Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Take a Break: Celebrate Leap Day

Today is Feb 29, which only comes once every four years (or thereabouts). In the Gregorian calendar, leap year occurs in years evenly divided by 4 or evenly divisible by 100. That holds true, with the exception of a year divisible by 400-1900 wasn’t a leap year, but 2,000 was. Although most years of the modern calendar have 365 days, a complete revolution around the sun takes approximately 365 days and 6 hours. Every four years, during which an extra 24 hours have accumulated, one extra day is added to keep the count coordinated with the sun's apparent position.

So what do you want to do with the extra 24 hours that you have this year? Below are some ideas:

Learn more about Leap Year

Since Leap Day is traditionally a time when the woman could ask the man to marry her, if you are a woman, is there a special someone you’d like to “pop the question to?”

Frogs are associated with Leap Year, because of their hopping or leaping capability. So some frog fun might be in order
- Make cupcakes that look like a frog (leap frog)
- Print out Happy Leap Year cupcake toppers and party circle tags.
- Try other party games and printables
- Play leap frog
- Make an origami frog that leaps
- Color a frog mandala

Watch “Leap Year” a romantic comedy from 2010 or The Pirates of Penzance, where Leap Day plays an important role.

If you didn’t catch “30 Rock’s”Leap Year Celebration, watch a clip on-line.

Watch the Leap Year Waltz by Ivor Novello.

If you have a friend with a leap year birthday, make a big deal out of it, since it only comes around once every 4 years.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Contentment is Happiness

I wonder if Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers understood the implications of including “the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence as one of the “unalienable rights” for future generations? What if our founding fathers had said life, liberty and the pursuit of contentment instead? Oh no, that sounds like we’d be settling versus forging ahead in the American pioneering spirit.

I’m not an economics expert, but it doesn’t seem to me that the “shop till you drop” approach is doing all that well at the moment. In fact, it is interesting to note that while the US continues to focus on things like GNP (gross national product), other countries, such as Bhutan, have been focusing on gross national happiness (GNH) since 1972. Take heart, as the US now has its own GNH, project started in Vermont in 2008.

Our lives would certainly be different if our founding fathers had adopted the Bhutan philosophy of GNH, “the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation.” However, I think our Declaration of Independence was the right document for its time, particularly as we engaged in the War of Independence.

That said, just what do happiness, contentment and chronic disease have in common? Contentment is the important balance point on the happiness scale (if such a scale exists), where euphoria is at one end and depression at the other. This is a very achievable goal regardless of whether you are dealing with health issues or not. Further, because continual stress, anxiety and sadness have a devastating impact on immune function, it is important for people with chronic disease to achieve a level of contentment, as it can improve health and well being.

While Bhutan has a website that identifies four pillars of GNH ( good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation) along with sub categories, our founding fathers didn’t spell out their guidelines for their “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Maybe because we were in the start up and “breaking away” phase, that we took happiness to be more on the euphoric end of the scale.

That said, a number of the signers had very clear ideas about happiness.

John Adams: We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

Thomas Jefferson: It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.

The one with the clearest idea of what is happiness/contentment was Ben Franklin. Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.” He also wrote “Happiness depends more on the inward disposition of mind than on outward circumstances.”

In short contentment is finding our joy and happiness in our lives as they are versus the constant pursuit of thinking the latest car, or some other product, is going to make our lives better.

As we were forging a new nation, “pursuit” was a necessity on a number of fronts, and it is easy to understand why Americans, after beating back the British and gaining their independence, went for the euphoric end of the happiness scale. But that is unrealistic to maintain.

So how does one achieve contentment? Since we’re all wired differently, the path will be unique to each of us. Below are some things to consider:

Where is the place that you feel the most at peace? It could be watching a sunset, sitting at church, listening to music, walking in the woods, sitting by a lake or stream, reading in bed late at night, meditating. Where ever it is, try to have it be part of your day, even if it’s just for a short period of time.

List the things you truly love. Note that most of them, or possibly all of them, have nothing to do with money. Make sure to include them in your daily life as much as possible.

