Rocks or Water?

In mid-December, I read a Newsweek article by Oliver Burkeman on why resolutions, particularly at the beginning of a new year, fail. Apparently, willpower is a “depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you’ll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less.”

Hm …

I have no idea how true this statement is (and the test results apparently are contested) but there might be something to this. At least, that’s what I choose to believe. Just like I choose to believe that daily dark chocolate and red wine are good for us, and that a healthy rule of life is “Everything in moderation … including moderation.” It’s easy to believe the things we want to believe! But maybe these researchers are on to something. For instance, I’ve long wondered why it often takes life-threatening situations before we humans get serious about making significant changes. My cholesterol is much too high, I’m bordering on diabetes and my knees are killing me … I guess it’s time to lose some weight. You’ve got lung cancer … you think it might be time to stop smoking? Yet another mass murder of innocent school children … maybe it’s time to talk about adjusting our understanding of the 2nd amendment.

Granted, I don’t consider myself a particularly disciplined person but I do think I’ve got a good head on my shoulders and a healthy dose of common sense. Why can’t we humans use our intellect to realize that bad eating habits, poor exercise practices and excess weight lead to serious health issues (or that smoking wreaks havoc on lungs or that automatic assault weapons easily obtained by mentally unbalanced individuals threaten society) and thus nip these potential problems in the bud before they develop into actual problems? Why does it always seem to require the crisis before we’re willing to resolve to make changes? Why can’t we just go straight to the resolve?

Maybe because our resolve is already being exerted (and, thus, “used up”) on other issues.

We live in an ever-increasingly complicated world. According to Phyllis Tickle, who was the keynote speaker this past summer at the annual Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers, if you read the entire NY Times Sunday edition you would be exposed to more information than an 18th-century privileged gentleman would have been in an entire lifetime. What’s more, freshman entering technical college this past fall will have everything they learn the first two years rendered useless by the time they’re juniors. No wonder we’re stressed out and doped up, fragmented and adrift, forever searching and yet unfulfilled! OK, maybe that’s not everyone’s experience, and I can’t even say it’s mine all the time, but I do find myself craving more calm these days. And if you read my last post, you have an idea why! I’ve actually been craving this for some time now but it came to a head recently.

And that’s when I remembered an email that had been forwarded to me years ago about a teacher who set a glass jar on a table at the front of the classroom and next to it set a container with rocks. She asked for a volunteer to come forward and see how many rocks he/she could fit into the glass jar. The student filled the jar with rocks, after which the teacher asked, “Can you fit any more rocks in there?” When the student reassured her that no more rocks could be fit into the jar, the professor then pulled out another container, this one filled with much smaller rocks. “Are you sure no more rocks can fit into the jar?” Well, obviously rocks of this size could fit so the volunteer proceeded to dump a fair amount of the pebbles into the jar, all the way up to the top. “Is the jar now full?” The student replied, “Yes.” The professor then pulled out a container of sand. “Are you sure the container is full?” Naturally, a good bit of sand found its way into the cracks and crevices around the rocks and pebbles. Once the sand reached the brim the student stopped pouring. “Are we done?” the teacher asked. The student was a little leery to say yes but not being able to think of another substance that would fit into this very full jar finally, although hesitantly, acquiesced. “Yeeees …” The teacher then pulled out a pitcher of water and the student was able to pour an amazing amount of water into the jar. But the kicker is that this little exercise doesn’t work in reverse. Start by filling the jar with water and that’s all that’s going to fit (without forcing water to spill over the top).

I’ve actually seen this exercise used to demonstrate various lessons but the one that always resonates with me is time management. Our daily to-do lists usually have a variety of priorities, represented by the elements added to the jar. If you start your day doing the “water” activities, you’re not going to be able to fit anything else in. Leave the “water” to the end, and it’ll always find a way to slip in “between the cracks.”

So, I’ve started a little routine. Each morning I begin my day with meditation (focusing on the dancing wisp of incense smoke is amazingly calming and Zen-like!), prayer, and quiet calm (where maybe all I do is sit—what a concept!). During this time, among other things, I plan my day. First and foremost is deciding which items are the rocks, which are the pebbles, which the sand, and which the water. Then I repeat, like a mantra, the order in which I plan to address these items throughout the day. Another important component to this is making sure that things like mental health, exercise, and social interaction are included in the prioritizing, along with things like daily chores, vocational obligations and email (which I almost always classify as water!).

