This is Your Brain on Venting

So it turns out that venting is bad for your brain.  Is nothing sacred? I like to complain once in a while; unload all of my jabs and retorts in a long diatribe on how I’ve been wronged by a coworker or whomever.  Just ask my daughter.  I’m really good at rehashing every dirty detail.  But you know what? You are embedding your neuro-pathways with bad messages.  You are reinforcing the way you see the world and entrenching a poor mindset. 

During the Results Based Coaching training by the NeuroLeadership Group, the facilitator, Paul McGinniss said “Venting is like pouring gasoline on the problem”.  That’s a powerful metaphor.  If you think about it, aren’t you just reliving the emotional roller coaster and rehashing the same problem.  In David Rock‘s book, Quiet Leadership, he writes, “Unfortunately, drama is a place where many people in organizations are stuck and find it hard to get out of on their own”. You’re in a closed loop and running over the same territory.  This will not help you take a step forward or start building new connections.  You will not find solutions while venting.  

So here are some ideas on how to move off the venting loop and onto a more solutions based focus:          

1. Empathy.  Respond to the complaint with empathy.  This is a key principle from DDI, “listen and respond with empathy.”  The minute you label the feeling someone is conveying to you, let them know your heard them and that it’s time to move on.  “I hear you are frustrated because you didn’t get the raise you wanted” or “I understand you’re disappointed because your boss didn’t use your idea”.  End of loop.  The complainer has been heard.  To move on – Use Empathy.

2. Example.  Set the example.  If you sit around pissing and moaning all day, so will your coworkers, family members and friends.  So stop.  If you must complain that there is a thunderstorm in the middle of your outdoor wedding; say you are upset with the weather and move on.  Dwelling on it isn’t going to change the weather.  Be the optimist and set the example.

3. Ideas. Ask for some ideas.  Become solution focused.  So when your coworker is angry at their boss because she didn’t include him on the safety committee, ask “What do you want to do about that?”  If you are dealing with a chronic whiner, they will end the conversation and seek out other chronic whiners.  If they are willing to look for solutions; you have just helped them move on to new pathways.  You’ve helped break the loop.  Help people find some new ideas.

4. New club.  This might mean joining a new club.  The complainers club is enormous and omnipresent in the world of work.  You might need to hang out with a more optimistic bunch and the pickings might be slim.  The glass half full folks are probably smiling and approachable.  The half empty folks are gossiping and driving the bus over all their co-workers when their back is turned.  You know if they talk about everyone else, they are talking about you.  Stay away and join a new club

5. Silence.  When folks start their complaining and look for reassurance, keep silent.  Complainers aren’t really happy unless you are chiming in with agreement.  Don’t add fuel to the fire.  Let them build their own fires and walk away.  If you aren’t willing to be sucked into their drama, they will find someone else who is more willing.  According to an article by Melinda Zetlin called Listening to Complainers is Bad for Your Brain, “Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus.”  “That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” Trevor Blake says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.” Keep silent and walk away.

6. Bite. You’re going to need to bite your tongue.  If you start down the road of complaining, take a different direction.  So what if your team just lost?  It happens.  Don’t complain about the blind ref or the guy who cheated, try “gee wasn’t the weather just great” or “we had really good seats”.  Take the high road.  Over time, you’ll start having folks in your club.  People are attracted to optimism.  They might just want to build some of their brain cells with you.  Share the wealth and bite your tongue on negativity.

This post was difficult to write because my daughter is likely to hold me accountable for this information.  I hope I can live up to her expectations and look forward to giving up my venting and to start building those brain cells.

Got Pandemic Overwhelm? 4 Fixes.

I wrote this a year ago and now as I repost this Omicron is making it’s way across the U.S. and I have retired. I bought the bubbles mentioned and the dollar it cost was worth the smiles!

As I write this, it is February of 2021, a year into the pandemic. I thought this whole thing would have blown over by now. I thought we would be back in the communal workplace, making business travel plans and I’d be free to use my passport. Nope. In the last week or so, I’ve noticed articles about how this pandemic could last for upwards of 5 years. What?

My dog is great company and a terrific, if not needy, co-worker but I want to get back to the office. I want to run into random co-workers walking down the hall or by the water cooler. I want to be able to reach out to that co-worker who lost their son last year and find out how they are coping. I want to see the latest pictures of several coworkers’ grandchildren. I want to be planning the annual field day events. Nope. It is not going to happen. Not anytime soon. Perhaps never.

By now, like me, you have probably adapted to the “new normal”. You have your home workspace figured out, you have your Zoom background dialed in, you have your wardrobe culled down to Zoom tops, yoga pants, slippers, and earrings you can wear under a headset. Now in the winter of our discontent, we need to figure out ways to punctuate the work day so that we are not working ten-hour days without a break. We can’t cheat and do back-to-back Zoom calls. I have some ideas on how to close the stress loop even if you can’t get outside.

