Friday, December 2, 2011

The Holidays at Casa de Unchained - 6 Ways We Keep Our Sanity

CAUTION: This is a longer post. That's because there's a lot of useful material here!

Many people are starting to talk about the stress of the holiday season: how to take care of all the extra little tasks, how to handle less-than-pleasant relatives, and how to manage their own stress.

Weirdly, some of these good souls ask what my holiday season is like. I guess it's sort of like asking who cuts the barber's hair.

These are not million dollar ideas! They're just tips that we've picked up along the way and use. If you can incorporate them too, then you're already in for happier holidays.

First, if you have kids, take some pressure off Christmas.
• We began by celebrating Hanukkah. That's eight straight nights of tradition: candle-lighting, prayers (we're determined to do it in Hebrew), dreidel, and small gifts. And I mean SMALL gifts, from the traditional net bag of chocolate geld to a jar of bubbles or a new pair of knit gloves - usually nothing more than a dollar or two.
• We also began celebrating St. Nicholas Day, in an effort to promote the giving aspect of Christmas more than the receiving aspect. We tell or read Nicholas' story and plan a way - as individuals and/or as a family - to give to others. This presents a great opportunity to explore ways to help others in need. There's a gift on this day, too, with a condition: it's something to be shared. It doesn't have to be expensive - a game, puzzle, or even a big tin of popcorn and a new movie that can be enjoyed with a friend.

Next, don't let things pile up.
• The first priority is to plan and purchase gifts that will need to be shipped. Unless it's an amazing bargain, that's the focus of Black Friday shopping. The first weekend in December, those things need to get wrapped and packed in a box. If you're going to send homemade goodies, they need to get baked over the weekend and packed in the box, too.
• The same weekend, get out your Christmas cards and address book and stamps, sit down, and get all the cards signed and ready to mail.
• On Tuesday or Wednesday after the weekend, take everything to the Post Office and get it sent. (Monday is too busy, but the sooner you get it there, the faster it will arrive and you won't have to pay extra for Priority postage.)

Give to yourself.
• I've given myself a gift of 30 days. I was already exercising, drinking water, flossing, and all that stuff, but I've determined to step it up for December and give myself just a little more attention. Trust me, you've got an extra five minutes every day you could use to give yourself a mini-facial, enjoy at least half a cup of tea, crank out another 60-second plank, or whatever your body will benefit from.
• If it requires time outside the normal morning or evening routine, write it down in your planner, in ink. That makes it harder to ignore when other things threaten to steal the time.

Plan regular de-stressors
• There are lots of things you can do to help yourself manage stress. I have a list of over 100 do-it-yourself stress relievers and it's growing. On a daily basis, do at least three things that help YOU. Don't worry, it's easy. Using scented shower gel? If the fragrance is rejuvenating or relaxing, that's aromatherapy. Taking a multi-vitamin? The B-complex vitamins help your brain handle stress. Breathe? Of course. Use the 1-2 or elevator method to give yourself a boost of oxygen, mindfulness, and relaxation.
• Other stuff to do regularly: Spend quality time with your pets - grooming or exercising them is good for them and you. Enjoy some quiet background music with dinner one night. Stock up on citrus (fights oxidative stress and provides tryptophan which we convert to serotonin), complex carbs (create serotonin when digested), salmon or tuna (Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the stress hormone cortisol), and black tea (more antioxidants plus it reduces cortisol levels). Get enough sleep, even if it means missing an hour of TV.
• You can also take a nap, get a massage (doesn't have to be from a pro; just a one-minute neck rub or do-it-yourself foot rub), rock out in the car, and of course, maintain control of clutter.

Those people you'd rather not spend time with
• You can over-book your social calendar, which leaves you with limited time for your obligatory visit with Aunt Harriet. On the other hand, it becomes just one more stop you have to make, which can backfire on you by creating more stress. It's easier to deal with people as they are and when you must, rather than trying to control every situation. Remember you can choose whether to act or react.
• Got a relative who dishes out criticism disguised as compliments? Usually an older woman, but sometimes a man. Something you've done is good, almost as good as some other relative, who also did something else. You know the type. Consider what this person is really trying to accomplish. Cruel and manipulative people are out there, but they aren't nearly as common as we like to believe. Usually, we're misinterpreting them. Is it possible that Grandma Hilda thinks it's important that you be kept up to date on your third-cousin's accomplishments, and your own achievement reminded her? Check in with Cousin Fred - odds are, Hilda has compared him unfavorably to you, too.
• How about the relative who likes to stir the pot? It could be Uncle Ralph with his loud and long perspective on your personal issue (divorce, arrest for buying drugs from a nun, botched sex change, whatever). It could be your sister-in-law with her "let's you and him fight" game. You know that's how they are. The good news is, so does the rest of your family, which means nobody's listening that closely. Even if you choose to play along and respond (which seems to only prolong the ordeal), it's just family. If you get dragged unwillingly into a conversation or monologue, don't sweat it. The most important members of your family don't care, so don't worry about being embarrassed. Impress everyone with your Zen diplomacy and tell Uncle Ralph he's got a (pause) interesting assessment. Then shut up and walk away. Tell Sissy you admire her determination to start a fight without being in it, but you aren't playing. Then shut up and walk away. DO NOT ENGAGE beyond that point. Be polite, but don't play.
• Neutralize drama before it starts. If you're hosting the obligatory family thing, invite a few more people; it's too hard for a diva to be a diva if there are more distractions for everyone else. If you're not, work with the host to plan a theme - sledding with the kids, a family charity project where everyone brings a toy or can of food, a white elephant gift exchange, whatever; discussion will naturally focus there. If there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst, ban them and announce (and enforce) an unpleasant consequence for bringing them up; anyone talking politics has diaper duty (or whatever might be appropriate). When you sense the beginnings of annoyance, breathe, smile, acknowledge that the other person may have a point, but the important thing is that (fill in the blank).

Social scheduling
• As a kid, I remember feeling rushed at home on Thanksgiving and Christmas so we could drive for hours and make it to two sets of grandparents. After a really long day, we'd drive for more hours and eventually we'd get home so I could go to bed. NOT my idea of a fun day.
• As an adult, it could've become more complicated, because then there are parents and in-laws, too. If you don't have kids, it won't kill you to make two stops. More than that and it not only becomes harder to schedule (everybody wants to eat in the early afternoon, it seems), but it sucks away your time to enjoy the day at home or with your friends/neighbors/pets/couch.
• If you have kids, it's time to carve out your own family traditions. Take care of your nuclear family first, and then figure out how to work in extended family. Can you host? Can everyone get together a day or two before or after the holiday? What about a New Year's party instead? There are lots of options for alternate schedules that don't require you trying to be all things to all people.

Yes, it's lovely to give. But it's better to keep your sanity.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spiritual Literacy?

December is Spiritual Literacy Month. In spite of, or maybe because of, your personal beliefs, this month encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and learn something about the spiritual traditions in the world.

After all, you can't criticize them if you don't know anything about them! (If that offended you, it applies to you most. Everybody else is just smiling. It's ok; I expect this post will get at least a few people snarling.)

If you just can't force yourself to broaden your horizons (nobody's forcing you to convert), at least deepen your understanding about your own spirituality (or lack of).

Notice I haven't used the word "religion." Indulge me. I've been used to a Hebrew or Greek word study as part of church for eight years now, so let me share something:
I do not support religion.

If memory serves, "religion" comes from Latin roots meaning "to bind back to" and usually refers to a binding to ritual or rules. Rituals are man-made; by definition, how spiritually fulfilling can they really be? Paul said that faithless works are meaningless, in the spiritual context. In other words, anybody can go to a church and stand and sit and sing on cue, following all the rituals, without being spiritually involved at all.

Spirituality, though. That's another thing altogether. Spirituality does not point fingers at others, it requires us to examine ourselves. Spirituality does not add man-made rules. Spirituality does not ask us to follow blindly without question and do things that otherwise rational people would never do.

If you're a church-goer, think about the doctrine your church teaches: how much is spiritual, and how much is religion (man-made rules)? If you're calling yourself an atheist, is it because you truly don't believe in God, or because you don't believe in religion? (You'd be surprised how often it's the latter.)

No religion. That's why it's not religious literacy month.

Examine your spirituality this month. Spend some time considering what you believe (or don't) and why.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why to Quit and How to Quit - 3 Things Determine Your Success

It's the Great American Smoke-Out. Today (and April first) are the most common days for people to quit smoking. (No, not "try" to quit, like on New Year's Day, but actually do it.)

If you're considering it, let me forward some info I've gathered from the American Heart & Lung Association and the ingredient labels from various packs of smokes. It might be ... enlightening.


