Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Drilling into a New Year

I’ve never been a big fan of fitness classes. I can’t keep up with the moves, my 20-year-old t-shirts and shorts are out of place and the walls of mirrors leave no place for klutzes like me to hide. Exercising alone, in the comfort of my shabby and outdated workout attire, has always been much more appealing.

So I was surprised last week when I heard myself ask a neighbor friend if I could attend “Boot camp” with her–at 5:45 a.m. I had no idea what the class involved. Between Zumba, Bosu, Pilates, glide and spin, it’s hard to keep up with all the fitness trends.

When my alarm went off hours before the crack of dawn the next morning, my bed had never felt more divine. The sheets were soft and cool, the blankets the perfect balance of heaviness and warmth.

I scolded myself for volunteering for such a crazy idea. Nevertheless, volunteer I did and now my friend was counting on me to pick her up. So to Boot camp I must go.

Just twenty minutes after leaving the cozy nest of my bed, my nose was pressed against a dusty gym floor while a stop-watched carrying drill sergeant disguised as a small, blond fitness teacher stood overhead counting my push-ups. The name of the class suddenly made perfect sense.

During the next 45 minutes we ran lines and shuffled across the floor like high school hoopsters in slow motion. We did push-ups, sit-ups, burpees, squats, and jumping jacks. “Come on guys. This is suppose to be a sprint,” drill sergeant Jen scolded.

The Christmas truffles I had been eating for weeks shook like rocks in my head and the gingersnaps and frosted sugar cookies I ate the night before didn’t seem like such a smart bedtime snack. Thank goodness I remembered to grab a water bottle. It was gone half way through the class.

The final five minutes were dedicated to sit-ups. My red face looked like it would explode under the pressure of pulling myself up. I figured, in between grunts, that it had been at least 10 years since I had done a full sit-up. My abs had been sleeping a long time and clearly preferred to remain in slumber.

I cheated my way through the last of those, laid lifeless on the mat during the cool down, and shuffled out of the class.

“Isn’t that a great workout? Doesn’t it go fast?” my friend said cheerfully on the way home. Fortunately she didn’t wait for my response.

For the next couple days, normal functions like sitting, standing, and walking required considerable concentration. My whole body hurt. Laughing was torture. My only choice was to return to class in hopes of loosening up those stiff and neglected muscles.

Despite the pain, I have returned to the class three more times. The hour is grueling, but my classmates are motivating, the instructor is challenging, and I love how alive I feel when I drive to work.

Best wishes to all who are launching fitness goals in the New Year. May you find your inner drill sergeant—or a good Boot camp class—to keep you going.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas is Patience

Some friends and I are studying the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. It’s an amazing study – one I’ve completed before and embraced again because of the “fruit” it produced last time. I need more fruit.

One of the exercises in the study involves learning the American Sign Language expressions for each of the nine fruits. The sign for patience brought me to tears. You make a fist, place it thumb side down on your upper lip and move your thumb down over your closed lips, stopping under your chin. It’s a little difficult to demonstrate in writing, but it looks like a sign for shut your mouth.

I think I wrote about this the last time I completed this study but it bears repeating. Patience means “Keep that sharp comment to yourself.” I should check my actions with that sign when I feel my patience dwindling.

Patience can be hard to come by for kids and adults in our house. We had to wait 20 minutes at a coffee drive through on Sunday morning and tension was so high by the time we received our order we barely mustered a thank you for the woman who handed us our drinks. Merry Christmas. God bless you!

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I know we aren’t alone. I watched two young women in a large SUV nearly run a sedan off south 7th street last week when the car wasn’t going fast enough. They eventually weaved hazardously through the traffic and roared past the “slow” car only to sit next to it at the very next stoplight.

Christmas is associated with a variety of feelings and states—joy, hope, generosity, peace. This year, I’m noticing how much Christmas has to teach us about patience. The word isn’t emblazoned on Christmas ornaments or stocking holders but Christmas is swaddled in manger of patience.

Adults need patience to manage the extensive list of Christmas preparations on top of our already packed everyday lives. We need patience to deal with crowded stores and streets and with additional bills. Sometimes we need patience to interact with family members we only see at the holidays.

For children, Christmas is a grueling test of patience. Weeks, days, hours and minutes creep by until the moment when they can finally rip the wrapping off their gifts or rush to the tree to see what Santa delivered.

Ultimately, though, these are small and relatively simple exercises in patience. A friend said to me last week, “If only we spent as much time decorating our souls as we spend decorating our homes for Christmas.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

What are we decorating and why? Why are we buying and baking and giving?
What Christians are really preparing for is the arrival of our Savior—perhaps the ultimate test in patience. In this respect, the Christmas Season is a metaphor for Christian living. We share generously our gifts, serve our family and friends, remember the less fortunate, spread joy and good cheer, sing praises, all with the hope of someday meeting our Savior.