Here are 4 fixes for winter pandemic overwhelm:

  1. Move.  As in, move your body. Let’s assume you live in Minnesota and it’s minus 20 degrees outside. There is snow everywhere and ice on the sidewalks. Figure out a way to move inside. Put your phone on a charger in a separate room (this will also stop you from blindly screen scrolling). Put dishes or clothes or groceries away, one item at a time.  Walk to the farthest bathroom when you need to wash your hands. Watch a yoga YouTube video (like this one from my yoga expert friend Susannah), dance to my boyfriend Roy’s favorite dance music, “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells, stretch, lift weights or do pushups. As written by Michelle Bihary on Harvard Business Review, “If space is a big constraint, try standing at your desk to improve your metabolic health. Alan Hedge, Professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University, recommends using a 20-8-2 breakdown to guide you: 20 minutes of sitting, 8 minutes of standing, and 2 minutes of moving for every 30 minutes at work.” In order to move, you will likely need to revamp your schedule to give at least ten-minute breaks between meetings.
  2. Mindfulness.  Mindfulness does not require being a monk in a monastery. It does not mean you empty your head of all thought. It is really about just being in the moment and paying attention to your body (instead of your head…i.e. thoughts).  I have been trying out three apps recently: HeadspaceCalm and Insight Timer. A trend in all of their meditations, and sleep stories (yes, they have sleep stories you can drift to sleep on); the trend is inhaling for 4 beats, holding for 4 beats and exhaling for 6 beats. If you can do this for 5 cycles, you will be less stressed and overwhelmed. It closes the stress loop. As Bihary wrote, “A simple practice is to take five deep breaths, five times per day. When you concentrate on breathing deeply (as we do in yoga), you’re disengaging yourself from distractions, lowering your heart rate, ingesting more oxygen into the lowest part of your lungs, and stabilizing your blood pressure — in turn, lowering your stress level.” Being mindful can be as simple as taking a break to intentionally breath deep.
  3. Grateful.  Being grateful reduces stress. Bihary espoused, “Gratitude practices and expressing appreciation have long-lasting positive effects on the wiring of our brains. Research shows that gratitude takes our attention away from toxic emotions by helping us focus on more comforting ones. People who consciously count their blessings tend to be less depressed. When we feel grateful, it increases our levels of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel happy and enhancing our moods.” My gratitude journal has morphed over the years from an evening to a morning event, from three things to ten things; and now to my current habit of writing five things I’m grateful for (almost always people or my dog, Baci) and one thing I’m grateful I actually physically did like “drove safely, hiked or maintained my sobriety.” Figure out what suits you and give it a try.
  4. Connection. There are those out there who have way too much connection with their spouse, roommate or homeschooling children. By far I have seen that the folks who seem to have suffered the most with working from home are those that live alone. I live and work alone from home for most of the week and am fortunate to spend the weekends with my boyfriend. Finding ways to connect can be tricky depending on the current local requirements. Let technology be your friend. I am super lucky that my daughter Natalie has started calling me weekly via FaceTime. It makes a huge difference to see as well as hear her. My family has orchestrated a few family Zoom calls that have been a huge bright spot as well. In the book Burnout, connection is one of the many cures for closing the stress cycle although the book was written pre-pandemic. Figure out ways to connect with coworkers and family on a more casual basis like virtual trivia nights or family feud. Make time to connect with others on things besides production reports and customer complaints. 

Bihary had another stress booster that I haven’t tried out yet but will throw out as another suggestion: blowing bubbles. I love blowing bubbles but since I don’t have a grade school kid in my house, I haven’t stopped at a store to pick a bottle up. I’m putting it on my shopping list though! If there is something that incorporates deep breathing and being in the present moment it is the magic, fun and fragility of blowing bubbles. I hope you try a few of these fixes for the winter doldrums. If there is any way to get outside for even fifteen minutes, that is super effective too. What is your favorite winter doldrums fix?

5 Surprising Takeaways from Sensory Deprivation

My children and I spent the Christmas holidays in Asheville, North Carolina.  My daughter gifted me a Salt Water Floatation experience at a spa in downtown Asheville. I was apprehensive but excited to try it out.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected in retrospect but the experience was different than I imagined.

Here are my 5 surprising takeaways from my sensory deprivation experience:

Get naked

In anticipation of this experience, I brought my bathing suit.  I imagined someone sliding me into a bathtub and I’m modest. In reality, the attendant showed me to a private suite of sorts with a toilet, sink, shower, and flotation tank.  He showed me around the suite and then advised to lock the door behind him as he left. He had advised against the bathing suit, and I took his advice.  When you realize how much salt is in the water and that you are truly alone, it seems ludicrous to wear a bathing suit.  I followed the instructions and took a shower first before entering the tank. My advice is to get naked.

Fumbling in the dark

The tank itself can best be described as a walk-in refrigerator size room that has a six-inch-thick door that seals you into complete and utter darkness and is covered in a coating similar to a swimming pool.  I sat on the door frame,wet from the shower, naked, holding a ring to support my head, mashing ear plugs into my ears, my legs in the shallow body temperature water and feeling for the hand towel dangling by the door so I could navigate myself out again (if need be). It was a lot to keep track of. I took the “plunge” and closed the door. There I was fumbling in the dark, trying to center myself in the tank, put the ring to support my head and leaned back into the experience.  My advice is to accept the fumbling.

Relax into the experience

Initially, I was trying to set my boundaries and figure out where the edges of the tank were. I guess I imagined having a panic attack and trying to find my way-out in hysteria.  I was a floating island.  My big right toe would feel a wall so I’d tap off it and next my left pinky would feel a different wall.  Once I had settled in, I was in the middle of the tank (I assume) with no body parts touching any walls.  I don’t know if the ring behind my head was needed but I kept my head rested on it for the entire experience. I realized that I had all this tension in my neck and shoulders, probably imagining that I would sink in the water. There is so much salt in the tank that sinking would not happen, I finally, and consciously, released the tension. My advice is to relax into the experience.