Consider what all goes into your cigarettes. They aren't just tobacco in paper anymore! When you light up, you're igniting things like:
• formaldehyde (the liquid that embalmers use, the same stuff that the frogs floated in in your biology class)
• ammonia (a harsh ingredient common in toilet and window cleaners; you're supposed to only use it in well-ventilated areas)
• arsenic (naturally occurring, but also used as a poison)
• DDT (insecticide)
• high fructose corn syrup (same stuff as in food, except by burning it, you're processing it yet again, making it even more dangerous)
• sugar (oh yeah, the cigarette diet is so great)
• molasses (plain sugar may not be enough)
• yeast
• flavoring like licorice, chocolate, and vanilla (starting to sound like burned candy)
• cedarwood oil and patchouli (wait, now it's aftershave)
• valerian root extract (a mild tranquilizer)
• cadmium (used in batteries)
• lead (we all know the risks of ingesting lead)
• methoprene (another insecticide)
• napthalene (found in mothballs)

Need more incentive? Consider what you're teaching kids (yours and others) by example. Consider your health and quality of life. What does it mean to your family and friends?

If you stopped smoking right now...

In 20 minutes:
o Your blood pressure decreases
o Your pulse drops to normal
o Circulation improves to hands and feet and their temperatures rise

In 8 hours:
o Oxygen levels in your blood rise to normal
o Carbon Dioxide levels in your blood drop to normal

In 24 hours:
o Your chance of a heart attack goes down

After a few weeks:
o Your circulation and lung function improve

Within 1 to 9 months:
o Coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue, and shortness of breath have decreased

Within a year:
o Your risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half

Five to ten years:
o Your risk of stroke is the same as someone who never smoked

Ten years:
o Your risk of ulcer decreases
o Your risk of lung cancer is cut in half
o Your risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, and kidney cancer decreases

Fifteen years:
o Your risk of coronary heart disease is the same as someone who never smoked
o Your risk of death is almost the same as someone who never smoked


Just giving you more reasons doesn't really help, does it?

Most smokers already have plenty of reasons. But here are three things you have to know before you "quit again."

1. Quitting isn't just a matter of motivation or willpower. If that was the case, you wouldn't have gotten addicted in the first place.

There's a theory that says that we're addicted to things, not because we like them but precisely because they are harmful - toxic - to us. Harmful substances create unpleasant effects in our minds and bodies, but the relief that comes as the substances leave us is so great in comparison that we want to keep experiencing that sensation. The only way to achieve the feeling is to go through the unpleasantness first. So we keep taking the toxin.

The ultimate question you must ask yourself is not why you want to quit. What you must ask is, why did you start? Explore that question deeeeeeply!

Possible answers: you weren't nursed enough as a baby, you have some other weird oral fixation, you need something to do with your hands, you are an impulsive eater and ciggies keep food out of your mouth, it looked cool the first time you did it, your parents smoked, all your friends smoked, etc.

Now, take that answer, and think about this. In your life NOW, is your answer still a valid reason to keep smoking? Until you can honestly say no, and believe it, you'll have a hard time. (It's not impossible, but it'll be a lot more of a challenge.)

2. You can never make or break a habit for someone else - it never works. So don't say you have to quit for the sake of your kids or something. You can only quit for YOU. Once you've figured out how you got yourself into this, you also must consider why you want to.

What's your goal? To be healthier? To live longer? To share more with your family or friends? To be able to do more?

Quitting for the sake of quitting is noble enough, but not usually motivating enough for most of us. Ask mountain climbers why they strive for the peak of Mt. Everest, and a common response is "because it's there." We shrug and nod and we might understand that response, but it's not enough for us. Of course it's there, but how many people do you know lining up to go climb it?

So just because you can make it a goal isn't necessarily going to be enough to get you to do something about it. Be absolutely clear in terms of your purpose for the goal.

3. OK, the mental work is done. Let me leave you this last tidbit of advice: Forget the patches, the lozenges, and the gum. Success rates overall are less than 10%, and those things end up costing hundreds of dollars in very little time. The cold turkey approach has better success stats, if you can handle the withdrawal symptoms.

Instead, bust out $50 and get the electronic cigarette. It delivers nicotine, but the "fumes" are just water vapor. No stink, no second-hand smoke. And even hard-core smokers who have used have reduced their use of it (and totally quit regular smokes) by as much as 50% within just a few months. Many quit completely within 6 months. MUCH better success rate, much lower cost, and much kinder to those around you.

As always, when it comes to your health, you should talk to your doctor. Talk to your family and friends and let them know your new goal - the more social support you have, the easier the process will be!

Quitting smoking is a life-changing goal. It's big, hairy, ugly, and audacious. And it's probably one of the best things you can do for yourself. Just the decision to quit is a pretty big step. If you've made that step, be proud of yourself! That first one is one of the toughest and bravest things you'll ever do.

Now take the next step. I'll walk beside you, if you want.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mark Your Calendars - Big Days in November

There are some big days coming up later this month. If you want to show off your time management skills and participate in any of these, you're gonna need some advance notice to get things scheduled, right?

Here ya go:

Thursday, November 17
Great American Smokeout
Whole 'nother blog post on that one, coming Thursday. In the meantime, though, you can get yourself psyched up if you plan to quit.

Sunday, November 20
World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims
Over a million people die every year due to traffic accidents. My father was one of them, when I was a teenager. He was killed on the freeway when a vehicle coming from the opposite direction crossed the median and hit him head-on, despite my dad following all the rules of safety. The mortician did what he could so we could have an open-casket funeral. Sometimes there are unavoidable but tragic accidents, but so many accidents - and so many fatalities - could be prevented. Just takes awareness. For more info, go to

Saturday, November 26
Small Business Saturday
I LOVE this idea! After the traditional chaos of Black Friday at the big stores, this calls for us to support our local small businesses. If you have a small business and would like to promote it, to pledge to shop small, or to see which small businesses are offering incentives in your area, go to

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Parents as Teachers: A Love-Hate Thing

Officially, National Parents As Teachers Day celebrates organizations that help parents help their children, especially during early childhood, in healthy development and school readiness.

The official agenda is not without criticism:
• At some point, your child may be identified as "at risk". This could happen when the hospital reports the birth, or it could happen after your child starts school.
• A home visitor will drop by to evaluate your home, family, and child. Your situation will be categorized by risk factors (socio-economic, parental ignorance, parental incompetence, etc). Of course you'll have at least one, because there is no category for "normal" or "healthy". (Well, maybe, depending on the specific program, but I have yet to hear of it.)
• To be a home visitor, one need not be a parent or teacher, only attend a 3-day training program. Three days is deemed sufficient for a complete stranger with no background to evaluate how well you're attending to your child's needs based on as little as a 15-minute visit.
• Parents as Teachers support "early intervention and parental involvement" by lobbying for policy changes at the local, state, and national level.

So people, possibly with no background, come into your home, decide what kind of inept parent you obviously are, and then use your information as part of their "evidence-based model" to show the need for more laws pertaining to parenting.

Alarmist? Maybe.


In concept, Parents As Teachers raises awareness that parents are the primary teachers of their children, which is as it should be! If a parent is responsible enough to reproduce, the parent should also be responsible enough to promote their own child's well-being, right?

This process starts at home and it starts very early in life. One of the first social skills a baby learns is trust. Babies learn whether they can trust people or not, based on how quickly and consistently their needs are met. That sense of trust is the basis of love. If a child learns he cannot trust, he fails to learn to love. There is actually a physical difference in the brain between a secure, attached baby and one who has learned not to trust. That physical difference prevents a child from being able to understand morals and values later in life - he literally will not understand why some things are right and others are wrong. (See, there are no bad kids. There are kids who can't know better, and kids who have learned that bad is acceptable. There's hope for the latter.)

The second part of the process extends beyond the actual programs. When parents recognize the impact they have on their child's learning, they tend to be more actively involved in their child's education through childhood and into the teen years. Not just academics, although that's a huge part. But aware parents teach family values, heritage, self-esteem, goals, and how to make better decisions. Those are chunks of knowledge that help a person succeed as an adult, so they are ultimately just as important as recognizing early childhood development milestones.

Whether you agree with the official agenda is your call. But I hope you will approve the intent behind it. Kids need all the support they can get.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's Not So Much The Doing As The Thinking

In honor of "Give Up Your Shoulds" Day, I thought it would be appropriate to give you a few practical ways to do that.

Step One:
Pick one or two or five of the following statements that you RIGHT NOW would complete in a way you don't like.

