Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't Try to Boil the Ocean.

"Plan for what is difficult when it is easy, do what is great when it is small. The most difficult things in the world must be done when they are still easy. The greatest things in the world must be done when they are still small. For this reason, sages never do what is great, and this is why they can achieve that greatness."
                                    Sun Tzu: The Art of War

My next piece on Rebel Mom will be about life coaching.  I'll post the link when it runs, but in the meantime, I want to expand a bit about one particular thing I learned in my one day session with life coach Olivia Mackinder.    

I had always wondered, rather skeptically, about life coaching.  What do they do, cheer you on as you pay your bills?  Offer advice on your technique as you sit down at your desk at work?  Help you decide the meaning of life?  Talking to Olivia made clear a couple of points: 1) life coaches are not therapists.  And 2) her job is to help you figure out and achieve your goals.  It's an aspect of this second point I want to mention.

Olivia told me the kind of work she does with her clients is often helping them break down big goals, like starting a new business, into small, manageable goals.  If you are at "A" and you want to get to "Z" but are overwhelmed and don't know where to start, she helps you figure out what "B" is and get there... then "C" and so on.

To me, a life coach's (or anyone's) ability to do this is an essential life skill.  The first time I read about it was ten years ago in Julia Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artist’s Way (a book I’d recommend for anyone who has something they’d like to do, but think they can’t)Cameron describes how an artist should set “gentle” goals.  You don’t sit down to your computer to write a novel.  You sit down and write 200 words.  They can be any words… nonsense if it helps… or maybe stream of consciousness.  Just anything to get words down on a page.  She tells you “just show up to the page”.

I have applied that the advice to other life goals: weight loss, for example.  In my mid-twenties, I was on medication that caused me to gain 80 lbs.  I looked like an oompa loompa’s fat cousin – like someone had covered my ears, mouth and belly button, then blown hard into my nose.  It was not a good look.  I desperately wanted to lose the weight.  I tried yoga, but only the kind that involved mostly deep breathing.  I tried horseback riding, thinking a sport that primarily involved sitting might be for me, but I fell trying to heave my bloated body onto the horse and nearly had to cut my swollen knee out of my jeans (that’s after the horse reared and nearly landed on my head).  Forget going to the gym, I would never have been motivated enough.

After I read The Artist’s Way, I decided to set myself “gentle,” manageable goals.  I started by walking to the mailbox.  Yep, I used to drive the tenth of a mile to the mailbox at my condo.  Very slowly and very gradually, I increased the distance I would walk every day.  Eventually, I even had the impulse to start running.  As I started to lose the weight, I became motivated to make some changes to my diet – like eating Weight Watchers frozen meals to teach me portion control.  Within a year, I had lost all 80 lbs. 

Fast forward to this year.  I put on 35 lbs when I was pregnant.  In fact, my fear of weight gain was so strong it was part of the reason I was hesitant about getting pregnant in the first place.  Yet, there I was – facing again one of my worst fears.  Conall weighed 7 lbs when he was born.  And yet, I weighed myself after giving birth and I was only 5 lbs lighter.  Explain that math to me!  I had a lot of weight to lose. 

It took about three months before I had any desire to start trying to lose weight.  But when I did, again, I started slowly.  I walked a little further every day (helped by my desire to listen to lectures on iTunes University – see my piece on Rebel Mom for more).  I used my Wii-Fit in the morning religiously, letting its daily weigh ins be a reminder and motivator.  Slowly, too, I started to be more careful about what I was eating and how much. 

I’ve never faced any kind of addiction to drugs, tobacco or alcohol, but put me in front of a plate of French fries and you’ll see someone with no self-control.  It is hard work for me to limit my portion size and to choose healthier options.  I make the attempt meal by meal…  Sometimes, I fail, but I know there’s always tomorrow to try again.   And I’m proud to say, I only have 7 more lbs to lose to get back to “pre-pregnancy.”  Yay!

Every difficult goal becomes easier after taking little steps.  Whether it’s walking a block, then two, then three… or starting a business.


