Move a muscle, change a thought

My primary care provider shared a personal story with me a few months ago. We were discussing a few health challenges I’ve been facing in the past year, most of which have improved significantly, but not all. I’m lucky to have a pretty solid connection with multiple people I consider part of my physical and mental healthcare team, and she’s one of them.

I was describing a less-than-useful feeling that was dominating my thinking at the time.

“I just need to figure out how to get over the hump.”

It’s not a particularly refined way of expressing the fact that I felt stuck, but it’s also not a concept that requires much elaboration.

The first thing she said to me was that I needed to give myself more credit. I’d already “gotten over the hump” more than once with other specific and significant challenges and showed great progress. I could do that again with the remaining issues I face.

Then she paused for a minute.

“When I was in the middle of a really difficult time in my life, another doctor said to me: Move a muscle, change a thought.”

She paused again. Slowly, with deliberate and quiet expression, she continued.

“Move a muscle, change a thought…. Move a muscle, change a thought….”

“That advice really sunk in for me,” she said, “and I’ve relied on it a thousand times since. Go for a walk. Even if it’s just around the block. It’s not just good for your physical health, it’s good for your mental health. You’ll be surprised at how much it can help you dislodge the belief that you’re stuck.”

It’s taken me a while to act on her advice, despite the fact that I fully believed her, and felt the depth of personal impact she was conveying to me. Exercise has never been my strong suit.

I recently had a virtual appointment with her and was talking about where I was at with some of these challenges. It was clear I still wasn’t feeling awesome about where I’m at.

“It’s OK to take a few steps forward and a step or two back, a few more steps forward and a step or two back. You’re doing great. You’re making progress. It doesn’t have to all happen overnight.”

We wrapped up our call.

And I went for a walk.

Sometimes it takes a while for change to happen. I’ve since taken a walk for 7 out of 9 days. It won’t fix everything, but it’s a step. And it does work, even if just in the moment.

Move a muscle, change a thought.

Stuck in my youth & a tangent

We all have a soft spot for the music we grew up listening to. For me, that was 80s music. The decade when I grew from 7 to 17. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the only music I love, but if I’m being honest, nothing else truly compares. I was heavily influenced by the music of my elders, but my elders weren’t so much older than I was. An aunt and uncle 13 and 15 years older than me. From them, I developed an enduring love of the Beatles, the Eagles, and other classic rock.

But when I look at myself through my own eyes, shedding other influences, it always comes back to my passion for 80s music. It was a time when music was more pop than pop music has ever been. But it wasn’t only that. I’m a lover of lyrics – clever lyrics, sad lyrics, fun lyrics, deep lyrics. The rare songs past the 80s that I love are generally of the sad and deep type. And the music of the 70s was even more rich, full of ranging stories and with existential themes that are so powerful to me. So maybe I’m a bit torn, but when it comes down to it, I sit down after work every single day and turn on an 80s playlist that is more my own crafted radio station than it is a playlist – 17 hours or so of 80s music, and I still feel like I’ve missed 3 times that much music.

I’m writing for the first time in more than a decade, and it’s not easy. Even for the best writers, I think writing is always hard – a challenge you undertake only because you have to in order to mentally survive. To empty your feelings onto the page, do anything to share your thoughts. And for me, often it’s about either purging my thoughts, or trying to find my thoughts. An oxymoron, I know.

I recently reconnected with someone who has both influenced my writing, and inspired it, in ways I can’t really quantify. Neither of us has been writing these days. I’ve taken a longer break than my friend, but still, I feel an even more unusual kinship with her over our not writing than I have historically over our writing. Maybe because I’ve always viewed her as the epitome of writer. Someone whose words are so beautiful, in my head, she writes all the time and will never stop. But she did stop. And it’s caused me to rethink my own romantic view of what a great writer is.

I think this is all a reflection of the reality of life. Our biggest and best aspirations can so easily be overtaken by – by work, relationships, ups and downs, things that just block us from spending time living our own creativity. We live life every day and so many other things feel more pressing. When you’re not in the zone, particularly if you’ve been away from it for a while, it feels impossible to get back there.

