10 Items Or Less -- Shedding And Keeping

Archetypes For The Turning Of The Year

For some people, New Years Day means the Rose Bowl.  For others, black-eyed peas.  For my mother, that was the day we were required to organize our clothes drawers.

Where did that come from?  You got me.  But it must be an archetypal response to the turning of the year.  Right now advertising is crowded with sales on organizational supplies.  If you don't know how to organize your sock drawer, surely there is one of those Dummies book to tell you how.

I just looked it up on Amazon.com.  Sure enough, here it is.

Responding, I suppose, to that archetypal imperative, I am currently recycling meeting agendas, staff reports, conference handouts and class notes, things I no longer need since I have become unemployed.

You know me.  Overboard is my middle name.  At 100.4 pounds and still shedding -- make that shredding now -- old checks with my social security number on them, I am well on the way to my goal for the week: to shed my weight in discarded paper.  I am not even counting paper clips and empty three ring binders. 


The process is alternately liberating and anxiety-producing.  I dispose of old grudges, and then panic about what I might need after all.  I celebrate, and then I grieve.  I really did do a lot of good work.  And I left important things undone.

It is good that I refilled my prescriptions before I started this project.  Valium is my current best friend. 

Diets Are Hazardous To Your Health

I do not recommend shedding body weight as a New Year's resolution.  I say this every year, because it is one of the most common New Year's resolutions and it is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Dieting is the first step to gaining weight.  You know this.  You take this course every year and you flunk it every year.  When will you ever decide you have paid enough tuition for this lesson?

Yes, I know.  Having put the word diet in my blog, the mindless web crawlers will signal the advertising gods to place ads for weight loss programs on this page.  I do not endorse them.

I did lose weight a few years ago, which makes it thirty-five pounds easier to meet this week's goal.  I did not diet.  I repeat, I did not diet.  I changed the way I eat.  I changed my eating habits.  I still eat anything I want.  It's just the quantity and the frequency that changed.  I love my food.  I did not diet.

But this is not a dieting blog, and you can go searching for a better way to eat somewhere else.

This post is about shedding. 

Ten Items Or Less

My cognitive therapist is big on distraction.  So I watch a lot of movies.  A lot.  Many are movies that did not exist until they jumped off the library shelf at me.  A recent example was 10 Items Or Less.  Filmed in just fifteen days, it was an exercise in shedding all by itself.  It stars Morgan Freeman and Paz Vela, with Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito in a drive by cameo.  And I do mean drive by.  They were on the set for all of fifteen minutes, during which time they asked for and received a couple of Starbucks lattes.  Then the director told them their lines.  Then they said them.  They never got out of their car.

So at one point Morgan Freeman, playing an actor, asks Paz Vela, playing a grocery clerk, If you could keep just ten items or less in your life, what would they be?  After she names her list, he names his.  That's eleven.  You just have to push it, she says.  This is the theme of her life in the express checkout lane, people who want eleven items when the sign says ten.

Later they change the exercise, If you could get rid of ten items or less in your life, what would they be?

Dinner Party New Year's Eve

I just got home from a dinner party with dear friends and we played that game, 10 Items Or Less.  We never got to the items we would get rid of.  The ones we would keep had so many stories behind them that we had to leave before we could finish the keepers so the restaurant could turn the table.

The right ten items can make a person rich enough, not only for a dinner party, but for a lifetime.

We will get to that other list at the next dinner party.

Ten Items Or Less

So that is my gift to you for the start of the new year, those two questions.  What ten items or less would you keep?  What ten or less would you discard?

Choose well.  You may not need wishes for the new year after all.  You may find you are already rich.

Winter sunrise by Stefan Mayrhofer, in the public domain 
shelves of file folders by Alex Gorzen, licensed under the
Cashier at Register by Young in Panama,  licensed under the

Happy Christmas to my Readers

Feliz Navidad

ميلاد مجيد


С Рождеством Хрисовым

Vrolijk Kerstfeest

Feliz Natal

One Last Song -- Joy To The World
This one is signed, as well.

Holiday Shopping for Loonies and Normals Alike

Last year I got an earlier start with my efforts to help you purchase the perfect Chanukah/Kwanzaa/Christmas present.  Here are the links, one for your favorite loonie, the other your favorite normal.  The first is even diagnosis specific.  The most popular pick turned out to be a bluetooth phone for the one who talks back to his/her voices, but is trying to pass.

This year, regular readers know that I have been living and breathing gingerbread.  So this post, like my own shopping, comes late in the season -- Chanukah has passed us by.

Internet.  God bless the internet.