• When under pressure I....
• I often feel guilty about ....
• When _____ happens I stress out and feel like....
• My Achilles’ heel (greatest weakness) is....
• I am always trying to stop ______ from happening.
• When the unexpected happens I....
• I always try to....
• What drives most of my behavior is....
• I am afraid of....
• I seek my ______’s approval (always/mostly/usually/occasionally)
• My most frequent negative/uncomfortable emotion is feeling....
• I need to learn to....

Well done - that wasn't all that easy, was it? But it's okay. If you don't like the truth of these statements, let's now consider them false. That means...

Step Two:
Re-write the statements so that they reflect what you'd LIKE to be true.
For example:
My Achilles' heel is ... lack of motivation
My Achilles' heel is ... chocolate, which is OK because I've exercised and finished my work, and I deserve a small reward.

Now post your new statements where you can see them, and read them every day like affirmations.

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Crazy - Epilogue

St. Mary of Bethlehem was a monastery and unofficial hospital in London, officially made an insane asylum by King Henry VIII (one of his more rational acts) in 1547. Based on the best of intentions, the place, the practice, and the name degraded quickly. Within months, it was being called Bedlam. Yes, that Bedlam. From which we get the word now used to describe crazy chaos. But it was worse than that.

There is evidence that any patients considered harmless were forced to beg. Most patients were considered inmates and treated like - or worse - than animals. Many were shackled and chained just inches from cell walls. Active and violent patients were put on display like a circus sideshow to the public for a penny. Cells had no furniture and were never cleaned. Patients were fed with a bowl on the floor when and with what was convenient. There was no provision for warmth or clothing. There were legitimate lunatics mixed in with sane people with behavioral changes from any number of ailments such as concussions or epilepsy, but everyone received the same treatment(s).

The folks at Bedlam had no excuse for their treatment of patients. They can't even claim ignorance, not when effective treatment methods for many disorders had been known for hundreds of years. No, the only reason they did what they did is because the local culture expected it. Maybe demanded it. Definitely paid to see it. Keep in mind, this was a time and place and type of society where people had picnics and watched hangings or beheadings or other public executions. Going to see the crazies would've been a pleasant amusement.

We'd like to consider ourselves much more civilized. How smug. Yet within our own time and place and type of society, we have people speaking out against cosmetic surgery while spending thousands of dollars on deep piercings and horn implants and other "body modification." (Wait, isn't that just a euphemism? Why yes, yes it is.) Oh yes, we've come so far, haven't we? Even at the worst times of Bedlam's history, wearing things as clothes that were never meant to be (meat dresses, anyone?) would've been recognized as a sign of mental illness.

Now we don't even bother. And because of our apathy, genuine cries for help have to be louder and weirder to get our attention. Can't compete with the showiness? Too bad. Post your suicide via live feed to YouTube and you'll get views. Your friends will post the link on their Facebook pages and get a million likes when you're gone.

So tell me truly now, and please consider the ramifications; which scares you more: that people in a group (or entire society) can be just as mentally unbalanced and dangerous as any psychopath, or the fact that they just doesn't give a damn?

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Halloween Crazy Part 2: Another True Story

Imagine yourself waking up one day, right before another Halloween maybe. You go about your day, then wander out in the evening for a change, and do a little people-watching.

There's a guy with lime green hair. The color is so vivid you suspect it would glow in the dark. But it's a bright, optimistic shade and while you wouldn't have chosen it, it isn't offensive. A girl slowly shuffles past; maybe, anyway - she's so emaciated it's hard to be sure of gender. You suspect that if she moved any faster, she'd keel over and die right in front of you. Sad, what people will do to themselves.

But then there are others. It's like Night of the Living Dead had babies with Spanish Inquisition victims, with a few failed Holocaust experiments tossed in for good measure.

Torture, as explained by the U.N., is any act by which severe pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person (who isn't a masochist). The Bybee memo of 2002 added torture to the extent of impairment of bodily function. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 added more: "a significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty." It could be torture victims wandering around out there.

In one way or another, they've all mutilated ... or mutated .... Either way. Pinhead has nothing on these people. The women in Myanmar and Thailand who stretch their necks with brass rings have nothing on these people. The girls in Africa and young men in the Amazon using lip plates have nothing on these people. The young men of the Sioux dancing with hooks in their chests have nothing on these people. Child abuse victims with their cigarette burns have nothing on these people. Anything that could be done without killing someone seems to have been done to this crowd.

It's mind-boggling how people can seem so oblivious when it looks as though they've been surgically impaled. Bizarre flaps of skin dangle more than flesh was ever meant to stretch. Metal protrudes from flesh, suggestive of some Wolverine-experiment-gone-wrong. They gesture strangely to each other.

You've read about forms of torture in history, but most of those forms were intended to cause death. These people have survived. And apparently they have little social support. You'd think, birds of a feather and all that. Even the misfits in high school hung out together. These people, though ... the largest group you see is maybe three or four. Are they repulsed by each other? Did their torture impact them mentally? Or maybe they were unstable to begin with, which led to ... whatever cruel punishment happened to them. Or a little of each, maybe.

The weirdest thing is, regular people don't seem to take much notice of them. How can you not be just a little disturbed by something so revolting and grisly? What does that say about the world, that it's just fine when these tragic victims are everywhere? What does it say about you, that you've never thought about it before and only now are realizing you're rapidly becoming fascinated by them?

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Halloween Crazy Part 1: A True Story

Imagine yourself in another autumn, in a different place and year. You've been asleep, caught in the grip of a nightmare, when real-world senses startle you out of your dream.

You waken, realize you're tied down, and there's someone standing over you with a small knife, making tiny cuts all over you. You struggle to see more and realize you're covered in leeches. Blackout. The next time you waken, you're chained upright to a wall at your waist and wrists. You can move about a foot away from the wall, but no more. Your shoulders burn from holding your dead weight. You're in a cell about 5 feet square, with straw on the floor and an open window. You realize you're hungry and try to call out for help, but all that comes out is a croak.

A man comes to the cell, unlocks the chains, and gives you a bowl of something hot. You gratefully sit down and eat. But he's not the savior you thought, because as soon as you're done, you're chained to the wall again. And not long after, it occurs to you that there was something in that food. Everything you've consumed in the past week, it seems, starts to evacuate with the speed of lightning. With vomit dribbling down your chin and even nastier stuff running down your legs, you feel worse than ever.

The man comes with food every day: moldy or stale bread, gruel, or some kind of stew-like stuff with what appears to be beetles. You have no way to clean yourself or your cell. He won't speak to you. It occurs to you that you've been injured at some point, because you have recurring headaches, sometimes so bad they interfere with your vision. But this is no hospital. It's no prison, either, although you're being treated worse than an inmate. You hear weird bursts of laughter, moaning, and crying from other cells, but nobody speaks. After the leeching, the purgatives and emetics in the food, no ability to rest, and poor state of hygiene, your immune system is beyond compromised. It's getting uncomfortably cold at night and there's no sign of blankets or even clean clothing.

After a month, with oozing and infected sores around your wrists and waist, you are unchained from the wall permanently. For a second, it is blissful to lie down in the straw, until you realize it's also been your toilet since the first day. It's much colder now, even during the daytime. You get sick and develop a high fever, which causes you to hallucinate a little. You rave in your sleep, and someone comes to get you, binds your hands behind your back, and ducks your head repeatedly in a huge tub of icy water. The cold is almost a cool comfort against your raging fever, but you can't breathe. The shock and lack of air cause you to lose consciousness.

You awaken in a frigid cell again, seeing things you're pretty sure aren't there. You hear gurgling sounds when you breathe deeply, but there are worse things to worry about. You hear groans, shrieks, and sometimes screaming, followed by laughter. The sounds get closer. Soon a small group of people stand in front of your cell, staring. You stare back, wondering what's going on. Before you can react, a boy in front throws a rock at you. You yelp in surprise and flinch back; the group laughs and moves on out of sight.

In the new cell, you're able to keep the straw clean and dry for bedding by using the far corner for your toilet. As hygienic as that may be, the rattle in your lungs hasn't improved, so you're taken for another leech treatment and returned to the cell without any bandages. It's so cold now you aren't sure whether the blood oozing from the leech sites is scabbing or simply freezing. You burrow into the straw for warmth. There was no food today. If not for the straw for some protection from the cold, you don't know if you could survive.

The next day, another group comes along and finally stops at your cell. You remain curled in the straw. There is no boy with a rock, thankfully. People in the group begin to insult you, but it's easy to ignore them. Finally, the man who used to bring food comes along. He's carrying a torch. Your normal reactions have been dulled by cold, illness, blood loss, and malnutrition, so you don't realize the potential threat until it's nearly too late. He sets fire to the edge of your straw bedding.

