haus, the old feelings welled up all over again. It looked amazingly the same as it did thirty years ago, greeted as we were with the peaceful courtyard shaded by huge old trees. With the exception of the word “Hotel” written above Haus Wartenberg on the entrance sign and the Italian ristorante converted to a classic Austrian eatery, it was all just as I remembered it, down to the worn and musty antique furnishings. We wandered upstairs as if in a dream and were greeted warmly by the manager. He gave us the “grand tour” complete with a sneak peek at the penthouse suite that was my home. I could hardly breathe, feeling like I was twenty-one all over again. It was all so familiar in a faraway kind of way. My girls and I decided that we would have to step back down off the glitzy Mönchsberg and stay at Hotel Haus Wartenberg the next time we come home to Salzburg.

My thoughts have been strongly focused on home during this time of transition at 2377 Hagen Oaks. So many comings and goings. Our homeless son-for-a-year moving out as he heads off to college. Our middle child moving back home after her college graduation from her Boulder home. Our oldest child coming home from Chicago to visit, filling the house with all three children for one precious weekend. Our youngest child moving to her Shanghai home for the semester. All of this movement begs the question: where is home? Home is in your heart, and you can take it with you, wherever you may live. Make yours a happy home.

LAYERS ON THE RUNGS

Another Layer by Jon McLaughlin (click song title to play)

Perception colors our perspective, artfully mirroring our outlook on life. This was illustrated last week when our painter left her ladder in our bathroom overnight.  I walked past it with scarcely a glance, vaguely wondering why she still used such a rickety old paint-splattered wooden ladder when she could easily go buy a shiny new sturdy metal one. My keenly observant husband, on the other hand, had an entirely different take on the ladder as he passed by. He stopped to examine it, fascinated by the caked-on layers of paint. To hear Tony describe this humble piece of equipment, it sounded as if he had encountered a colorful work of art. Intrigued, I went back for a second go around the ladder.  Immediately apparent was the startling realization that it wasn’t the sketchy wooden contraption I assumed, but rather the solid metal model that I thought our painter deserved. The layers upon layers of paint gave the ladder an aged patina, reminiscent of a venetian-plastered vintage antique, with a collection of stories resting on the rungs, just waiting to be told.  Gazing at the ladder in a whole new light set my imagination meandering about the houses she has painted and the people who have commissioned her through the years – a virtual gallery of masterpieces.

Our painter herself is a multi-layered treasure. We first met eighteen years ago when she was recommended to faux our bedroom walls.  She was a busy mother of three and a lovely athletic blond. I was immediately drawn to her quiet charm, the elegance of her paint-splattered overalls, the way she expressed her passion and made a living with her artistry. She has painted the gamut from elaborate murals on the halls of the rich and famous to plasters on the walls of ordinary suburbanites. With each coat of paint she layered on our walls over the years, another layer of her beautiful persona was revealed through our conversations, and I have grown to admire her strength of character and the way she lives her truths. When her larger-than-life husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, she bucked up and personally cared for him throughout this grueling illness to the tragic end with no outside professional help, all the while managing to support her family, financially and emotionally. During a recent conversation about this challenging time in her life, I questioned how she was able to handle such adversity with amazing grace and dignity, to which she humbly replied, “We care for family – that’s just what you do.”

Most recently, one of our painter’s grown daughters moved in with her, complete with husband and two young sons. For all the potential downside that many of us would find in these circumstances, our painter has uncovered the boundless joys and conveniences of this multi-layered living situation. She has a live-in cook, handyman and house sitter – not to mention marvelous companionship – while they have a lovely home for their family to blossom in and the wisdom of grandma to help guide them. What are their precious secrets to domestic peace and harmony?

~ Mutually respecting one another on all levels.

~ Giving each other space and time alone.

~ Keeping their mouths zipped shut.  As our wise painter said, “I keep my opinions to myself unless they ask… but when they ask, I can let it rip and say anything I want!”

~ Remembering to treat family like friends. We take time to nurture friendships, but it’s so easy to take family members for granted.