I’m nowhere near “the zone” right now, but I’m happy to be writing anything.

After I wrote these initial words yesterday, I reached out to my friend to tell her how amazing it felt to have just sat down and put any words to paper. Any words at all. Good, bad, none of that matters. What matters is I took a step. A step I’ve missed taking for years and years, but I just couldn’t find that path in all those years.

“Hi friend… I’m writing to tell you about a small accomplishment. I wrote today. I wrote actual words on actual (well, virtual) paper. Not words for work, which are second nature to me and require little thought, but creative words.

It’s been more than a decade, but I sat down and just started writing. The super shitty kind of writing that has little appeal to anyone. But the kind of ungrounded, unsophisticated, disjointed, sloppy, uninspired writing you need to do to get anywhere near the good writing.

And for every second I spent staring at the screen and spewing out nonsense, you were in my head.

I want to overexplain all of this, but I know I don’t need to. I know you will get it.

I’m not so naive as to say I’m going to keep writing tomorrow and everything is going to naturally fall into place, but I am stopping very purposely to just savor this moment. I put words on a page today. And it felt fucking great.”

Batkid to the rescue!

I’ve always thought the Make-a-Wish foundation was awesome, but combine them with the people of San Francisco and something truly amazing comes together.  SF has been made into Gotham City today, with thousands of volunteers joining in to make Miles, a boy with leukemia, Batkid for a day.  Check out the screenshot of the SF Chronicle’s main website, featuring Gotham City breaking news.

BatkidAnd don’t miss the special edition paper the Chronicle printed.  Seriously awesome stuff!

On another note, I’m moving this site to a new hosting company, so if you follow the blog, please jump over to to continue receiving email notices of new posts.




Cable Car Safety Tips

I was on my way to a conference in San Francisco last week when I saw this sign with safety tips for riding the famous cable cars.  I imagine the person that designed these images must have had fun using “sign people” so creatively.  The “hang on around curves” picture makes me want to go see if I can get that much air, though, so perhaps they missed the mark.  It’s also a bit ironic that the “do not step into oncoming traffic” picture assumes said traffic would be in the form of a taxi.  If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco, you’ll know it’s next to impossible to get a cab.  In any case, next time you come to visit the city by the bay, take heed.



I try really hard to ignore advertising on the Internet, but unfortunately, this ad caught my attention.  Imagine the flags animated, marching swiftly around the border of the message.  The obnoxious movement caught my eye, but then I read the text and realized that not only did someone write the absurd first line, but someone also paid to have it placed where real people could read it.  This copywriter needs to hook up with the fortune cookie writer for a few tips, I think…


Between Panic & Desire

That’s a superb title, isn’t it?  The title alone made me want to buy Dinty W. Moore’s book, but the Prologue quickly confirmed I’d be glad I did.  I am also a regular reader of Brevity’s blog, edited by Moore, and an accompaniment to Brevity magazine, a journal devoted to “the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.”  All are worth a read.  Enjoy the excerpt below from the Prologue of Between Panic & Desire.

Deep in the scrub hills of Jefferson County, about eight miles north of Punxsutawney, lay two towns, Panic and Desire, separated by farms, trees, and a narrow road.

Returning from Pittsburgh one morning, I tug my steering wheel to the left, swing off the main highway, and motor up a steep rise. I have seen Panic and Desire on a map, and for some reasons I want to visit.

Desire comes first, and proves to be little more than a few old houses and a modest cemetery  I’m curious how the town got such a name, what it is like to live here, what the people know that I don’t, so I roll my compact car down the main road, looking for someone to ask.

But no one is out.

The graveyard appears to be my only alternative. I search the ancient stones for clues until a large white dog appears from nowhere. He shows me his teeth, follows me to my car, and barks his sharp warning until I leave.

So I head to Panic, a five-minute drive past tumbledown homes and modest trailers – families who have lost their farms, and those who are barely hanging on.