You jump up screeching and narrowly avoid being singed. In a panic, you move as much unburned straw as you can from the fire. The crowd roars with laughter at your desperate movements. The man with the torch steps back with a smug smile and you realize you're probably safe enough as long as you entertain the crowd. You are outraged that somehow you've been made a circus animal, still without any idea how it happened. But faced with the choice of either humiliation or death, animal instinct takes over.

You're horrified by what you're willing to do to preserve the shreds of your life: act insane, scare children, eat spoiled or moldy food - and a few things that aren't food, and survive the occasional bleeding, ducking, and even beating. The hallucinations are fewer and farther between but you'd prefer them to this existence. You question your sanity for preferring to be delusional. The primal instinct to preserve life is one thing, but now you have to convince your rational mind that such a basic drive is worth the effort.

Eventually you learn that the people who come to see you begin their day by taking their children out for entertainment, where the whole family can enjoy violent murders carried out before their eyes. Coming to see you is just the icing on the cake, so to speak, since you don't die and end the show. Although by now you truly wish you could.

Surely you had family or friends out there. Are they like the groups that stare at you? Heaven forbid, have they been in the groups that stare at you? A new worry now constantly circles in your thoughts. Who really belongs in the cage - you, or the strange ones on the other side of the bars?

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Halloween Crazy - The Prologue

I'm a huge fan of Stephen King. I have to tell you that first, and I have to tell you why. When I was a kid and first discovered his books (woefully few then, for a reader like me), I could get excited about a girl with psychokinetic fire power or a haunted car. Cool. Rabid dog, okay. But as the books came, and King's writing began to change, I also began to appreciate the human horrors that went along with any visceral stuff.

More grown-up and realistic scary stuff, I suppose, and I believe it haunts most of us more regularly that we'd like to admit or believe. Our fears that someone will hurt our loved ones, fear of the death of a marriage, fear of being held hostage and tortured, fear of rape, cancer or other major illness, senility in old age, accidental death, or the loss of sanity. Normal, everyday horrors.

Those are the things that scare me most, anyway.

Then there are things I try to think about in as clinical and detached a way as I possibly can. I cannot let myself think too deeply about them, because these things scare the heck out of me too. Like how relatively easily bad parents can create a serial killer. How quickly groupthink distorts a peaceful crowd into a killer mob. How we become numb to new stimuli after a certain amount of exposure, so that if we've become numb to something, we consider it safe and appropriate and never think twice.

These things scare me, too, because they're so subtle. They happen before you realize it and by the time you do, it's out of your control. And while the things in the first category scare me, they tend not to happen a whole heck of a lot. These things, though. These things are happening right now, every day, everywhere in the world, and we're not noticing. By the time we do, what new horror will we have allowed?

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Many things I learned about coaching, I could've learned from my cat

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Many things I learned about coaching, I could've learned from my cat.

• Life is hard. Get plenty of rest.
• Use nervous energy productively - clean.
• Pounce on anything that interests and motivates you.
• Focus. Intently. Sometimes on the nothing in middle space.
• Stretch thoroughly. Every muscle, every day.
• Enjoy life's simple pleasures. Crickets are great toys. Or snacks.
• Ask for what you want and believe you deserve it.
• Assume everyone likes you. You don't have to like them back.
• Know the value of your time and make sure others know it. Don't make yourself too available or you'll be taken for granted.
• Keep your priorities straight and manage your time accordingly. Eat, nap, play, clean, contemplate someone's sanity, nap.
• Curiosity is good; asking questions is a good way of finding things out.
• We teach others how to treat us. Sometimes we purr, sometimes we unsheathe the claws.
• Ignore stuff that isn't worth your time or energy.
• It's okay to talk to yourself.
• Know your limits or you'll find yourself stuck in an embarrassing situation.
• Behave. Keep your claws and whiskers to yourself.
• If you're really listening, look into someone's eyes and be fully present.
• Sometimes you have to toot your own horn, or leave a dead bug where somebody will step on it, to be sure your efforts are recognized.
• If medicine is yucky, see if you can get it in a form that will get in to you.
• It's all about impression management. When in doubt, make it look like you meant to do it. Then clean, or laugh.
• Honor and obey Ceiling Cat, avoid Basement Cat. (I must assume if you know cats, you know who these are. If not, you can look them up at or

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Five Kinds of Emotional Vampires

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We've all been at the mercy of an emotional vampire at one time or another. But some of us seem more ... magnetic to them. More often than not, they actually have a personality disorder, which makes them just enough off balance to make US crazy! Most of them have no clue that they're sucking the life out of us. Emotional vampires come in different types, but they share two things in common: they get you to let them get under your skin, and they do it over and over. Learn to recognize them and save yourself!

Learn how to tell if someone might be draining you, and how to stop it!

These are the people who lash out and hurt those around them, one way or another, but they're nearly never violent. This group includes your angry boss, the sibling who criticizes everything you do (still), that woman who knows your idea will never work, and the grown up "mean girls" who can't miss an opportunity to insult someone. These people would reject the idea that there's something wrong with them, so there's no way to "fix" the problem. You have to use other tactics to deal with them.

When you run across these, remember that their attacks are rarely about you, you just happen to be the most convenient target. Understand that they don't get the rules of civilized society, so they don't realize people would like them if they played nice. - but you can let them know that you don't choose to play the victim role for them.

Next time one of them says something mean, you can respond with "Wow, that was really negative! Anyway, blah blah blah," and continue with your part of the conversation as if their remark was no more than a mere interruption. Alternatively, you can go with something like, "I know you can't be that upset with me. Who pissed in your Wheaties?" and move on with the conversation. I don't advise this with your boss, of course!

These people usually mean well but drag us down with their hesitation. These are the ones who cast their personal aura of uncertainty over the group, the guys who doubt, the girls who has you pulling your hair out in exasperation, the foot-draggers, and the weirdos who confuse everyone because they're so confused and overwhelmed.

Don't let these people get the best of your emotional side, or you'll get stuck in their rut. Channel your inner Spock and keep things clear and logical so you can feel more confident in your plans and decisions.

These folks might suspect there's something wrong in their lives. You aren't the shrink, but you might be able to help them rein in their craziness by assuming an attitude of leadership. Express yourself clearly and confidently, allow intelligent questions at the end, and assign them responsibility for their own behavior. "I understand you aren't sure about this, but it's already been decided." "I'm not sure why you're having a problem with this, but (doing whatever) is your responsibility."

Like leeches, these vampires do not play well with others, and aren't aware of it. This may be the largest group of emotional vampires. It includes that family member who constantly disappoints you, the "let's you and him fight" guy who just has to stir the pot, the more passive guy who keeps quitting, the user woman who's only nice when she needs something, the other woman who can only whine about how much her life sucks and how bad things only happen to her.

Inoculate yourself from these drainers by stocking up on positives. Pray, meditate, take your vitamins, rock out on your way to work - whatever makes you feel really good about life. And work at maintaining your grip on your own more positive reality, so it can't get sucked away.

Because these people tend to live in their own little worlds, it's hard to get through to them that you aren't interested in their personal dramas, excuses, and selfishness. But that shouldn't stop you from a little social commentary if you're fed up. Remarks like "Sorry doesn't fix it when other people are counting on you. Maybe you could make it up to us by ...." let the Downer know that his actions impact others (who aren't impressed), but if he follows your specific idea (by your deadline), he'll have a shot of regaining your trust. If you're feeling particularly generous, you can try an alternate approach such as "I know how you feel. I feel like that too sometimes, but right now we need to ...." This might help get the person back on track. With the whiners and victims, you can add that their unique ability or talent is much-needed. This gives them a sense of control that is lacking in the rest of their lives.

These are the vampires who seem to try their best but who can destroy work in seconds. Sometimes it's due to their cluelessness, sometimes because they're passive-aggressive! This is the chatterbox who obnoxiously babbles or gossips so much that it halts productivity. It's the guy who goes off on tangents, sometimes intentionally, and distracts everyone. It's the woman who manages to patronize everyone else. It's the person (often a newcomer) who expects you (and the group) to adapt to his/her pace - the one who may set a break-neck pace but then trips you up when you try to catch up.

With any of these types, keep your priorities in mind. Don't worry about a few minutes of distraction here or there, but staying focused on the big picture will limit their ability to derail you.