May we walk patiently through the remaining days of advent and beyond, using all of our Christmas preparations and celebrations as an opportunity to decorate our souls for Christ.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A classic Thanksgiving battle: Woman versus turkey

A small container of lumpy potatoes is all that remains of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.

Christmas promoters have been trying to overtake Thanksgiving for years. We had just finished counting our Halloween candy when one radio station started playing Christmas music 24/7 and an eager neighbor revealed an impressive display of Christmas lights.

In stubborn protection of Thanksgiving, we refused to hang our outdoor lights during the many calm and balmy November days. It wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t have to prop a ladder on icy sidewalks and wrestle with frozen lights in a brisk December wind.

So, our home was all gourds and leaves for our Thanksgiving gathering that included 11 adults and 7 children—a manageable number yet big enough to feel like a party.

I have a habit of underestimating these tasks and feeling more confident than I should. “I’m keeping it simple,” I tell myself. “Just the basics.”

I delegated the pies and stuffing, and a friend at work inspired me with a promising recipe for the most memorable turkey ever: a champagne turkey.

I’ve tried many methods for cooking gobblers – the bag, the deep fryer, soaking in brine. All have left me wanting. Surely, the champagne turkey would end my search. I looked forward to satisfied looks and glowing praise from guests after the first juicy bites of this succulent, flavorful turkey touched their lips.

My Food Network mentor, the Barefoot Contessa, inspired me to stay up late on Thanksgiving Eve to prepare the bird. Just like her, I would be ready in advance, a carefree host calmly offering my guests refreshing holiday drinks and laughing gaily with them rather than sweating in the kitchen.

At noon, everything was progressing as planned. Just a few more details and I would join the guests. I put the turkey in the oven in preparation for a 3:30 meal, fried bacon for salad, sautéed mushrooms for gravy and cleaned up the kitchen.

Two hours had passed so I checked the bird. The meat thermometer didn’t even register a temp. Weird. I turned the oven up to 400, poured myself a Kir Royale and went to work on more “final” details. Then I cleaned the kitchen.

At 3 p.m., the temperature had only advanced a few more degrees—so much for a 3:30 dinner. I poured myself a different champagne concoction and stole turkey drippings to make the gravy. Then I cleaned up the kitchen.

At 4:30 p.m., our kitchen looked like a bunch of college boys had been living in it for a month. The stove, island and counters were filled with prepared food or dirty pans. Every serving bowl and spoon we own was in use. And the turkey barely registered 150 degrees.

At this point, I decided guests could either suffer salmonella or have Thanksgiving dinner without turkey. Their choice.

I stomped downstairs and transferred title for the turkey to my husband. He retracted the recliner and dryly suggested we could order pizza (to the chuckles of all our guests.)

I threatened him with the sharp end of the meat thermometer.

He pulled the bird out of the oven, began carving it and declared, “Oh, it’s done. This is definitely done.” It wasn’t as dry as turkey jerky, but let’s just put it this way. There wasn’t any leftover gravy.

Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, but I’ve officially resigned as cooker of holiday meat. Santa, please bring my husband a new meat thermometer. I don’t want to eat pizza on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Observations from the bleachers of the 2010 election

The election is over. North Dakotans, and most Americans, are sighing with relief. No more ads.

We’re all too familiar with the template:

Dark, sinister music plays. An ominous voice relates a list of dreadful misdeeds or characteristics. “This bad guy supports putting oil wells on stage at Medora’s Burning Hills Amphitheater.” “That bad guy votes with Satan, I mean Nancy Pelosi, 97 percent of the time.”

Cue bright, cheerful music and a upbeat voice expressing meaningless platitudes. “But ‘good guy’, he’s respected and trustworthy. He’ll hold the line on spending, care for seniors and bring home the bacon. He’ll ignore special interest groups -- except of course yours (wink wink).” He will. Honest. Believe me -- I’m a nameless person with a trustworthy voice being paid to say this.

The scripts are so dim and predictable it’s laughable. Campaign staffers even mock them.

I love politics, but today’s political landscape is discouraging. Leadership of our nation seems to have been reduced to an NFL football game, a perpetual rematch of Vikings versus Packers.

Rival teams struggle for field position, develop their strategies and occasionally steal plays from each other. Commentators scrutinize every fumble or touch down. The pundits, cheerleaders and a dwindling group of fans devour it. But a growing mass of spectators tunes it out.

Politics is supposed to be about policy. We elect people to develop laws that significantly affect our lives.

