Our Devices are Probably Listening to Us

You have probably seen the Facebook / cat food test on YouTube. Now, I am no conspiracy theorist. I don’t wear a tinfoil hat and as a law-abiding citizen, I’m not terribly concerned about Big Brother or Big Data or whatever the next Big thing is. But still. It is creepy to think about. In spite of Facebook’s continued assertions to the contrary, it seems to keep coming up for us. My wife – who has designated herself as our family’s Facebook liaison (more on this in a minute) – has observed it repeatedly in the last several months. She has a conversation about some product or service that we don’t currently use, and then she starts getting ads about the product or service on Facebook within 24 hours.

Listening Devices

Now let’s consider for a moment the latest fad in technology. The virtual assistant operating via a microphone and speaker. Alexa operating on the Amazon Echo, Siri on your phones and Homepod, etc. These devices are listening for you to command, oh I don’t know, “Play Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.” In addition to taking you on a trip down musical memory lane, isn’t it in the best interest of their parent companies to listen to your conversations? Everyone wins when they provide you with deals on the products and services you’re considering, right? I have not seen the code and so I cannot comment on whether or not it is happening. However, at this point, I operate on the assumption that it is.

Tech’d Out

Some time ago in a morning meeting, one of my team members asked the question, “What future technology are you most excited about?” My answer: “None.” I know I’m starting to sound like everyone’s Dad here, but seriously – where does it stop? I feel over-marketed, over-surveyed, over-autodialed and over-emailed. I don’t feel like I need more. As mentioned earlier, my wife knows that I’ve grown weary of social media, so she has volunteered to be our “Facebook liaison.” I guess it means that she’s active enough for both of us. Love you, hon!

There is No Tech on the Trail

This past weekend, my marathon training schedule called for a long run of 16 miles. I’ve been pounding the pavement lately and my calf muscles are feeling a bit knotted up. So I opted to put my 16 miles in on the trail. With an elevation chart that reads like a saw blade, I got one heck of a workout. But you know what else? I got trees, dirt, mud, underbrush, spiderwebs (enough to stick my hat to my head), sun-dappled landscapes, lake views, and a whole lot of quiet. At the end, I felt great. I felt like I had put in some serious work and that I had gotten a reprieve from haptic alerts, pop-ups, and calls from New Jersey offering low cost health insurance. So… if you’re like me and getting a bit tired of Big Tech, I highly suggest getting outside. Happy Trails…

Let your hair down

Sometimes, you have to let your hair down. This is week three of my marathon training. Tonight I should have lifted weights while I let my legs recover from yesterday’s interval training. But instead, I came home, did a couple of chores, and then took my better half out to our favorite local eatery for Spanish wine and our favorite dishes.

Like the kid in We’re the Millers, I’ve got “no ragrets.” Not even one. We had a lovely evening and now tomorrow I’ll be doubly motivated to knock out my tempo run after another busy day at work.

Are you motivated after letting your hair down? Or are you more of an “inertia person” who once is at rest stays at rest?

Remember the Mosquito

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.                                           – Dalai Lama

This evening I went for a training run at dusk. I was sore from the weekend’s running and had to push myself out the front door. While out there, I “ran” at a paltry pace through my full post-dinner belly and my weekend soreness. About three miles in, I started hitting these swarms of stinging bugs. They’d stick to my sweaty skin and sting me repeatedly. It reminded me of the Dalai Lama quote above, which of course made me smile. After that, I got a little smarter and started ducking and dodging the swarms. To the casual observer, I probably looked like I was off my meds. Again I smiled. These little 1 mm insects were causing me to run like Rocky while he was training for his fight with Ivan Drago. I ran anyway. We don’t have to be massive to make a massive difference.

Can’t Run? Hike!

I have a busted rib or two at the moment. After about a week of trial and error, I have figured out that the only way it is going to get better is for me to reduce physical activity to a bare minimum. Within a day of hurting my rib, I figured out how to “run” at a slower and modified stride. But I also quickly realized that with the deep breathing and still occasional jolt of the stride, I wasn’t doing myself any favors with actual recovery. I’m now on day 3 of minimal activity. The words “stir crazy” seem to fit the bill, so I needed to do something. So this fine Saturday afternoon, I decided to go to Highbanks Metro Park and go for a hike.

I use the term “hike” here pretty loosely. Its pretty much a walk in the woods on improved paths. But… the place where I wanted to hike is underwater from the June monsoons Ohio has been experiencing, so you’ll just have to bear with me. On a lark, I took my camera along for the ride… er, hike. I figured I’d catch a squirrel or a couple of migrant songbirds with my trusty DSLR. It turns out, the squirrels were not in the mood to pose for me; and the vegetation was so dense that I only spotted a few birds but I wasn’t quick enough to catch them with my camera. So I hiked on.

Undeterred by the unwillingness of Mother Nature’s sentient beings to pose for me, I snapped several pictures of the park’s flora.

After a bit, I decided to slow down and take a deeper look at the world around me. I’m so glad I did. A whole new set of life opened up right in front of me. I found a frog or toad that would sit comfortably on my thumbnail, a daredevil snail transitioning from one blade of grass to another while upside down, a millipede making short work of the gravel mounds it was traversing, and a moth that didn’t seem to care about my camera one iota.

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Heartened by my transition from the big picture to the smaller focus, I decided to transfer back from fauna to flora. What views!

As I close, I have to admit that this rib issue has had me on edge. For several weeks, I have been plodding along, running easy pace miles. I am supposed to be running some quicker miles over this week and next as I officially begin marathon training on July 6. Not only am I not ramping up into my training, I can’t run at all. Instead of wallowing in my own self-pity, I decided today to get out and move in a way that won’t hurt my rib. I hiked up and down hills for nearly 3 hours. Along the way, I was able to capture several snapshots of the absolute magnificence of this world we live in. I hope you enjoy.

To be or… To BE? The Power of Labels

Studying foreign languages has been one of my more fruitful pursuits. Unlike many Americans my age, I was exposed to formal instruction in Spanish in the third grade through a pilot academic program. If I’m honest, I didn’t love it at the time. I kept thinking, “I’ll never use this.” Since that time I’ve formally and self-studied Spanish and French on and off for 30+ years. Studies have found that knowing more than one language offers a host of benefits, including improved decision-making and resistance to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a novice with both languages. But I dutifully practice a little each day. Recently, I found this fascinating and eloquent summary comparing the two “be” verbs in Spanish. