Coming Up Short

This has been a difficult year — an annus horribilis for many, to paraphrase Her Majesty the Queen.

Image result for queen elizabeth canadaI have been thinking about Queen Elizabeth a lot lately. She’s the one I’m told I must swear an oath to, if I flee Donald Trump and seek asylum in Canada. (I’ve already chosen a title for my memoir… “Mounties: my path to citizenship!”)

I celebrated a milestone birthday recently. The big 5-0. Up until now, I have taken birthdays in stride. Forty was no biggie for me, because I didn’t feel or look much different from when I was 30 or 35. Fifty is different.

My hair is graying all over my head – not just in a few places. My hairdresser has gone from delicately applying highlights with a little brush, to slapping color all over my head with a spatula.

My knees are shot, the cartilage long gone. And in the past few years, forgetting to put reading glasses in my purse when I go out has become more than just an inconvenience. It renders me helpless.

While I realize getting older is far better than the alternative, turning 50 within a few weeks of Donald Trump winning the presidential election was like a one-two punch to the gut. I was kind of a wreck.

But on November 9, as journalists began speculating about President-Elect Trump’s first 100 days in office, I had an epiphany. I needed my own 100 day plan. My mood wasn’t going to de-funk itself.

It kicked off December 1, and will finish on February 28. Perfectly timed and tidy!

I’m keeping some aspects of my plan to myself because THE INTERNET IS FOREVER. But it’s a combination of healthier living (teetotaling, more walking), professional soul-searching and more giving. I haven’t chosen a volunteer activity yet, but still have 93 days to figure it out.

Another goal is to be braver, so last weekend I asked my hairdresser to chop off my hair. It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn’t thought I had the chin or cheekbones to carry if off. Also, men supposedly prefer longer hair. You’ll recall that Faith Hill fans FREAKED OUT when she went pixie a year or so ago.

And remember Felicity, and the “haircut incident”? A shorter ‘do may have cost the Felicity the love of Ben, and Keri Russell her very first TV series. With the risk of such backlash, I’m surprised any woman ever goes shorter than a “lob”.

 

Younger women worry so much about whether the rest of the world likes their hair and clothes and bodies. It’s exhausting to watch. Now that I’m 50, I don’t care as much. (Luckily, I don’t have a network TV show to possibly lose.)

Long hair is lovely, and if you have it and like it…more power to you, sister! If you need me I’ll be over here, rubbing the stubble on the back of my well-coiffed head, and channeling the great Amy Poehler:

“Good for her! Not for me.”

Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing that expression a lot more from me in the next half century.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn French by watching videos of Justin Trudeau.

justin
Image result for ginnifer goodwin
Psych! Not me. But this is the photo that started it all.

Old Habits Die Hard (With a Vengeance)

The Power of Habit book jacketEvery January 1st, most of us set out to make behavioral changes — often with humbling results. For many, an annual list of resolutions can look more like a pie-in-the-sky bucket list, with no identified means of successfully reaching our goals. I’ve written about this before.

Of course, it’s one thing to map out very thoughtful, specific lifestyle changes we need to make… and altogether another to make them. Why is breaking bad habits, and picking up good ones, so difficult?

The answer may lie in the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It turns out even the most introspective, well-intentioned and strong-willed among us are going about this self-improvement business all wrong.

Extensive research into the physiology behind human behavior has proved that habit forming is one of the most primal brain functions of men – and mice. Once patterns associated with habits develop in our basal ganglia, they are there to stay.

For example, a mouse can be trained to run a maze each day with greater and greater speed and efficiency, to reach a piece of cheese. If researchers move the cheese, the mouse will learn the new path to it – in other words, form new habits. (It may also ask its mouse buddies, “Who moved my cheese?”.) But if the cheese is later returned to its original location, the mouse will quickly resume its old route through the maze, without having to “relearn” it. The habits associated with the original route were only displaced – not replaced — by later ones.

So if we can’t erase bad habits – if they are always lurking somewhere deep in our brains – what’s a body to do?

Duhigg defines habits as being composed of four elements that are closely interwoven:

  • Cues
  • Routine behavior
  • Rewards
  • Cravings

Cues are signs we may not even be aware of that provoke specific, habitual behavior. An example from the book: Duhigg developed a habit of stopping by his workplace cafeteria for a cookie break each day at about 3 p.m. Time of day was the cue.

The habit loop, from The Power of HabitHere’s where it gets tricky: The routine wasn’t just eating and the reward wasn’t simply the cookie. WHEN and WHERE did he eat it, and what else was he doing while he ate it? If he always had his snack while chatting with his friends, maybe the reward was camaraderie and not the cookie itself?