Like Desire, Panic turns out to be just a few ragtag family houses along a strip of asphalt. One of the homes has been completely gutted by fire and blackened furniture litters the front lawn. It looks as if it has been this way for months.

A white-haired gentleman bundled into an orange hunting jacket ambles down the road, so I step out of my car, walk toward him. “Any idea,” I ask, “why they call this place Panic?”

He gives me an odd look.

“How about Desire?”

The man in orange shakes his head, offers a sad shrug, hurries down the road before I can squeeze in another question.

I’m intrigued, though, and fairly stubborn. In nearby DuBois there is a library, and I am heading more or less in that direction.

Twenty minutes later and I’m in the stacks, unearthing a handful of local history books. For the next two hours I settle in at a wide table and read about the first European settlers – German and Scotch-Irish farmers pushing west across Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. The hills were full of deer, wild turkeys, and wolves.

There is no mention of Panic or Desire.

I ask the librarian.  She doesn’t know either.

So I return to my car, but instead of continuing east toward home, I double back, revisiting the road that separates Panic from Desire.

At what I approximate to be the halfway point, I pull over, switch off the ignition, and get out one more time into the cold March air. I am in the middle of a small patch of hemlock, a secluded spot, and it is here that I finally realize I don’t want the actual answer, the truth of where these towns found their names. The mystery is sweeter.

I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire.

Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.

A Writer’s Identity

A few months ago, I attended my first writing group, and I instantly realized that I had no identity.  Because I was a newcomer, all the seasoned, confident, group members – many of them published – were asked to introduce themselves, which only some of them did.  The group, so accustomed to each other and seemingly unused to newcomers, had a hard time staying on task as the leader prompted each of them to share their names and writing genres.  Even before the meeting officially began, the man I sat next to asked me what I write.

“Ahhh, … essay, … some memoir,” I responded. My answer sounded more like a question than a statement and I was sure I looked intimidated, unsure of myself.

“Do you mean essay, memoir, or memoir essays?” He continued.

“Um, … All of the above?” I fumbled for an answer again, the student who thinks the teacher is asking a trick question.  Thankfully, he gave me a break, anddescribed the mix of writers’ that attended this particular weekly session.  I was silently grateful that the meeting began before I could be further flustered by his polite attempt to match my face to a genre.

Becky (Facilitator, anxious to get the meeting moving): “Tom, why don’t you start us off?”

Tom (Pleasant, bald gentleman, whose well-groomed salt and pepper facial hair makes me wonder if he invented the goatee): “Sure.  My name is Tom, and I am writing a novel – a dystopian thriller that takes place in the Bay Area.”

A what? I thought, but nodded and smiled as though I knew exactly what that was.

Becky: “Joan?”

Joan (Disgruntled woman that looked of retirement age and wore a tired facial expression): “I don’t want to read tonight.  In fact, I might never read here again after last time.”

Becky (Slightly snappy, losing patience): “This isn’t about reading.  Do you want to introduce yourself?”

Joan (Confused, still oblivious to my presence): “No, I don’t.  Why would I?”

I really don’t mind if she doesn’t introduce herself.  I mentally attempted to head off the awkward conflict.

Becky (Exasperated): “There’s a new person here.  Can’t you at least introduce yourself?”

Joan: “Oh.  Well, I guess.  I’m Joan.”

Boy, is she grumpy.  I smiled, unfazed by her bitterness – it reminded me of a relative I’m fond of, so I could easily look past it.

Becky (Rolling her eyes as she gives up on Joan): “OK, Liz?”

Liz (Late twenties, bubbly, all smiles): “Hi, I’m Liz.  I write YA, and have a novel coming out next February.”

I’ve always wondered what motivates people to write YA.  Maybe now I’ll find out.

Becky: “Mike?”

Mike (40s-ish, excited): “I have a new piece tonight.  I’ve been working on a Sci-Fi short story.”

Wow, talk about diversity.