Floating in extreme consciousness

I became hyper aware of everything going on in my body.  The banana I ate about an hour before the float making its way through my digestive track. What felt like a droplet by my nose most likely from the extreme humidity in the tank that made me lift my hand to scratch my nose and upset the equilibrium of my floating body.  The sound of my breath in the hollowness of the room.  My heartbeat assuring me of my existence. I repositioned my arms from facing up to face down. I started bending to the right and left from my waist. I suddenly felt a pain in my jaw that dissipated in about a minute. I was alarmed when I felt something floating in the water. I felt my left ear and realized my ear plug had fallen out. I was acutely aware of everything on planet Cathy. My advice is to accept the floating in extreme consciousness.

Infinite time and darkness

The float lasted for 60 minutes. I had no idea what time it was. No phone to refer to.  No clock on the wall. No music or sound intervals to punctuate the experience. I had my eyes closed for probably the first fifteen minutes.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I thought I might sleep. I opened my eyes and there was absolutely no difference.  It was pitch black. I wonder if perhaps I thought keeping my eyes closed meant, to me, that I could open them to light at any moment. The attendant had told me that at the end of the float, music would come on and a blue light. I started imaging a slight blue cast to the darkness.  I imagined that this is what it was like in my mother’s womb, unaware of time and light, but utterly supported by warm fluid.  My advice is let go of the distraction of time and light.

When the blue light shattered the darkness of the tank, I got out quickly.  I was anxious to shower and get the film of salt off my body.  I shampooed my hair twice trying to get what felt like a syrup of salt out of my hair.  In the end, much like the silent retreat I went to some four years ago, I recommend the experience.  I feel like I was reintroduced to planet Cathy in all her stripped down, conscious, imperfect, authentic glory.

4 Steps to Amor Fati

This is a repost from two years ago. Enjoy!

Definition of amor fati : love of fate : the welcoming of all life’s experiences as good

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes Amor Fati: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…. but love it.” Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (an epic, several-month-long trek over 2,000 miles) would express this as “Embrace the Suck.” Bryon Katie wrote a whole book on the topic called Loving What Is. I’ve spent decades trying to recreate history and control the path of my future, my kid’s future and my family’s future. I imagine I have a giant eraser to take back a failed marriage and wallow in regret, or project forward that my father will miraculously cheat death as he slowly succumbs to congestive heart failure. I have learned over the last few years that I am powerless to rewrite history and to meaningfully alter the future. Amor Fati.

Here are the 4 steps to Amor Fati:

Quit Complaining

As Will Bowen says, “Complaining is like bad breath – you notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own.” Bowen is the creator of A Complaint Free World  and challenges folks to go complaint free for 21 days. I remember taking this challenge some 7 years ago and I have to say, it’s pretty tough. I mean there is the weather, the traffic, my son still hasn’t responded to my text, the soup is cold, the package is late, my assistant hasn’t responded…but I digress into complaining. It’s so easy to deny what is. It’s like the negativity bias that saved your ancestors from saber-toothed tigers. It is constantly scanning the environment to track everything that is wrong. Try it for today. Just today. Be focused on what’s right with the world. With your world. I have a roof, a loving dog, a warm house and potable water. Welcome the rain, the red light, the screaming infant. Amor Fati.

Jump Forward

When I was going through my Brain Based Coaching training some eight years ago, I remember a tool we used called 10:10:10. This is a concept developed by Suzy Welch for decision making. “Here’s how it works. Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions: What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?” So, if staying late to complete a project for your boss means missing your child’s play at school using the 10:10:10 process there may be a happy boss and perhaps a more resilient child. As Ryan Holiday wrote, “The loss of a loved one, a breakup, some public embarrassment… In five years, are you still going to be mortified, or are you still going to be wracked with grief? Probably not. That’s not saying that you won’t feel bad, but you’re not going to feel as terrible as you do now. So, why are you punishing yourself?” I’ve been thinking about selling my house for the last year or so. I remember selling my house some 18 years ago in California. I thought, at the time, I will never live like this again. It was true, not because my current situation is worse, it’s just different and I never would have imagined how terrific things are right now. Maybe the future is so much better than you think. Amor Fati.

Embrace the Challenge

When my ex-husband left me hanging after my home was flooded by Hurricane Matthew, I was devastated. And then? I decided that this was a challenge. I was going to get the home repaired, fix my devastated finances and create a space of tranquility and comfort. I had an endless punch list and day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, I took it on and conquered it all. I would not succumb regardless of my lack of knowledge of plumbing, HVAC or foreclosure. In retrospect, the challenge of overcoming all the obstacles was the best part. I didn’t want to go through it, but now that I have, I am so glad I did. As Holiday wrote, “It’s like in a game, right? Let’s say I throw you into a football game. If you stop and spend all your time arguing over the rules, you’re never going play. Maybe it doesn’t make sense that the overtime rules are this way or that quarterbacks get special protection, or this or that, right? There are all these different rules that make no sense that are arbitrarily how the game has developed since its inception. The Stoics are asking you in some ways to accept the arbitrary rules. Then they’re saying you play the game with everything you’ve got.” Play the game and embrace the challenge. Amor Fati.