One key to this process, I think, is a shift in my thinking as to how much needs to be accomplished in any given day. Here’s the thing: I’m always going to have 50x more things that “should” be done than can be done in a 24-hour period. Years of trying to accomplish way more than was humanly possible has led to deep frustration, burn out, and a sense of perpetual water treading, at best, and at worst, drowning (fits nicely with the water metaphor, doesn’t it??). Not what I would call a healthy, balanced, calm, stress-free existence! So (in addition to some others shifts, which I’ll talk about in my next post) I’ve redefined “should” and cut my daily to-do list W-A-Y back. I ask myself if my list is realistic. Often this results in my making a list consisting of “rocks/pebbles” and then a secondary “sand/water” list that I’ll contemplate only if there’s time … and not beat myself up if there isn’t. It’s icing on the cake if I’m able to fit it in the “jar” of my day but it’s not at all mandatory and I don’t put forth any effort to even try to get to it.

If the Newsweek article is even only partially accurate, then it should come as no surprise that this shift in very entrenched thinking and practices has required an enormous effort and more discipline than I normally exhibit.  Which is why I’m happy to report that I’ve actually been fairly successful. Woohoo! But before I allow myself to get too puffed up, I need to remember that it’s only been a couple of weeks. I’m reminded of the prayer:

Dear God, so far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or indulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m going to need a lot more help.

Well, God, so far this year I’ve done pretty well with this new endeavor. I’ve drastically readjusted my daily expectations, I’ve prioritized attention to holistic health and I’ve not allowed “water” activities to push out “rock” activities. But I’m getting ready to start another week, still in the first month of the year, and from then on, I’m really going to need a lot more help!

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

Do you remember as a kid, or more likely a teenager, defiantly declaring that you were NEVER going to be like your mom or dad when you grew up? Well, to quote Dr. Phil: How’s that working for you?

One of my favorite reminders for keeping myself humble (and honest!) is the adage that when you point your finger at someone, you’ve got three more pointing back at yourself. And isn’t it often the case that the things that bug us the most about other people are actually (perhaps subconsciously) the things that most bug us about ourselves?

My dad is an engineer … and “being an engineer” comes with a whole slew of quirks and personality traits that have provided (justifiably, I might add!) the butts of many jokes. Yes, it’s fun to pick on and tease engineer types but where would we be without them? Growing up I never understood how people like electricians, carpenters, plumbers or even contractors stayed in business because didn’t everyone’s dad know how to do those things? If Dad didn’t already know how to do something, he knew how to figure out how to do it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it always took him forever and a day to git ‘er done. I’m only slightly exaggerating here! It was not uncommon for projects to drag on for multiple years (much to Mom’s chagrin!). This “quirk” also manifested itself on the micro level with Dad having absolutely no sense of time for even daily activities. Ask him how long he’d be running errands and you could safely double it … at least … and maybe come close to when he’d actually be home (again, much to Mom’s chagrin!).

And much to MY chagrin, I’m finding myself much the same way these days … and I can’t use “being an engineer” as an excuse!!

Case in point: because of my near-death-blood-clot incident I decided over a year ago that I needed to move my body more. Because my reality is that I spend a lot of time sitting* at my computer during days when I’m not away at gigs, my first idea was to get a treadmill, one with a “shelf” for my laptop, so I could not only get off my rear end but actually move for much of the day while still getting my work done. Win-win. And get this—a friend offered to give me her very nice treadmill-with-a-shelf, as long as I did the moving. Wow, it was meant to be. There’s not a lot of extra room in my little 5-room home, however, so the only place I’d be able to put it is in my office … but only if I did a little rearranging in there first. How hard would that be?

For a normal person it probably wouldn’t be hard at all. For ME … well, that’s another story!

First of all, it took me months to even start the project (you know, because of the whole “the-life-of-a-freelancer-is-hectic-and-unpredictable-and-I’m-naturally-undisciplined-and-I’ve-got-a-Myers-Briggs-“P”-personality” thing*). Then once I did get started, the project quickly expanded, not unlike a can of Pillsbury breakfast rolls; you barely start to peel back the pointed edge of the paper and—POOF!—the can explodes and is now twice as big as it was before you began. Perfect metaphor. And if you’ve ever opened one of those cans before, you know what’s coming and maybe even kind of “dread” it a little because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to pop or how much it’s going to pop. So to continue with our little metaphor here, perhaps that’s part of the reason it took me months to start this project in the first place. Realistically, I knew I actually needed to reorganize and clean out and sift through the piles of … $#!% … that had been slowly accumulating for (I’m embarrassed to admit) over two years, waiting for me to find a “few spare moments” (!) to get everything filed away. Deep down I knew it wasn’t just going to be a matter of “a little rearranging” and I dreaded the expansion the “poof” would add to my workload.