And what with last week's post on happiness fresh in my mind, this year's holiday shopping picks combine the two issues -- where to get what makes for true happiness on the internet.  No, really!

The Sources Of Happiness

Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness identifies three major sources of happiness, pleasure, engagement and meaningfulness.  So here are suggestions to enhance all three for your favorite loonie or normal.

Let's address one issue first.  Life circumstances, beyond having the essentials, are not really that important an influence on the measure of ones happiness.  But poverty does matter.  If the one you love lives in poverty, go to Amazon.com's gift card section, where you can find gift cards for clothing stores, restaurants, general retail, entertainment and more.  Give us bread, but give us roses are lyrics of a working women's song from the early 20th century.  It's nice, when you are poor, to have the opportunity to choose which is the higher priority this week.


Well, yes.  Feeling good makes you feel good. 

On the other hand, have you seen that bumper sticker, The one who dies with the most toys wins?  That bumper sticker is an example of irony.  I hope it is an example of irony.  I am sure the person who came up with it meant it ironically.  It is possible that the person on whose Lexus SUV you saw the bumper sticker might have missed the point.  That would be sad.

Irony means that the bumper sticker is not true.  The one who dies with the most toys does not win.  I just wanted to make that clear.  Of the three top sources of happiness, pleasure, engagement and meaningfulness, pleasure ranks lowest on the list, happiness producing-wise.  Our mindless pursuit of it notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, perhaps the heart's desire of the person for whom you are shopping is toys.  There are all kinds of toys out there.  Almost all of them, you can find, again, at Amazon.com.  I thought they were a book store.  No, from Automotive to Watches, with books, electronics, movies and even musical instruments between.  If you know what that heart's desire is, you can probably find it there.  If you don't know what that heart's desire is -- are you noticing a theme developing here? -- gift card.

Yes, I know.  This reads like an infomercial for one particular corporate giant that is destroying local businesses across America.  But give me a break.  And give yourself a break.  Your Chanukah presents are already late.  Christmas and Kwanzaa are bearing down like a runaway train.  I don't have time to look up a bunch of choices for you.  I have my own shopping to do.  Internet.

Who am I kidding?  I can't go into stores anyway unless medicated.  Maybe you can relate.  At least I have the Rx!


Engagement means being absorbed in the here and now, whether in family, romance, work or hobbies.  That being absorbed is the key, because the wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  Gifts that bring the family together, or send your recipient out on a date or relate to his/her interests can enhance that person's happiness.  And you can find just the gift or gift card at... what has evidently become the Shameless Commerce Division of Prozac Monologues.


Okay, all the above is filler.  Here is what I really want to sell this season.  Making a difference.  What makes for meaning is using one's personal strengths to serve some larger end (Seligman's definition.)

One kind of strength is passion.  So let's start with a question.  What is the passion of your gift recipient?

I knew an old lady once who absolutely would not deal with that word passion.  It's a wonder she reproduced.  Like Queen Victoria, she probably closed her eyes and thought about England.  Or, being American (and Episcopalian), she probably thought about The Book Of Common Prayer.

So here is an alternative for Thelma, God rest her soul, and for you if you can't relate to the word passion.  Determination.  What is the determination of your gift recipient.  What is he/she determined to support/challenge/change/make possible in the world?

Now let's go shopping for meaning.

Clean Water For Africa

Here is my passion/determination/storyThe Episcopal Diocese of Iowa has a companion relationship with the Diocese of Swaziland.  Swaziland has had a drought for a decade or so.  There are things that could be done.  But the king has about a hundred wives, and he can't play favorites, can he?  If one has a Mercedes Benz, then each have to have her own Mercedes Benz...  So who can afford to dig wells?

But then this guy in Southeast Iowa developed this technology that turns table salt into chlorine.  For $150, we could get this thing called a chlorinator that produces enough chlorine to give clean water to an entire village.

Well, heck.  I'll buy two!  (The price is now $300).

We took a lot of them over.  Now the Swazis are making them in country.  One year a mission team came back from Swaziland with the story.  An elder from one village had told them, 

Since we got the chlorinator, not one child died last year.

Not one child died last year.

I have never spent any amount of money that has ever given me and will forever give me as much happiness as those six words.

Not one child died last year.

Give your mother or your father this story and clean water for a whole village in Africa right here.  Now we are doing Haiti, too.

So that is how this year's holiday gift-giving guide is going to work, using one's personal strengths/passions/determinations to serve some larger end.

Shopping To Serve A Larger End


Now you can go back to those pleasures.  Do you have a friend who loves camping?  Insecticide treated mosquito nets are a bargain for $18.18, delivery included to places in Africa where one person dies of malaria every 30 seconds.

