50 Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

It’s a big weekend in my town. It’s a big party weekend. This means I avoid campus and expect a really low attendance in my early classes on Monday. It’s always the same story: students act out this script of what it means to be a college student.

Last year, a man came to my office hours and asked me if I had any ideas for how he could stay out of trouble. He’d been arrested, he’d had several underage drinking citations, and his GPA had plummeted from a 4.0 to a 1.7. Feeling like he’d squandered the last four years of his life, he asked me what I did for fun that didn’t involve getting drunk. He wondered what a life looks like that doesn’t involve partying. As I talked about my own college years, he started to make a list for himself. He was writing a new script.

So, as a shout-out to my students who want a different script for their evening, I’m providing 50 ways to stay out of trouble. I once heard a speaker say that the definition of pleasure is: “having fun with no negative consequences.” Living with flair has something to do with experiencing pleasure in ways that don’t harm you or anybody else. Hence, my tried and true 50 ways to stay out of trouble.

1.Learn the moves to “Beat It” (or Thriller, or Single Ladies, or any dance)
2.Cook a gourmet meal with your friend. (Remember: good things happen with cutting boards)
3.Play improvizational games (Watch “Whose Line is it Anyway” or just play charades)
4.Organize your desk. (This will feel really good)
5.Do a movie marathon of 1980’s John Hughes movies. Or James Bond. Or Spielberg.
6.Visit every coffee shop downtown and evaluate each one. (I did this one Fall semester)
7.Plant something. (I’m doing this now)
8.Call your parents. (I should do this)
9.Call somebody from your childhood.
10.Read a bestselling novel. Then go talk to people about it. Book clubs are cool.
11.Go thrift store shopping.
12.Find neighborhood garage sales and buy unusual things.
13.Go to a local park and swing very high so you can jump out of the swing.
14.Go for a long walk. See if you can walk for an entire hour.
15.Search for new music on iTunes. Fall in love with a new band.
16.Get into a fascinating conversation with a stranger.
17.Go to church.
18.Plan some dreams for the next decade. Write out your personal mission statement.
19.Help somebody do something.
20.Watch people. Tell a story about their lives.
21.Learn a new sport.
22.Start a “flair” blog and tell me about it.
23.Get a great night’s sleep.
24.Go to a fancy grocery store and buy the most expensive chocolate just to try it.
25.Go to a pet store and hold all the new kittens and puppies.
26.Find a creek and sit by it.
27.Build your own kite and then fly it somewhere. You can google instructions.
28.Start a collection of some really obscure thing.
29.Learn to draw something.
30.Make a flip book comic.
31.Go in search of the world’s most comfortable slippers.
32.Learn a different language. (I want to learn Chinese this summer)
33.Go to a toy store and play with the toys.
34.Hang out at a bookstore and read for an hour.
35.Volunteer to help at a shelter or a community center.
36.Join a club.
37.Drive down a country road. (Rt. 550 changed my life)
38.Learn double dutch jump rope.
39.Do something that gets your heart rate up for 40 minutes and see how good you feel.
40.Practice being alone for an entire evening.
41.Donate stuff you don’t need.
42.Read a chapter in a textbook because you want to learn something, not because it’s on the test.
43.Reread a book from your childhood. (I reread To Kill A Mockingbird)
44.Hiking. Camping.
45.Make a scrap book.
46.Invent a game to play.
47.Create an ad campaign to motivate people to do something.
48.Teach somebody how to do something.
49.Watch an entire season of a show on DVD in one day. 24? Lost? The Office?
50.Make water your beverage selection for the whole weekend. Hydration can change your life.

So there. Here’s to living with flair.


The Cutting Board Cure

Whenever I get my cutting board out with friends or family, good things always happen. I remember chopping garlic and fresh ginger with my boyfriend (now my husband) on one of our first dates. We were hungry after playing tennis, and we had to find something in my kitchen for dinner. Afterward, he offered to scrub my stove. I was in love.