Socialize with people you enjoy. We are social beings so it’s important that we keep strong social networks in place. Be mindful of the company you keep. As Ben Franklin wrote There are two sorts of people in the world, who with equal degrees of health and wealth and the other comforts of life, become the one happy, the other unhappy. Those who are to be happy fix their attention on the pleasant parts of conversation, and enjoy all with cheerfulness. Those who are to be unhappy think and speak only of the contraries. Hence they are continually discontented themselves, and by their remarks sour the pleasures of society, offend personally many people, and make themselves everywhere disagreeable. If these people will not change this bad habit, and condescend to be pleas’d with what is pleasing, it is good for others to avoid an acquaintance with them, which is always disagreeable, and sometimes very inconvenient, particularly when one finds one’s self entangeld in their quarrels.

Doing something with your hands-gardening, cooking drawing, painting, music or anything that fully engages your attention, but doesn’t over tax it by being frustrating helps to reduce the stress hormones in your brain.

Simplify. Less is good. Contrary to popular belief, the brain can’t multi task. It can only do one thing at a time. That doesn’t stop people from driving and talking on their cell phone, which, as it turns out, is riskier than drunk driving. Ease up on commitments, do less each day and make time for the things you love. Turn off the distractions of TV, cell phones, internet etc.

Live mindfully. According to Dr. John Kabat-zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) there are five ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Focus on what is right with you-thank your body for all the things it does right; love yourself unconditionally; live in the present (don’t obsess about the past or future); don’t take it personally-accept things as they are, own what you brought to a given situation and let the rest go; and focus on being, disconnect from the TV, newspapers, internet etc and contemplate the world around you.

Be grateful for what you have. Regardless of a barrage of commercials telling you what will make you happy, they’re selling you a product. By and large, having more “stuff” doesn’t increase your happiness.

Help others. There are many studies now that show that helping others increases our sense of well being. However, keep in mind that like anything else, done to extremes it can have the opposite effect.

Be in nature.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Take a Break: Celebrate National Potato Lover’s Month

I don’t think I’ve ever met a potato I didn’t like, yet I didn’t know that February is National Potato Lover’s Month until this past weekend. There is a first time for everything.

Did you know that potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese? They are 5,000 potato varieties, with 3,000 of them in the Andes.

When we think of potatoes, we may think of Ireland and the “potato famine.” However, potatoes originated in the Andes Mountains of South America. The first potato didn’t cross the Atlantic until 1570 and it didn’t become a staple crop of Ireland until around 1780.

There are lots of ways to celebrate the potato:

• Crafts using potatoes
- Potato printing (potato stamps)
- Turquoise potato beads
- Potato Dough

• Try some heart healthy recipes from the Idaho Potato folks

• Learn more about the history of the potato and the Irish potato famine

Play Mr. Potato Head’n Friends

Dance the mashed potato with Dee Dee Sharp

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is Counseling Necessary to Cope with a Crisis?

In the past few months, I seem to be stumbling over the same question, but in various forms. Simply put, if you experience a life-altering event, such as the flood Irene, a divorce, death of a loved one, or the diagnosis of a serious illness, is seeing a therapist or counselor a requirement for adjusting and coping?

I’ve been mulling over this question for quite a while, but reading Is Grief an Illness? The Debate Heats Up pushed me to complete a blog post about it. The American Psychiatric Association is in the process of revising its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and there is consideration of including “bereavement” as a treatable illness, rather than a normal reaction to loss.

I may be a bit more sensitive to this issue for two reasons. First, I’m watching a “mental health” response in my state regarding Irene, which seems to be more about people making money versus anything that I’ve read in the literature as far as effectiveness. Second, I have several friends that are coping with significant loss. Telling them they need to “see someone” doesn’t seem to be all that helpful. In fact, it just makes them doubt their own ability to heal on their own.

Is this really an important question to ask? I think it is because our society’s dependence of turning just about everything over to the “experts” is not only disempowering, but in the case of dealing with loss, a normal part of life, the research just doesn’t support it. Oh, there is also the money piece. If we truly believe that the only way we can heal from loss is therapy, guess then only those with the right insurance or money can heal.

Soooo. The short answer to the question is “no.” Life altering events have taken place since we evolved as a species and there is considerable evidence that our brains are wired to help make adjustments and be resilient. In fact, mucking with the process might just make things worse.

Many well meaning people believe that when a disaster strikes, “you should see someone and don’t hesitate to tell family, friends and acquaintances accordingly.

In the case of natural disasters, such as the recent flooding from Irene, considerable amounts of money are being spent in my state on “crisis counseling for “victims.” Is this money well spent, or as one of our local ministers said, “can we get that money in concrete instead?” I receive weekly e-mails about mental health programs for “victims,” another term I hate and never use, yet I have a family that I’ve been trying for three months to get their floor laid so they can start using the lower level of their home. Which is more beneficial to this family-a) a session with a mental health professional or b) someone that can lay their floor? I’ll vote option b, but there’s more money available for a.

A few days after 911, a group of psychologists sent a letter to the American Psychological Association. Experts in trauma research and treatment, they wrote "In times like these, it is imperative that we refrain from the urge to intervene in ways that—however well-intentioned--have the potential to make matters worse....Unfortunately, this has not prevented certain therapists from descending on disaster scenes with well-intentioned but misguided efforts. Psychologists can be of most help by supporting the community structures that people naturally call upon in times of grief and suffering. Let us do whatever we can, while being careful not to get in the way." The message was clear, what may appear as abnormal behavior is actually a very normal reaction to a very abnormal set of circumstances. Gerald Rosen, a Seattle psychologist and one of the letter's authors said "The public should be very concerned about medical zing what are human reactions."

Ignoring the request, well-meaning crisis counselors were sent. Ultimately, this afforded a good opportunity to study how people deal with a major crisis and what type of help is most useful. Despite the influx of counselors into Manhattan, most New Yorkers received no therapy following the attacks. Furthermore, data from surveys taken after September 11th contradicted the early predictions that there would be widespread psychological damage.

In “The Other Side of Sadness,” George Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Chair of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, writes We can’t help but know that the pain of loss in is inevitable. Death and taxes, as the saying goes. Eventually, grief confronts everyone, and probably more than once in a lifetime. Yet, despite its ubiquity, most people know next to nothing about what to expect. Even people who have already suffered a major loss often do not know whether the grief they experienced was normal or whether they will experience anything remotely similar if they have to go through it again….The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient.

Bonanno and his colleagues have studied a variety of traumatic situations, 9/11 terrorist attack, Hong Kong residents affected by the SARS epidemic, and those living under chronic stress in the Palestinian territories. In all of these situations, the common reaction to trauma is resilience. In fact, he estimates that only about 1 in 10 people will have “chronic” reactions to loss. Instead of grief counselors, Bonanno is looking for ways to promote resilience and positive emotion after loss. One way, interestingly, is smiling and laughter. The latter almost always has a positive effect.

Somehow we are missing a very important point-we are resilient and we are programmed to be that way. Freud’s “grief work,” and Kubler-Ross’s Five stages, have not been found to hold water when put to the scientific test. Yet, we continue to expect people to react in certain ways. We refer to bereavement as “work,” and in general are very judgmental about how people deal with loss and crisis.

So why is it that we want to turn what really is a normal part of life over to a specialist? Do we no longer trust ourselves to do what we’re wired to do? Are we afraid that we’re getting it wrong? Are we so fearful of loss in ourselves, we don’t want to bear witness to other people’s pain so better to let an “expert” deal with it?” Do we get a “kickback” for everyone we refer to therapy?

There are probably a host of reasons why we have become a culture where we want to find the expert to solve this or that problem. Actually, are we creating problems that don’t exist because there are “experts” that need something to do?

Regardless, these are some things to think about when you or someone you are close with experiences a significant loss:

Don’t judge yourself or others in how a crisis is handled. The chances are very good that you or they are doing exactly what needs to happen and ultimately will be just fine. Feelings can be very intense and people do what may appear to be very odd, scary and/or strange. In fact, it can be pretty frightening so it is comforting to hear that you are having a “normal response to a very abnormal situation.” The intense pain does lessen as you adjust to the situation.