The introductions continued, and in addition to the YA (Young Adult for those that don’t speak in writers’ code), dystopian (Wikipedia says a dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian), and Sci-Fi writers, I learned I was amongst a group that included writers of historical fiction (one WWII novel in progress, another set in the time of the Spanish Conquistadors), Western (which I would soon learn involved drunken cowboys reading their destiny as inscribed on the worms found at the bottoms of bottles of mescal), creative non-fiction, a rather vocal reviewer whose genre I cannot remember, and a poet.  Then we got down to business.

Various members of the group read from their works in progress, and each had a fifteen-minute time slot for reading and taking comments.  As we listened and read along, the rest of us made notes. We corrected grammatical errors, noted misspellings and typos on the printed pages and passed them back to the author at the close of each reading.  Spoken comments were kept to major points about things like characters and writing tone.  A novelist suggested that a short story be turned into a novel.  The poet recommended a prose piece be edited into a poem.

Luckily, new members aren’t allowed to read until they’ve attended three sessions.  I’m not a very outgoing person, and it took some courage for me to attend the group at all.  In fact, I’d been tossing around the idea for three months before I actually went.  If I were expected to read, I surely would not have come, and if my attendance represented one step forward, then the unexpected genre identification drove me at least three steps backward.

I listened intently to each speaker, though, and felt satisfaction when another member of the group brought up a point I’d also thought of.  If I had no identity as a writer, at least I was capable of reading.  The comments were all over the board.  There were some words of encouragement, but also some blunt criticisms.  In all, the readers took their lumps pretty well, though Becky did have to stop an exchange or two when a writer and reviewer disagreed.

Periodically, Becky leaned over to whisper to me, providing backstory.  Her comments were about logistics – authors weren’t supposed to respond to reviewers’ feedback.  They could follow up later, if they really needed to, but fifteen minutes flies by.  The group had to be repeatedly rushed along like children unwilling to brush their teeth before bed.  She told me it’s always a good idea to bring copies because reading spots open up if scheduled readers don’t show – which happens especially on rainy nights, like that one.

Rain or not, I couldn’t see myself reading my work in front of this group.  Perhaps my hesitation stems from my introverted character, or maybe from the fact that I’m fairly new to writing.  Though I assume the authors probably don’t cling to their genres as tightly as the introductions suggested, each person read or commented with confidence (except perhaps Joan, in her wound-licking state of mind).  The investment they had in the pieces they shared was evident, and each clearly had a writers’ identity.  I couldn’t imagine emulating their performances with any semblance of grace.

I don’t know that I really have a genre.  Because I don’t write fiction, perhaps it’s fair to say my genre is non-fiction.  If I agree with that statement, though, it sounds as though I’ve made a definitive choice, which I haven’t.  And that’s not to mention that like fiction, which runs the gamut from dystopian to romance to just plain literary fiction, non-fiction, too, breaks out into any number of subcategories – memoir, essay, biography, and journalism, to name a few.  Examine the category of essay, and the world of identification opens up all over again.  Lyrical essay, personal essay, nature essay, travel essay – the list goes on and on.

Since I began writing in earnest, not quite a year ago, I’ve simply written about whatever is on my mind.  I’ve written a lot about my life, though I have yet to produce more than a couple of finished pieces.  Perhaps that means I write memoir.  I’ve also written a million papers on leadership as I wrapped up the final year of a Master’s program.  That could mean I’m an academic writer.  I write articles for my professional blog.  In this case, technical writer might be the best label.  Then there are the posts for my personal blog, which range from stories about work to short pieces that come from writing prompts.  Maybe that means I’m an amateur.

Critics of creative non-fiction and memoir say it is weak in comparison to fiction.  They believe that only great minds can tackle fiction, so alternatives are seen as inferior, conceivably because we write about what we know, not what we imagine.  Sometimes, I almost agree with them.  There are moments when it seems an impossible feat to create a world out of words, with imaginary inhabitants, events that shape their lives – offer them pleasure and pain, force them to struggle, but then grow – their personalities emerging slowly on the pages, like a fine piece of glass arrives at the hands and mouth of a master with fire and a blowpipe.