Grateful

Amor means love. It’s not just about accepting the suffering or fate; it’s about loving it. I think about this a lot as I sort through the aftermath of my divorce. I am grateful for the process, for each and every decision, good or bad, for the pain and the release, for the deception and the triumph. I would not be where I am now without the journey, without the emotional bruises, without the struggle. I am so grateful to be the woman I have become. Sober, independent, present and courageous. I do a loving kindness meditation every morning. I wish happiness, peace, health and living with ease to everyone in my family, my boyfriend, my sick cousin, my enemies and, lastly, my ex-husband. I imagine embracing each one. I love them all for what they have brought to my life and love the hand I have been dealt. I am most grateful for my ex-husband leaving me to live my life to the fullest. Amor Fati.

It’s all about reframing the journey. Instead of dreading the court date, looking forward to and loving what fate has in store for me. I think a lot about, “Hmm, I wonder what exciting twist will occur?” or “What does the universe have planned for me now?” I’m not sure where I will be in 5 or 10 years but I know the journey will be exciting. Amor Fati.

Shut Down Station KFKD

“Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open, and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.

Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to s#it, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”

This is Anne Lamott’s metaphor from her brilliant book on writing called Bird by Bird. Radio station Kf**ked is basically in constant stereo in your head.

Shut down station KFKD

This is not just for writers. This is for any project you might have standing in front of you. From the closet stuffed to the gills with unwearable clothing, the enormous realignment project at work, and that trip to Peru you haven’t really planned out yet. To get it done. Heck, to even get it started. It is imperative you shut down Station KFKD.

Here are some ideas:

Ritual.  When I write; when I start a project, I have a ritual. Actually, this is my daily ritual: write in my gratitude journal, affirmations, meditation, brain teasers and then learning a second language. I do this everyday without fail. I won’t start anything until I have finished my daily ritual. I do this everyday even if I am not writing or working on a project. It sets me up for success. It’s like putting on a cozy robe and soft slippers. It’s familiar. I feel warm, relaxed, and ready to launch. You don’t need this ritual, but it’s nice to have a ritual so the loose ends are tied up before starting your best new work.

Frog.  Eat That Frog. This is a book by Brian Tracy. He espouses that you should start your day with the biggest gnarliest item. So eat that frog. Write that post you have delayed for the last few days. Sign into that online platform you are not familiar with. Buy the damn plane tickets to Peru. Clear out the floor of your closet. When you get that frog; that hurdle out of the way early in your day, the rest of the day is downhill. It’s time to coast because you already ate the frog. The rest of the day is nothing but cherries and whip cream.

Flow.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.” Flow happens when you shut down Station KFKD and tap into your creative flow. You aren’t worried about impressing your boss or what that critic will say. It’s all about letting the words, art or lyrics spill out. It’s like opening the dam. Let it spill out without any regulation. Getting into flow shuts out KFKD.

Breathe.  No duh, Cathy, we all have to breathe. The issue is that we frequently don’t pay attention to our bodies. Breathing brings us back into our bodies, out of our heads, and far away from station KFKD. How is your big toe right now? Can you feel the breath through your nostrils? Are you present? It sounds counter intuitive to get back into your body and out of your head when you want to produce your best work. The problem is that your mind is full of land mines and illusions. Listen to your body and breathe.

Wandering.  Thoughts may wander off. You may start thinking about what lunch will be and when you need to head out for that appointment later. Gently. Ever so gently, bring it back to the work at hand. No need to scold or beat yourself up. Sometimes wandering brings you to a wonderful place and magical ideas. Going off the trail can take you places you never thought of going. Embrace the wandering.

I write first thing in the morning for the most part. I feel at my best. I am a lark. I got up this morning at 4 AM and started writing at 6 AM. This may not be for you. I have found my zone for keeping Station KFKD turned down. When do you do your best work?

Genesis on the Waters of Penobscot Bay

My boyfriend, Roy, and I traveled to the coast of Maine in October of 2021.  While I have been to Boothbay Harbor and Ogunquit Beach in my childhood summers, this was the first time I visited the origin of my family on the waters of Penobscot Bay.  It was on these waters that my father survived incredible odds, discovered his love of sailing and the love of his life. Without these waters, I would not be. There is no start. No genesis to create my parents long sixty plus year marriage, three thriving children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Without the waters of Penobscot Bay, there is no spark to start the fuse.

My father on the rigging of The Adventure on Penobscot Bay

Admiral Farragut Academy

My father’s first teaching job was at a boarding school in north New Jersey near Tom’s River, called Farragut, a 200-boy naval academy.  It was a grueling schedule teaching 5 different lessons a day, supervising a    120-boy dorm and presiding over a table of uniformed cadets three meals a day.  He coached football, wrestling and track and worked his first two summers as well.  This demanding schedule and a Farragut choral teacher named, Newt, is what brought my father to vacation on the waters of Penobscot Bay. 

Adventure

Newt and, his financial partner, Herb, owned a 119’ Gloucester Grand Banks schooner named the Adventure which sailed out of Rockland, Maine.  In the summer of 1954, Newt allowed my dad on the ship for free if he helped crew the boat.  The boat was fitted to take up to 50 passengers on a week’s trip around the myriad of islands of Penobscot Bay for an inexpensive week of sailing, sightseeing and partying during the summer tourist season. My father had no sailing experience!