The world according to my painter is simple, true and noble. Life gets messy sometimes, but that just adds to the rich beauty and mystery. There was an article in the Contra Costa Times a few weeks ago about the Italian and Spanish grandmothers – nonnas and abuelas – who are helping their families with children survive and thrive during their countries’ difficult economic times.  Actually, this is nothing new. Multi-generational living is as old as human history, and human beings flourish in family life. Children especially benefit from the layers of love bestowed on them from all angles. Grandparents in the house build feelings of security and help kids stay grounded by creating lots of conversation, encouragement, problem-solving advice, and focus on the future. My father-in-law was always encouraging his grandchildren to be global citizens and tried to convince them to learn Mandarin because of China’s growing presence in the world. I’m quite certain that his gentle prodding is one of the reasons my daughter Sammi is studying Mandarin and spending the upcoming semester in Shanghai. Never underestimate the power of grandparents’ words!

The notion of families caring for each other through the complicated layers is a prevailing way of life in European countries and indeed most other countries in this world – but not so much in America. Perhaps we Yanks are too proud of our independence, displacing ourselves in cities far from our families. Perhaps we are too busy making money and trying to make ends meet to be bothered with caring for ailing, aging, troubled loved ones. Perhaps the hands-on live-in care is too daunting and overwhelming for many of us. Which deepens and enriches my admiration for our painter’s devotion to family even more. In her magnificent simplistic words, “My children were a burden to me, and someday I’ll be a burden to them. That’s just the way life works. We take care of each other… that’s what families do.”

GRANDFAMILIES are prevalent around the world, and the trend of intergenerational families under one roof is rising here in our country. According to the Pew Research Center, about 25% of the U.S. population lived in extended family households in 1940, but by 1980 only 12% did. Since then, layered households are on the increase, and by 2008 there were 49 million Americans – over 16% of the U.S. population – living in a household with at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. There is a great deal of talk about the disintegration of families and family values, but I’d like to believe that the rise of intergenerational households can only help strengthen the family ties and layers. If families helped each other more, there would probably be less welfare cases and fewer unhappy, disconnected individuals. We are social pack animals by nature, like puppies in a litter happily rolling around the floor all over each other.

If all this layered togetherness starts to feel claustrophobic, just imagine that you and your family members are characters in a movie or sit com that you’re filming. It helps to create a little emotional distance and breathing room, and it often brings a laugh at the absurdity of everybody painting on their layers so thick. Who knows what kind of a messy masterpiece your intergenerational family will create… but just start painting with vision, keeping your happy family in mind, and above all, have some crazy fun. Lay it on the rungs for the world to behold.

GIRL SINGING BADLY, WITH GUSTO

Songs We Sing by Reid Genauer & The Assembly of Dust (click song to play)

Janis Joplin banging out Me and Bobby McGee. Julie Andrews yodeling in The Sound of Music. Carol King crooning Natural Woman. Donna Summers electrifying the Last Dance. Whitney Houston mesmerizing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Meryl Streep hamming up ABBA tunes in Mama Mia. Even little Taylor Swift wailing about her teenage heartbreak. Listening to these divas makes me want to pick up the nearest hairbrush and sing my heart out… badly. Yes, I will confess to being a closet diva. Singing makes me happy, but I an certainly no vocalist. The extent of my formalized singing began and ended in a church youth choir oh so many years ago. I wanted that solo part in the worst way, but the choir director didn’t see fit to give it to me, making me see the light at the end of the short tunnel in my singing career. Oh yes, there was one last flicker before I came out of the tunnel. My college sorority oddly thought that I could sing reasonably well and asked me to perform in a trio for our seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. But when my voice cracked in the middle of our beautiful harmonized rendition of A Man Without a Theta, I tucked away the microphone for good. At least for serious public performances.

Undeterred, I continue to sing whenever the opportunity presents itself. And why shouldn’t I? Singing is good for our health and our soul, and that’s a fact. Although it’s difficult to quantify and remains inconclusive, there has been extensive research conducted by scientists and professors to determine the effects of singing on the human brain and body. For example, scientists from the University of Frankfurt in Germany tested the blood of professional choir singers before and after a 60-minute rehearsal of Mozart’s Requiem. They found that concentrations of hydrocortisone (an anti-stress hormone) and immunoglobulin A-proteins (which function as antibodies in the immune system) increased significantly during the rehearsal, leading them to conclude that singing strengthens the immune system and improves the performer’s mood. That’s good enough for me. Here are more reasons we should all keep on trilling:

~ Singing lowers your blood pressure. The best way to test this theory is to crank up the Rolling Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” the next time you’re frustrated about something, followed by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – and sing along loudly. It works even better when you’re driving alone in rush hour traffic with the windows rolled up tight or on a long quiet road with the top rolled down.