It made a ton of sense.  If you have a huge goal ahead of you and you’re focused on achieving it day one, you can easily become overwhelmed.  The key is to find one or two relatively easy things you can do toward your goal every day… chip away at it.

If you have something daunting to do (like move to a new city, look for a new job, start a new business), break things down to their simplest parts.  Make a list of what needs to get done, then assign yourself a task or two.  Maybe on Monday, you look up apartments on Craigslist… or you send in two resumes… or you make one call to someone who might be interested in your business.  Do enough so you can feel good about the progress you’ve made, but don’t assign yourself so much that you don’t even want to start.
It’s the same if you want to start a novel or knit a sweater.  These aren’t tasks that can be done in a day, they necessarily take time.  When I’m writing a book, I set myself the goal of 250 words a day.  I can write 250 words in a few minutes (I’m not saying they’ll be any good, but I can do it).  So when I open my computer, I know I can get through the day’s work.  And usually, once I get started, I get caught up in what I’m writing and suddenly 1,000 words are down.  But if I told myself to write 1,000 words, I probably would psyche myself out of it before I began – my computer would hardly ever be touched.
Remember, as Olivia said, you can’t get to from A to Z without all the letters in between.  And as Sun Tzu said, “do what is great when it is small.”  Anything can be accomplished, you can get through any situation no matter how difficult it might seem, if you take just take small steps forward every day.

And as for life coaching, it may not be for everyone, but it certainly helps to have someone there checking on your progress, offering support when you feel like you’ve hit a wall and helping you define the next step.  

PS Thanks to my friend, the author Ken Siri, for sending me the Sun Tzu quote.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Listen to the Universe: A New Author’s Tale

Click on titles to see my articles on Rebel Mom!

Autism: A Roadmap on Available Therapies

The writer J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end.”   Nearly eight million Americans have come to the end of a professional road since the Great Recession began in December 2007.  Ken Siri, a former health care analyst for an investment bank, is among them.  And yet, the end of that particular road led Ken to a life he never imagined, but believes was meant to be.  I believe that what happened to Ken was the universe pushing him to the path he was always supposed to follow.

I met Ken in 2002 while I, myself, was off on a professional wild goose chase.  I was working as a salesperson for a Wall Street broker dealer and Ken was one of my clients.  We hit it off and stayed friends after I moved on to corporate communications.

In 2004, Ken had this fantastic idea for a television show – it was “Sex and the City” from the man’s point of view and was based on the lives of Ken and his friends, divorced Wall Street thirty-somethings returning to the singles scene in Manhattan.  

The idea came to Ken after one of his friends tried a new pick-up line.  He would walk up to women and ask if they were wearing Jimmy Choo shoes.  The first few ladies he tried it on were flattered, but eventually, he tried it on a woman who turned and derisively asked, “Are you gay?”  That was the end of that line, but the beginning of tv show, The Exchange. 

I thought it was a brilliant idea and agreed to help turn Ken’s hilarious stories about dating into a tv pilot script.  Unfortunately, our efforts didn’t go anywhere, but Ken’s fantastic story-telling made me wonder what he was doing on Wall Street.

And apparently, it made the universe wonder, as well…

As often happens with inter-gender friendships, Ken and I drifted apart after I met my husband and lost touch for a couple of years.   But thanks to the genius of the networking site “Linked In,” we recently reconnected.  I was a bit surprised and absolutely thrilled to see under Ken’s name, the professional title “author.”  I emailed him immediately and asked him to get me caught up on his life.  Here’s what I learned:

In June 2008, Ken took full custody of his autistic son, Alex.  I’d met the angelic-looking boy one summer’s day on Fire Island and marveled at how well Ken managed.  It’s hard enough to be a single parent, but to be the single parent of a special needs child takes strength I admire beyond words.

Four months later, Ken was a victim of the Wall Street crash and lost his job, so he threw himself with passion into full-time parenting.  He fought to get the city of New York to pay for Alex to attend a top school for autistic children.  In the fall of 2009, he joined the school’s parent-teacher association.   

In November, just a few months after joining, Ken was, in his words, “shooting my mouth off” at a meeting.  He said, and I quote, “Autism sucks.  I’m going to write a book about it.”  And to his surprise, the man next to him said, “I’m a book publisher,” and like that, he had a two-book publishing deal.  Six months later, Cutting Edge Therapies for Autism was on the shelves and 1001 Tips For The Parents of Autistic Boys is due out in the fall.

How’s that for the universe giving you a shove?  No one can say it’s been “easy” for Ken; losing a job never is.  Nor is being a full-time single parent.  Nor is having an autistic child.  But now Ken is doing what he probably always should have been doing, and that, in itself, makes life fulfilling.

I asked Ken how he feels about this dramatic shift in career – what it means to him to be an author rather than a banker.  Here’s what he said:

Well, becoming an author has been a fulfilling and worthwhile endeavor.  Being a banker, or in my case an analyst, made me feel... vacant.  Am I meant to be a writer?  I think circumstances have led me, finally, to what my true strengths are.  So yes, I feel that now I have finally arrived at what I should have been doing all along. 

I could go on about my better subjects in high school (English lit, history) versus my weak spots (math), and how I tend to attack weaknesses (focused on a math-oriented career to become better at it – akin to learning to dance the meringue) but don’t want to bore you.  Suffice it to say that one should follow passion over money and hopefully the money will take care of itself. 

Of note, it is the writing I love, but also the advocating/autism work (I became PTA president in January and Rebecca Association for Autism board member).  They both fit my life now.  That said, I never would have guessed that I would be any sort of advocate, but I have to say it is its own reward.  Corny?  Maybe sounds that way, but its true! 

Ken isn’t the only person I know who intentionally pursued a career in a field for which they did not possess a natural aptitude in order to challenge or “better” themselves.  This is more common than we might imagine.  Some people do it to prove to something to themselves.  Some do it because they are more focused on a particular outcome (money) than on their own sense of daily satisfaction.  Or they do it because they want to see themselves in a particular light (as a doctor or lawyer, for example).  But maybe what we ought to be doing is searching ourselves for what comes easily, what we are good at, what we enjoy – and if we do that, then not only the money (as Ken says) but our own happiness should take care of itself.

I need to add this bit because it amazed me so.  When I say that we should do what comes naturally to us, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is “easy” to do.  Anything worth doing will require of us dedication, discipline, effort and the sometimes terrifying risk of failure.  But the rewards... oh the rewards...

I asked Ken how he managed to write a book in a few months while still caring for Alex by himself.  His answer should motivate anyone in a “if he can do what he’s doing, surely I can try too” kind of way: 

Scheduling is tough indeed, but I was always very organized and disciplined.  So starting from that point, I just constantly refined my schedule.  My personal philosophy is kaizen.  For those unfamiliar, it is the Japanese art of perfection, most notably and successfully adopted by Toyota to become the world’s number one auto maker!  Until recently.  Basically I make constant and never-ending improvements to anything I do, scheduling for example.

Here is a typical day during the week (now as writer):

·         Up at 6:30am, give Alex supplements, make him gluten/casein-free breakfast, prepare his lunch and backpack.
·         7am, Alex gets bath and ready for bus, more supplements. I wear dad outfit (beat up jeans, Yankees hat, T shirt) and bring him to front of building and wait on bus, usually arrives 7:40am.
·         7:45 am, I run up my stairs from lobby to roof - good quick free workout.
·         8:00 am, laundry started if necessary, check emails, read latest Yankees news, consider asking President when my free healthcare arrives.
·         8:30 am, core workout in apartment.  Read leading news headlines, sort for reading later.  Make plan for day.
·         9am or so, hit the gym.  
·         9:30 Starbucks, home protein shake and begin to write and read for next few hours.  I divvy up the time as necessary, but overall shoot for two hours writing and 4 hours reading per day - as suggested by Stephen King (he the man).
·         11:00 am I may also pop into publishers to see what up, pitch ideas, and strategize on book(s).
·          1ish, run, bike or swim (have three TRIs this year!).
·         3:00 pm I am organizing apartment and remainder of what I need to accomplish in anticipation of arrival of Alex around 3:45.
·         3:45 pm Once Alex arrives ability to write if over, so I must then do the brainless tasks - laundry, dinner, fresh direct, errands and such.  We also have after school programs most days of the week so I shuttle him to and fro.
·         6:30 pm I am making him dinner and we watch some Schoolhouse Rock (A noun is a person place or thing!)
·         7:30 bath, for Alex.  More supplements, pjs on and hit the couch.  I hit the computer for emailing.
·         9:30 pm Alex is asleep, I watch Entourage!

That's it.  Typical day.

Thoreau and Living Life

In addition to supplementing my Rebel Mom posts, I’m going to use this space to write about “Thoreau-vian philosophy”; that is, the refusal to live a life of quiet desperation and the determination to “suck the marrow of life.” 

My last post about my trip to Africa was an example in my own life – taking the plunge and doing (rather than dreaming about) what I wanted to experience... just buying the ticket.

The next post is about how sometimes we can just fall onto our true path, as if by accident.  It’s about what can result if one refuses to allow life’s challenges to beat them.  One never knows what possibilities lay ahead; what appears a terrible blow (the loss of a job) might, in fact, be the door for which you’ve been searching.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Selous - The rest of the story

I was barely able to scratch the surface of this incredible holiday in my Rebel Mom post, so I thought I'd add a bit more detail here.

Far, far from the maddening crowds there is a prehistoric land.  A land where the pulsing footsteps of giants can be felt through the vibrations of the ground... Where the night is filled with singing and roars and cries and trumpeting...  Where fat reptiles laze languidly in the sun, wide-open mouths inviting daring birds to clean their razor teeth...  Where human kind has not encroached upon the ways of nature.  This is the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania.

I’d wanted to go on an African safari since I was a small child and my husband made it happen as a belated honeymoon.  Of course, his motivation might have stemmed from the fact that I was adamant I wouldn’t have children until I’d gone – but the joke was on me because I became pregnant the week before we left!

Having made a few mistakes in planning exotic vacations in the past (Belize), I put Imagine Africa, our tour operator, through the wringer and they came up trumps!  I had heard that in some parts of the Serengeti, there are more tourists than animals, which makes the experience feel more like a zoo than a safari.  That was the last thing we wanted.  Thus, Imagine Africa recommended the little-visited Selous.

We took a puddle jumper from Dar es Salaam to Selous with Nick in the co-pilot's seat, wearing an expression most often seen on small children at Christmas.  

Our first glimpse of the adventure to come was the herd of wildebeest that sprinted across the dirt landing strip as our plane descended.  

We were met at the airstrip by Mpogo, our driver and Makomba, our guide.

Makomba was raised in a village not far from Jane Goodall's chimpanzees in western Tanzania.  At twelve years old, he and the other boys his age were sent to live in the forest for two years where they learned how to survive off the land and slept in the hollow of baobab trees.  He then left for school, where he learned three languages and earned a Masters degree in ornithology.  Though I tried to stump him, there was no question Makomba couldn't answer.

We drove through the gates around the air strip and there, staring at us from the side of the road was a giraffe. 

I couldn’t have imagined that just four days later, giraffes would seem commonplace.  

Or that one would block the path between my tent and my breakfast until a Masai warrior scared it off.  

But giraffes were just the beginning of our safari adventure.  What would follow over the next four days would be extraordinary.

It is rare that something you have built up in your mind for nearly thirty years lives up to your expectations.  But the four days I spent in the Selous Game Park far exceeded even my wildest dreams.

On the ride from the air strip to the camp, we saw a baboon running off with a baby impala:

We saw giraffes, hippos, crocs, antelope and buffalo.  All in the first twenty minutes.