Then I think about my writing.  I often don’t know where to start, and I rarely know where I’m going before I get there, but I strive no less to provide the rich experience I’m sure a fiction writer aims to deliver.  And although I’m not writing fiction right now, I do not preclude myself from doing so at some point.  If I do, who knows what genre I might choose?  Surely, I don’t.  I can’t even say what I’ll write about tomorrow.  In truth, I write to figure out what I have to say, and perhaps that’s why I don’t yet have an identity.  First, I’ll focus on finding my voice.  Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell you what I write.

Business Casual

There’s nothing I hate more than dressing up.  Well, that’s probably not completely true.  I probably hate other things as much or more.  But in this moment, the Friday night before I start a new job – the first job I’ve had in ten years that requires me to dress “Business Casual”– I detest the fact that next week I will have to wear clothes that I don’t want to wear and shoes that will invariably hurt my feet.

Almost as bad as wearing the clothes, is shopping for the clothes.  I come from short stock and inherited the husky genes of the Eastern European women that came before me.  That combination precludes me from finding almost anything off the rack that fits me.  I have to hem all my pants, and even the sleeves of business suits.  Shirt length is a problem, too.  Apparently only tall persons are meant to have broad bodies.

As if that weren’t enough, I have feet that are flatter than the plains of Nebraska.  I’m supposed to wear custom orthotics to fool my feet into thinking they have an arch, but that rules out about 99% of shoes in the world.  The rigid blue plastic inserts add just enough height that my heel slips right out of the shoe with every step I take.  Add to this that the forms, made after my doctor molded “fitted polyester casting socks” to my oddly shaped feet, drop off abruptly before the ball of my foot, leaving a hard ridge that reminds me constantly of its presence via blisters.

To deal with these abhorrent problems, when I do find clothes that fit, I buy at least half a dozen of them in different colors.  Yes, I’m one of those people.  Normally, I only have to worry about buying t-shirts, jeans, and the occasional pair of sneakers, though, which is considerably more manageable than maintaining a wardrobe of Business Casual.  Years ago, when I escaped corporate America for smaller companies, I swore would never again work for anyone that forced me to dress up.  I know.  Never say never.

In high school, I played clarinet in the concert band.  Girls had to wear floor-length black polyester sleeveless dresses with a mile-long zipper up the back, underneath which were white blouses, also polyester.  We despised the puffy long sleeves and odd built-in scarf thingy that tied in a complicated way under our chins and hung like a long narrow double bib down our fronts.  Boys got to wear black pants and jackets with white button down shirts so at least they looked like they were from the century we were living in.

My sister, two years behind me, joined band when she got to high school, and when it came time for her to don the hideous outfit, she expressed her disgust like all of us had before her; she questioned why we had to wear uniforms at all.  Despite the fact that I agreed with her, in an effort to prove my superior knowledge, I answered her complaints quickly by regurgitating the reasoning I’d heard from our band director when I was a freshman.  Drum roll, please.  Uniforms create uniformity.

If we all looked alike, we would effectively disappear, and the audience would not be distracted from the music in any way.  We were not there to be individuals.  Not to mention, we were an accomplished lot for a high school band, with a director who could have wiped the floor with Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.  We should look the part.  Of course, I failed to acknowledge that none of these reasons explained the necessity of our particular abominable uniform.

As I write this, I have to admit that I still can’t find much fault in the reasons we had to wear uniforms in high school band, which perhaps makes the teeth of my argument against Business Casual a bit less sharp.  Nonetheless, I still seethe with irritation at the thought.

I can’t decide if being forced to dress a certain way as an adult feels more invasive than it did when I was still a teenager, or if it was just too long ago for me to recall the degree to which I felt oppressed in high school.  I do remember a sort of resignation that came with the knowledge that at least we all had to wear exactly the same thing, so I looked no worse and was no less comfortable than the person next to me.

