Friday, April 25, 2014

Dependence Day

Years ago I sat with a friend at a baseball game. Her husband coached the home team, and we were impressed by the athletic talent of one player on the field, who was the son of another friend. The player recently received a baseball scholarship for college and had dreams of the big leagues.

"He won't make it through the first year," she said. I looked at her, puzzled, since we just witnessed his sports ability. "He's got talent, but he's un-coach-able. Too independent." I understood what she meant with regard to athletes who need coaches to help hone their skills but did not realize the magnitude of her statement that day.

I have never been one to ask for help. Calling me fiercely independent would not only be entirely accurate but is a moniker I have held proudly for more years than I remember. Never feeling safe to depend on anyone, the description became part of me, so deeply ingrained that I know no other way. The trait is so intensely rooted that the thought of asking for help sends me into full-tilt anxiety mode.

Attention! Attention! Fierce independent requests assistance on 
aisle 1. Bring sedatives and restraints, please.

In all this independence -- this directed trek through my life -- perspectives can become skewed without notice. It sneaks up with small quiet steps. The sidekick of independence is focus, which can result in remarkable achievements, but when the two travel together too long without supervision, they tend to get into a little trouble, namely narrowed view and limited production. Releasing the tight grip on this trait is slowly -- ever so slowly -- coming.

My current class has us diving deep into writing our stories, each crafted from images swirling in our minds. Classmates visit our online gathering place when we share thoughts, story excerpts, worries, and roadblocks. In return we offer support, insight, and advice to each other, which coaxes this independent soul into the realm of  -- gasp -- asking for help.

"I'll do it," "I don't need help," and "I've got this" are interrupted for short bursts of "What do you think?" and "How should I . . . ?" These uncharacteristic phrases surprised me not only in their utterance but in the pleasant aftermath. Asking for help did not hurt after all. It did, however, allow me to see the view from someone else's stance, a perception unknown to me until then . "I never thought of it that way," was soon followed by "I see what you mean."

Oh, but this shift in my thinking did not come through normal channels. Of course not! It was borne out of a place called "stuck."

While continuing my assignment for the writing class where we are each writing a myth of our creation, our instructor encouraged us to daydream. Yes, sit back, relax, put down the phone, and daydream. The weather was nice so I pulled the hammock out of the garden house and climbed in. But trying to turn off the normal incessant chatter in my brain so I could daydream was a challenge. The breeze helped, rocking the hammock slowly on the wind, somehow persuading my mind to let go.
A great place to daydream

I pictured the heroine of my story at the place I had left her -- perched on a cliff with no escape. She was stuck, as was my story. Somewhere in the drifting of my thoughts I saw my heroine lifted out of her peril by the wings of hundreds of birds. Wait, what? You mean she let someone/something help her?!?

I pondered that image all weekend.

The next assignment for class contained a brief mention of teaming up with a partner for the benefit of helping each other with our stories. Um, teams? Uh, oh. Pulse racing. Breath shortening. Thoughts flying. Do you mean I have to ask someone for help? [Deep breath, you can do this, Rita. Remember what you have learned.] Suddenly the systematic breaking down of my wall of independence was facing a big task.

I hearkened back to the baseball game and considered my friend's comment of "un-coach-able" when she described the young player. Unable to accept direction, advice, or wisdom from those around him, he indeed was cut from his college team in the first year, dashing his lifelong dream of baseball greatness. Independence hit hard. I realized I had more in common with the baseball player than I cared to admit. While independence is a positive trait, able to carry a person far in life, extreme independence can render one un-coach-able and thereby unable to receive helpful perspectives that promote growth.

Accepting help or heeding advice is not a sign of weakness. Surrendering to the fact that one may indeed not know everything can be one of the strongest choices made. There can be strength in surrender and peace in dependence. The important thing is balance, and of course, moderation. At least, that's what they tell me. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Coffee, Anyone?

Have you ever had a week where the most unhappy person on the planet decided to focus all their efforts on you? Yeah, me too. It is amazing to me at how some people are not happy unless they are unhappy. What is worse is when they are not satisfied with making themselves unhappy and proceed to dampen everyone's spirits in a five-mile radius. They love to share, don't they?

After dealing with a couple of these people this week, I was in need of a laugh. Little did I know the laugh would come walking into my office, disguised as a completely serious person describing what, to them, was a completely serious subject. Go on, you ask? Why, certainly.

We had an auditor on site this week. Not an unusual occurrence, certainly, and the auditor sat contentedly at his desk about 20 feet outside my office. One of my co-workers stepped into my office and said in a very low voice, "This auditor asked if the coffee in the break room was just for employees or if he could have a cup." I looked at my co-worker a bit dumbfounded as he continued, "I wasn't sure of our coffee policy, so I thought you might want to talk to him." Wait, what?

I peered at my co-worker, confused. Since he was speaking in such a low voice, I could not tell if he was saying "coffee" or "copier" and I asked him to repeat. He did, and I was just as dumbfounded at what I heard. To clarify, I said, "Are you saying 'coffee'? Like c-o-f-f-e-e ?" (spelling it out loud, to be sure). He confirmed, he spoke of a coffee policy.* Um, yeah.

He left my office to go to a meeting and I was left shaking my head in utter confusion. Is coffee now regulated that we cannot share the odd cup in hospitality? I looked around for the ghost of Rod Serling and the camera crew from the Twilight Zone, because, though I work in an industry which has a policy for nearly every event and activity, even we never saw the need for a coffee policy. Or did I miss something?

Soon, I burst out laughing. He was serious. He thought we had a policy on the availability of coffee to employees and visitors. Our company hands out cookies and popcorn in the lobby, believe me, the coffee is not rationed out so sparingly that a written policy is required. This was too good to pass up, so I took about four minutes to pen an official coffee policy, and after sharing the back story, presented it to management, who, thankfully, has a wickedly sharp sense of humor. Except for a minor change from the actual name of my employer to simply "the company", it read:

Coffee Policy

The management of the company provides brewed beverages to staff members as a workplace benefit, and in order to keep the benefit cost-free to the employee, has adopted a policy to ensure it remains cost effective and non-obstructive to the workflow.

The company will provide equipment for brewing activities, primarily in the form of an electric coffee maker to be stationed in the break room of each facility. Supplies for said activity will also be supplied at no charge to the employee, provided misuse is not detected and Brazilian coffee import prices remain stable. Supplies include water, ground coffee, filters, and cups. Condiments such as sugar, artificial sweetener, and creamer will be supplied on a limited basis and in accordance with allotted amount in the annual budget.

Employees are encouraged to brew coffee on an as needed basis, but each location may opt to assign the task to a designated individual (hereafter identified as “Coffee Maven”) who can be trusted with the duty in accordance with a predefined brewing schedule approved by management. Locations selecting the Coffee Maven option should conduct an annual election for the position the first Tuesday of each November. Coffee Mavens will be restricted to term limits of no more than three years, or three consecutive successful elections. Upon election, new Coffee Mavens shall receive no less than three hours of training on the new duty. Terms vacated by employees unable to fulfill their duties as Coffee Mavens will be filled by a new Coffee Maven appointed by management for the duration of the original term or until a special election can be held.

Supplies for brewed beverages should be housed in a cabinet or storage room no more than 15 feet from the brewing equipment. Scientific research has shown supplies housed further than the 15-foot perimeter can cause widespread panic among employees, especially those in the midst of caffeine withdrawals. For the safety of all employees, the company will respect the 15-foot rule. Coffee Mavens will be supplied with measuring tape to ensure adherence to this requirement.

Overuse of supplies reflects negatively on employees’ ability to respect the budget for brewing supplies and will be addressed accordingly. Minor infractions will be addressed promptly, while incidents considered by management to be major in nature may result in reprimand or termination. Employees should realize company facilities offer no expectation of privacy and employee offices, desks, and cabinets may be searched at any time by management if hoarding of supplies is suspected. 

On occasion brewed beverages may be offered to visitors of the company, primarily identified as customers, auditors, vendors, and the like, and are considered exceptions to policy. Such offerings should be approved by a supervisor and supported by written explanation for such distribution of company property, indicating whether the distribution is for purposes of hospitality or placation. Such exceptions to policy shall be limited to two cups of brewed beverage per visitor per day. Visitors exceeding these limitations shall be escorted from the building.

Cleaning after brewing activities will be addressed in the separate Dishwasher Policy.

Several of us got a good laugh out of this, so good, that we decided to share the joy. Since the paragraph regarding Coffee Mavens referred to training, we forwarded the new policy to our training officer. She had had a rough week, and we wanted to cheer her up. An hour later, I received a voice mail message from the training officer, who said in a shaky voice, "Please, tell me this is not real." I responded quickly with a salutation of roaring laughter as she answered my phone call. She really needed the laugh.

From there, this little gem made the rounds as a joke, and we were shocked at how many people actually thought it was real. Really? C'mon, it mentions Brazilian coffee prices! Bless their hearts . . . 

And that was my week. Tucked among three meetings, five audits, vendor consultation, about a thousand pieces of paper, we found time to laugh. And it was a good, hearty, bent-over-nearly-in-tears kind of laughter. All in all, a good week.

*I do realize that it may have been a rough week for this guy, too, so I mean no harm. It could have just been an off day.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What's in a Name?

How attached are you to your name? I do not mean in the legal sense, where you have to use a name to conduct business, or in the cultural sense, where we use names to designate one from another, but in the sense of how your name fits who you are. Honestly, prior to this week, I had not given it much thought, but a course I am taking broached the subject, and the ensuing discussion was enlightening.

Many of the participants shared stories of changing their given names or wanting to change their given names to one that suited them more. Varying reasons were shared from pure dislike of the given name to making a sweeping life change. I had no idea so many people had done this or were even thinking of doing this. It never before occurred to me as necessary beyond the entertainment industry.

Perhaps it is more common in this group because we are predominately women, and let's face it, in our culture woman are almost always expected to change their names at some time during their lifetime. It happens when we marry, or at least that is a societal norm. How many of us practiced our new married name long before the question was even asked? [Go ahead, raise your hand. I know you're out there, just like me.] I wonder if males ever spend any time on the subject of taking a new name.

Perhaps this notion of name changes is ingrained in females at such a young age, one's name has less permanence attached to it. Prior to this week, I never applied this notion to my first or middle names. Throughout the discussion, I was presented with numerous reasons and thoughts for a person renaming her/himself, all as unique and individual as the person speaking. It made me think.

As far as my first name Rita, I have grown from indifference to it in my youth to appreciation of it as an adult. It is unique but not odd, familiar but not common. Rarely do I have to spell it for people, save those who through an 'e' in the mix, and when I hear it in a crowd, chances are pretty good it is meant for me. Until I was in my early 20s, I had only met one other 'Rita' who happened to go to the same high school as me. Since then, the total of those named Rita I have met is less than a dozen, I would estimate.

My middle name of Marie is one that has given me more, let's say, entertainment. I joked with my parents about simply using one of the Four Generics, as I called them, to fill in the blank on the birth certificate, a processed likely enhanced by their general fatigue of naming kids (I was number 4). The four generic names are ones I joked would fit with any first name and are easily plugged into the naming equation if parents expended all their energy selecting the first name. Ann(e), Lynn, Lee, and Marie are female middle names that pair nicely with any first name, much like a salad goes well with any main course. [My apologies to anyone with those names as this is just  one woman's humorous take on the child-naming process.] My parents used this formula twice, since my sister has the middle name Anne. Oddly, she was the third child, giving more traction to my theory of naming-fatigue since it appears my parents ran out of steam after naming the first two kids. None the less, my middle name holds no history or significance for my parents (or me) other than "it fit with Rita" (quote from Mom). I think Mom just came up with it in a pinch since I was four days old, and the hospital would not let her take me home without a name. I can just imagine her shouting, "Quick, give me a name! Anybody? Anybody?"

The subject has been swirling in my mind for several days, leaving me to wonder your thoughts on changing your name as an adult. Have you? Would you? What name would you choose? Do you feel your current name fits you?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Few Minutes More

As a follow-up to last week's post (found here), I will just let the video show what going a little further can bring. My words would only serve to get in the way and would never improve on this view. I present to you the real Falling Water Falls, between Pelsor and Witt Springs, Arkansas.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Queen of Scones

Several simple triangular baked goods lay on the plate in the kitchen. They will not be there long, not in this house. This version is raspberry, the fourth variation in roughly of month of scone-baking, and is by far the best version yet. But I say that about each new variety baked. Next week, those words may very well be spoken about a 'newer' new version. We will just have to see.

I have always liked to bake, beginning with my Aunt Bertie's recipe for chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, which I learned at the green age of 12. I remember an argument with my mother when I was about 14 over the making of these cookies, and whether or not the baking sheet had to be greased. I said it did not. She insisted it did. I proved her wrong with the first batch. No greased sheet necessary. At 14, I was already a pro at that recipe. She never questioned it again.