How about a friend who bakes?  High energy biscuits will feed young children in disaster sites, 1200 for a mere $49.10, again, delivery included.

You can find these and a whole assortment of Inspired Gifts for the health, water, nutrition, education and emergency needs of children around the world at unicef.org.

Heifer International

How about a gift that keeps on giving?  Heifer International provides livestock and training to improve nutrition and generate income, lifting families out of poverty.  Recipients share the offspring with others in the community, multiplying the impact of each gift.

So do you have a friend who wants a pet but is allergic?  Three rabbits, $60.  Aaahh, aren't they sweet?!  We bought bunnies for China one year.  Hunger has been wiped out in China.  Heifer International has moved on to another country.

Do you know a cowboy wannabe?  One heifer, $500.

How about a whole ark with two cows delivered to a Russian village, two sheep to Arizona, two camels to Tanzania, two oxen to Uganda, two water buffalo to Cambodia...  There are fifteen pairs in all for $5000.  For your friend who is delusional?  (Noah/end of the world/delusional -- get it?)

We are just getting started.  Knitters, a knitting basket (llama, alpaca, sheep, angora rabbit) -- $480.  Gourmet, cheeses of the world (how cool is that! heifer, goat, sheep and water buffalo) -- $990.  Homesick Iowan, pig -- $120.  Let's not neglect our vegan friends, trees -- $60.

If you are shopping for me, I have long had my eye on that water buffalo, a mere $250.

All of these are available in shares, by the way, if that fits your budget better.

Seriously.  Water buffalo. 

Habitat For Humanity

Now let's return to where this series started and my life for that last two months, Habitat for Humanity, building affordable housing by using volunteers, including those who will own - and pay for - the houses.  Whether your designated gift recipient is Martha Stewart or Frank Lloyd Wright, Habitat has its own gift catalog with everything from light switches to flooring.  One year my sister-in-law gave me a kitchen sink. 


If I haven't hit a bulls eye yet, one.org is the meaningfulness equivalent of amazon.com.  This one may appeal to the rockers in the crowd.  Cofounded by Bono, Bob Geldof, et al, one.org created a partnership of all sorts of groups working to eliminate world poverty by 2015 -- the Millenium Development Goals.

Here you will find more about one.org.  Here you will find the partners (Bread for the World, Oxfam, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, various churches, etc.)  Each one has its own focus, allowing you to find your perfect match.

And since this is my blog, after all, I will put a word in for Episcopal Relief and Development, ER-D.  When earthquake or hurricane strikes, ER-D listens to local people to determine how best to help.  Then they stay with it after the cameras move on.  For example, ER-D is still working on economic redevelopment in New Orleans.  And this is one church organization you can support that will NOT ask potential recipients where they go to church.

Joy That Lasts

So there you have it.  Without leaving the comfort of home, without even having to change out of your jammies, you can find the perfect gift, one that will give joy beyond the end of the year.

Not one child died last year.

clipart from Microsoft
cotton candy photo by Maggie D'Urbano,
used under the Creative Commons License (cropped)
child with unsafe water by Pierre Holtz - UNICEF, licensed under Creative Commons
child drinking well water by Scott Harrison licensed under Creative Commons
mosquito netting by Tjeerd wiersma, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
photo of rabbits by Kessa Ligerro and made available under the GNU Free Documentation License 
Entrada dos animais na arca de Noé by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglioni, public domain
photo of water buffalo by Da and made available under the GNU Free Documentation License
GNU -- somehow seems appropriate, doncha think?  

Happiness in a Gingerbread House

How To Be Happy

How to be happy yields approximately 450,000,000 results in a Google search.  At that number, they don't bother to be precise.  Amazon.com gets you 2914 hits in the book department.

Nevertheless, I betcha I get my own share, as I explore the specific application of gingerbread houses to research reported in The New Science of Happiness by Claudia Wallis.

Research On Happiness

Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, started off a flurry of happiness research when he picked happiness and oddly enough, mental health as the theme of his tenure, a decade ago.  His own contribution is Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.  More on Seligman below.

Moment-Based Happiness

color: black;"> Some
happiness research focuses on the immediate.  What are you doing right now?  And how much are you enjoying it?  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no kidding) spent money on this one.  He had to develop a hand held computer device to prompt the questions at random intervals.  It would have cost less if he had waited for an IPod app.  Maybe this was the forerunner?

Taking care of my children ranks very low on this What are you doing right now; and how much are you enjoying it survey.  However, it is often cited as the most rewarding experience in a parent's life.

As it happens, raising this young man was the very most rewarding experience of my life.  That night when he was fifteen and hanging out with a friend at the mall, however...  not so much.  Not if you had asked me right then.