Well, I finally began in earnest last March and, sure enough—POOF!—before I could properly file away those piles I had to clean out certain storage areas so I shifted to that and—POOF!—these included things like ancient (are there any other kind?) VHS tapes that I decided to just get rid of and—POOF!—as long as I was updating my entertainment options I might as well digitize all my music and get rid of my CDs and—POOF!—gee, I never transferred all of my CDs to my iTunes library and that takes a lot of time when you own as many CDs as I do and—POOF!—now I’ve got way too many songs to fit on my iPhone so how do I make sure the songs I want to have easy access to find a space there and—POOF!—as long as I’m redoing my office I might as well get those white walls painted so let me move everything to the center of the room and—POOF!—it just figures that the painter I “bought” through Groupon went out of business and who knows when I’ll have time to look into finding another one I can afford and —POOF!—meanwhile much of the contents of my office have spilled out into my kitchen, hallway and living room making my little 5-room home feel quite claustrophobic and less-than-ideal for work, entertaining, or simply living in a healthy way (see video below) and—POOF!—OMG, I’ve turned into my dad!!!

There is more to this office story (for instance, I never did get the treadmill—apparently it wasn’t “meant to be”!) but I’ll spare you those details. Suffice it to say that trying to function—for close to nine months!—in the “squalor” all this produced pushed me over the edge … or got me to the bottom of the barrel … or whatever metaphor you want to use. Plainly put, I’d had enough … so I resolved to make some changes.

And I’ll elaborate on those “resolutions” in the next installment! In the meantime, let me close by saying that now, whenever I hear young people vow to NEVER be like their mom or dad, I simply chuckle and mutter under my breath, “Remind me to check in with you in a few years to see how well that’s working for you!”

office $#!%

*see previous posting

Healthcare by Groupon

Back in June of 2011, I broke my left heel (the calcaneus) and had surgery to insert two screws that pulled the pieces back together. I was on crutches for almost three months, much of that time not putting any weight at all on my left leg. Once I did start to use it to bear weight, it took a number of weeks before it could support all of my weight and even then, I was still walking “cock-eyed” due to the mandatory orthopedic boot. All of this was preceded by almost two years of pain as the stress fracture, that eventually led to the break, was … fracturing. You might imagine, this drastically cut down on my mobility, particularly “extracurricular mobility” (i.e. exercise!) but more importantly, for this story, it caused a gradual change in my posture and gait as I unconsciously tried to alleviate that pain. The end result (also painful, ironically) is that my right hip area (RHA) has been causing me problems ever since.

I’ve never been someone who went to the doctor much. Most things work themselves out on their own without an expensive doctor’s bill so why not just suck it up and ride it out for free? That was basically the philosophy in our house growing up and it certainly remained my philosophy when I was responsible for paying those bills myself. And ever since I became a freelancer it’s been a philosophy of necessity.

One of the first challenges I faced back in the summer of 1997, when I started this new freelance chapter of my life, was what to do about healthcare. Being young and healthy I considered taking my chances with no coverage. But I knew the longer I waited the more expensive (and perhaps difficult) it would be to get it, which I would have to do eventually. Besides, what if I got hit by a Mack truck? (It could happen!) So I decided on “Mack truck” insurance that would cover me if something catastrophic occurred. Initially, it only cost $67/month … and carried a $10,000 deductible! (I didn’t have $10,000 but figured I’d cross that bridge if and when I ever needed to – which I finally did, due to the post-heel-surgery blood-clot-induced five-night-hospital-stay … and boy am I grateful for the world’s most generous friends!!)

But back to the RHA … once I got my heel healed (after a slight delay last spring when the arches in that foot fell—causing tremendous pain!—and, after the several months it took to figure out that fallen arches were the actual problem, got straightened out with orthotics) I still had to contend with an RHA that hurt whenever it was in motion. My remedy was healthcare by Groupon.  