In the last 15 or so years, I just do not take the time to bake for myself. I bake for others, work events usually, and I do enjoy it, but baking something for me at the house? Uh-uh. Not worth the effort.

And then there were scones.

A friend of mine shared a recipe for Irish Scones about a month ago, and since St. Patrick's Day was imminent, I gave it a try. I had never made scones before, and the recipe sounded easy, not too time consuming. Why not? A few minutes of mixing, a knead or two of dough (well, just a few more), and 20 minutes in the oven. Yeah, I can do that. I peeked into the oven after a few moments and saw the pastry triangles plump up into utter loveliness. And the smell? Like the best bakery you have known.

The first batch I made was according to the recipe, including traditional Irish flavorings of caraway and raisins. Leave it to the Irish to take a handful of simple ingredients and create a meal worthy of prose. I sat with my latte and a warm scone, with eyes closed in an effort to taste more fully, and imagined other flavors I could bake. The base recipe lent itself to easy modification, and my creative juices were well-fueled with scones at the moment.

The 4th variation: Raspberry
A few days later, it was apple cinnamon scones for a work pot luck. A week later, cinnamon raisin scones emerged from the oven for breakfast, followed a few days later by a second batch of the same variety. Then last night came the venture into berry flavors -- raspberry, to be exact. The newest version outdid all previous versions. That is, of course, until I make one of the early versions again and become reintroduced to its goodness. Who am I kidding? They're all good.

The recipe is simple, involving ingredients I readily have on hand and not involving long shopping lists with mad dashes to the market. Everything I need is already here. With the right measurements, a few simple items can be transformed into something heartwarming in less than an hour, start to finish. Everything in life should be this simple.

Shouldn't it be? Life, I mean. It often isn't. Sometimes, we make it harder than it has to be. We listen to the voices in our heads which tell us we need to be more of this or less of that. We listen to society which has its own ideas on how we should be. We see advertisements that tell us we can be popular and beautiful if we just spend more money on this or more time with that. We listen to all the messages except the one closest to us -- the one in our heart, speaking quietly from behind the crowd, waving a hand, saying "What about this? You really love this." Sometimes that is the voice that is hardest to hear, the one that has our best interest at heart because it comes from our heart. The simplicity of scones reminded me of the perfection in life's simplicities.

I can throw scones together in a flash now, having committed the recipe to heart. A friend now calls me the Queen of Scones. I smile, but not for the reason she thinks. I smile because scones helped me figure it out. Scones illustrated the life I wanted. Simple. Unpretentious. Easily made from what is already near. And when opened, wafting a goodness that enlivens the spirit and warms the heart.

Yeah, I want to be like a scone.

You didn't think I'd leave you without the recipe, did you? I have modified the first recipe for my own tastes, adding ground flax seed to give me the illusion of being more healthful and including a bit of vanilla because, well, I like vanilla.

Heartwarming Scones

3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup ground flax seed (optional)
pinch of salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup milk (I often use almond milk instead)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (I use Greek yogurt because I always have it)
1 egg, slightly beaten
Add one of the variations below -- or one of your own

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix dry ingredients together. Slice butter and cut into dry mixture with fork or with pastry cutter until it is like course meal. In separate bowl, mix vanilla, milk, and yogurt. Add wet mixture to dry mixture and blend as well as you can with a fork. Continue to mix dough with hands, kneading it until it holds together. Divide dough in half.

Place half of dough on floured board and press into a circle about one-inch thick. With a knife, cut circle into six triangles (cut like you would a pizza).  Repeat with other half of dough. Place scones onto greased baking sheet. Brush tops with egg. Dust with sugar, if desired. Bake for 20 minutes (my oven takes 25) until scones are lightly browned. Best when served warmed. Store leftovers in Zip-lock bag or tightly-covered dish so they do not dry out.

add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the dry ingredients
add 1/4 raisins (I use more)
Before baking, dust scones with sugar and cinnamon

1 apple, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Heat butter in pan over medium heat. Add apples and cinnamon. Saute until apples are tender.
Before baking, dust scones with sugar and cinnamon

add 1/2 cup raspberries
I used frozen, and I must say, it made the dough very wet and messy when kneading. I would suggest adding berries at the very very end of the kneading process to save you this frustration.