Happiness And Outcomes

So the outcome colors ones experience of happiness.  Daniel Kahneman studied colonoscopies, of all things.  What are colonoscopies are doing in an article and blogpost on happiness?  It's a backward approach (so to speak).  But the point is that how people feel about their experience of a colonoscopy depends on the result more than the level of discomfort or even pain.

But let's get back to the topic, happiness in a gingerbread house.  Gingerbread is a more suitable example, or at least one more pleasant to contemplate.  The roof in this photo did not break.  I had learned from that other one.

And I did NOT use a $50 bottle of single malt scotch as a wall brace, even though my brother-in-law was so moved by my story of woe that he bought me another.

">Theology Alert! text-align: center;"> So liturgical preachers who have to do Good Friday every year now have new material -- research to support why we call the day that Jesus died Good Friday.  It is because we remember how it turned out -- presented here on the left side of the triptych -- the Resurrection.
And The Lottery -- Circumstances "> David Lykken "> Nor does knocking over a nearly full bottle of double aged single malt scotch, inappropriately used as a wall brace.  Okay, so I remember it.  It's just not very important to my happiness, not now.
Memory-Based Happiness
Seligman focuses more on remembered experience than on the moment-to moment.  He says that remembered happiness comes from pleasure, engagement (depth of involvement with family, work, romance and hobbies), and meaningfulness (using personal strengths to serve some larger ends).

My gingerbread adventure had all three in spades.


Way back last winter, when I first committed to this project, I knew there would be mule deer running through the trees.  There are 2000 inhabitants in Sisters, Oregon, the site of the finished project.  280 of these inhabitants are mule deer.  More move in during winter, when feed gets scarce in the mountains.  But you can tell the locals, because they look both ways before crossing the street.  I never found a mule deer cookie cutter.  These are reindeer with the antlers cut off.  I got a kick out of them, especially their little red noses and white butts.  They are to scale, by the way.

I figured the trees out early.  These are waffle cones, broken in pieces and glued back together in layers, using dark brown royal icing.  Next I frosted with tan icing mixed with coconut for texture, with not quite complete coverage, so the dark showed through in places.  Then came the green, again with the coconut.  The powdered sugar was my finishing touch.  I felt like a kid, doing a craft project with library paste.

Oh, and then there was that chimney.  The prototype used ribbon candy, nice rectangular shapes.  But I couldn't find ribbon candy at Fred Meyer in Redmond.  So I used Christmas Mix.  Think marbles in place of Legos, transforming myself from a brick layer to a builder of stone walls.  So I am insanely proud that it stands.  I am not sure, but I think it may be tall enough to meet code.

This made me happy.


A couple weeks ago, I reported a study on happiness and mind wandering.  Short version: they don't mix.  Engagement is the converse.  The more you are absorbed in what you are doing in the immediate moment, the happier you are.

Sex rates the highest on the engagement scale.  People pay attention to what they are doing during sex 80% of the time.  If it were higher, you know the responders would be lying.  80% seems realistic and yet still really healthy.

Okay, so this wasn't sex.  But I did hold my breath.

Sometimes my tongue even stuck out.

Building a gingerbread house is like building a house of cards.  everything has to balance while it is going up.  Except the pieces break when they fall.  This is an exercise that requires engagement.  Your mind cannot wander.

Though I worked mostly by myself, the gingerbread houses did draw me into relationships.  My sister-in-law created Pierre here.

After the installation, I traveled the Gingerbread Trail to see the twenty-four other houses in Sisters.  I met other artists.  (No, I don't have their pictures.  I don't do pictures.)  We shared the bond of insane pride in our silly little creations.  Not to mention a thinly veiled competition.

This made me happy. 


Pleasure brings happiness.  But of the three, pleasure, engagement and meaningfulness, pleasure is the weakest.  It is fleeting, after all.  The outcome may change the emotional interpretation.  Relationships and meaning endure.

This was a labor of love.  The Gingerbread Trail is a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity, the Sisters, Oregon chapter.  People tour the trail and vote for their favorites by putting donations into a box.  They can vote for as many and as much as they like.  Go to Sisters, Oregon before January 6th and you can vote, too.  Vote for me.  But vote for the others, as well, if you like.  The money all goes to Habitat.  It's just that mine is located at home base.

Or go here, if your travel plans to not include Oregon this month.

Habitat operates worldwide, making home ownership possible for people of limited means.  A person or family applies to a local chapter for a house.  A team of volunteers builds it.  The receiving family contributes labor.  Then they pay for it with a no-interest loan.  Then they help with the next build (or do other volunteer work, if not physically able.)

Home ownership creates financial stability and pulls people out of poverty.  Duh.  When we were in Sisters, my sister-in-law drove us past the first Habitat build in town.  She said the son has just graduated from medical school.

Go to this website to learn more about how Habitat was formed, where it works, what innovative construction technologies they use, what Jimmy Carter has to do with it, how you can give and how you can get involved.

My little gingerbread house with the snowman with attitude is helping to raise funds for another house, one for people.

This makes me happy.

So here is another piece of meaningfulness.  Most of the fund-raising for the Sisters Habitat comes from what is called a ReStore.  When you have leftover paint or wood from a home improvement project, when you upgrade your refrigerator, or replace your front door, you can donate the unwanted materials to a ReStore.  It will do three things.

  • It will recycle.
  • It will build houses with money from the resale of your donated items.
  • It will keep tons of stuff out of landfills.

The Gingerbread Trail is sponsored by Sisters' ReStore.  In keeping with the spirit, I included in my house a reindeer Pez dispenser that somebody gave me and that I intended to toss.  I donated materials I bought and decided not to use to a food bank.  I gave leftover candy to the ReStore for their snack bowl.

This also made me happy.

Now, this project did not cure me of bipolar 2.  The wheel turned again.  I expect it to continue.

But it made the good time better, while I was totally absorbed in molding a cat out of gingerbread dough and then painting it to resemble Miss Jennie, the ReStore cat.  I am not crazy about cats.  And she had to be a calico.  But she totally absorbed my attention.

I have developed a basis for future relationships.

When there are so many things I am no longer able to do, and when I am acutely aware of how difficult this project was when once it would have been easy, I will remember that I managed to do it anyway.

And I have made a difference.

It made and makes and will continue to make me happy.

flair from facebook
photo of Jacob and Jenny by Nancy German
photos of gingerbread by Helen Keefe
forest photo by Maylene Thyssen,
La crucifixión con la oración en el huerto y la resurrección, 1520
by Lucas Cranach and in the public domain

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy -- Mindfulness

Last Week's Cognitive Therapy Technique -- Distraction

 I can't stop thinking about... [some traumatizing thought.]

So think about something else instead.

Distraction is a basic Cognitive Therapy tool.  Personally, I think it's stupid on the face of it.  The point is, I can't stop thinking about what I am already thinking about.  I am stuck on this horror movie, and somebody stole the channel changer.

Except I can change the channel.  You can, too.  You can think about something else instead.

That diagnosable gingerbread house of mine worked just fine.  It changed my channel.  How weird is that?

Here's the deal.  I think it worked is because, just like that other channel, it was all-consuming.  I had to pay exquisite attention to those cans supporting those fragile walls, whether the walls would meet, whether the pretzels would break... 

Mindfulness -- Another Cognitive Therapy Technique

 There was no room for a wandering mind on this construction site.  Gingerbread was my own personal Yoda, sitting on my shoulder, hitting me over the head any time my mind was not on where I was.  Like when I knocked over that nearly new bottle of single malt scotch holding up the back wall.  Balvenie, to be precise.

Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University recently published a study on wandering minds and happiness.  The short version: a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.

The unhappy news: people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.  That would be the average.  Me -- here and now is my worst subject in all the world.  This has something to do with a hippocampus the size of a poppy seed.  And yet so often it has that channel changer in a death grip.

Mindfulness is the non-judgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal experiences as they arise.  Mindfulness acknowledges the hippocampus.  It just doesn't let it run the show.

Other parts of my brain deserve their say, as well.  My traumas are not here and now.  In any given moment, the odds are overwhelming that I am perfectly safe -- an objective fact.

There are other objective facts, including that I was not always safe.  But that was then, this is now.  Remember, remember.  Keep a tight grip on this fact -- this is now.  This is when I need to focus on whether the roof meets the side wall or if there is a gap.

My misery comes from two things, then and the fear that then is next, with no room for now in between.  Like the Jewish joke, without guilt and dread, who am I?

But the odds of an unsafe event in the future are not overwhelming -- they are as miniscule as my poppy seed sized hippocampus.  My frontal cortex is perfectly able to calculate the odds.

Here and now is pretty cool.  This exact moment is a gift.  And many good things are possible in it.

By the way, that prototype served its purpose.  It taught me a lot, including the fact that it was not possible to replicate it in the one week I had onsite.

I did have a Plan B.  And not chained to my past aspirations, I decided to go to Plan B before, not after the meltdown.

I like this channel a lot better.

gingerbread photos by Helen Keefe
Harold Lloyd from Safety Last in public domain

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