Since the RHA problem, while annoying and painful, wasn’t catastrophic I not only didn’t want to deal with insurance, I didn’t even particularly want to go to the doctor. After all, it would probably “straighten itself out” (!) eventually on its own, right? But thanks to Groupon (and Living Social and Eversave and Daily Deals) my email inbox was getting bombarded every day with, among other things, tempting alternative medicine offers. So starting in the fall of 2011, I began treating myself to massage, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, chiropractic, reflexology, yoga, massage, tai chi, Salsa, massage, ionic detox, reiki, Nia and (have I mentioned) massage. I never felt so good and cared for – the rest of my body, that is – the RHA was still a problem.

Not only that, but it got way worse this past August. The walking pain was constant and uncomfortable but it wasn’t debilitating. Suddenly, however, walking got much more painful and stairs became almost unbearable. I had to grab hold of the railing and pull myself up each step just to manage the climb. I live on the third floor of a walk-up so this latest wrinkle was particularly problematic. I finally realized I needed to bite the bullet and go see an orthopedist. He took x-rays of both hips and determined that I had arthritis in my RHA.

This didn’t come as a complete surprise. My various joints, and especially my crappy knees, have acted up, on and off, for years. But none of those issues had ever prevented me from climbing stairs. I asked the good doctor about this.

“Don’t climb stairs.”

That’s easier said than done; I live on the third floor of a walk-up.

“Well … it might be time … you know … to start thinking about … maybe … moving to a place where there aren’t any steps.”

OK … I realize that I’m not 27 anymore, but neither am I 87 or 77 or 67 or even 57. I’m only 47 years old! I don’t think I’m ready for the assisted living home quite yet!! So I told him moving wasn’t an option at this time. Were there any exercises or stretches that might help?

“Y-e-a-a-a-a-h … no.”

Supplements or vitamins that I should take?

“Y-e-a-a-a-a-h … no.”

Foods I should eat or avoid?

“Y-e-a-a-a-a-h … no.”

I felt like asking if he knew what the hell he was talking about.

“Y-e-a-a-a-a-h … no.”

Finally, I mentioned that a year earlier, when I had gotten physical therapy for my heel, I’d had the guys pull my right leg (no kidding!) because the hip was already hurting then, feeling like the leg was jammed up in the socket from having to bear all the weight for so long, and that had actually made it feel better. He perked up and said, “Oh, well if you think physical therapy would help, I’d be happy to write you a prescription for that.”

If *I* think it would help?? YOU’RE the doctor!! I rarely go to doctors (gee, wonder why?!) so it’s kind of a big deal that I’m here today. I came because I wanted to get an expert’s opinion on the best way to get rid of this pain. I don’t know if physical therapy will help. Would you have suggested it if I hadn’t brought it up? I’d be paying for this out-of-pocket so I want to be confident that this is a direction that makes sense to go.

That’s what I wanted to say. What I did say was, “Fine, write me a prescription.” I actually had another plan (but thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a prescription as a back up).

That week I had redeemed another Groupon for a different chiropractor … one who used “The Rack” (think medieval torture chambers). For years I’d had lower back problems and what made it feel better was curling up in the fetal position (while on my back) in order to decompress the spine. Well, that’s exactly what this machine does, but much more powerfully and effectively. (I gotta say, “The Rack” is a little uncomfortable but it’s a good kind of discomfort; I can tell in the midst of being stretched that it’s doing its job.) This chiropractor also took x-rays of my spine and it turns out my right hip is noticeably higher than my left AND there’s a fairly significant curve at the bottom of my spine. So I opted to give him a go twice a week for six weeks and if that didn’t do anything for my RHA, I’d think about getting physical therapy.

Well, I’m happy to report that after two (count ‘em … TWO) treatments I was running up and down stairs. And by the end of the six weeks, 95% of the RHA pain was gone. Hallelujah! (I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely pain free as long as I’ve got arthritis there … or as long as I have my original hip! But that’s a story for another time.) The chiropractor took another x-ray and both the elevation of the right hip and the spinal curve were half of what they had been. Amazing! (See, things had “straightened themselves out” — sure am glad I didn’t take the orthopedist’s advice and move into an assisted living home!!) So I signed on for six more treatments, which I finished at Christmas, and now we’re probably just going to do monthly or so maintenance.

So, that’s how I fixed my RHA. And the resulting lack of pain has made it much more pleasant to get off my butt and move. After a couple years of being a couch potato it feels really good, not just physically but psychologically, to be able to move without pain. It also means—after a couple years of being a couch potato—I really have my work cut out for me. Which is why I’ll continue to pamper myself with true healthCARE … by Groupon!