Unfortunately, with these vampires, there sometimes isn't much you can do to let them know you don't plan to accommodate their behavior, short of being rude. Allow them a brief moment of attention off-topic if you must, but as soon as they come up for air, bring them back to the task at hand. Sort of a "Hmm, that's interesting, but right now ...." and then literally shift your attention. Turn your eyes and body away and do not respond to anything else that is not constructive. (Good luck!)

If you aren't sure if someone fits into one the above categories, observe your own energy level right before and right after interacting with them. Is it lower? That's a key indicator of an emotional vampire. Then, besides having your energy negatively impacted, how do you feel? If your emotional reaction fits in one of these categories, it's probably toxic residue.

I also should point out that simply calling someone on their behavior, due to mental disorder or not, may not be effective and may potentially backfire. Use your best judgment, considering the person, the specific behavior, and the situation!

FWIW, There's a great site (and book) that describe these in greater detail and by psychological diagnosis, if you dare! It gives you a few examples of types, and "red flag" checklists, which I love! Here's the link:

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Is Play a Sign of Animal Intelligence? Sorta Kinda Probably.

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Psychologists and animal behaviorists have known for some time that play is a sign of intelligence. And science is seeing more evidence of play behaviors in animals we never expected it from - not just mammals but cephalopods (octopus & squid families), reptiles, and birds.

(I know all this, but sometimes I watch my BDWC (Brain-Dead Wonder Cat) and I suspect maybe we've been tricked.)

Seriously, is there a connection between play and intelligence? The official answer is "Yeah, sorta kinda probably, but we don't know how it works."

Evolutionary psychology says play behaviors are preparation for real life. Related theories suggest that highly social and larger-brained animals are more playful. That supposedly explains why lion cubs practice pouncing, wolf cubs practice howling, and young chimps practice swinging and scampering. In essence, they're smart enough to know they need to prepare to fend for themselves. That makes sense, but Houston, we still have some problems.

• First, if these theories are correct, only juveniles would play. Bigger and more highly social animals (mammals) care for their young, so the young have time to grow and develop skills through play. But adults of these animals play, too.

• Second, if these theories are correct, juveniles would only engage in behaviors that would translate to survival skills in some way. But some play behaviors have no practical application at all. There's far too much evidence now that shows that not only is there creative play, there are species that have developed games, with apparent rules. There are plenty of animals who understand humor to the extent that they are capable of playing tricks on each other. (Domestic animals do this with their people!)

• Third, if these theories are correct, then smaller-brained and less social animals (meaning, according to the theory, less intelligent) who must fend for themselves from birth would not exhibit play behaviors because they don't have a childhood during which to practice. So how do we explain an octopus or a turtle engaging in creative, recreational play activities? We're still figuring out just how smart cephalopods are - they're fantastic communicators, they have exceptional ability to organize complex movements, they use tools, and those in captivity come up with play-like things to do when bored.

• And then, what about creatures with no brains at all, which still learn? Jellyfish can not only learn to navigate a maze, but they'll practice it even without a reward. What kind of behavior does that suggest?

Obviously, there's more to play than just practice. But what?

In play, we have more control over things than at other times. So we have more choices, more creativity. It's a kind of break in routine that keeps a lot of our brain connections strong and active. We know that babies who are exposed to visually stimulating toys grow up to have greater cognitive abilities. Play could potentially trigger synapses all over the brain. And that kind of activity (brain exercise) is good for us.

How? It boosts memory, for one thing. In boosts our general cognitive ability. And it makes us happier. (And by the way, the opposite of play is not work, it's depression. Which is why one of the first signs of depression is a lack of interest in recreation, play, hobbies, and fun stuff.) Maybe play isn't so much a sign of intelligence as it is a sign of the intelligence needed to be self-aware and want to feel better.

So I'm designing more ways for the BDWC to play. She needs all the brain help she can get. We aren't in the same boat as she is, but on the other hand, considering the benefits of play, maybe it's best to do it and consider it preventive maintenance! You're never too old to fire up those synapses! And don't forget YOUR pets - find new ways for them to play, too!

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Do Phobias Come From?

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Triskaidekaphobia. Even the name is intimidating. On the other hand, it's simply an irrational fear of the number 13. Which seems so random. Why are people afraid of such weird stuff? I mean, we all know about arachnophobia, but then again spiders can be harmful and they are creepy. But to harbor a fear of a number? How's that gonna hurt anyone? I guess it isn't any weirder than xanthophobia (fear of the color or word yellow), metrophobia (fear of poetry), or chaetophobia (fear of hair).

How do we get these phobias in the first place? There are three main psychological theories that are often applied to phobias, but there are problems with all of them. Arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias, so I'll use it to illustrate the theories.

1. The psychodynamic view is that the object of fear is actually just a symbol of the real thing that is feared. So basically, if a person was bitten by a dog as a child, and saw a spider during or shortly after the bite, the person might transfer their fear and anxiety from the dog onto the spider. Nobody really likes this theory much. There are lots of things that are scary and even traumatic to us when we're young, but we don't have phobias stemming from all of them.

2. The classical conditioning theory (remember Pavlov's dogs) says that the fear of spiders could be conditioned, if spiders were linked to traumatic events. A person developing arachnophobia would only develop the phobia if he/she learned to link the spider with the trauma. Which makes this problematic, too, because it requires the phobia to exist only because it reminds someone of a fearful experience. How many people have fearful experiences with the word yellow, or poetry?

3. Evolutionary psychology says that awareness of potential sources of danger could either lead people to fear them, or at least make it easier for us to fear them. Social learning shows that fears can be transmitted through observation, so a person who develops a particular phobia would apparently have to observe another person reacting fearfully to a spider. Imagine a group of early humans exploring a cave, coming upon dangerous spiders, being bitten, and getting very sick or maybe even dying. The rest of the community would develop an awareness of the spiders and learn to avoid them. This makes some sense, but wait, there's more. Like if you apply the theory to modern things that people have phobias about, like cars or computers. And it fails to explain how relatives (people with the shared DNA) don't share the same phobia.

Here's my explanation. A phobia, by definition, is a persistent, excessive, and irrational fear with a specific trigger, which is NOT explained by post-traumatic stress (a person is afraid of spiders because spiders actually caused stress and/or harm) or another mental disorder. (A person with OCD might have a "phobia" about dirt, but it's really a way of showing their obsession with cleanliness.) That means my "arachnophobia" isn't technically a phobia: I'm highly allergic to insect bites and stings ... my fear is rational. BUT, phobias tend to start when a situation triggers the fight-or-flight response, and the event is recorded by the amygdala, so the body can recognize the situation as dangerous or deadly in the future. And it does, even when later similar situations are not dangerous or deadly. They're essentially a form of anxiety disorder.

When it comes down to it, the phobia response is a neurological glitch, sort of like hiccups. Which is why they are relatively easy to treat. So if you have a true phobia, don't worry about it!

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Five Reasons Things Keep Going Wrong In Your Relationships

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I do lots of relationship coaching. Most of it is for non-clients. I've even been stopped in the grocery store. For those of you who haven't stopped me but might be wondering about chronic relationship issues, this blog's for you.

Problem 1: You tend to have whirlwind romances that end before you've completely figured out how life together will be in a year.

Reason: No-brainer. Whirlwinds move in no particular direction, fast, leaving a trail of debris. Your romance is just that - a romance, not a relationship. Real people aren't fantasies. If you get out of your head and into the real world, you'll be able to interact more meaningfully.

The Fix: Slow the heck down! Romance is fine, in small doses, well-diluted with real-world experiences. The only reason for being in such a hurry is that you have an issue with flying solo. That's something you need to resolve before you can have a happily ever after.

Problem 2: I'm totally honest with people I meet about my past, and they all want to be "just friends" or maybe "friends with benefits" without a real relationship.

Reason: You're admitting up-front that you're carrying around massive baggage. That's a big risk for anyone. And by failing to keep more personal details private until you've built some trust and intimacy with a person, you're advertising yourself as too flawed to be interested in a serious relationship.

The Fix: Use a little common sense. Would you spill all your faults and inadequacies on a job interview? Of course not! Pay attention to how much the other person is revealing, at what point, and match their speed and level of intimacy.

Problem 3: My relationships seem to leave me flat broke or in debt!

Reason: You are perhaps so eager for a relationship that you're blind to fairly obvious warning signs. Most gold-diggers (male or female) won't just come out and admit that they only want or need your money. But there are always signs. They're adults living with parents. They claim the ex owes money. They're behind on bills. The car needs repairs. They'd love to go on a date but can't afford anything fancy. Maybe they admit to a drug or alcohol problem. And you're hooked, so you offer (much too soon) to pay a bill or "lend" some cash, repeatedly, until your own bank balance is dwindling. It's no coincidence that's when these people start losing interest.

