Friday, April 20, 2018

Combating the Winter 'Blahs"

My column from January 13, 2017.

When feeling down in the dumps, one of my favorite ways to lift my mood is to find a cute animal video online.
It becomes much harder to feel grumpy when watching puppies or kittens frolic, chubby baby pandas taking turns going down a slide or sloths hanging out after a bath.
Sometimes the cute animal videos make the news. Owners of a convenience store in Toronto shared surveillance footage of stealthy squirrels that slip in the front door to shoplift nutty candy bars as part of a plea for ideas on how to prevent the theft. Simply closing the door is not an option, as the store feels stuffy (and an open door is more likely to bring in customers, not just larcenous squirrels.)
I sympathize with the storeowners. Shoplifting, even when committed by tiny, furry beasts, costs business owners far too much. Those poor squirrels clearly have a need for chocolate though– and studies show that dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins- brain chemicals that bring feelings of pleasure. I tend to squirrel away stashes of chocolate at home, the office and in my purse for a quick mood-lifting fix.
Exposure to the sun can help improve one’s mood, a resource that can be rare during winter months. Listening to upbeat music serves as another spirit enhancer, one that I try to use cautiously, given my tendency to sing along or start dancing at my desk. Such behavior can disrupt (or wildly entertain) the workplace.
 Another suggestion is to keep a positivity journal. Write down at least one good thing that happens each day in a journal or on a slip of paper stored in a decorative jar. Taking the time to look back and reflect on the good things in life can help us cope with the bad.
Studies suggest scents can help lift spirits. Try using a candle, essential oil diffuser or a roll-on. The scent of lemon can induce feelings of joy, lavender can calm and peppermint improves concentration. If you can track down scratch and sniff stickers, that could be a fun way to enhance your mood. Those were one of the best rewards for good work in school—even the ones that smelled like a freshly cut lawn, licorice or leather. Orange, grape, pizza and popcorn remain my favorites.
Sometimes just taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can help improve your mood. When we become tense we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths. A few deep belly breaths can help calm and center you.
Recent weather (and road) conditions have denied me access to one of my most reliable methods of boosting my spirits – going for a run. Sub-zero temps earlier this month did not deter me, I just added more layers. But ice-coated streets and sidewalks make running too hazardous, especially after a slip and fall. I own a pair of ice/snow cleats that fit over boots or running shoes and tried to go for a run on Wednesday morning, but even those did not offer enough grip to pick up the pace safely. A friend and I made it for about 1/3 of a mile before opting to visit a gym for a cardio-focused workout. While not nearly as satisfying as a long run, working up a sweat helps my mood. I often call exercise my “sweat-therapy.”
How do you combat the winter blahs?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

I Must Remember This

My column from January 21, 2017.

Why did I walk into this room?
When this question pops into my head, I often have to backtrack and scan the area I just left until my brain kicks the reason back out for me.
Short term memory issues could be because of my age, a side effect of medications I take, caused by depression or perhaps all of the above with a side dose of my occasional tendency to be a ditz.
I too often find myself easily distracted, and compare it to a dog that behaves until…SQUIRREL!
Or perhaps a toddler entranced by something that glows, shines or sparkles. I focus best while reading, which may be why I love books as much as I do.
I tried playing games designed to help improve one’s brain, until studies revealed those games were not much use in preventing memory loss. Which is just as well, as I’d rather play Tetris, Freecell, Angry Birds or Plants Vs. Zombies.
There are steps we can take to help us remember. When introduced to someone we can listen carefully and repeat the name, then picture an image that reminds you of the name and link that to an aspect of the person’s appearance.
Establishing routines helps too. While in the frenzy of moving, I began wearing my car and house keys on a lanyard around my neck so I would not lose track of them. Now my keys go into a bowl by my front door as soon as I arrive home.
Mneomonic devices are useful for helping us to remember. An acrostics, acronyms, rhymes and alliteration help, which is why music students learn “Every good boy does fine” to memorize the treble clef, HOMES can help us remember the names of the Great Lakes and “Thirty days hath September” keeps tabs on which months of the year have different amounts of days.
Eating more “brain” foods filled with vitamins and antioxidants, including blueberries, dark chocolate, broccoli, cauliflower and turmeric may help. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health. Since I don’t like canned tuna, herring or sardines, I eat walnuts, flaxseed, winter squash, pumpkin seeds, soybeans and spinach or take a supplement instead.
Getting more sleep helps, as fatigue plays a large role in memory issues. Exercise helps, too. One of the best ways to strengthen the brain is to keep learning and developing new skills. Maybe I should give knitting or crocheting another chance.
Making time for friends, laughter and reducing stress also help with memory issues.
My family history includes dementia or Alzheimer’s disease on both sides of my family tree, something that concerns me more as I am just a few years away from being considered “middle-aged.” My brain still holds on to details most may consider trivial (you want to pick me for your trivia team), but it also tends to remember faces far better than it holds on to names. If interrupted while working on a multi-step task, I may skip one of the steps.
Our memories help determine who we are, which is why it’s so hard when memory-related issues take loved ones away from us. I’ll never forget the day my grandfather asked me who I was. Even worse was the time he did not remember my mother, his daughter.
One of the best things about being a writer is that it helps capture who I am and what I care about, in case the day comes when my brain fails to remind me.