~ Singing releases endorphins into your system, making you feel energized and uplifted. It’s almost as good as sex and chocolate.

~ Singing tones abdominal muscles and the diaphragm, and it stimulates circulation. What an easy way to work out – don’t scoff, Coach Haertl.

~ Singing makes us breathe more deeply, which oxygenates the cells and improves circulation – rejuvenate and regenerate with just a few notes.

~ Singing increases mental alertness and enhances memory. Pre-school teachers know that children learn best through songs, and it stands to reason that it must be able to help adults retain information as well. Perhaps that’s why we can remember every word to the Gilligan’s Island theme song forty years later. Hopefully singing old television tunes can help stave off dementia.

~ Singing improves our posture. When we break into song, our chests expand, our backs and shoulders straighten, and we all stand a little taller.  There must be a confidence booster to go along with that.

~ Singing is the universal language that can bridge any cultural gap. Envision my gregarious father-in-law belting out raucous college fight songs in the pubs of Ireland – Captain Boo Boo had all the lads and lassies begging for more and cheering for America.

Personally, I think that the best thing about singing is that it’s just good fun. It makes me happy, and I like to sing in an attempt to make other people happy as well. My babies were raised with a continuous melody in their ears because a song and a cuddle were the most effective soothers. I must admit to lullaby embarrassment, however, when our Southern California neighbors learned all the words to Bette Midler’s Blueberry Pie just by listening through my open windows.

Another great thing about singing is that it is a wonderful way to honor someone you love. Several friends’ momentous birthdays have been commemorated  with special renditions of songs sung along with fellow foolish warbling friends. Unfortunately, we were laughing so hard during The Raney Bunch that we couldn’t catch our breath enough to get the words out. Most recently, some of us old high school PTA presidents gave a musical tribute to the departing principal with a video-taped rendition of To Joe, With Love complete with props and doo whops. My PTA co-president and I founded our lifelong friendship on the premise that we would only be fuddy-duddy PTA ladies if we could somehow make it fun. She and I occasionally entertained our meeting go-ers with silly songs to lighten things up, which had the surprising effect of increasing attendance dramatically. People probably came to the meetings just to see us make fools of ourselves, but it didn’t matter because we were too busy laughing at ourselves.

“When you feel down and out

Sing a song, it’ll make your day.”

~ Earth Wind & Fire

“Don’t worry that it’s not good enough

For anyone else to hear

Just sing, sing a song.”

~ Karen Carpenter

DOUBLE CHOCOLATE CAKE MEETS HUMBLE PIE

Happy Ways (Joe Walsh)

Reality check. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth — it was more like a tin fork from a mess kit. My hometown of Scottsdale was a dusty little western town rather than the ritzy resort destination it has become. We raced our bikes through the dirt and cotton fields instead of golf carts over plush greens. Our family vacations were camping trips in the little Scotsman trailer and road trips in the station wagon to visit relatives in the Midwest. We didn’t have much money, but we were rich with love and faith. My parents are kind-hearted, modest, devout souls, and I am eternally grateful to them for feeding me humble pie instead of decadent double chocolate fudge cake. I learned many things from my parents, like how to give and receive love, to appreciate the beauty of nature, and to respect the good in everyone. But perhaps the most valuable lesson they taught me is how to be happy, come what may.

I’ve been floating around life on my little happiness cloud even through a few of life’s twists and turns. But the real heroes and role models that inspire me to no end are the people who gut it up through major traumas with a smile in their heart. My dear friends who have lived through heart-breaking gut-wrenching divorces and suffered the ravages of cancer are truly amazing in my eyes. And the most amazing of all is my beautiful friend and others who have been devastated by the death of their child. I can’t imagine anything more horrifying, and to see my friend handle the loss with such grace, dignity, and positivity is utterly transformative. She has the most marvelous sense of humor that even her deepest sorrow couldn’t squelch. And she has turned her grief into helping other grieving parents handle their losses.