The experience is what it is. When my mother died, while I was deeply saddened, I didn’t find myself consumed by grief in the same way a friend of mine did when her Mom passed. It didn’t mean that I loved my mother less or that I didn’t “deal with it,” as some people thought. We just dealt with it differently. Recently I read an article about President Lincoln’s reaction when his son Willie died at 11 years of age. The President was so devastated that people close to him wonder whether he would be able to carry on, but on February 24, [four days after the death of his son] the New York Evening Post reported, accurately or not, "Mr. Lincoln . . . is again at his ordinary duties, spending, not infrequently, eighteen out of the twenty-four hours upon the affairs of the nation." Mary Todd Lincoln had a very different reaction. Mary was devastated -- so much so that Lincoln worried for her health. "She took to her bed for three weeks, and for months 'the mere mention of Willie's name sent her into paroxysms of weeping.'

• Laughter helps a lot.
It does wonderful things to the brain to help reduce stress

Since our brains work best on exercise, according to John Menino, the author of “Brain Rules,” a walk, hike or some other activity is a great idea.

A drink now and then isn’t a bad thing, but turning to alcohol to deaden the pain creates more problems and can be quite lethal.

Connect with other people. We are social beings and we need strong connections to stay healthy. It just amazes me how all sorts of people came to the funeral and visited the family after my friend’s son died. People told her that they’d be checking in with her in a month or so, made promises to get together etc. but only a few made good on their word. She asked me several months after the event, “what am I suppose to do, call them up and ask them when they’d like to get together? Gee maybe they’d like to go out with me, because who knows, maybe I’ll break down and cry for them.” She said this in such a humorous way, we both ended up laughing-a very healthy and healing thing. However, the situation is real. Visit people who are grieving. They need connections. If you are having a bad day, ask someone to meet you for coffee, take a walk, watch a movie etc.

Cut them some slack but treat them as normal as possible. When I was working on the National Spinal Cord Hotline, the woman I was working with expressed her incredible frustration about how her friends treated her after her injury. She was a paraplegic, but as she pointed out, “just because I can’t walk doesn’t mean I can’t think.” She said, “I didn’t know my injury required me to have new friends. They no longer call to tell me their problems because they don’t want to upset me.” She welcomed the opportunity to be “upset” for someone other than herself. By treating her so different, she did ultimately replace the old friendships with people who fully understood the give and take required. Clearly use your judgment on this one about what you say and when.

Take a break. You don’t have to think about this 24/7. People need to be reminded that they can do something else This is where doing something with your hands can help to significantly lower stress. I learned how useful this was when one of the women I worked very closely with lost her young son from AIDS. Several months went by and, at her request, I ran a beading workshop for the HIV+ women’s support group. All of the women had significant loss in their backgrounds. Several had lost husbands, everyone had close friends that had died and all of them were dealing with significant reactions to medications. My friend called me later that night to thank me and tell me this was the best she had felt in months. She bought herself a bunch of beads. When the pain of the loss was more than she could deal with, she’d make earrings or something else. As it turned out, she had incredible artistic skills that she never realized.

Channel the loss into something positive. I am on the board of the McCostis Scholarship Fund, which provides snow sports scholarships for our local kids. Someone that worked with Sue McCostis designated the charity as a place to donate after her husband died. That was the beginning of our having “named scholarships.” We now have four of these, all of which were started in less than a year of the person’s passing. This is definitely a win/win. Our board meetings are social events filled with laughter and positive remembering. People find comfort in seeing a legacy, doing something constructive, and the kids are so grateful for the help. I can’t help but brag a little about one of our gals that the Pete Noyes Scholarship has funded for a number of years. She is now our state champ in alpine racing for her age group. At a recent benefit, the first thing she did was to thank the board members for helping her all these years. We think Pete would be very proud of her.