Learning for a Lifetime

My column for March 25, 2017.

My job allows me to visit schools, which I find delightful. It allows me to share stories about students and teachers, which I consider a privilege.
In the last eight days, I visited two schools – Randolph Elementary Middle School and Rock River Intermediate School in Waupun.
Holly Swanson, the physical education teacher at REMS, sent me an invitation to the school’s annual Jump Rope for Heart assembly. It is an event I look forward to and I have found it both uplifting and heartbreaking. The event often includes students sharing their rope jumping skills. This year’s assembly included two girls who cartwheeled in unison to start tandem jumping.
I brought my son along when I covered the 25th anniversary assembly for Jump Rope for Heart, held in the evening at Randolph High School. It included a performance by the Pink Panthers, a team of REMS students who pulled off some amazing rope jumping stunts.
 wanson does an amazing job coordinating the fundraiser and the assembly, finding ways to motivate her students while teaching lessons about the importance of fitness for health and community service. She is quick to share credit for the success of the Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser with her co-workers and the generous hearts of the community.
Next year, REMS is on track to jump past raising a quarter of a million dollars for the American Heart Association, an incredible achievement in 36 years for a small school district.
Sue Krause, who teaches fourth grade at Rock River, sent me an invitation in February to attend the annual wax museum held on Monday, and thoughtfully sent a reminder about the event a few days before.
I walked in to the school gym not knowing what to expect. I left with more photos than I could use, and new knowledge.
I found fourth grade students dressed up as people with a connection to Wisconsin. This included historical figures, athletes, actors, authors and more. There were several girls portraying Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a visit to Pepin remains on my travel bucket list, as I adored reading the Little House series as a child. As a horse crazy kid, I devoured the books of Marguerite Henry, but did not know she was born in Milwaukee until I visited the wax museum.
I also did not know Oprah Winfrey once lived in Milwaukee until I came across girls portraying her in the wax museum. I also did not know that Golda Meir also spent part of her childhood in Milwaukee. I learned about Vel Phillips, Kate Pelham Newcomb and Ada Deer.
I remember watching Bonnie Blair skate in the Olympics. I did not realize she lived in Wisconsin to train until meeting several Bonnie Blairs at the wax museum. The museum taught me about Carrie Chapman Catt, a native of Ripon. It shames me to admit that I lived in Ripon for three years and do not recall learning about her while there.
Students also portrayed Fred MacMurray and Gene Wilder, with very creative costumes.
One boy dressed up as Richard Bong, the World War II flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient, whose life was cut tragically short while serving as a test pilot. My maternal grandfather also served as a pilot during WWII, flying cargo planes on the Pacific front. While traveling with him from Ironwood, Mich., to the Twin Cities, we stopped in Bong’s hometown of Poplar, which has a replica of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter on display as a memorial to him.
I enjoy spending time with young people, and find their optimism and enthusiasm a balm for my soul. I once considered teaching as a career, but decided I lacked a trait necessary for a good teacher – patience. I salute teachers and aides who dedicate so much time to educate children.
Learning should be a lifetime activity, and I value opportunities that allow me to continue my education.

A Pinch of This, a Dash of that

A Pinch of This, a Dash of That
My column from April 1, 2017.