It might not be evident based on my opinion of business dress codes, but I am actually not much of a rebel at all.  Most people that know me would say I’m quite rule-bound.  I hate being late to anything; in fact, if I’m not at least fifteen minutes early that qualifies as late.  I obey all the traffic laws and am what you would call a defensive driver.  I wait for the walk signal even when the street is empty.  I never cut in line or miss a deadline.

Early in my career, when I was first thrust into an environment in which business suits were the norm, I had the same issues with locating clothes that I do today.  I was young and fresh, though; eager to impress the experienced consultants around me, I suppressed the dress-clothes-loathing part of my personality and aimed to conform.  I even wore some sort of strap meant for people with tennis elbow to cover a tattoo on my forearm.  After I left the corporate world, I kept only one suit, and for more than a decade, it served as my all-purpose outfit for interviews, weddings, and funerals.

But, here I am, making a foray back into corporate America, forced again to comply with the policy of Business Casual.  Why, I wonder, do people still believe casual clothes aren’t appropriate for an office?  My girlfriend says dressing up shows respect for the role.  While I don’t disagree, neither do I believe dress clothes are necessary to illustrate respect.  I do understand why it makes sense in her world – the world of a public school principal.  She wants to portray authority and while formal dress cannot accomplish that alone, it can certainly bolster her image.  She also happens to be tall and thin; she can be comfortable in anything.

My issue is not with those that enjoy dressing up.  To them, I say, have at it.  But for people like me, dressing up is a form of torture.  I’m physically and mentally uncomfortable, inherently in a worse mood than I would otherwise be, and I can’t wait to get out of the office at the end of the day so I can be comfortable again.  I can guarantee Business Casual has a negative impact on my productivity, even if it is slight.

The stinger in Business Casual is, without a doubt, “Casual Friday”.  You might think it would ease the pain of having to dress up the rest of the week, but to me it simply makes an absurd rule even more preposterous.  It tells us that the corporate rule-makers acknowledge the constraint of Business Casual is loathsome; otherwise why throw in the “perk” of being able to dress down on Fridays?  Or taken another way, if the powers that be truly believe we won’t conduct ourselves appropriately in jeans, do they expect we won’t get anything done on Fridays?


Note:  Just to clarify for regular readers that I’m not actually about to start a new job, I wrote this last summer.

The head on the horse

A few months ago, I began a brief consulting assignment for a guy I found quite perplexing.  He is the sort of guy that thinks very highly of himself, yet also surrounds himself with consultants, many of which he strings along from one part of the organization to another as he himself moves around.  After one of our first meetings, I’d have said he had a big head, but I didn’t need to because he did so nicely by referring to himself as the “head on the horse.”

I’m not really sure how I kept a straight face (or maybe I didn’t and he just didn’t see my brow pinch in consternation), especially because he squeezed it into the conversation six times in an hour.  Imagine a few variations of this:

“I didn’t really want to take on this project, but the boss needed someone that could really get it done, and he knows I’m the head on the horse.  I’ll get things done, whether people like it or not.  I mean, this project really needs a head on a horse, and that’s me.”

“My professional life is really looking up,” I thought to myself at the end of that painful hour.  Then I began my work.

One of my tasks was to update a stakeholder “molecule diagram,” which had been drafted by another consultant that came before me but then left the company mysteriously.  A “molecule diagram” is sort of what you’d think it’d be, but applied in a way that is somehow both superfluous and just plain stupid.  In this case, company departments were named in circles randomly placed on a large page, connected with lines of varying length to a central circle that represented the project (the project that needed the head on the horse).  Then, individual stakeholders were shown in smaller circles that spider-ed out from the department circles.  I can only imagine if it were a model of a real thing, it’d be some kind of free-will-stealing, integrity-thieving, crazy-making substance we’d all best stay far away from.  Even as a poorly chosen representational thing, it had that effect on me.

One of these days, I will figure out what kind of work I can do that won’t leave me feeling like I’m pimping myself out so someone else can get rich selling the same ideas to the same client every few months.  In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions…