“Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into.” ~Henry Beecher

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with a Great Scientist

For almost three years, I’ve been practicing Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 postures that are performed in a very hot room. The experience has been a life-changing one for me. It has helped me to get into the best shape physically that I have ever been in my life and it has allowed me to move past so many of my self-imposed limitations. It has also introduced me to lots of great people who share the same values about their health and well-being. One such person is Francois Franceschi. You can meet him here:

Francois is a scientist who has spent most of his scientific career studying a structure in our cells called the ribosome. Without this large enzyme, our lives would not exist –neither would the lives of bacteria and it’s their ribosomes that are often targeted with antibiotics. For many years, Francois collaborated with Ada Yonath, another great scientist who is one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year and he made significant contributions into that work. In fact, even when it was believed that what they were trying to achieve was impossible, they never gave up, understanding that the reward would be well worth the risk of persevering. This work did finally pay off because of ingenuity and because the tools used to reach their goal became more sophisticated.

Today, Francois is still studying the ribosome, working for a company founded by a second Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Steitz (the third is Venkatraman Ramakrishnan). There, he works together with an outstanding group of people to further the studies on bacterial ribosomes in order to develop new drugs to treat infections against antibiotic-resistant bugs, which is a very real issue we face today.

Francois is one of those remarkable people whose passion and commitment to excellence is helping to improve the lives of us all. We know they’re out there when we see the fruits of their dedicated work show up and it’s even more of a blessing to personally know some of these great human beings who inspire others to follow their passions. Knowing Francois and practicing yoga with him is one of those rare opportunities for me. One for which I am truly grateful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Change Your Mind

For as long as I can remember, I have had an opinion about living in a big city and owning a dog. I always felt it was unfair to a dog to keep it indoors in a confined area. I always felt that the happiest dogs were those that spent their days outdoors or at least those that lived in more suburban or even rural areas, away from the concrete and congestion and noise. But recently I met a man named Bill who challenged my preconceived notions. Bill is a dog walker in New York City. For four years, he’s been walking sometimes nine or more dogs for several hours during the day. Weather permitting, he’ll take them to the park to run and when I met him, he had just run six dogs that looked very content. You can meet Bill and some of his dogs in the following video:

When I mentioned to Bill how I felt about dogs in the city, he told me that he felt these dogs were better off in some ways than dogs in the country. They were much more well-adjusted to noise and people and they spent lots of time together, either during their daily walks or with their owners who were often friends themselves that would socialize with their dogs. He felt they had very rich and happy lives. I asked him how he felt about being a dog walker and he said he loved it. I could see how his love for his job was helping to make others happy – most importantly, the dogs. And besides, there are so many unwanted dogs in shelters right now that need loving homes. This type of life would be a blessing for them. Talking with Bill changed my mind about owning a dog while living in the city and now when I do see one out for a walk along the sidewalk, instead of feeling sad for it, I smile.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Risky Business

A few weeks ago, I heard rustling in the trees above me and when I looked up, I spotted a squirrel. I watched as it chomped away at the clusters of seeds hanging from a branch. I looked around and saw that several squirrels were also eating in the trees. What struck me about them was that they were not sitting safely on a stable end of a branch close to the trunk, but they were out near the tip, clinging onto the skinny end of the branch as it swayed or bounced with their every movement. This didn’t seem to bother them at all. In fact, when they had had enough to eat, they began to leap between the trees, from one skinny branch to the next. If they lost their footing, they would simply regain it and move on to the next limb. I initially thought that this seemed like risky business, but the squirrels looked highly alert, invigorated, and alive.

How many of us play it safe by hanging out near the trunk where the limbs are strong and stable and how many of us are taking risks and living life out on the skinny branches? The high wire acrobat Papa Wallenda one said, “Life is lived out on the wire, the rest is just waiting.” It’s when we’re trying something new and testing our limits that we feel the most alive and it’s the biggest risks that lead to the greatest rewards.

If you think about it, almost everything we’re doing in our lives right now was, at one time, something new we learned – a risk we took and once we figured out we liked it or it simply felt comfortable, we stuck with it. But notice how over time, many of these things we do no longer stimulate or engage us as they did when they were new. Working as a scientist, I remember what it would feel like when I was trying an experiment for the first time. I would have read the protocol several times and would have everything ready on the bench. I would be switched on and focused and my energy level would be high. My entire being would be fully engaged. But once the experiment entered my comfort zone after repeating it several times, it no longer had the same stimulatory effect. In fact, sometimes I would almost be conducting it unconsciously.

The human brain craves novelty. And the stronger it gets, the more pushing it needs to stay sharp and stimulated. Would we read the same book over and over, never picking up something new to read? Would we eat the same food all day every day? I don’t think so. These things would lose their appeal. Risk involves greater endeavors, greater challenges but also greater opportunity for growth. Of course not every risk will reap a reward. It is inevitable that we fail at some. But taking no risks at all will yield no rewards 100% of the time. I believe that if we take risks, in the end, succeed or fail, we will inevitably grow. And if we spend as much time as we can on the skinny branches we can only increase the chances of this occurring.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Remember When??

I spent this past weekend with my two grandsons, Carmine and Antonio, ages three and five. I remember being in denial about the idea of becoming a grandmother at what I thought was too young of an age for me, but now, I realize it’s been a blessing. I adore my grandkids and they have come to be a source of pure joy for me and because I’m in fairly good condition physically, I’ve been able to actively participate in just about anything these two bundles of energy have wanted to do. We play baseball and Frisbee and run together and climb the jungle gym at the playground. They’ve “practiced” yoga with me and we’ve played in the sand at the beach, and built with LEGO bricks and thanks to my young age and health, I’ve always been able to share with them my energy and enthusiasm.

They too, unknowingly share something very valuable with me when we spend time together. Their free-spirited personalities and their fearlessness – two things we all are born with that slowly diminish with time and experience. This weekend alone was filled with examples of how they live uninhibited and in the moment that we can all learn from. They live next to a high school that sits atop a steep, grassy hill overlooking a newly renovated expanse of school property with soccer, baseball and football fields. The hill is perfect in the winter for sledding, snowboarding and even teaching the little ones to ski. I often take them out the field to run in the wide-open spaces and this weekend we went out there with their bikes. They wanted to climb the hill to ride in the parking lot above, but on the way up, Antonio decided he wanted to ride his bike down the hill. What do you think immediately went through my head? “Maybe he shouldn’t do that.”; “Is it safe?”; “What if he falls?”; “What if he gets hurt?” Was he thinking any of these things? Absolutely not. The only thoughts on his mind were “Here I go!” and “Whoa!” And before I could even say “Wait!”, he had taken off down the hill and reached the bottom safely. In fact, the second time he went down, he took his eyes off where he was going. He began to look to the left, then to the right, then down and eventually lost control of the handlebars and flipped off the bike at the bottom. I told him what I saw and why I think he fell and what do you think he did? Without uttering a sound, he got up, climbed back up the hill and immediately tried again, this time looking straight ahead the whole time. And he was successful from that moment forward, every time he rode down the hill. How many of us would make such an attempt so soon after wiping out? Would we not focus on the failure and be paralyzed with fear, convincing ourselves that we should give up and move on to something else or possibly be afraid to try something else? The spill taught him a valuable lesson about what does not work and he simply used that information to get it right. It allowed him to come out successful and confident.

That night, they wanted me to watch the movie Robots with them so we sat on the sofa for what I thought would be a relaxing and entertaining evening. Relaxing no, but highly entertaining! About ten minutes into it, the movie broke out into a song. Without warning, Carmine jumped off of my lap and began to dance to the music, shaking his bottom and jumping and moving his arms. Pretty soon, Antonio joined in and it turned into a combination dance/martial arts demonstration. Would you believe that the credits were rolling and they were still on the carpet dancing? Maybe my video camera had something to do with that, but not once were they thinking, “Will I look silly if I get up and dance like this?”, “Will I be laughed at?”, “I’m really no good at this, I shouldn’t do it.” How many of us have been in that position, holding back what’s aching to come out for fear of looking silly or not being good enough? Instead, they let their spirits soar and were so filled with happiness and energy. And this was after an entire day of excitement and physical movement. We always wonder where children get their energy. I don’t think we as adults get tired because we become old; I believe this vitality disappears because we lose our courage to live our passions. We can have this type of energy at any age. Our bodies may not perform like those of children, but we can have that life and enthusiasm if we’re doing what we love to do and are not concerned about how we look doing it or what others will think. Because chances are, what they’re thinking is, “Why don’t I have the guts to do that?”

Do you remember a time when you had this fearlessness? Do you remember when your main goals were to have fun in the moment and to express your true selves? I can’t say I do, maybe because I can’t remember back far enough. I remember moments when I was living my passions, but they were often flanked by periods of doubt and uncertainty. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I once resisted becoming a grandmother because of my perceptions of what grandparents “are supposed to be”. My grandchildren are gifts that constantly remind me of the true meaning of living a life of joy. Maybe you’re just beginning to think about having kids or are now raising small children. If so, I know it can be an overwhelming time, but please pay attention to what they’re teaching you. The most profound lessons show up when you least expect them but always when they’re being their authentic selves. I believe this is when you learn the most about them, too. And as much as you can, encourage them to stay that way. Foster the development of their unique talents and capabilities; those things that bring them the most joy and vitality so that some day, they too, won’t have to remember when…

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Run Your Own Race

Last weekend, I attended the New York City Marathon for the first time, as a spectator and fan of an online friend. Reading that there were to be 40,000 runners and an expected 2 million people watching, I wasn’t sure what to expect, except to say that I anticipated a very intense day. I met up with a friend in the city and we headed to First Ave and 85th Street, which was mile 17 for the runners and a spot where we hoped to meet our mutual friend for the first time.

From the moment we arrived, the enthusiastic roar of the crowd along the sidelines invigorated me and I soon became aware that I was part of something much more than a race. It seemed as if everyone was there to cheer on someone and it didn’t matter how fast they ran or where they were in the lineup, the fact that they were running at all was enough for them to attract the tremendous support of their family, friends and even additional onlookers. They were there to run their own races and I felt that this was a common thread weaving it’s way through us all and uniting us. I felt that we were all inspired by the runners that we knew and didn’t know, and at the same time, the runners gained motivation and energy from the fans. I couldn’t help but feel that the endless amount of strength and positive energy present galvanized us all. The intensity that I was anticipating was an uplifting intensity; a divine elevation, a feeling that I will never forget and I am so thankful for such a memorable experience.

We met our friend at mile 17 for a very exciting moment. He was on fire and there was no stopping him crossing the finish line. We and many other friends had been following his training progress and offering support online for several months. What was so special about this marathon for him was that it represented what he considered a transcendent goal – one that accomplished so much more than completing a 26.2 mile run. It was about eating healthier, losing weight, becoming more fit and the idea of focusing on something significant and the entire experience brought all of these things into his life and then some. Through no intention of his own, he developed a following online and with the people closer to home and he inspired everyone to make positive changes. And minutes after completing the run, he was already thinking about his next challenge and how to keep the momentum going. It was all about what he had accomplished and how to use that as the starting point for his next goal. You can see him and some of the day here in the two following videos:

The lesson for us all is continuous self-improvement. Not competing with someone else, but with ourselves by running our own races. We should set out to reach a goal that we define by identifying what our passions are and on what we want to spend our time and energy. We determine what is best for us and develop the steps necessary to achieve our goals. If we approach them in this way, then we will always come out ahead.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring Your Own Sunshine

Think about this: You wake up one Saturday morning, the sun is shining brightly, the birds are chirping. You jump out of bed have breakfast and are energized to get out and experience the day. Maybe you go for a hike, or run your errands, or head to the gym. However you decide to spend it, the day seems bright. What if, however, when you wake up, the sun is behind the clouds, the sky is gray and the birds are quiet? How would you begin your day under those circumstances? Have you ever noticed the influence that the weather has on a day? It not only affects the atmosphere itself, but it impacts our energy and motivation levels, our moods and the choices we make.

Of course, there are certain things that we simply wouldn’t do in certain weather, like have a picnic in the pouring rain or swim in the pool while it’s snowing. I notice a huge difference in the number of pedestrians and the amount of traffic on the streets on a sunny Saturday morning versus one that’s cloudy. And on a bad weather day, I often wonder what sort of activity would be happening around me if the sun were shining.

Sometimes it's just a matter of a day or two where the weather may get us down, but prolonged exposure to greyness can have profound effects. In fact, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real disorder caused by lack of sunlight that takes on the symptoms of depression that is common in the long, winter months. But there was a study published in the journal Behavior Therapy by University of Vermont psychologist Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., that a combination of light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps to alleviate SAD with an 80% success rate versus only 50% for either therapy alone. And in another study, she observed that one year later, almost 37% of those individuals who were treated only with light therapy again suffered from symptoms of SAD (you can read a bit more about it here: CBT is the practice of observing and changing our own thought patterns and is something I commonly use through positive affirmation, visualization techniques and meditation and is a powerful way to eliminate negative thoughts. So much of the worlds we create for ourselves do begin in our minds and if we want lives filled with joy and happiness, then they must originate from within. There is nothing on the outside that will fulfill us the way inner strength and self-love will. It is only when these things are in place that our outer worlds will take on real meaning for us.

So back to the weather, if we have strong inner worlds, then the weather on any given day should not determine how we show up for life. On a recent rainy day, I took a hike up to a castle at Sleeping Giant Park near my home. Except for wet feet : ) it turned out to be a very peaceful and calming experience and when I got to the top of the castle, I felt energized and was happy to listen without distractions to the sound of the raindrops hitting my umbrella and the trees. A little while later, I was joined by a gentleman named Patrick who was also enjoying the rain and who has a very healthy attitude about the control we have over our thoughts. You can meet him here in this video:

He is the Treasurer of the New Haven Hiking Club, an organization that actually takes advantage of the weather (except the rain!) to add some diversity into their exercise schedule and social routine. They get together to hike, bike, snowshoe and cross country ski. Their bike ride scheduled for that day had been cancelled because of the rain, so Patrick decided to hike up to the castle to enjoy the clean air while it poured. I found it very refreshing to talk with him and to hear from someone that truly does not let the weather “get” to him. Instead of wishing for something else, he embraces the moments he has and knows that he is responsible for whether or not he enjoys life. And from my conversation with him, it sounds like he genuinely does.

So whatever the weather when you wake up in the morning, be thankful for the day, put some sunshine in your pocket and make the most of it because you can’t get it back to redo when it’s over. That doesn’t mean deliberately go outside and slosh around in the puddles in your work clothes or get into your car during a blizzard. Just try not to allow the weather to make you forget that every day is a blessing and a gift. And one that you should celebrate now...