Hurricane

After my father had been on the Adventure for just one day, there were hurricane warnings and they returned to let the passengers off the boat.  My father volunteered to stay with the Newt, two crew members and the cook to help anchor the boat behind a breakwater. As my father writes in his autobiography, “About midnight we dragged past the harbor opening toward the rocky shore south of us.  When a large coast guard cutter was spied shooting messenger lines towards us every five minutes, I thought we were saved.  But hurricane winds made it impossible to stand without hanging onto the riggings, and with horizontal rain slanting into your eyes, grabby monkey fists flying by became impossible in the blackness of night.  As waves got higher and the harbor shallower near foaming south shore rocks, the cutter gave up and left us. Newt warned me to tie myself to the main mast when the ship hit the rocks. As we drifted closer, I realized that at 29, I might not see that next half century of life I had hoped for. With an empty feeling turning edgy, wondering if being scared would turn to panic, I suddenly spied a smaller coast guard boat appear dimly nearby and begin to shoot monkey fists at us again.  I almost caught one but missed. On the next shot, Newt risked his life high on the bow stay—catching the tag end of the line before it fell into the breakers a few yards away.” They were pulled to safety.   As I write this, I can’t imagine how this inspired my father’s love of sailing. I’m just grateful that Penobscot Bay is not where he vanished into the water and rocks below. {What are monkey fists?}

Graduation

My mother drove from Wilmington, Delaware to Rockland, Maine with two other Clinical Laboratory Scientists, Margaret and Alta, just after their graduation from the University of Delaware. They were there for a celebration of their graduation and a week of fun and sailing on the Adventure. They arrived on Sunday, June 19, 1955 (my father’s 30th birthday). When my mother came on board, she noticed a well-tanned goateed man talking to a married woman. My mother was asked out by a guy in a motorboat to attend a dance at a local country club that evening.  She agreed and said she would bring along her two college friends. My mother set her hair and came out on deck to dry it.  There’s my mother on the waters of Penobscot Bay, a bright future laid before her, a blue sky and my father about to get her attention.

Splash

My father was irked that my mother had accepted a date with the guy in the motorboat.  He writes, “While she prepared for her date by washing her hair over the railing in her bathing suit that afternoon, I gave a gentle push – it was ten feet down. What a splash! Maine water is ve-e-ry cold. Sputtering in fury, she climbed the ladder and stomped to Captain Newt to ask how he could tolerate a crew member pushing a passenger overboard. With a quizzical smile, Newt opined as how any young man who did that must be interested.  “What right’s a married man got to push single girls overboard?” she exploded. Pointing out that I wasn’t wed, he guessed that I had wanted to get her attention.  I did.” My mother’s dive into Penobscot Bay at my father’s hand is the genesis of my family. Without the water, there is no origin.

My parents on board The Adventure

I’ve heard these stories my entire life. It’s not until I was there and took a schooner ride out of Camden harbor and saw the rocks of Rockland and the myriad of islands of Penobscot Bay that it hit me. Without all the pieces falling into place, without all the dominos falling just so, the love story never ignites, and they each go in a different direction.  But it does fall into place and the match is lit and the genesis is created on and in the waters of Penobscot Bay.

Remembering Daddy-Ott

Otto Wenke was born on the shortest day of the year, December 21, 1897 in Olean, New York. He was one of eleven siblings and his mother died when he was a small child. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to study business in Buffalo, NY. He served in the Navy. He met my grandmother, Mary Hammond, and eventually had a son, David, and daughter, Mary Ann (my mother). My grandfather, often referred to as Daddy-Ott, was an accountant for DuPont. DuPont was one of the first companies to occupy part of the Empire State Building after it opened in 1931. At one point in his career, he worked directly in New York, but eventually, my grandfather and his family landed in Wilmington, Delaware where DuPont was based. And that is where me, my brothers and my cousins all grew up together in close proximity to my grandparents.

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My grandfather, Otto R. Wenke, aka Daddy-Ott

My grandmother Daddy-Mar (crazy name for a grandmother, my oldest cousin Claire is responsible) died in 1962, one year after I was born. I have no memory of her but I have a multitude of memories of my Daddy-Ott.

Here are some memories of him:

Wenkeville

Every Labor Day weekend, the Wenke reunion is held in Olean, New York. With 11 siblings, some of those siblings ended up having upward of nine kids, meaning a multitude of Wenkes who grew up in Olean. There is even an area of Olean called Wenkeville! The family reunions garner upwards of 300 folks every year who get together and sing German drinking songs, remember their ancestors, play games and eat. We went several times and I can remember them all calling my grandfather “Gros Uncle” as he was the only remaining sibling of the original eleven. He was revered. Everyone came to see him and would give their kind regards. I felt like he was a celebrity. He was always in his element at the Wenke Reunion. What I appreciate most is that he wrote a history of his family to chronicle the escapades of his sister, Clara (the rebel), his father’s truck garden that helped keep the family afloat, and mapped out the various Wenke cousins on the family tree. I was always proud of being Ott’s granddaughter especially in Wenkeville.