And it’s not just a woman thing.

Cutting boards are manly; don’t be tempted to apply the pioneer woman or 1950’s housewife stereotype. Have you seen Cake Boss, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, or Emeril on the Food Network? This is why I can tell a group of men that good writing is a lot like good cooking. They nod their heads and start thinking about crème brulee and reduction sauces. It’s not a woman’s domain anymore.

So I have this theory about cutting boards and love. You start to love the people you cook with. You just do. Maybe it has something to do with working towards a common goal and enjoying the fruit of your shared labor. It’s hard to be angry with someone when he’s chopping the onion you need for the soup. It’s hard to be bitter and stressed out when you have to stand there rolling out pizza dough on a nicely floured cutting board. It has something to do with choosing to take the time to do it.

I’ve been stressed out today. Who isn’t? And I’ve been impatient with my daughter for demanding so much of my attention all day. And I’ve been mad about having to clean the bathrooms. I don’t have time for all this.

So I got out my cutting board. I didn’t have time to do this. It was lunchtime, and I asked my daughter if she wanted to make homemade pizzas. Of course! Really, Mom? Really? She sat by the counter, right by my side, spreading sauce on the crust and then sprinkling ridiculous amounts of cheese on top. She took her time, slowly spreading, slowing sprinkling. We relaxed as we waited for them to cook. Then we relaxed more as we ate them.

Then I hugged her. Then she hugged me.

The cutting board saves the day once again.

Living with flair means bringing out the cutting board precisely because I don’t have the time for it.


Admiring the Raw

I’ve been practicing a new flair attitude. I want to admire people.

Admiring somebody seems gushy and cheesy; we think about valentines or romantic movies. But the real meaning of admire is to esteem, respect, and have a high opinion of someone. I want to be the kind of woman who thinks highly of all kinds of folks for good reasons. What I admire about people can reveal to me what I value. It tells me what my heart thinks is good, noble, and right.

I used to admire wealth, prestige, and my appearance more than anything. It’s embarrassing to admit how much. For almost 2 decades I pursued every accolade possible. I admired people with advanced degrees, people with political power in Washington, and couples with the kind of wealth that lets them own several vacation homes. I admired beautiful women who dressed fashionably and went to the salon on a weekly basis. I had the time and means to live that way. I hung around people like that, at those sort of houses, and at those kinds of parties.

I wasn’t happy.

Today, I’m a completely different person. I can tell just by what I admired over the last few hours. My days, not surprisingly, are devoid of material wealth, prestige, or a salon appearance. I live in a small town in a rented house; nobody even cares about my academic degrees; my hair is still in a pony-tail from this morning. I can’t remember if I washed it.

But I did something right today:

I admired—with flair—my daughter’s incredible 2nd grade teacher for her creativity, devotion, and genius lesson plans. I admired a man battling cancer while I ate biscotti in his kitchen. I admired a salesperson who treated me kindly. I also admired three girls who rode their bikes up a huge hill without stopping to catch their breath.

I even admired the dogs in my neighborhood for their consistently joyful tail wagging.

I just admired my youngest daughter for enduring strep throat with a good attitude today. And now, I’m off to admire my husband who just left to pick up a new prescription of antibiotics.

Living with flair means learning to admire the authentic thing, the raw parts of really living, that show me what is so good and right about my life.


Crying (with flair) in Front of My Students

Every once in a while, students make me cry. I didn’t make a fool of myself or anything. But I did cry.

It’s all because of these particular students who are so great in spite of traumatic childhoods. I know, I know, it sounds cliché that I would cry about students who suffer and yet find so much beauty and joy in life, but what can I say? I cried.

I imagine writing teachers all over the world cry. I hope they do.