I have trouble following directions. While this applies to many things, such as me lifting my left foot when my physical therapist tells me to lift the right, this character flaw is most visible when I am in the kitchen.
I tinker with recipes.
I clip recipes out of newspapers and magazines. A bookcase near my kitchen holds two shelves worth of cookbooks. Smart phones and tablets give me access to so many recipes online.
I love cooking and baking, but my approach is less “follow the recipe” and more “Hmmm, what if I do this?” While this usually works out OK with cooking, baking is a science, a chemistry experiment that requires precise measurements, temperatures and following the steps.
Working as the features editor for the Lifestyles section allows me to choose what recipes will appear. I confess to experimenting TWICE with the muffin recipe that appears on page C3 this week.
The recipe only makes eight muffins, but I wanted to bring them to the office the first time I made them, so I tinkered with the measurements to get 12 servings. I also did not have raspberries on hand, but my pantry included a jar of blueberry jam begging to be used.
While creaming the butter and sugar, I decided adding a cream cheese filling would make the recipe better.
When I pulled the pan out of the oven, the muffins looked like a “fail.” They did not rise and collapsed in the middle. The muffin tops popped right off.
But the taste? Delicious, albeit a bit messy to eat.
Co-workers helped me get rid of the evidence of my tinkering while I plotted how to improve the recipe.
My plot failed again on round two. Frozen whole blueberries instead of jam and adding an egg and bit of flour to the cream cheese filling kept the muffins from collapsing in the middle, but this batch failed to rise and the muffin tops still are too easy to pop off. I packed up the batch to share with friends.
Making food to share with others is one of my joys in life. I usually make caramel brownies for these friends, but one decided to give up chocolate for Lent and I did not want to tempt and torture her. When we gathered for a visit last spring, I made both chocolate mousse and tiramisu. The first is from a recipe I learned from my mother, and while it is a recipe I do follow exactly, mine never turns out quite as silky and rich as hers does. The tiramisu is an “almost” from scratch recipe. I cheat and buy ladyfingers. I do not recommend making both in the same day unless you have a stand mixer. My kitchen does not include this marvel (although I covet one) so anything that needs mixing or whipping means breaking out the electric hand mixer.
I may try making the muffin recipe as directed at least once to try to determine what I can do to get my tinkered version to rise. And I’ll continue to tinker in the kitchen and share the results.

Update: My mother and stepfather gave me a stand mixer as my Christmas present. I love using it.

Leaving a black mark

My column from April 29, 2017.

I need to get something off my chest.
The misuse of sky commas drives me batty.
Sky commas, you ask?
I’m talking about apostrophes and quotation marks.
I acknowledge that I qualify as a grammar nerd. I love to read and live to write. By no means are my own grammar, spelling, punctuation (or even pronunciation) perfect. I make mistakes and miss typos. And sometimes those who edit my work may miss something too. I appreciate readers (often my mother) who send me a message pointing out the errors. Once my mortification fades I can at least fix the online version of a story, column or Facebook post. Twitter keeps promising the option to edit a tweet, but has yet to deliver.
Ask anyone who learns English as a second (or more) language, and they’ll tell you how complicated it can be compared to other languages thanks to idioms, heteronyms (words spelled the same with different meanings and pronunciations), tense changes and more. Still, English does not even make the top 10 list of most difficult-to-learn languages such as Mandarin, Finnish, Arabic, Korean, Basque, Icelandic, Navajo, Japanese and Polish.
My grammar nerd pet peeves include using the wrong version of to, too, or two, their, there or they’re, who’s and whose, your and you’re. Also on the list are abbreviations or text message shortcuts (especially in professional correspondence or online dating profiles).Punctuation errors also make me cringe.
The double “sky” commas – quotation marks – set off word-for-word quotations, and components such as book, album, song or show titles, and even the titles of TV series episodes, article or essay titles and short story or poem titles and the names of works of art. Some use italics for this instead. When identifying a quote within a quotation, use single quotation marks.
Quotations marks can also be used to set apart technical terms or something used sarcastically. Readers may be familiar with the “air” quote marks gesture – the index and middle fingers on each hand extended and twitched—often employed ironically or to use a word or expression in a way that varies from standard usage.
While visiting a restaurant recently, I noticed a disturbing use of quotation marks on the menu. Perhaps the person who designed the menu wanted to call special attention to “fresh” or “homemade” for the food available, but seeing “Fresh” fish on a menu makes me question the veracity of the claim. Lesson learned — do not use quotation marks to show emphasis or the message sent may not be one you wished to deliver.
The apostrophe (the single sky comma ’) shows possession to a singular noun when used with an S (the cat’s toy). An apostrophe does not make a regular noun plural. “Apostrophe’s are confusing” is wrong – it should be apostrophes. Apostrophes help build contractions – with the apostrophe replacing the letter or letters removed—thus cannot becomes can’t, they are become they’re and did not becomes didn’t. If you need to form a plural of lowercase letters, you can use apostrophes. The phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs” dates back to the early days of printing presses when letters were set in presses backwards to appear on the printed page correctly. While the phrase origin remains disputed, today the phrase means “Be careful, don’t make a mistake.”
But we are human and make mistakes. If you are not sure about a word or punctuation rule, do what I try to do.
Look it up.