Traveler

My grandfather was a traveler. He took a trip to the West Coast with my grandmother in the late 1950’s and accounted for every penny of the trip. The whole trip came to $724 with notable entries for 533 gallons of gas for a total of $202, 20 motel room nights at $181 and meals and snacks at $182. I think of how incredibly brave this was to head out on an 8,800 mile trip across country without a cell phone or GPS. That is wanderlust. After he retired and my grandmother passed away, he would travel to Florida, Canada and the west coast on his own. He always memorialized the trip with photos and meticulously wrote in his block pencil handwriting each location and person in the photo. Between my dad and my grandfather, I can understand why I love to wander.

Gardner

I lived in the same home in Wilmington, Delaware from the age of two. We lived next to park land and we had an enormous rock garden behind the house. The entire garden was the hard work of my grandfather. I’m sure he was inspired by the local DuPont estate, Longwood Gardens and the Butchart Gardens from his travels to Victoria, B.C. I can remember as a child that my grandfather came over every Saturday, without fail, to work on that garden. Dogwood, azaleas, impatiens, pansies, lilies, hens and chicks, and a maple tree. He had them all blooming throughout the spring and summer with nary a weed to disrupt his work of art. I can remember his voice coming in the front door of the house, “Hello, anybody home?” and sitting down to a hot cup of coffee, taking a sip and saying “hot ta ta.” He was a man of habits and we were able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Babysitter

Fortunately for me, I am the youngest of his grandchildren. As I was growing up and my mother returned to work, my grandfather cared for me on many occasions. What I remember most is escaping from the house in his Maroon Skylark Buick and riding “down the valley”, which included Beaver Valley Road, its hills and the Brandywine River. I loved to go gliding down in this big air-conditioned car with my grandfather behind the wheel and the farmland streaming by, honeysuckles perfuming the air. Even into high school, my grandfather would pick me up after swim practice or take me to a doctor’s visit. I could depend on him no matter what.

Piano

My grandfather had a grand piano in his apartment. He played it beautifully. In fact, he played piano when he was a teenager at silent movie houses. I had little appreciation for his talent when I was a child. I can remember visiting his apartment and him setting out block puzzles for my brother, Rick and me to play with and him playing his piano. It’s not until I tried to play the piano in elementary school that I understood what tenacity and practice it took to play the piano the way my grandfather did.

Regimented

My Daddy-Ott was regimented. Perhaps it was his motherless German upbringing, or becoming a parent amidst the Depression, but my grandfather was uniquely suited to being an accountant. He wrote in his diary every day of his adult life. Each day was memorialized with the external temperature and his daily activities in a brief 7 to 10 sentence paragraph. I believe you could set your watch to my grandfather’s activities. He was a devout Phillies fan and listened to the radio to follow their progress. I can remember crying when they won the World Series in 1980 because I was happy that my Daddy-Ott was alive to witness it. My grandfather and I had two struggles that I recall. Once when I was about 5 and he was babysitting me around lunchtime. He insisted that I could only have plain milk and I threw a tantrum over wanting chocolate milk. I can’t remember who won but boy, I remember us both being stubborn over who should prevail. For a brief year, my grandfather lived with my family, while I was in high school. Every Saturday night he insisted on watching The Lawrence Welk Show. This was excruciating for me. I loved Pink Floyd and Yes, and there I was suffering, listening to Polkas and watching bubbles float above the Lennon Sisters. What I would give to spend an afternoon watching Lawrence Welk with my Daddy-Ott now — although I’d still insist on chocolate milk!

My Daddy-Ott was a fixture in my childhood growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. He was there for Sunday dinners, Mother’s Day at the DuPont Country Club and escaping down the valley in his Buick. How fortunate I was to have a grandparent close by and involved in my upbringing. We always ended our Sunday dinners by my grandfather asking if we were “sufficiently suffonsified”? I have no idea where this expression came from but it’s basically asking if you are sufficiently full. He lives in my heart now and in my memories. I love you, Daddy-Ott.

My Hero. My Daughter.

I originally posted this four years ago. She is still my hero.

My daughter, Natalie, is my stable rock. My ballast. My hero. She has recently turned twenty-five and moved to Seattle about a year ago.  I had the great fortune to spend a recent weekend with her in New Mexico where she was born.  It was great fun to return to a state that has many natural marvels and be able to give context to how her life began.  Some twenty-six years earlier, my first husband and I moved to Albuquerque to run a restaurant and try our luck as entrepreneurs.  The restaurant eventually failed and put immense pressure on our marriage.  The wonderful shining glory that came out of that ill fated move to Albuquerque was a delightful, precious blue-eyed baby girl with an infectious smile and laugh.

Outside of a return trip to New Mexico when Natalie was eight, she has not returned.  She has faint memories of that trip and certainly does not remember her first four months of life in the Land of Enchantment. We had a lot of fun returning to where it all began. It also brought up some of the reasons I have depended on her for so much in her quarter century on the Earth.

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My brother, Rick, my daughter, Natalie and I hiking in New Mexico

Here are the ways Natalie is my hero:

Open. Natalie is open to any and all adventures. We did not have much of an agenda once we landed at Albuquerque’s Sunport except for a restaurant reservation or two.  Whether it was strolling the plaza in Santa Fe or taking a hike around a reservoir, Natalie was open.  She had no deadlines, no agenda, no must-see spots.  I feel like so many people in life have hidden agendas or hidden intentions.  Not Natalie. Anything goes. Wanna hike?  Sure.  Shop? You bet. Sleep in? OK. It makes me rethink how open I am to what is next. Be open.