I read these memoir essays—these collections of memories—and I can’t believe the profound complexity of a life. Asking students to make sense of important memories that shape their identity might yield anger and hatred (the classic victim memoir genre). But these students do the harder work of gleaning the beauty from the horror. They showcase the wisdom they’ve accumulated. They interact with others with patience, gentleness, and this curious sense of love that the rest of the class notices. Their suffering enables a particular attention to the needs of others. Instead of narcissistic victimization, they use their stories to care for others. It’s amazing to hear about the future careers they imagine: social work, nursing, counseling. They have a gift to give back! How, at their age, can they see their pain’s wisdom as a gift to give?

I know these students have spiritual backgrounds. They must believe in the goodness of God and the way, at least in the Christian tradition, suffering always leads to beauty. There’s always a way to make sense of it.

So I cried for the truth that suffering can and will bring joy.

Living with flair means acknowledging the stories of others on the journey. It means recognizing the hard task of re-framing our worst memories into pathways to beauty and wisdom. And if the acknowledgment brings tears in front of a class of college students, so be it.


The Double Dutch Challenge

I learned Double Dutch with the neighborhood children.

I did it. Seriously, I did.

It was a community effort. One mom bought the jump ropes at a sporting goods store, one mom offered her vague memories of how to do it, and one mom agreed to turn the ropes with me.

We read an instruction booklet first.

So there we stood, us moms and dads, with all these children around us, rising to our newest neighborhood flair challenge: Learn Double Dutch jump rope.

It’s a terrific game to learn. Think about the fact that two ropes are turning in opposite directions, fast, and some child (or adult) jumps over these ropes in a sequence that resembles running in place or else doing little hops to avoid getting tangled up. We practiced turning the ropes (that’s a sport in itself), we sang traditional jump rope songs (something about candy), and soon, 6 children learned this skill. We cheered each time. We slapped high-fives. We celebrated like we were at the Olympic Games.

And then it was my turn.

I am an older woman, remember. Put it this way: I jiggle in places and need support in more ways than one. But I always wanted to learn Double Dutch, and for whatever reason, I never took the opportunity.

Well, now. If I’m going to live with flair, I can’t let this be.

It took me two tries, and I did it. I maybe jumped 5 times in total, and I didn’t get tangled up in ropes or anything. It’s actually not that hard once you learn to jump really fast. Now I’m moving on to performing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” moves while I Double-Dutch (thanks for the suggestion, friends).

What made it an overwhelming flair moment? Double Dutch represented the best of community organizing. We set a goal, we divided tasks, we gathered to accomplish our goal, and then we celebrated. As I teach my family about community service, I instill the value of building a neighborhood. We are learning how to gather people together around common goals.

Our neighborhood values physical fitness and raising children with the skills they need for life-long health. We can’t do this alone. We need the group.

Something about this shared task of learning Double Dutch felt truly authentic. I’m not sure how to define it other than to tell you that authentic community involves jump ropes. I keep them in my minivan at all times.

Besides, life is hard. Some days I feel like I’m trying to jump over ropes going in opposite directions with out-of-control schedules, sick children, working, and just living. But then I look up, see my community with their hands on the ropes, steadying me, encouraging me, looking me straight in the eyes and saying: You can do this, Heather! Ready, Set, Go! And the ropes turn, and the neighbors cheer, and then I’m doing it! I’m doing this impossible thing that I couldn’t do just yesterday!

Having a neighborhood that comes out to play after dinner is community flair. We value exercise, and now, we value it with flair. Living with flair means keeping jump ropes in the back of your minivan just in case the neighbors come.


How to Savor (and Lose Weight) with Flair

Living with flair means to savor. You take the smallest thing (a punctuation mark, a turtle, a hand in the wind), and like some judge on Iron Chef, you test its quality. Then you announce its worth. Announcing the worth of small things has changed my life this month. I anticipate the greatness of common moments.

Today’s “flair moment” came in the form of a meat cake. They do exist. A friend celebrated her 28th birthday party at my home last night, and someone honored her with a meat cake. The frosting was mashed potatoes whipped as lovely as buttercream. The rosettes were perfectly formed swirls of bacon. It was food art at its best.

I tried a little–just enough to savor the taste. Appreciating its artistry provided more pleasure than the actual eating (although it was good). I love to consider the art in food. Give me sushi or lemon meringue pies, and I’ll enjoy the composition and admire the chef. I tend to not overeat when the food itself is lovely.

And food is lovely. Why don’t I notice it? Eating is common; I do it usually 3-5 times a day, every single day of my life (sometimes more–sometimes a lot more). I tended to not notice my food, though, until this year.

I’ve lost 35 pounds, and it has something to do with living with flair–with savoring things. Stopping to enjoy the beauty of my food has helped me not shove it so quickly, and in such large amounts, into my mouth. Can eating be an act of thanksgiving, of worship, of . . . flair? I want to savor flavors, textures, colors, and smells. I want to take small bites and be completely satisfied with the greatness of small portions. I really don’t need more.

Living with flair means savoring. And, as a result, being satisfied with much less than I thought I’d need (in my stomach and in my life).


5 Ways to Write with Flair

If I’m going to live with flair, I have to think about communicating with flair. Most of us will have thousands of occasions for writing in the next year: emails, text messages, resumes, blog entries, cover letters, articles, love letters, essays, reports, memos, or our next big novel. After ten years of teaching, after reading over six thousand student essays (I counted once), and after analyzing more grammar books than any person should, I wrote this book called “How to Write with Flair.” And then I thought about living with flair, and well, you know the rest.

But back to how to write with flair.

It’s easy. I know 5 tricks. Ready?

1. Choose a verb with flair. Eliminate feeble verbs (am is are was were has have had seems appear exists). These verbs don’t show anything happening. Use exciting verbs. I love verbs like grapple and fritter. Grapple with strong verbs to fritter away the feeble ones.

2. Toggle between the Big 5 punctuation marks: Semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Here’s a paragraph that embeds these tricks.

When you want to create complexity and voice in your writing, try using the Big 5. To highlight a part of your sentence–like this one–use dashes. Dashes shout. On the other hand, if you want to whisper and share a secret with an audience (like this one), use parentheses. Parentheses whisper. Semicolons confuse most; they unite full sentences that belong together because the second sentence explains or amplifies the first. Commas help the reader along by following introductory clauses, or they combine two sentences when you want to use a conjunction like and, but, for, or, nor, so (We can talk later about this; commas are really hard unless you had grammar instruction as a kid). Finally, the colon designates that a list or definition will follow. So the Big 5 include: semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Do you feel smart?

3. Vary the length of your sentences and change the way they start to create rhythm. See sample paragraph above.

4. Garnish your paragraph with some clever wordplay if you can. Common cleverness in writing includes: puns, repeated first words, self-answering questions, understatement, just being funny, just being YOU.

5. Engage your audience. Establish rapport by talking to them. Are you wondering how this works? Just notice them in your writing (like I just did). Make it obvious that you are talking to people.

Try these simple things to create some flair in your emails or reports today. Enjoy some written flair.


The Holy in the Dusty

I think you can clean a basement with flair. It takes some imagination though. Right now, I’m covered with dust and dead ladybugs. Cleaning a basement this morning made me think about what motivates me to do it at all:

1.I have to believe in the inherent rightness of order and beauty.

2.I have to believe it can become a holy place. Why not? Why couldn’t wonderful and miraculous things happen in my basement?

Living with flair means turning the boring and hard into the stuff of wonder.

Cleaning a basement means you touch objects: papers, toys, stuff. Then you reminisce briefly. Then you toss that thing in a bin for Salvation Army, a recycling bin, or the Big Black Trash Bag. I realize the deep psychology behind my attachment to objects. There’s a story attached to each one; I know this. But there’s also freedom in moving on to new stories, cleansing a home, and getting some fresh air in.