Epiphany, Entropy and Energy

Today is Epiphany, the start of my favorite liturgical season. It’s not most people’s favorite, maybe because it’s not as “sexy” as Christmas and Easter or as “Christian” as Lent (you know, all the “deprive-yourself-and-feel-bad” stuff that’s often associated with being a devout Christian).

So what makes Epiphany my favorite? The gift of insight.

Technically (or, more appropriately, theologically) Epiphany is when Jesus’ identity is manifested and made known, first to foreigners (the wise men from the East) and eventually to others throughout the season. So, if I’m going to call myself a follower of Jesus, it makes sense to know what and whom I’m following. But as someone who has consistently striven to also “know thyself,” I’ve always used this season to do a little self-evaluation as well, not unlike others who do something similar when writing up their New Year’s resolutions at this time of year.

So, what insights—about myself/world/Jesus—have I gleaned this past year? Or, putting it another way (and stealing from Oprah), what do I know for sure?

I know that: A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless the body is compelled to change its state. The evidence supporting the first part of this statement is easily seen. We know that a wheel will not begin rolling by itself. However, we do not see the proof of the second half in our world. That is because there is an ever-present inhibiting force known as friction that acts as the external force resisting perpetual motion.” (

I’ll get back to this but first allow me to segue for just a moment. I was trying to think of the exact wording of this law of Newton’s and for some reason thought it had something to do with entropy. So I looked that up and found: “lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.” Not exactly what I was looking for … but, boy, did it hit close to home!

“Lack of order or predictability” has pretty much defined my life since 1997 when I started freelancing as a storyteller/educator. And for the first decade or so I thrived on the excitement and energy generated by that unpredictability. My Myers-Briggs “P” personality loved not having a boss or set office hours or a schedule that could so easily turn into a rut (horror of horrors!). But let’s not forget the second part of entropy’s definition: “gradual decline into disorder.” They say (you know, the nameless faceless “they”) that a strength taken to an extreme becomes a weakness. Maybe it even emphasizes other weaknesses already present. As a Myers-Briggs “P” I am not naturally disciplined. So, left to my own devices—a lifestyle full of unpredictability—a gradual decline into disorder isn’t surprising.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t live in a house full of cats or precariously stacked newspapers/magazines/books* with narrow, labyrinthine paths leading to the ‘frig and bathroom. I bathe regularly and (usually) pay my bills on time. But one thing I’ve learned (and now know for sure) is that I need some structure in my life. Not permanent, unyielding, stifling structure, but some sort of order and predictability. Even that, however, can’t enter the formula unchecked.

Which brings me back to the beginning of Newton’s first law of physics. The one thing that has been predictable, routine, and “structured” in my life the last couple of years is the amount of time I sit in front of the computer. On days when I have no gigs (more often than not), or when I have no other reason to leave the house (more often than you might think), it’s not unusual for me to pretty much spend  a-l-l  d-a-y l-o-n-g on my big ‘ol behind staring at the computer screen. And even when I’m not at home all day, I still find ways to spend a lot of time sitting. The longer I’ve done this, the easier it’s gotten to just keep on doing it. After all, a body at rest tends to stay at rest … . In other words, all [sitting] work and no movement make Tracy a big blob of jello!

This would be true in and of itself but it’s been compounded for me because of changing hormones (and, thus, “natural” middle-age spread) and the fact that the issues surrounding my heel surgery of 2011 started almost two years prior with painful walking and have continued since with an out-of-whack opposite (and I recently found out, arthritic*) hip. So, even though I’ve known that I was leading a less-than-healthy lifestyle, these factors have basically provided enough “friction” to compel my “at rest” body to remain just that … at rest. What would it take to compel my body to change that at-rest state? How about cholesterol at 275 and borderline diabetic glucose levels?

That did it.

Well, that and the fact that I finally got my hip back  … in whack? … and it’s no longer painful to move (I purposely chose not to use the term “exercise”). In other words, there’s a little less “friction” around to prevent motion … of various kinds. I’m taking more walks, climbing more stairs* and not always sitting when the same task could just as easily be done while standing. It’s a start at a little more balance. I mean, I wouldn’t want to go overboard with this! Those nameless, faceless “they” also say that a good rule of thumb for a balanced life is “everything in moderation” but, as a very insightful friend likes to add, “including moderation!” Now that’s a gift of insight! 🙂

So, tune in next week when I’ll regale you with various tales of healthcare by Groupon, what I did to finally fix my hip, and how I’m slowly turning the corner from a body at rest to a body in motion.

* This will be discussed in further detail later in this 2013 Epiphany series.