Decisive.  Natalie may be open to all the options but once she has made up her mind, or the group has made up their mind, she goes after it. We had decided to hike Tent Rocks located outside of Santa Fe with my brother, Rick.  Once the decision was made, there was no going back.  I’m pretty sure that even if it was raining or 110 degrees, Natalie would have made it to the top of that slot canyon. She was committed. Even a random crossing of a rattlesnake on our path could not deter her from her destiny. Once you have weighed out all your options, be decisive.

Empathy. I have always had an issue with balance. I pause at the top of steps and escalators to get my barring. There were several times along the hike that Natalie grabbed my hand. I didn’t ask. She knew. When navigating very narrow footings, she said, “just one foot in front of the other.” I didn’t ask. She knew. As we hiked she would insist on a water break.  Not for her. For me. She pays attention. She senses the discomfort. She anticipates the need. It’s such a gift that I don’t know she is even aware she has it. Be in tune to those around you.

Navigator. Natalie and I had explored a trail near Santa Fe around a reservoir.  The trail was not well marked.  Towards the end of the hike we lost the trail. Pretty soon we were hiking through low uncharted brush and no fellow hikers were to be seen.  We had no GPS.  No cell coverage. I felt a bit of concern. There was no need. Natalie had a feel for where we were and led us back to the trail head and parking lot. There have been many hiccups and storms in my life over the last year and Natalie has been the calm navigator seeing me through. Make sure you have a sound navigator to help you through the storms.

Ballast. Every boat has a ballast to weight the boat upright. Natalie is my ballast. She is rarely rattled by events and keeps an even demeanor.  I can be easily flustered and fly into worst case scenarios. Natalie keeps me balanced by listening and asking questions to help me understand my own thinking. I may be ready to unload all the cargo on the boat or drop anchor but Natalie is the voice of reason.  Who is your ballast.  Maybe you are a ballast for someone else.  It’s important to have a ballast to even things out.

Joy. Natalie has infectious energy. She also happens to be a great selfie taker.  There she is in the center of the photo flashing her enchanting smile.  I cannot look at a photo of her without smiling. She is joy. She is possibility. She is magic. There are very few people that I know who exude that joyful energy. It sparks action. Everything seems possible when there is joy in the room.  I am so fortunate to have her in my life. Find joy.

I am so proud to be Natalie’s mother and, most importantly, that she is in my life. She makes everything brighter and more amazing. Who is your hero?

Ways to Reset Your Happiness Set Point

I wrote this over 7 years ago and as I reread it now, I realize that I really have reset my happiness set point. Enjoy!

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about perfectionism. In the post, I brought up Hedonic Adaptation which involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s buying a new Mercedes or crashing your new Mercedes, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level. A reader asked that I expound on how I have tried to reset my happiness set point.

So I’ve tried to reset my “set point” and it turns out there is some science behind it. I think I first became aware of this by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, she chronicles twelve months of changing her approach and raising her happiness set point. By the end of the year she felt like she had a sustained increase in her happiness. In another article called “Making Happiness Last” by Katherine Jacobs Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky, they posit it is possible to reverse the effects of the hedonic adaptation. So here is some advice:

  •      Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal. All the authors recommended this and studies have shown that this has a positive effect. I have had a gratitude journal for over 5 years. I have varied it from writing actual paragraphs, to four bullets to my current style which is just to list events and names that had a positive impact on me or I had a positive impact on them. I don’t have a limited number but generally it’s somewhere between 4 and 12. I’m not a big fan of rules, so I just go with what works for me. Count your blessings.
  •      Kindness. Perform random acts of kindness. Apparently it matters if the acts of kindness are varied. It makes sense. If I always buy my team a dozen donuts every Friday, after a while, it has diminishing returns. So you need to shake it up. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee, offer to help the mother with the toddler and infant at the airport, compliment the cashier on her earrings, volunteer at the local triathlon, or bring the mail to your elderly neighbor. I have done all of these. If it becomes rote, it’s not the same impact. Spread kindness.
  •      Intrinsic. The things you do for intrinsic reasons have a much greater impact than those for extrinsic reasons. So I write this blog to inspire others. It brings me joy. If I was writing this blog just to make money, it would not bring me joy. It would be drudgery. Find things that line up with your soul. Paint, sing, play the banjo, run a half marathon, write, cook, bake, raise chickens. Find something that feeds your soul and do it.
  •      Friend. If you can find some way to make your activities social, it will add to your happiness. I have to say that when I walk my dog instead of walking alone, I feel much better. Cooking with my son is more fun than cooking solo. Finding or making a friend while volunteering at a triathlon will multiply the results and the impact is tremendous. All these measures stave off the hedonic adaptation and keep your set point higher.
  •      Perspective. It’s important to remember where you started. Gretchen Rubin had a checklist where she kept track of what she did and didn’t do every day. I tried this but I just couldn’t work it into my routine. But I do remember where I started. Three years ago when I started this blog, I felt self-conscious, overwhelmed and resentful. Working on resetting my set point has made me happier and, I think, helped me live in the present. If you just look back a week, there may not be a big difference but when you look back to where you started, you will be able to see that your set point has changed and is much higher. So start now. Record or journal where you are today. A year from now, look back and see how far you have come.
  •      Self. It’s important that you are doing this for yourself. So don’t go pick up some paint and an easel because I or anyone else told you to. It won’t have the same effect. What is missing in your life? What’s not there right now that you want to have there? Only you can answer that. Maybe you want to raise goldfish or have always wanted to make homemade gnocchi or want to write a book or play the oboe. Whatever it is. Go do it. For you and you alone.
  •     Aware. You need to be aware of the strides you have made. I have the evidence of 154 blog posts (wow that’s a lot!). Studies have shown that if you can appreciate the changes you’ve made, you are keeping Hedonic adaptation at bay or keeping your set point higher. I know that in general, I have a more optimistic view of life. I know that stress and conflict roll off me more easily. I appreciate that my happiness set point is higher. Acknowledge the changes you have made.
  •     Help. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to get help. I think the biggest advantage a coach or therapist brings is the space to reflect and create insight. To see where you have come from and all that is possible. We get so caught up in striving that having someone give you the space to just stop and think is such a relief. You may be able to find this in a friend or partner but having an outside, unattached, viewpoint can be life changing.