We may not always be able to control the things around us, but happiness is truly just a state of mind that we CAN control. Another perfect example of this truism is a young man named Tyler Southern. He was a 22-year-old marine serving in Afghanistan when an IED explosion destroyed both legs and one arm. He is now a “triple”, as he calls it, and his joie de vivre is infectious. In his words, “Crying ain’t gonna grow anything back. I’m chronically happy. It’s kinda hard to get me off the happy horse.”  Watch this inspiring clip for a genuine appreciation of life.  If Tyler feels like he’s “got the world at his prosthetic feet”, then we should all be deliriously floating on Cloud Ninety Nine.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/07/video-tyler-southern_n_1000816.html

Just dumb enough to be happy or too smart to be sad? We may be better off not over-analyzing our issues and simply focusing on living our best lives with a smile.  Let’s take off the dark shades, put on our rose-colored glasses, and choose to see the universe as a bright and happy place… come what may.

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”                             ~Ernest Hemingway

“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” ~Ritz Mae Brown

“Most people are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” ~Abe Lincoln

“A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.”   ~Hugh Downs

THE HAPPINESS FOOD RULES MINDFIRE PROJECT

05 Bari Improv (Kaki King from “August Rush” soundtrack)

Oops ~ I fudged, unintentionally of course. As I was going through the annual exercise of purging last year’s files and reorganizing for 2012, I discovered a list tucked away in a dark file. It wasn’t a set of New Year’s resolutions per se. It was more like a list of 44 To-Do’s, my how-to-live guidelines as I embarked on my journey as an empty nester back in October 2010. This list was posted at my desk for months, but eventually it ended up in a drawer along with my best intentions. Actually, after subconsciously seeing those 44 To-Do’s every day for months, it must have sunk in just a bit. Scanning the list when I ran across it yesterday, I realized that I was still trying to live most of those guidelines, more or less. Therein lies the power of subliminal messages!

During the holidays, I fell behind on (at least) three of those To-Do’s: “Find purpose and inspiration”, “Learn something new every day”, and “Read 2 books every month”. Searching for inspiration and something to read last week, I dug through my to-be-read pile.  Like most avid book worms, I have a never-ending pile of books waiting for my attention.  Somehow not 1 or 2 but 3 powerful little gems budged their way to the top of the pile. I couldn’t decided which one to tackle, so I’ve been juggling all three at once.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, Food Rules by Michael Pollan, and Mindfire by Scott Berkun sound like a mishmash of new age gobbletygoop, but they actually play off of each other quite nicely. The Happiness Food Rules Mindfire Project is an intriguing synergy of inspiration. It’s more than just reading… it’s a integrative, communal experience. The HFRMP discusses confusing subjects and makes them feel manageable.

Mindfire is a collection of essays that tweak our minds. I’m a curious seeker who loves learning, but I’m surely no intellectual… keep it simple has always been my motto. So I was excited to read Berkun’s essay entitled “There Are Two Types of People: Complexifiers and Simplifiers.”  Thank goodness I’m not a simpleton — I’m a simplifier! As the subtitle of this book indicates, it takes “Big Ideas For Curious Minds” and addresses them in clear, enlightening prose that makes you feel like you can conquer the world. Some of my favorite pieces are The Cult of Busy, On God and Integrity, How to Make a Difference, Creative Thinking Hacks, and Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas. Great food for thought.

Speaking of food, Food Rules IS An Eater’s Manual. No biochemistry, food science, nutritional lingo here – just plain and simple rules to help us eat mindfully for health. Pollan admits that he could have written the book with just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He points out that it all boils down to the simple fact that Western diets cause dramatically more health diseases than traditional diets containing no processed food. Simplifying nutrition is not only healthy but it saves money. Processed Western food is more expensive to create, leads to higher health care costs and pharmaceutical expenses, and makes more money for the media. More money for everyone at the expense of the eaters, which by the way are all of us. The illustrator of this book summed it up when she said that it “describes a sane and happy world of eating.”

Speaking of happy, The Happiness Project is a fun-loving romp on the road to a life well-lived. Rubin tackles a LOT of goals and aspirations, but she breaks it down into bite-size pieces month-by-month. I personally don’t want to have to work that hard at being happy, although I can see where this methodical process would be very effective. It takes away some of the spontaneity of life, but it does lay out a definitive path to achieve our desires. If you like board games or you’re a studious list-maker, you will love the happinessprojecttoolbox.com. I can’t decide if this book simplifies or complexifies the subject of happiness, but it’s certainly a heartwarming, inspiring journey that makes you feel like happiness is well within your reach.

I don’t usually recommend reading three books simultaneously, but in this case, it definitely provides mindfiring food for the happy spirit. It’ll tease your brain, energize your body, and tickle your soul!

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