But political campaigns today, at least the part that reaches most people, are rarely about policy. It’s about personality. In order to simplify messages into 30-second ads, political parties and consultants brand the personalities involved.

In 2008 Bush was the “bad guy” roped around Republicans like a noose. This year, the Republicans copied this play and choked Democrats with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Political consultants advocate strongly for these and other negative tactics. “They work,” they argue, and go back to writing talking points. I’ve long accepted this rational, but the endless assault of attack ads in North Dakota’s Congressional race – sometimes three or four in a row – left me wondering why. Why is this an acceptable?

I could give my kids Dramamine every night to make them sleep rather than struggle through the bedtime routine. I could start smoking to lose weight. We could open a new credit card and charge a family trip to Hawaii to help make winter more tolerable.

All of these tactics would solve the problems at hand, but that doesn’t make them responsible or smart.

So it is with negative ads – those that go beyond pointing out someone’s record to degrade their personality. “Be a man!” one recent North Dakota ad condemned. Maybe this “works” but it’s seriously undermining our political process.

Political consultants need to chart another path. Candidates must insist on it. The rest of the responsibility belongs to us. You know, we, the people.

Rather than relying on 30-second ads to inform us, we must invest some time, just a modest amount, to understand the background and experience of candidates. How are they qualified for the positions they want and where do they stand on issues that matter deeply to our American way of life.

The Internet is full of resources to do this. Think of it like making your own fantasy football team of political leaders.

Peace has returned to the airwaves for now, but it’s temporary.

Cue eerie music and creepy voice. “… We’ll be back … ”

The next election is just around the corner. Dare we hope it’s more positive?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In admiration of little boys

My husband and daughter were gone last weekend, so my boys, five and seven, invited a buddy to sleep over. Oh for a hidden camera to preserve the spirit of these three boys who exist for one purpose: to squeeze the life out of every waking minute.

Sports consumed them for the first couple hours. Sammy exploded into the house to report that he had hit a baseball all the way to our porch window. He seemed surprise by my response. “Did you break it?” What an irrelevant thing to ask a five-year-old after the biggest hit of his life.

Later, they took over the swing set – not swinging or sliding or using any of the accessories for their intended purpose, of course. The ladder was on the ground. They spun the horse in circles, wrapped the swing around the top bar, and scaled all the walls except the one intended for climbing – the rock wall.

I dragged them on a short errand to my parent’s house. There they found a jumper and invented a wrestling/jumping/basketball game, the spontaneous rules of which they each understood perfectly.

The promise of pizza and pop drove them bonkers, and effectively bribed them away from the jumper. While they waited for their gourmet meal, they waged a Nerf gun War of Terror in our basement. Their impressive arsenal of arms includes a crossbow, pistols, rifles, lasers and even an automatic weapon that delivers Velcro-tipped bullets at an alarming force.

I find them in every corner of our house including, most recently, the bottom of my purse. I fully expect to walk into a meeting someday with a bullet dangling from the back of my jacket.

As we concluded our perfect meal, the clock struck 7:30. The October sky was already dark.

“How’d you like to go for a night walk?” I asked.

All six eyes widened and sparkled and the boys burst forth with a collective, “Yaaahh!” For a moment, they looked at me sideways in disbelief, as if I had just offered them an endless supply of Laffy Taffy and three uninterrupted hours of Wii.

As we prepared for the walk, one of them said, “You know, there’s been a lot more crime here lately.” The others solemnly agreed. They grabbed a flashlight and armed themselves. Not with weapons from the Nerf cache -- that would be foolish. “We’d lose the bullets, mom.”

No, they grabbed a device dreaded by all hardened criminals: rubber bands. We set out -- our loyal chocolate lab and a fearless band of rubber-band-bearing boys -- unafraid of any danger we might face at dusk in Bismarck.

For the entire 20-minute walk they discussed various plans of attack should we encounter “night robbers.” Wrestling, shooting them in the eyes and knocking them where the sun doesn’t shine were the most popular schemes.

Fortunately, we made it home without incident. After a competitive game of Sorry Sliders and their favorite creatures-of-the-desert book, they had consumed the day’s final drops of life. The three tireless tykes were tuckered out.

I kissed them and left them with their rubber bands and bullets to defeat the bad guys of their dreams.

Little boys -- marvels of energy, courage, curiosity and competiveness. Sadly, these qualities don’t always conform to the designs of modern childhood. Still, let us nurture not suppress the best of these traits so our future men might fulfill their potential to lead, defend, love and live life to the fullest.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Searching for Life's Easy Button

My daughter wants to learn how to play guitar. We are thrilled about this so two years ago we bought her a cute half-size instrument, found a wonderful young teacher and added guitar lessons and practice to our schedule.