If someone is actively talking suicide get them immediate help. Contrary to the old notion that “grief takes as long as it takes,” if someone is still despondent after six months they need professional help. In the case of Mary Lincoln, she was someone that could have benefited by professional help particularly after her husband’s death. Six months of deep anguish and pain can really take their toll on a person. There's a downward spiral that gets out of hand, and the person is really not functioning. They're probably barely functioning at work; they're probably not going out; they're probably sitting with a lot of anguish all day long, and that's exhausting and debilitating. Often that's accompanied by health problems because our immune systems really can only take so much, and our immune systems begin to fail . Bonanno

Finally, keep in my mind the comments I made from the first post I wrote on this blog. It is probably not wise to start a book or blog by saying, “ I’m not an authority on the subject you are about to read.” Yet, this is an important point because when it comes to healing and well being; you are the best authority on you. No matter how helpful I think something might be, if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you. No more and no less. No need to say “I really tried but…” In short, if you feel you need therapy by all means get it.

Additional posts relating to this topic

Understanding Grief

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Take a Break: Finger paint

So when was the last time you finger-painted? Kindergarten? Preschool? Today is all about creating amazing art just using parts of your hands. For inspiration, watch Chinese artist paint a banyan tree in five minutes just using his hand and black ink. Okay, the artist has been doing this since he was a little boy.

So step one is to either purchase or make your own finger paint. There are so many different recipes for making finger paints, that it’s cheaper, easier and most likely safer, just to make it yourself. Check out the following links for recipes:

Finger Paint Recipes for Toddlers and Twos

How to Make Finger Paints video

If you have kids, or are around them for any length of time, you’ll know that just about anything can be (and is) used for finger painting. Chocolate pudding is a favorite medium for the under 10 set. In short, you’d be surprised what you can use for finger painting. Experiment!

There is specially designed finger painting paper, but just use with whatever you have on hand. Can't remember how you did it as a kid? Check out Finger painting tips from Crayola. And if you don’t like getting your fingers messy, “there is an app for that.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Employment Part III. If you want to work but are worried about loosing benefits

Before I post the last of the three part series on employment, I want to point out the critical importance of using an advocate. This past week, I served in this capacity for a man who was very ill. In the emergency room, they told him they were taking him down for a CT Scan and they would be giving him a contrast dye, “like you had in November.” The man nodded but I promptly asked, “is this with iodine?” I explained that he was highly allergic to iodine. Long story short, we went back and forth, with the tech trying to insist that he be allowed to take the patient for the scan. He finally looked at the medic alert bracelet that listed one of his allergies as being iodine. If I had not been persistent, since the patient was not able to say what he was allergic to, they would most likely have gone ahead with the test. Learn more on this topic at Health Advocate-Who, What, When and Where.

I should also note that even with all of my experience as being an advocate, the hospital personnel that I was dealing with were starting to wear me down. I had been with the patient for six hours at that point and I was tired and hungry. Next week I will write more about being an advocate in difficult situations. In the mean time, you can read more on this topic at How to be a Friend with a Pen.

All to offend people who are on disability want and could work, but the job doesn’t offer the type of benefits they need or at the level their situation requires. There are a number of programs that are being tried in many different states. To know what’s available locally, contact one of the following:

Independent Living Center for your State 713-520-0232

• Information and referral service helpline for your state: Go to to find the helpline for your state, check the front page of your phone book

A condition specific organization, such as the Diabetes Association, Cancer Society

Social Security can be overwhelming to understand. Many state Independent Living Centers will have this information broken down in an “easy to read” form. One example is New Hampshire’s Granite State Independent Living Center’s “Employment & Options Knowing the Options: Understanding Benefits & Work Incentives”

Other resources

Cornell University’s training manual on Social Security work incentives

Social Security’s “work site”

When it’s all said and done, you may be in the position that you will loose too much if you return to work. Some people work “under the table,” since the benefits they receive are marginal in meeting their needs. If you are able to do it, there are many volunteer opportunities, where you receive a wide array of “perks,” as well as giving you a sense of purpose.

I work with a veteran, who is on full disability. He volunteers in First Aid at our local ski resort on the weekends, which gives him a free lift tickets, passes for friends and family, ski lessons and equipment rental, as well as discounted food at the mountain and at local restaurants. He spends several nights a week volunteering in the local hospital emergency room, which gives him free use of the gym and again significant food discounts. During the weekdays, he has become the “go to guy” for the VFW. As he puts it, “I’m learning so much.” Yes, there are days he is sick and everyone understands but he has become a very important person and an integral part of many different work environments.

If you are looking for volunteer positions, check your local newspaper, town websites, hospitals, condition specific organization etc. However, if there is a place you’ve wanted to work, or try a certain type of job, call and see if they have need of your skills on a volunteer basis.

Other resources
Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness, Inc

Job Accommodation Network

Working with Chronic Illness This blog is run by Rosalind Jofee, chronic Illness Career Coach and author of “Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working, Girlfriend.”

Employment: If you have a job

Employment:: Job Hunting

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Take a Break: Valentine Haiku and Mandalas

Following the 17th century Japanese 3 line poetry style; write a Haiku for your Valentines this year. The first line has five syllables, the second seven, and the third five (5 + 5+7). Need some inspiration? Below are some past Valentine Haiku

You: freckled, sleepy_
smiling in the morning sun_
Me: “want some pancakes?”
(Paravion Press)

Precious Valentine
you’re part of my Heart and Soul
’til the end of time
(Cynthia L. Castle)

If writing a Haiku isn’t for you, try coloring a mandala.

Lots of other Valentine’s ideas are in previous take a break posts.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Working when you have a chronic condition: Part II: Job Hunting

There are any number of reasons why you may be looking for a job at this juncture. Lots of people are in the same situation because of the recession. However, the same fortitude that helps you thrive from what ever condition you may be living with, can be an aid in landing a job.

The Cancer and Careers section Looking for Work is excellent and so I’d recommend starting with this site In addition to their to the excellent recommendations and suggestions, you may want to consider the following:

• If you’ve tried the 9 to 5 and it never really worked for you, maybe it’s time to rethink exactly what it is you want to do, if you can do it in another setting, such as your home, and start creating an environment that gets you closer to your goal.

• Are their things that you like to do and you might be able to charge for? Could you turn them into a job? A colleague, while undergoing chemotherapy, found that baking was a wonderful stress reducer. She would take her cookies and pies to the nurses and staff when she went for chemotherapy and it wasn’t long before some of them started placing orders. As a result she has launched her own baking business from home. At a Parkinson’s Disease conference, I met a met a number of people who started making various arts and crafts projects as a hobby and eventually launched a second career.

• Volunteer. There are many different types of positions out there, including part time and even full time. There are a number of benefits to doing this: many hire from within so if you are already involved, it gives you an edge over other applicants; it can boost your confidence and demonstrate to a perspective employer the type of value you can bring to a situation; you can find out if this is the type of work you enjoy; it can help fill in “gap periods” on your resume; and it gives you a sense of purpose.

• Consider temporary employment agencies, as well as seasonal employment.

• While it may not be the job you want and it might not be something you’d want to do for a long period of time, ask friends, family, neighbors and other community members if they could use your help in some capacity.

• Consider a Job club. A job club is a group of individuals that meet on a regular basis to support each other through the job hunting process. Efforts are strengthened by belonging to a group, rejection is shared, successes celebrated and the search for a job shortened. If there isn’t a job club in your area, consider starting one.

• Some condition specific groups, e.g. American Cancer Society, offer job coaching, employment opportunities or even job clubs. State Independent Living Centers (713-520-0232) offer assistance this area. Pick up the phone and see what’s available.

• Consider a job coach-someone that can help you find a job.

Freelancer’s Survival Guide

Sick with Success: Working with illness, or episodic disabilities can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. These articles will help you develop strategies that can help you succeed.

The Chronic Illness Career Coach

Women for Hire

Part I: If You Have a Job Resources

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Take a Break: Make Valentine’s Cupcakes

Before today’s “take a break,” I want to share a piece of an article by Martha Beck, as it is the best summary of why I so passionately believe in the importance of “take a break.”

How to Be Here Now: People started telling me to "be here now" when I was about 20. "Great!" I responded. "How?" Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn't force my brain to just "be still." Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we're most creative when we're happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine "hit," make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you're not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won't want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating.

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you're physically and mentally active. You won't notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind's frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what's occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it's the opposite of dull. It's infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you're left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you'll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You'll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you're not actively creating. When this happens, you'll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

It’s just a few weeks until Valentine’s Day, so today’s and next weeks “Take a Break” will be dedicated to fun Valentine’s activities. For past inspiration, go to

Paper and Scissors (chains, cobweb, German Paper cutting)


Valentine’s Paper Basket

So now for some cupcakes that say “I love you,” or maybe “your important enough for me to make you a cupcake.” This really is all about the decorating. Make whatever kind of cupcake batter you like. You can take a box of cake mix and combine with a can of pumpkin for a very yummy cupcake. Yes, you can use a chocolate cake mix with the pumpkin. A cream cheese frosting would taste very delicious with this cupcake.

Decorating ideas:
Edible Clay (Fondant, Marzipan): Fondant is a sugar paste that you roll out and cut into whatever shapes you desire. If you want ease, and aren’t so concerned about taste, go with the store bought variety. If taste is important, make it yourself. The marshmallow variety is very easy to make. Watch the How to Make Marshmallow Fondant. It’s roughly one cup of marshmallows and 1/2 T of water melted in the microwave (30-60 secs), stir till smooth and then stir in powdered sugar. Start with a half-cup and stir until it becomes difficult. Dumb out and knead on a flat surface, adding more powdered sugar until you get smooth dough. Wrap with Saran Wrap or similar product and let rest for a few hours before rolling it out. Kneed again to loosen, adding a little water if it’s too stiff. Roll out using powdered sugar. Don’t use flour.

You can add color by using different color marshmallows or adding color just after it comes out of the microwave or kneed it in before rolling it out.

Marzipan is another option, but it isn’t as easy for rolling out and cutting shapes as fondant is. However, it’s great for making realistic shapes. When it comes to taste, there is no fondant that can compare to marzipan. It will be more expensive than fondant.

Which ever you use, try using tiny cookie cutters to cut out shapes. While you can buy different colored fondant, you can use food colors to paint on designs, or mix it into the white fondant or marzipan to change the color.

If you’ve never worked with fondant, watch the video How to Decorate Cookies for Valentine’s Day.

Chocolate clay is another option. By combining melted chocolate and light corn syrup, you can make edible chocolate play dough. This is great for making things like roses.

Need some inspiration, check out the following fondant inspired decorations
Love Letter Valentines Day Cupcakes

Fondant Valentine’s Day Conversation Heart Treats

Valentine’s Cake

Edible Bling: Yes there is edible glitter, spray and jewels, which you can order on-line or purchase from a cake-decorating store. Wal Mart and Michael’s both carry a variety of cake decorating supplies so take a look there. However, check the candy isle. There are all sorts of gummie things that with a snip here and there, and/or brushed with a bit of sugar, can look pretty realistic. Since sugar is a crystal, put some in a sandwich bag, add a little bit of food coloring and start mixing until you get the right shade. Dragees, are the edible silver balls and your local grocery stores may carry them in the baking isle.

Piping: For years, I used the “decorating pens” that are warmed before using. They are not only easy to use, but you can make wonderful designs, write names etc. However, you can make your own by heating up some white chocolate (I’m big on the microwave, which takes about a minute) and add some food coloring. If it starts to clump up, add a little bit of oil. If you don’t have a piping bag, put the chocolate in a plastic bag, such as a sandwich bag, snip a corner and you have a very inexpensive piping tool. Of course, you can just dip your spoon in the chocolate (dark, white or dyed) and drizzle it back and forth across the cupcake.

Edible Paper: There are a variety of rice papers that come with lovely designs and different colors. While you can sometimes get these in the wedding isle of a good craft store, your best bet is to order on-line. These can be used with punches.

Because Super Bowl Sunday is just a few days away, what about beer cupcakes? A very ardent blogger has come up with Blue Moon and Corona Cupcakes.

Whatever you decide, you have just about two weeks to make some very special Valentine’s cupcakes for neighbors, friends and family. Have fun!