All Duhigg knew was, whenever he tried to skip his cafeteria run he suffered cravings, ostensibly for a sweet treat, that hindered his ability to kick the cookie habit.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Duhigg contends that the key to changing a negative behavior is recognizing what triggers it and the need it is really meeting, and finding a more constructive routine that will meet that need and extinguish the craving.

Naturally, I wasn’t able to finish the book before I began analyzing my own habits, and I had a few epiphanies. For example, throughout my adult life I’ve always been very motivated and disciplined about exercise. I had an ingrained morning workout habit, the cornerstone of which was running. Then, two years ago, I injured my knee. X-rays showed I had worn out the cartilage, and unless I wanted to hasten a knee replacement I needed to find a new form of exercise.

I loved running for several reasons. For starters, I could do it anywhere – outdoors, or on a treadmill. I would just slip on my headphones, and get lost in the rhythm of my feet and the music. By the time I’d finished, I had sustained a heart rate of 160 beats per minute for some time, and the endorphins had kicked in.

Since my diagnosis, I have struggled mightily to maintain a gym regimen. My workout mojo has made a run for it, so to speak. I wondered how a 30-year exercise habit could desert me, just like that?

Feet running on a treadmillNow I get it; working out wasn’t my habit. RUNNING was my habit, and the zoning out and endorphins were my rewards. Unfortunately, there’s not a spin class in existence that can deliver anything similar – especially a good zone out, what with the teacher barking out instructions to pedal faster, visualize a big hill up ahead and so on. So my mission is to get on track with a new low impact, high-intensity workout regimen, that also helps clear my head.

Another important ingredient to adjusting old habits, and building new ones, is simple on its surface: support from others. Whether you are in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, access to cheerleaders who reinforce the belief that “you can do it” can determine success or failure. This brought about another light bulb moment for me. While some of my friends freely share their personal goals such as weight loss, even going so far as to discuss their starting weight and pounds to lose with others, I’ve always kept the details of my resolutions private. Perhaps I’d be more successful with the really sticky ones – the ones that stump me year after year – if I enlisted support from my friends or other connections. No man (or woman) is an island, am I right?

The Power of Habit goes beyond personal tendencies, to address workplace habits that collectively make up corporate cultures – for better or worse. Every firm has them. For example, I once worked on a team where “busy” was the default answer to the question, “How are you?” Why couldn’t anyone ever respond with, “I’m great, how are you?” It drove me nuts! The cue was the question, obviously, but what was the reward? Sympathy? Perceived credibility and value? A lighter workload in the future? Stay tuned, I’m still working through that one.

Duhigg can at times extend the definition of habit so far, he loses me. I am still skeptical about his theories on the role habit can play in civil unrest and political movements. Still, there’s enough food for thought in The Power of Habit to keep me in a state of self-analysis for weeks or months to come.

Could greater awareness of my habits, become a habit in itself?

Don’t Forget To Write

Black and white photo of hands typing quickly
Photo: aless&ro

It’s a new year, and I’ve accepted a new challenge. It’s not related to a weight loss or workout resolution, or even a public declaration to overhaul my spending. Rather, I have taken up the gauntlet thrown down by WordPress.com (which hosts In Write Field) to embark on a “Zero to Hero: 30 Days to a Better Blog” challenge. I’ll receive one blog topic per day, which I can choose to avail myself of… or not. Truth be told, I don’t have the time, stamina or imagination to blog every day, but I figure I can pick and choose.

The challenge seems geared more toward brand new bloggers, who don’t know where to start – whereas I’ve been blogging fairly regularly for nearly two years. Still, I frequently struggle to find something to blog about. “Topics,” I’ll beseech my friends. “I need topics!”

Articles and books for aspiring writers often advise that one needs to just “start writing”, and not worry about the topic. That’s easy to say, for someone who doesn’t have a goal of at least three blog posts per week. Yet, I agree that it is possible to over think when searching for blogging subject matter.  When a topic is timely, I sometimes find it’s already old news by the time I’m ready to publish my point of view.

So, off I go…

Today’s Zero to Hero topic: A self-introduction. Why do I blog instead of, for example, keep a journal? What do I want to accomplish with my blog? What do I like to write about?

The first part is easy. I love writing – always have. Professional opportunities for me to write, with an emphasis placed on selecting just the right tone and phrasing, and engaging an audience, feel like work only in the loosest sense. And, as some of you may have noticed, I love to tell a story with words – and images. To me, this kind of writing requires an audience. Telling stories in a journal would be like trees falling in the forest; who cares, if no one but me hears them?