That was the easy part. Everything since then -- not so easy. She quickly discovered that, while the gear and the lessons can be purchased, the skills to play a guitar cannot. Whenever the struggle comes to a head, she insists tearfully, “No mom. I don’t want to quit. I just don’t want to practice.”

Oh, how I can relate. I have a long list of aspirations – playing the guitar, speaking Spanish, writing a book, learning to knit. But somehow I lack the time, focus and probably the passion to make them a reality.

One of the inconvenient truths about life is that we can buy a lot of things to make our time on Earth easier – self-cleaning ovens, drive-through food, automatic sprinklers, remote car starters, and any number of “I” items (I-phones, pods, pads, tunes, books).

But most of the things in life worth having can’t be bought or gained through a short cut. Apple doesn’t offer an I-PerfectMarriage, I-MedicalDegree, I-ScratchGolfer.

Nowhere is the lack of convenient shortcuts more evident than in parenting.

Our youngest is struggling a bit to adjust to pre-school. On the first day, a spiffy new pair of shoes was enough to inspire him through the door. But the novelty of the new shoes has long since worn off. Lately when I drop him off he wraps his arms and legs around me like a spider monkey and insists he’s staying with me.

Removing a nimble five-year-old who is clinging to your back with all four limbs is impossible to do gracefully while wearing high heels and carrying a giant pink purse. Especially when, in my heart, I want to stay with him, introduce him to friends and keep him comfortable.

Would my presence ease his transition or rob him of an important chance to learn how to make friends and adjust to new situations on his own? Oh for an I-ParentingDecisionMaker to tell me.

For parents, every day is a replay of “to do or not to do.” Should we confront the mean friend on our child’s behalf, protect them from a bad teacher, buy them what they want, restrict their access to TV or video games, say no to junk food and soda, lobby a coach for more playing time?

When should we intervene and when should we leave them to fight their own battles and learn their own lessons? Where’s the “easy button” to help us find this delicate balance?

Our instinct is to make things easy and comfortable for our kids, to fix their mistakes and protect them from bad consequences. But good things rarely come easy or without effort. Convenience doesn’t build character.

The best and most loving approach might very well be to let them struggle through some hard times, learn to deal with pain and disappointment and hopefully gain the confidence, compassion and strength of realizing they can.

For kids and adults alike, money can’t buy a shortcut for that

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fall is Here

I did something last week that I haven’t done for months -- wore long pants running. I hated to take this step and debated trying to ignore the thermometer, but the previous day found me shivering in white capris and sandals that I naively wore in protest to the changing temps.

Let’s face it. Fall is here.

A few weeks ago I was celebrating the best summer ever. But the air today is altogether different. The undertones are undeniably cool and the dominoes of a new season are beginning to tumble. New routines, responsibilities and hobbies one-by-one shut the door on summer and transition us gently (please oh please gently, and slowly) into winter.

It begins with clothes. Fall means jeans and sweatshirts, and for women especially the return of socks. Wool, corduroy or “Russels” are clearly premature at this point, but cotton is much too breezy. Denim and fleece are just right.

Food also takes a major turn. Fall means soup and chili – the easiest comfort foods. I miss having these no-fail options to turn to in the summer when the clock strikes six and we realize the dinner angels forgot to bless our home with food or inspiration for it.

Fall means the return of school routines. Amen and hallelujah. Parents everywhere are celebrating this.

Don’t get me wrong. I treasure the freedom of summer, but enough is enough. Our kids were beginning to sound way too much like Sponge Bob and Patrick. They stayed up late, played all day and ate so many freeze pops I began to worry their teeth might take on the brilliant rainbow hues of these cheap treats.

So long freedom, hello 8:15 bedtimes and two glorious hours of mostly quiet adult time. One of these days I might actually watch a television show or balance the checkbook again.

Fall also means the end of potted plants and their incessant need for water. I’m sick of ours, and secretly hope for a freeze so I can quit watching them slowly die from neglect. Don’t tell, but I’m cheating on them already anyway. I noticed some very attractive pumpkins at the farmer’s market the other day. The dainty pink petunias that brought me joy all summer will soon be withering in the garbage can, replaced by rough and ruddy hay bales and gourds.

Finally, fall means new hobbies. My poor hips and bunions are begging me to return to the lap pool, something I just can’t do until the snow flies and temperatures plummet. Golf clubs will soon be replaced with shotguns. And Sunday afternoons will find families and friends gathered together for the great (and often futile) tradition on these Northern plains: cheering for the Vikings or Packers.

Welcome fall! Enter slowly, make yourself at home, and please stick around for a while. I have lots of jeans to wear.