I have to make space for the new.

As I cleaned my office in the far recesses of the basement this morning, I thought about how to sanctify it somehow. As I cleaned, I tried to set it apart for the use it would have. How much grading, lesson planning, reflection, writing, or correspondence happens right in that space? What if, as I cleaned, I prayed that the space would be used for good, for blessing, for unimaginable joy? Why do we think churches or temples are the only holy sites?

I moved onto the unholy play area. As I tossed toys and torn Polly Pocket dresses (those things are the bane of my existence), I prayed over the new space. Could God infuse the playroom with wonder, creativity, and friendship? Could miracles happen in my dusty basement? What children would play here? What students would gather? What family memories would happen and be stored deep for generations?

My prayers, often, are too limited in scope. Not today. Not in my basement.

Cleaning a basement has something to do with cleaning the heart and mind and inviting beauty in. Living with flair means setting apart the dirtiest and dustiest (the bowels of a house!) for a joyous use.


Flair for a Lifetime

I’m trying to train myself to notice things. That’s really what living with flair means. I try to notice interesting things about the day and connect these moments to larger questions about life. Simple. Sometimes this practice results in ridiculous amounts of joy and laughter.

Take, for example, my afternoon drive in my minivan to go return overdue library books (not flair).

In my attempt to notice (literally pay attention), I tried to deliberately watch people as I waited at a stoplight downtown. Maybe I’d find a bit of flair in doing this.

All of a sudden, I saw this really cute guy out of the corner of my eye. In a college town filled with guys, this one caught my attention. In a brief glance, I noticed his sunglasses, his jeans, and how he had his hands shoved into his pockets. I looked away, embarrassed that I would notice hot guys in the crosswalk at my age. But nevertheless, I had to look back. I wanted to get one more look at this gorgeous guy.

I looked back and started giggling. I knew that guy. The guy was my husband! I’m not kidding! It was! He was walking back to his office from a lunch appointment. I’m laughing as I write this.

I called him immediately.

So it was his flair for the day too.

I suppose living with flair has something to do with loving deeply, noticing that person because you’ve chosen to pay attention, and then telling that person exactly what you see. Seeing my husband in a different setting caught me by surprise. And I noticed him. That kind of flair can last a lifetime.


A Rope and a Smile

Every morning, without fail, these two little boys find me on the walk to school, and they ask me for a “cat story.” They know I have three cats. Don’t worry: I heard that you don’t become a crazy cat woman until you have 5 cats. I’m well below this threshold. And don’t worry: this won’t become a blog about my cats.

So the boys wanted a cat story. Here goes:

My little black and white cat likes us to run around the house, dragging a yellow rope she found somewhere. Recently, she’s learned to find the rope, grasp it in her mouth, and carry it to wherever we are sitting (this is a big deal for a little cat). If I’m busy, she finds anyone who’ll help. She brings the rope, drops it by a foot, and then meows and meows for somebody, anybody, to drag this rope for her to chase.

She’s relentless.

You’d think this would annoy me; it delights me instead.

I recognized something about this little kitty. Cats are supremely independent, supremely aloof. And yet, what does this cat do? Learning to carry a rope to me, dropping it like that, needing me so much, is cat flair. She temporarily suspends her superior, I-don’t-need-you, cattitude. She knows she can’t make the rope jiggle and race across the living room. This cat knows her limitations. This somehow doesn’t bother her. That’s the flair.

Why is it so hard to admit when I have a need that only another person can meet? I’m the type of girl who would find the rope, even drag it someplace in hopes of playing, and figure out a way to make it move myself. What’s with this attitude of independence? When was the last time I admitted to somebody that I needed them, really needed them?

Living with flair means acknowledging my limitations and approaching others for help. We think it annoys people, but more often than not, it delights.

Running around my house with an old yellow rope and a cat on my heels makes me smile. It’s a gift to me, not her.