The other questions are trickier. While some bloggers zero in on a specific subject, I started out a generalist – just to get a feel – and have yet to find a niche. I’m not even sure if I want one. While I write a lot about America’s pastime in the summer and early fall, even a rabid fan like me can’t be all baseball, all the time. Perhaps this approach has made it more difficult to build a following?

I recently blogged about some of the challenges of being a single woman of a certain age, and (by my standards) it really took off. I even got a “high-five” alert from WordPress as views and visitors spiked. Engagement was surprising, because it ran the gamut – men, women, single, married.

I’m not entirely sure why the post resonated more than others I’ve written. A friend suggested that I’d really owned the topic, and that’s why it struck a chord. If so, that’s great. When it makes sense, I’ll blog again about single life – but I don’t want to be the next Carrie Bradshaw.

“And so I asked myself… how does a girl know when he’s just not that into her?”

Thus, my Zero to Hero adventure is underway. I’ll take some chances blogging about topics I normally wouldn’t choose, and see where it takes me.

Hope you’ll come along for the ride.

New Year’s Goals Are Nice, So I Made Them Thrice…

Four champagne glasses etched with 2,0,1,3 for New Year's Eve 2013

There was a time when I partied every New Year’s Eve, like it was 1999.  Living in New York City after college, I’d buy a new dress, splurge on an overpriced prix fixe meal with friends, drink bad champagne and wake up with a fistful of ATM receipts I couldn’t explain, a hangover, and a lingering disappointment because the previous night hadn’t met my overblown expectations.

Ironically, by the time December 31, 1999 actually rolled around, I had moved to California and abandoned such revelries in favor of a quiet night in – and I’ve never looked back.

I used to worry I was a nerdy recluse for boycotting most New Years’ Eves, but now most of my 40-something contemporaries have also embraced ringing in the new year like a bunch of almost-Amish. Today my Facebook news feed was dominated by friends’ predictions that they would be sound asleep before the ball dropped. It’s as if my entire Facebook network is scheduled to milk cows at daybreak.

My forbearance doesn’t mean I lack New Year’s Eve traditions, though. I always kick things off with the practical; I take down my Christmas tree and drag it to the curb, so that San Francisco can mulch it for some eco-friendly use. I then spend several hours cleaning up pine needles (this will continue until at least March) and washing tree sap off my hands.

Next, it’s time for the aspirational; I jot down my resolutions. Well, not really resolutions – just goals for the year. I’m not much of a planner. I’ve traditionally been more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants girl. But it’s important to have goals, and I usually set one each related to health, career and personal/social.

To make sure my New Year’s goals are at least somewhat attainable, I also map out high-level steps to reach each one. So if I aim to read more for fun, as I did several years ago, I may target reading two books per month, plus the Sunday New York Times each week.

This year, I’m delighted to NOT count stepping up my job search among my goals. For the first time in years, there is no need to overhaul my resume (did it in the fall), rewrite my LinkedIn profile (ditto) or submit X job applications per week. I’m only just entering my third month in a job I’m very excited about, so I still have plenty to learn by staying put. That said, I’ll need a goal around professional networking, which is a year-round necessity these days. Otherwise I won’t do it, because I enjoy networking about as much as I enjoy breaking large rocks in the hot sun, with a small hammer.

For better health, I’ll try a new tack in 2014. Instead of setting a goal to lose a specific amount of weight, I will continue my strict no-carb regimen until June. (I’ve been following it on-and-off since May, and the results when I’m disciplined have been impressive.) I will put forth 100% effort, but won’t focus on a number. Whatever I weigh in June… I will work to maintain afterwards. Done.

In other words, in 2014 I hope to make peace with myself, so that my 2015 health goal can be completely unrelated to dress size. Now, that would be bliss!

Personally?  I’m still mulling that one. My sports photography class kicks off in a few weeks. Once that’s done maybe I’ll find a book club? Or a volunteer gig? Thankfully, there’s no LAW that says I must decide by midnight. Perhaps I’ll just set a goal today… to choose a goal by March.

Oh, and blogging! I nearly forgot about a blogging goal!  Friends, you’ll hopefully be hearing more from me in the new year. Ideally three times per week, if I’m being precise.

Ready?  Set?  RELEASE THE HOUNDS!

And, Happy New Year!

Fireworks as London rings in 2013.
Photo: London Times