The Fix: In today's economy, you can't afford to give all your money to every worthy person. What about your own financial responsibilities? Take care of you first, offer to pay for moderately-priced dates (nothing extravagant) if you're that interested, but another person's finances are their problem, not yours. Don't butt in and don't make your ATM card available.

Problem 4: The closer I want to be, the harder it seems to get close. The more I try, the faster the relationship dies.

Reason: There's a distinction between close and clingy! Healthy relationships are like healthy anything else - they need a balance. Too much of anything is toxic, not enough is equally deadly. Trying to get too close, too fast (or at the wrong times) is NOT making your partner think you're interested - it's making your partner wonder if you just have an OFF switch. It's annoying at best, but usually a little stalker-ish.

The Fix: Pay attention to their wants and needs instead of just your own - somebody who had a bad day may not be ready get snuggly-cuddly with you if they need to blow off steam first. People who are introverted need more personal time and space - don't invade it without an invitation. Dial it waaaaaay back and give the other person room to breathe.

Problem 5: There's no one reason or any pattern, but none of my relationships lasts.

Reason: So you've examined all possibilities and there's nothing you can see. Well, time for tough love, sweetheart. If you've ruled out everything else, whatever remains is the answer. And the prime common factor in all your relationships is ... YOU. Perhaps you're finding creative ways to sabotage your relationships.

The Fix: You may not be aware of how you're doing it, but if the cause is you, the fix is really about you being honest with yourself. If you're sabotaging yourself, it's because part of you knows that you aren't ready for a relationship. Maybe you're still grieving for a past one, maybe you're young and still growing up and changing, maybe you just aren't emotionally prepared for the responsibility. Whatever. Be honest, and then maybe commit to some quality YOU time for a few months. Everybody deserves a happy relationship, but don't force it if you aren't ready.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Little Pick-Me-Up For A Super Self

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Feeling a little low in confidence? Need a self-esteem booster? This is a great exercise; it won't take that long and it's so easy anyone can do it. Try it and see how fast you start feeling better about yourself!

Before you start, rate your confidence and self-satisfaction level on a scale from one to ten.

On a couple sheets of paper, write (or type and print) the following:

1. List 10 things that make you special.

2. List 15 personal achievements and successes - dig deep and go back to childhood if you need to.

3. List 15 things you are good at or can do well - even daily tasks count.

4. List 10 of your best qualities, values, or character traits.

5. Choose one attractive physical feature and add that to your list.

6. In one corner, write down the rating you gave yourself.

Now you have 50 positive attributes plus one great physical feature. Read this list out loud to yourself every morning for a week. After 7 days, re-evaluate your rating. How much did it go up?

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Do You Need To Let Go Of?

You've probably heard this story:

Two Buddhist monks are making their way to their monastery. Along the way, they come to a river where there is a lady, distressed because she is unable to cross safely by herself. One monk picks her up and carries her safely across the river, where he sets her down carefully and wishes her a good journey. The two monks continue on their way in silence. Eventually, they reach their destination. The second monk cannot contain his anger any longer. "How could you do that? We are forbidden to touch women!" The first monk replies calmly, "Oh, that's what has you so upset? But I put her back down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

Here are some take-away points from this example:
• The things we still carry can keep us from focusing on what's truly important and from being the best we can be.
• Letting go might require forgiveness or acceptance.
• Whatever you're carrying probably hurts or bothers you more than anyone else.
• Letting go doesn't mean condoning a situation or behavior, it means simply, letting it go so that we are free to use our energy on other things.
• There is no one right way to let go, as long as you're willing.

The things that are hardest for you to let go of are usually the things you most need to stop carrying! If you aren't ready to put them down just yet, that's ok. Just list them. Think of the things that you carry with you ... and then think about why you're still carrying them.

You know you'll benefit from letting them go. But you obviously have reasons for continuing to carry them. Be honest, there must be a benefit or you wouldn't still be doing it! If you really can't think of a benefit, ask yourself what you could possibly gain from hanging onto whatever it is. And prepare yourself: it's probably a very primitive, selfish, immature gain. Hanging on might mean you don't have to accept responsibility. It might mean you don't have to face your own faults. Maybe it allows you to save face or avoid dealing with something uncomfortable.

I encourage you to take a deep breath and start writing, examine the things you carry, and the reasons. And then I hope you have the courage to set them down and allow healing to begin.

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All net proceeds in October will be donated to pink ribbon causes!

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Going Pink For October

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Unchained is going Pink Ribbon!

For the entire month of October, I am donating ALL net proceeds to the cause.

I'm very happy to debut a new program starting October 1:

Single Shot Stress Management
These single sessions begin with an expanded version of the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, so we can assess your current stress level and its potential impact. Follow that with stress management coaching, customized for your score and your life, so you can implement ideas immediately! All for a flat $39. Need a shot?
Call me at 480-273-1357 (MST) or email me at to let me know.
• We'll schedule your Single Shot session and I'll provide you with payment info.
• I'll call you for your appointment, we'll go over the inventory (takes about 10 to 15 minutes), and then devote the rest of the session to coaching.
• And don't forget, all net proceeds to directly to breast cancer awareness and research!

I hope your first week of Autumn has been awesome, and that you'll join me in spreading awareness. Now I'm off to save a life - there's a Red Cross blood drive, I've got type O blood, and I'm not afraid of needles!

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Relationship Reality Check

I've haven't written anything about relationships for a while, so maybe this is a bit overdue. Here are a handful of points that seem to have the most impact on the sustainability of a relationship; apply them to your situation, make decisions and take action accordingly.

• Everybody forgets to fight fair once in a while. But little arguments may escalate into full-scale verbal attacks, complete with accusations, criticisms, name-calling, or the old standby, bringing up the past. If these kinds of things happen rarely (and by rarely I mean less than once a year), fine. If it's happening once in every ten disagreements, that's not so fine. (Yes, I know that equates to just 10%. But ten disagreements can happen within the space of a week! So really, that means this could still be a pretty frequent thing!) And of course, if it's your preferred form of argument, you've got a problem.

• Sometimes our mouths engage before our brains and we say things that we instantly regret. Being critical of your partner's opinions, feelings, or desires is a no-no, and ladies, I'm sorry, but PMS is only an excuse. There's no good reason for this kind of behavior between adults who supposedly like each other. If it's an exceptionally rare and random slip of the tongue, fine. More than a handful of times a year; it's becoming a pattern of behavior. And it's a problem.

• Communication between partners is never 100% clear 100% of the time. Maybe it's the whole Mars-Venus thing. Anyway, misunderstandings happen, and they tend to happen pretty regularly. Don't sweat it. BUT, if your partner (or you) usually seems to perceive words or actions more negatively than they were meant, there's a problem. Often, it's a self-confidence issue imposing itself on communication. Sometimes, though, it's a days-at-a-time downer! If your partner isn't bipolar, you've got a problem.

• Partners are called partners because they're supposed to be ... well, partners. Sometimes partners approach problems from different perspectives, sometimes they arrive at totally different solutions. But being partners means that ultimately, you're on the same page. If your relationship feels like you're on opposing teams, it's a problem.

• As much as we can too easily do the foot-in-mouth thing, we may hold back our thoughts or feelings. And there are situations when it's okay to do that. For example, ladies, if you have to ask if it makes you look fat, you're putting your partner in that situation. But do you find yourself keeping your thoughts, wants, and needs to yourself on a regular basis? Why? If it's not safe to vocalize, it's a problem.

• Have you ever felt alone when you were surrounded by people? It's a lonely feeling. It's possible to feel lonely with the best of relationships, if distance or travel keep partners apart. But when geography isn't the issue, loneliness is not normal. It's often a sign that you can't share your life with your partner. And if you can't share, to the point that you're feeling lonely, your relationship has a problem.

• People respond to disagreements and differences of opinion in many ways. When one partner withdraws, it tends to mean something big. (I'm not talking about physically leaving the argument to go cool off.) Intentionally giving someone the silent treatment is about as extreme a form of rejection as humans can show. We're social creatures; to be deliberately excluded is painful. Sometimes the withdrawal isn't the silent treatment, but a surrender, if one partner does not feel heard. Sometimes people just can't handle conflict well and would rather escape than participate. It almost doesn't matter why it happens, as much as it matters that it happens, and how often during disagreements. If it's a pattern of behavior, it's a problem.

Obviously, there are a lot of other potential red-flag areas to watch for in relationships. But these few can show up between two people on their third date as easily as they can show up between two people celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They don't mean the relationship is doomed! These are just signs that things aren't going well, and you both need to address them together to get the relationship back on solid ground.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

50 Power Questions to Ask Yourself

Feeling stuck in life? Here is a list of questions to get you thinking differently and help you re-focus your action.

1. What areas of your life could be upgraded or tweaked for improvement?
2. What could you start to change now that would make the biggest difference?
3. What are you tolerating or putting up with?
4. What are some things you do regularly that don't support your goals?
5. What will it mean to achieve your goal?
6. What would you do if you knew you would succeed?
7. What are some things you could do regularly to move you toward your goals?
8. On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you about your goals?
9. In what way is your current situation absolutely perfect?
10. What's your favorite way of sabotaging yourself?
11. What are you most excited about in life right now?
12. If your career/relationship/life was ideal, what would be different?
13. What is your life really about?
14. What do you do when the unexpected happens?
15. What is the most uncomfortable emotion for you to feel?
16. Who are three people who support you?
17. Is it possible to learn without failing?
18. Do you have a favorite song that really inspires you? Where could you use that in your life?
19. What are you proud of in your life right now?
20. What are you grateful for?
21. What did you learn yesterday?
22. What did you give yesterday?
23. Where have you lowered your standards? Why?
24. How have you contributed to the life of a stranger?
25. What have you released?
26. What is your intention for today?
27. What do you need to get better at?
28. What is your role model doing and how can you replicate that?
29. How can you enjoy your life today?
30. How good do you want to be?
31. What can you do to be more productive while having more fun?
32. What are you exposing yourself to?
33. Who are you becoming?
34. How do you prioritize your time?
35. How do you honor your values?
36. What are you willing to do in the next 30 days to make progress?
37. What would have to happen for you to be able to do that?
38. Before you jump to a negative conclusion, what else could an odd event mean?
39. If "X" wasn't an issue, would you be able to achieve what you wanted?
40. What might be more important than you think?
41. What might be more important than you think?
42. Are you sure enough to be unsure?
43. How do you most want to feel?
44. What would others be surprised to know that you care about?
45. What lies have you been believing about yourself?
46. What belief would be hardest for you to let go of?
47. How do you recharge?
48. If you had to completely rewrite your personality, what three things would you keep?
49. When are you the most productive?
50. What do you want?

That should be enough to keep you busy until the next post!

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Monday, September 12, 2011

12 Ways to Plan Ahead for the Holidays

We had a lovely weekend here - cloudy, slightly rainy, and blessedly cool. Well, comparatively cool. I know we're going right back into the low 100s today and will be there for the foreseeable future. Fine.

But I know fall is coming, high temps or not. The animals know it, too. I saw a desert fox the other night, not long after sunset. First one since January! Squeaks (desert ground squirrels) are everywhere, starting to stockpile food.

If you're ready for a change in season too, maybe this list will help you get ready!

1. Create a master list on your computer of everyone you'll be gifting this year. For each person, indicate your gift budget and possible ideas. Be creative and you may find several gift items well before the holidays begin. If you start making smaller purchases each week, your budget won't be as strained later! But don't dismiss Black Friday and the biggest shopping weekend of the season: door-busters and all-weekend sales are a smart way to fill in the rest of your shopping list.

2. Plan your holiday dinner menus now. Assemble your recipes and make a master list of all ingredients. Watch grocery sales and start purchasing non-perishables so you'll have them on hand when you need them. Also start stocking up on cheese, crackers, nuts, and soda so you're prepared for drop-in visitors.

3. Haul out decorations a week before you plan to decorate. This gives you time to figure out how many bulbs need replaced, whether you need new batteries, how many candles you need to get, and so on. And it gives you time to actually get the stuff you need, so when decorating day comes, you're ready. If you're like many people, you'll be going through this four times between now and the end of the year: Autumn, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas or Hanukkah. Be prepared.

4. Avoid some of the stress of holiday meal hosting by getting food prep done ahead of time. Peel and chop carrots and dice celery, and then freeze them until you need them. Bake cookies and snack breads the day before. If you're making pies from scratch, mix up filling ingredients the day before and refrigerate overnight.

5. If you don't already have holiday cards, get them early. (If you really want to manage your time and money, you get a couple boxes when they're discounted most, after Christmas, usually right around the beginning of January.) Take an hour or so and print labels or address them by hand, the week before you want to mail them. Take another hour or so and get all the cards signed. Then get them stamped and get them in the mail. No rushing!

6. Including a family photo with your holiday cards? Schedule family haircuts first, then schedule your sitting today for as soon as you can; otherwise, the wait for photos may delay getting the cards mailed on time.

7. Get holiday stamps as soon as they're available at the Post Office - in most areas, it's October 13th this year.

8. If you'll be traveling, finalize plans and make reservations.

9. If you're expecting company, start de-cluttering the house to speed the decorating process.

10. If you're hosting a meal, make sure you have enough flatware, table service, glasses, etc.

11. If you're anticipating going to holiday parties, check your wardrobe: be sure you have what you intend to wear and that it's ready to wear (including hosiery and accessories).

12. If you're shipping gifts, be sure they're well-wrapped and that you have an adequate box to put them in, plus adequate packing material.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting Fall Cleaning Done Before Fall

If you haven't flipped your calendars to September, you might want to do that first. Then note that the first day of autumn is the 23rd this year.

I know some of you haven't implemented my "Never Do Spring Cleaning Again" idea. That means with the change of season upon us, you've got some heavy duty cleaning to do again.

Don't let it drag you down. Here's a COMPLETE list, beyond regular and frequent cleaning, of everything you need to do to get your home ready for fall:

1. Get rid of clutter accumulated over the summer.
2. Pack up summer stuff and store it.
3. Assemble the items you'll need for cleaning and maintenance.
4. Clean and maintain.
5. Decorate.

Here's how to get it done easily by the 23rd:

Start at the entry.
1. Sweep the cobwebs and dust from the front porch.
2. Shake off or hose off the mat.
3. Clean your front door inside and out - especially the bottom foot or so, where animals often "mark" and inside around the knob.
4. Clean the rug and flooring in your entry way.
All this should take one person no more than an hour.

Next, the living areas (living room/family room)
1. Dust ceiling fans and light fixtures.
2. Clean dirty areas on walls around air vents, light switches, and doorways.
3. Clean smudges on doors and doorframes. Dust framed art and clean the glass.
4. Clean your window coverings, vacuum your windowsills, and clean your windows.
5. Vacuum upholstered furniture.
6. If you want your carpet cleaned, just vacuum but book a cleaning by the end of the month because October fills up fast. Otherwise, vacuum and spot clean.
Allow a day for this area - cleaning your window coverings requires either a soak and shower (for mini-blinds) or wash/dry or dry-cleaning for curtains or draperies, which is a little more time consuming.

Moving into the kitchen
1. Dust any ceiling fans and light fixtures.
2. Clean dirty wall areas around air vents, switches, outlets, behind the stove, and above the backsplash behind the sink.
3. Clean doors and doorframes.
4. Clean window coverings, dust windowsills and clean windows.
5. Degrease the range hood and clean the filter (you can soak it in the sink or run it through the dishwasher on the top rack).
6. Pull out the refrigerator, unplug it, and vacuum or sweep the coils.
7. Clean under the stove-top.
8. Clean the oven if you didn't do it last spring. (Use regular cleaner, spray, and let sit overnight.)
9. Clean out the freezer and refrigerator.
10. Clean the microwave and coffeemaker and dump the crumbs out of the toaster.
11. Wipe down cabinet doors. Use polish if appropriate.
12. Clean out the utensil drawers and wash the divider trays.
13. Clean the counters and sink.
14. Sweep and mop the floor.
The kitchen is a 2-day job, mostly because of the oven, and of course the window treatments. Otherwise, each individual task takes between 3 and 30 minutes.

Dining room
1. Dust ceiling fan and light fixtures.
2. Clean smudges on walls, doors, and doorframes.
3. Clean window coverings, dust windowsills, and clean windows.
4. Clean and polish table.
5. Sweep and mop or vacuum and spot clean carpet.
The dining room shouldn't take more than about an hour, except for the window coverings.

1. Dust ceiling fans and light fixtures.
2. Clean smudges on walls, doors, and doorframes.
3. Clean window coverings, dust windowsills, and clean windows.
4. Turn or flip mattresses.
5. Dust framed art and mirrors and clean the glass.
6. Dust lamps and knick-knacks.
7. Dust furniture.
8. Vacuum.
The dusting in a bedroom seems to take the most time but unless you're also re-organizing or re-arranging the furniture, and except for the window coverings, it can be done in an hour.

