Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oh, the decadence: NPR in the shower

It’s pretty decadent, I admit.

But when my in-laws gave me an Amazon gift card for my birthday last fall, I already knew what I wanted to spend it on: a wireless shower speaker, so that I could start my day-long NPR fix just a few minutes earlier.

As it is, I listen to NPR while I’m running, while I’m driving, while I’m cooking and doing housework. If I’m by myself and not reading or writing, I’m usually filling up my brain with a steady stream of news, culture or commentary from NPR.

And the silence in the shower was starting to seem like a waste of time when I could be catching the headlines or the first couple of stories on Morning Edition.

I confess, I’m a little bit sheepish about it. Surely there’s something to be said for reflective silence once in a while, even if one has to impose it upon oneself grudgingly. Surely there must be a price to pay for my choice to remove even the silence of the shower from my day. Will it curtail my creativity, I wondered? Will I never again come up with a random thought, if even when showering I can be listening to someone else’s voice?

Before buying the wireless shower speaker, I read reviews on Amazon. “It used to be that the only thing I could do in the shower was get clean!” proclaimed one highly enthusiastic new user. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be facetious or not. It used to be that getting clean was the sole function of a shower, but now it’s a time for absorbing the headlines as well. Is that bad?

Sometimes I do feel remiss in taking so many measures to eliminate reflective silence from my life. I inhale audio content whether I’m exercising or working around the house or, now, even during the lather-rinse-repeat cycle. Along with the silence, am I eliminating any possibilities of unbidden musings or meandering digressions of the imagination?

Yes, probably. And yet I’ve always found that some of my most useful unbidden thoughts come to me not in times of silence but rather accompanied by white noise. Sometimes it’s exactly the distraction of a BBC commentary or an interview with an obscure jazz composer that leads me to think up article ideas or essay topics.

The bottom line is that I love listening to the news in the shower. It just feels like a more interesting way to start the day. Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” writes that there’s no shame in admitting we like our material possessions. So there it is. It’s the ultimate decadence, NPR streamed into the shower, but it’s a wonderful way to start the day. Learning about international events that occurred overnight; finding out the weather forecast for the day ahead; catching a movie review on the cusp of the weekend.

And I also get clean, which has come to seem almost like a bonus. But it’s a pretty good way to get the day launched.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"One Little Word" for 2014

For the past four years, I’ve taken part in the One Little Word challenge. This is a collaborative event in which participants from all over the country choose one word to use as a guidepost or inspiration in the upcoming year and submit it to a website, which gathers together all the words so that they may inspire other people.

In 2011, I chose “Possible.” For 2012, “Succeed.” And last year, “Walking.”

Some years, I admit, it’s a pretty amorphous exercise. “Possible,” for example, seemed so tentative as to be wishy-washy, and yet it was just how I felt as the year began. A lot of things were possible, none certain. If the word has a rather neutral tone, so did my feelings about the possibilities for the upcoming twelve months. Much that was possible did in fact transpire.

The word for 2013 was stronger in its meaning but perhaps mundane: walking. It reflected my acknowledgment that walking, as in going for walks, was far and away one of my favorite things to do, mundane or not, and that one focus of the upcoming year had to be a priority on finding time to take walks.

This year, the word came to me out of the blue: Radiate. That too may seem like a strange word, compared to the more typical choices – the ones that hundreds of participants to the One Little Word challenge submit to the website – words like Inspire, Simplicity, Joy, Acceptance, Hope. “Radiate” sounds a little bit like “radiation,” which seldom has very auspicious connotations. But “Radiate” is what I feel like as the year begins. I feel like this is a year for radiating kindness, radiating generosity, radiating acceptance. Not holding good things within but sending good things outward, in waves: from within myself out into the world. Happiness. Contentment. Gratitude. Starting within, radiating outward, rippling in circles around me, casting an ever-wider influence.

That may be a lot to hope for in the new year, but at the moment it feels right. I will try not only to be generous and kind and caring but also to have those intended attributes radiate from within and cast light around me. It’s not just a matter of being all of those things; it’s also about sending them out into the world.

Radiate. A verb this year, whereas other years I’ve had a gerund – walking – and an adjective – possible. It would be overreaching to suggest that this is a year for action words. I don’t yet know what this year will call on me to do or to be. But I am trying to radiate well-being and other good things as I make my way into 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Snow and ice and a polar vortex: keeping up the streak

So far, 2014 has been a challenging year for maintaining a running streak.

 A storm on the second day of January brought over a foot of snow, making the footpath on which I normally run unusable since the town’s budget doesn’t cover clearing the footpaths. This left me with the option of running multiple random laps up and down our long common driveway, from one house to the next to the next and out to the road, sort of a starfish shape, each complete tracing of the starfish earning me about three-quarters of a mile. Which meant I needed to trace the course at least twice even to earn the minimum one-mile requirement that keeps a streak runner on the USRSA registry. And since one mile isn’t really much of a workout, if I want any of the other benefits of running aside from remaining qualified as a streak runner, I needed to do a little more than that. Three or four laps along the branches of the common driveway gets very, very tedious in very little time.

But before the snow had any chance of melting, the polar vortex descended. I had never run in sub-zero temperatures before, but I did last week. Not for very long at a time, though. On the handful of days that it was under ten degrees, I put on as many layers as I could wear while still remaining upright and did just a mile. I found that by wearing tights, pants, a t-shirt, a heavy sweatshirt, and then a lined hoodie belonging to my husband, with sleeves that ran a good four inches past my fingertips and a hem that ended almost at my knees, I was plenty warm enough, at least when the wind wasn’t blowing directly into my face. But all the apparel gave me the shape and mobility of the Abominable Snowman. A mile was all I could manage before the sheer weight of all the clothing exhausted me.

Finally at the end of last week, the sun shone and the chill abated a little bit. It was warmer by only a few degrees, but that was enough to start the melting process.

Which, of course, meant ice.

So I put on my YakTrax, which give me decent traction in the snow but, like the layers and layers of warm clothing, also adds a certain ponderousness to the run. Yak Trax aren’t heavy or clumsy, but just cumbersome enough to make the run tiresome.

And then on Friday I tired of the Yak Trax and convinced myself that the layer of powdery new snow would provide enough traction that the ice wouldn’t be a problem. I enjoyed a pleasant run that day. It wasn’t too cold and the powder did feel nice on my unfettered feet. Until the last ten yards or so of the route, when I hit an ice patch that was invisible under the new snow and fell flat on my back.

My first thought was typical of a streak runner: I was within a snowball’s throw of the two-mile finishing point, so I’d definitely cleared my necessary daily mile and the run still counted. My second thought was that nothing hurt too badly.

But it’s hard to fall flat on your back on the ice and not hurt at all. Soon I realized how sore my tailbone was, and I’d wrenched an arm while trying to catch myself as well.

So it was a tough week for running. But on Saturday, the temperature was well into the thirties by the time I was dressing for my run, and the ice was gone from the roadway. I ran a warm, comfortable, safe, easy ten miles, savoring every step all the more for all the weather-related travails of the preceding days.

“Doesn’t a mile on the treadmill still count toward the streak?” a friend asked on one of the coldest days last week.

Well, yes. According to the rules of the United States Running Streak Association, running on a treadmill is just fine. But I consider being outdoors for at least ten minutes part of the challenge along with completing the mile, I told her. I like having a streak of not only running every day but spending at least a small interval of time outside very day. No matter what the weather. In snow. On ice. During a polar vortex.

Still, this week is better. The air is milder; much of the snow has melted. We’re not even halfway through January; more winter weather will probably occur before the season ends. But days like the ones we had last week remind streakers that it’s almost always possible to get that mile in, one way or another. It gave me a chance to become ever more creative at dressing for the cold weather, and it reminded me of the value of Yak Trax.

The streak continues, and my tailbone has mostly recovered from the fall on the ice. I’ll be grateful for milder temperatures this week. Wind chill isn’t a particularly good feeling, and neither is a bruised tailbone. But persistence feels good, and I’m glad to have made it into another week of streak running.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Instead of resolutions, best practices

I wasn't even consciously thinking about resolutions when I started writing in my journal on New Year's Day, but somehow I wandered into the topic of Things That Seemed To Be Working For Me.

Actually, it started with food. I was writing about the fact that almost two years ago, I decided to stop eating sweets on weekdays, but last month, with so many desserts and candies and homemade goodies greeting me at every turn, I relaxed that rule and instead ate whatever sweets I wanted, pretty much from the first of December through New Year's Eve.

Probably not surprisingly, that didn't leave me feeling all so good, and I realized that my resolution of January 2012, to save sweets for weekends, had been working for me.

And that realization led to an informal listing of other useful tactics -- or, as I learned to call them during my short stint in the corporate world a few years ago, Best Practices. My list went something like this: Exercising daily. Getting out of bed no later than 6:30 in the morning. Shutting down all Internet connectivity by 10 p.m. Finding time for walks with friends whenever possible.

It looked like a list of resolutions, when I reviewed it. But these weren't resolutions. These were things I was already doing.

And that was when I realized I'd done something possibly more useful than a list of New Year's resolutions. I'd made a list of things I already knew I could do that seemed worth continuing to do.

On some level, it appeared self-serving that I was listing my Best Practices on a day typically dedicated to resolutions. It reminded me of the concept of core competencies, a principle of business management that says companies do best when they target their primary strengths and put most of their resources into fostering those strengths, rather than casting a wider net. Just as with core competencies, it seemed a little complacent for me to say that I was going to put my concentration into things I was already doing rather than targeting areas for self-improvement.

But these are all tactics that probably originated as resolutions, whether I realized it or not, and then they became ingrained as habits, and now I know that they benefit me somehow. Not eating sweets until the weekend rolls around, even though I know there's no physiological basis for differentiating among the days that way, just keeps me feeling healthier and more self-disciplined. Getting up by 6:30 every morning seems to boost my energy. Resolving to get to bed earlier or to get more sleep has never really been a successful plan for me, but at least disconnecting from email and social media by 10 p.m. puts me into a more restful state of mind.

So for this year, no resolutions. Just awareness -- mindfulness -- of what my Best Practices are. Maybe I'll eventually branch out and add to this list with new habits I haven't yet managed to develop. But it makes sense that after more than 40 years, I know what works for me. And capitalizing on that awareness, even if it has a self-congratulatory ring, seems like a more circumspect approach to the New Year than making entirely new resolutions.