Happiness can seem elusive if you have had a recent catastrophic event. But even these downward resets in happiness can be overcome with time. Hedonic adaptation eventually will buoy you up. The secret is to keep moving it up or at least maintaining at a new set point.

5 Reasons to Prioritize Sleep

I recently finished Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. It’s changed my view of sleep and I have a new focus on making it a priority in my life. If fact, since finishing the book over two months ago, I can only think of one night when I stayed up past 9:30 PM. I have always been a lark (someone who rises early) and 9 PM was my standing bedtime for decades although I made exceptions for parties, movies, travel and events.  Since finishing the book and realizing the importance of sleep in my life and wishing I had read the book before raising my children into adulthood, I have staked out sleep as priority one.

Here are 5 reasons to prioritize sleep:

Cognitive Performance

Before reading Walker’s book, I figured that 7 hours of sleep on most nights was pretty good.  I thought I was a slumbering bad ass. Apparently, 7 hours isn’t enough. As written by Walker, “After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours. Three full nights of recovery sleep (i.e., more nights than a weekend) are insufficient to restore performance back to normal levels after a week of short sleeping. Finally, the human mind cannot accurately sense how sleep-deprived it is when sleep-deprived.” So even if you are consistently sleeping 7 hours a night, you are diminishing your cognitive ability. This gives me pause. I wonder just how much I could have accomplished in my life if I had been getting 8 hours of sleep on a consistent basis.

Immune System

I think of the times I’ve tried to recover from surgery or the flu, sleep has been the single best ingredient for repairing my body. As Walker posits, “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.” As I write this, we’ve been 18 months into a pandemic. I have been working almost exclusively remotely and have had a much greater sleep opportunity because of the lack of commuting and travel. I haven’t been sick. Not even a cold in that time frame. Yes, I’m vaccinated and am rarely in a crowd, but perhaps it’s my focus on sleep that’s been a boost to my immunity.

Driving

This is the single most shocking statistic from the book. Alcohol consumption and sleep deprivation had the same impact on driving skills. Drinking and lack of sleep together? It’s abysmal. Walker wrote, “It is disquieting to learn that vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.” Since reading the book, I have made it a priority to not drive after dusk if I can help it. I’m concerned about my driving and everyone else on the road.  Lack of sleep is unilateral in its affects. No one is exempt from its affects.

Learning

A good night’s sleep has a powerful impact on your ability to learn and retain information. Walker espoused, “If you don’t sleep the very first night after learning, you lose the chance to consolidate those memories, even if you get lots of “catch-up” sleep thereafter. In terms of memory, then, sleep is not like the bank. You cannot accumulate a debt and hope to pay it off at a later point in time. Sleep for memory consolidation is an all-or-nothing event.” Sleep has a way of hardwiring the information you learn into your memory bank.  If you lose that opportunity by pulling an all-nighter;  the opportunity is lost forever. 

Emotional Regulation

I’ve been sober for over four years now. Alcohol has an enormous effect on quality of sleep and restorative REM sleep.  I know my sleep quality is better over the last four years and I believe it’s had an impact on my ability to regulate my emotions. I’m not saying I never get angry or upset, but I do feel much more able to roll with the punches. As written by Walker, “More specifically, the coolheaded ability to regulate our emotions each day—a key to what we call emotional IQ—depends on getting sufficient REM sleep night after night. (If your mind immediately jumped to particular colleagues, friends, and public figures who lack these traits, you may well wonder about how much sleep, especially late-morning REM-rich sleep, they are getting.)” I’m fortunate. Between getting sober and working from home, I’ve been able to make sleep a priority and the impact has paid off.

While reading the book, I realized that I needed to give myself a 9-hour sleep “opportunity”. As my iWatch sleep app “AutoSleep” captures, I’m not sleeping the whole time in bed. I’ve worked hard in setting boundaries for my sleep opportunity each night and my average sleep length has increased to 8 hours and 2 minutes. It’s had an impact. I feel healthy, rested, agile and happier. I must give a shout out to my boyfriend, Roy, and my dog, Baci, as I have been pretty hard core about maintaining my 9-hour sleep opportunity.  What would it take for you to get more sleep?