1. You got it, lights and fans.
2. Right again, walls and doors.
3. Windows and coverings.
4. Might as well do the shower/tub/toilet combo.
5. Clean out the medicine cabinet and linen closet.
6. Clean out under-sink cabinets and re-organize.
7. Clean sinks, mirrors, and countertops.
8. Clean rugs, sweep and mop the floor.
Bathrooms, except for window coverings, can be done in an hour unless you're doing heavy-duty re-organizing.

Laundry Room
1. Clean walls and doors.
2. Clean windows, etc. if applicable.
3. Wipe down outside of washer and dryer, clean inside of washer lid.
4. Pull out washer and dryer and sweep behind them (and find missing socks).
5. Clean dryer vent and exhaust areas.
6. Clean rugs, sweep and mop the floor.
Laundry rooms go fast - you can incorporate these tasks into your weekly laundry and it will only require a few extra minutes.

Miscellaneous and Maintenance
You're nearly done!
1. Check your air conditioning/furnace filters and replace or stock up as needed.
2. Hose down the outside of your air conditioner unit.
3. Clean the outside of the windows (within reason) and for you cooler-climate readers, deal with the storm windows.
4. Clean out your gutters.
5. Clean off your outside furniture.
6. Clean your grill if you're retiring it for the winter.
7. If you have a fireplace, schedule a chimney inspection and cleaning.
8. Wipe down your vacuum cleaner, wash out the collection chamber on bagless units, hand-wash filters and allow to air-dry or replace, and remove hair and carpet fiber from the beater bar.
9. Drain sediment from your water heater.
Some of these things will take a while, like getting service scheduled! But you can still get the rest done on a Saturday, easily. And you've got 2 before fall officially starts.

Once you're done, go celebrate by picking out some new fall decor. Take note of the popular colors for this fall (according to Pantone): phlox purple, chocolate brown, cherry popsicle red, and cedar green. Any combo of two or three would be tasteful, all four would be even more festive. BUT, I'm not seeing much of these colors in stores! All the "name brand" stuff at big box stores seems to be clinging to the "Tuscan" color theme of 5 years ago, reminiscent of the 70's. Yuck. I'm sticking with Pantone this year - the colors are more clear and vibrant. Easier on the eyes after all the work, I'm thinking!

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Expose yourself ....

Expose yourself ... to great things!

You thought I was going in a different direction with that, didn't you?

Well, HA!

Something I learned "officially" as a grad student is that our brains are incredibly adaptive. We can learn to live with nearly anything if we're exposed to it enough. Not only that, we can come to appreciate it and consider nearly any condition as ideal with enough exposure. It's called, as you might guess, the Law of Exposure. Essentially, we think most about what we're most exposed to.

Various research studies and anecdotal cases illustrate this. Prisoners become institutionalized and come to see prison as preferable to freedom. Poor and starving people find nutrition from unthinkable sources; when conditions improve, those sources are considered delicacies.

Gary Ryan Blair reminds us of this concept as it applies to our daily lives. He points out that what we read, listen to, talk about, and daydream about goes to shape our future. Lots of people are getting what he calls "indecent exposure" - things that pollute mind, body, or soul, like excuses, junk food, violence, lack of integrity, inconsistancy, fear, worry, mediocrity, and so on.

So for example, if Junior grows up constantly thinking about how Biff called him "Stupid" on the first day of second grade, and Junior tells the story to everybody he meets, and he replays that event in his mind over and over ... can you see how that might become a self-fulfilling prophecy? First, it's not smart to let someone else's questionable opinion of you become your reality! So the fact that Junior devotes any time to such a singular event is, well, stupid. But then all through his life he's reinforcing the lesson. Eventually he believes he truly is stupid.

And beyond that, we're exposing others to our own behavior every day, which contributes to their exposure. What do others really see and think about when they observe us?

Just something to consider this week. As I always say, it all matters.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Image Coaching ... Your Assertiveness?

In terms of image, there are plenty of resources out there that can tell you what to wear, how to style your hair, and even what makeup shades are most flattering. There are other resources that can tell you how to apply some of the same principles to your business.

At last Saturday's Woman-to-Woman conference, someone asked me, "Do you think being assertive can help a person's image?" Yes. Yes I do. The next question was how to start being more assertive.

So in a nutshell, here's Assertiveness 101.

"Is there any reason why ..." This is really fun. It's a simple request for information, but people don't tend to interpret it that way. Use this when you come up against an obstacle that shouldn't exist. For example, store policy says exchanges only, but state law provides for returns with receipt, within 30 days. It's been two days, you have the receipt, and you want your money back. The customer service person will cite store policy, at which point, you politely ask, "Is there any reason why I can't get a refund?" This indicates you're aware of the policy, but that you do NOT consider it a valid reason for refusing a refund. Puts them in an awkward spot! Whatever the answer is, if it doesn't reasonably meet your need, assert yourself by politely asking again. "Yes, I understand that's the policy, but the law says differently. So, is there any reason why I can't get a refund?" Or maybe, "Yes, I understand what you're telling me and you don't have the authority to do it. Is there any reason why a manager can't give me a refund?" You get the idea.

Zig Ziglar uses the term "courteously persistent" and I like that. That attitude goes a long way!

Of course, just because someone likes you (because you've been so nice), they still may not believe they can help. So, now that you've asserted yourself, nicely, and assured the person you understand the rules, here's the next sentence: "If you can't do it, I'll understand."

If you haven't already resolved the situation with "is there any reason why", this is often a clincher. It gives the other person an out - they aren't pressured (because you aren't being aggressive), but now you've challenged them as well as made them your ally. They practically want to help now. And often, they are certainly able to do it.

If you really want to enforce the win-win, we're-on-the-same-team concept, you can add, "If you could, I'd really appreciate it."

The beauty of assertiveness is that it can only enhance your image. If you're passive, people feel they can dump anything on you, and you suffer. Others get the impression that you have no life and you see yourself as worth less than whatever you can't say no to. If you're aggressive, people have to defend themselves from your attack, and your actual message gets lost. They get the impression that you can't communicate, you don't work well with others, you can't be trusted, and you're mean.

Being assertive means you have values and standards and expectations - of yourself and others, and people get an image of you as respectful, professional and diplomatic, and a team player. Not just at work, not just at a store, but your neighbors, the people you deal with at your child's school, your family, and your friends - they all see you as capable, competent, likeable ... that's an image to cultivate!

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For the Guys ... And Everyone Else

So, I read an article over the weekend about the increasing sexualization of women in advertising. (I don't think any male readers are concerned about that just yet!)

The article mentioned body-image problems, and I will agree that's one consequence. There are a few more the article did NOT mention, that every dad, brother, boyfriend, and husband needs to seriously think about if this trend continues unchecked.

When girls learn from society that adult women only serve sexual purposes, what motivation is there for them to set any other goals for themselves? Now, let's say you have a 13-year-old daughter who is forming the impression that she'll be expected to be highly sexual as a young adult. Guess what, folks - the hormones have already kicked in. What better way to get ahead of her competition than to start practicing!

Let's say you're a dad who is never without a Playboy/Penthouse/Hustler magazine. (Or a porn DVD stash.) Your daughter probably has already seen it. What are you teaching her about what you expect from her? Will she assume that you'll only like her if she's pretty or acts sexy like the women in the magazines? Do you want your daughter growing up and being a porn star because she thinks it'll make you proud? Worse and much creepier - do you want to give her the impression that you'll like her more if she's sexy to you?

Let's say you know a girl who's dating. She constantly hears guys talk about the females they're interested in - in terms of parts (nice legs, pretty smile, long hair, etc.) She hears guys talk about how proud or happy they are to be seen with such a beautiful girl. And trust me, this girl is wondering what you say about other women. If you prize such beauty, how do you feel about the appearance of your mother, or your sister.

I know you all have a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter, or some other female you care about. The social lessons, enforced by YOU, are doing damage to all of them. Before you say I'm "unfairly targeting" guys (how do you "fairly target" anyone?), I'm not saying all guys do this. But if you don't, dudes, you know guys who do, and you don't say anything about it. Silence implies consent, right?

Here are some consequences you are allowing (or encouraging):
teen promiscuity
unsafe sex
increased STDs
teen pregnancy
increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse
increased risk of depression and suicide
oh yeah, and increased risk of anorexia and bulimia due to body-image problems, which themselves can lead to infertility, depression, suicide-by-starvation, and so on.

Eye candy is great. None of us - male or female - is immune to the art of a beautiful body - male or female. But guys, keep in mind that you are being watched - females and ad agencies will both try to cater to you. Which do you care more about - the females in your life, or those you're paying for? Be sure that the message you send is really what you want.

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