But none of the hippos compared with Arnie, the male who had been evicted from his pod and made his home around the camp:

As I mentioned in Rebel Mom, I had expected to "rough it" on safari, but the Selous Impala Camp, though only mid-range among the nine camps in Selous, was anything but roughing it.

The "tent" itself had his and her sinks, a lovely shower and toilet, a changing room and a double bed.  Upon our arrival, the managers suggested a nap after our long trip, then brought us coffee to wake us up before our first trip out - a boat safari.

They brought us coffee to our room every morning before our 6:00 am game drives and the tents were kept critter-free and perfectly clean for the duration of our stay.  

We ate breakfast, complete with eggs, bacon, cereal, tea, coffee, juice, milk and fruit, out in the bush every morning, prepared by the camp chef and set up by Makomba and Mpogo.
It was a feast!

And the food back at camp - unbelievable.  The Zanzibari chef Mwamed could compete with any New York or London star.  After two days, we actually had to ask for half portions because it was a crime to see any of our three course meals go to waste!  Even his presentation of simple fruit was mouth-watering.
But enough about the food for the moment.  The true excitement was the animals.  Whether on the boat, in the range rover or on foot, we were never disappointed.  Even from our tent's deck, we were able to watch crocs and hippos, hear bush babies wail at night, and were amazed by the size of a goliath heron. Because the animals walked the campsite freely, we had to be escorted to and from the dining tent by a Masai warrior.

What amazed us most was how close to the animals we could get:

Especially, on our walking safaris, which required the company of an armed ranger.

And when we didn't see them, we could tell they were still nearby:

and a hippo trail:

In January, we were able to see all the newborns learning to walk and play.  
This little giraffe stood like a statue, attempting to blend into its surroundings while it's mother was off about a mile away.
Among my favorite things to do on our drives was to quote Lion King, "When he was a young wart hog, he found his aroma lacked a certain appeal, he could clear the savannah after every meal..."  Didn't get old at all, or so I think.
The elephants never failed to impress.  Whether crossing the river, snorkels up:

Or letting us know who's boss:
It took three days, but on our final game drive, we saw a small pride of lions.  In Selous, the lions are evolving in such a way that the males no longer have great manes.
Nick and I sat in our open top jeep not fifteen feet from these cats.  When we arrived, they were all snoozing in the mid-day sun and we wanted to change seats so as to get a better view.  We stood up to move and immediately every head snapped in our direction.  Makomba turned to us and through gritted teeth, he whispered, "Don't make any sudden movements."  We learned our lesson.  They may have seemed like giant house cats:

But we didn't want to test these cat's teeth:
Nick was rather relieved and enjoyed his beer after our afternoon with the lions:

Between game drives, we were able to relax and the camp's pool was surprisingly refreshing.
Neither Nick nor myself had any particular interest in bird watching, but in Selous, they are so extraordinary, we couldn't help but be entranced.  From fish eagles:
To kingfishers:
we were for the birds:

I was surprised by how elusive the zebras were, but on the same day we saw the lions, we also got our fill of what one expects from a safari:
And finally, on our last day, we found the great treasure of Selous - the African wild dog.  Of course, seeing them made me sing Toto for the rest of our trip: "The wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless longing for some solitary company."  Unfortunately, we had forgotten to charge our camera the night before and while we got pictures of some bones on the ground and our breakfast, we missed the elephants who crossed right behind us while we ate, as well as the dogs.  But, kindly, Mpogo and Makomba put off their well-deserved break to drive us to the airport by way of the dogs and we were able to get our pictures:

Our safari adventure was beyond anything I'd hoped for and yet I was not satiated.  Sitting on the deck, watching the hippos, Nick and I made plans to return, next time when Conall can appreciate the experience!

If it hadn't been for Nick, this would likely be a life's ambition I would still be dreaming about.  I'm extremely grateful to Nick for making this dream come true - it was everything I'd imagined and more.  To live life, sometimes you just have to pull the trigger and buy the ticket.  Memories mean so much more than dreams.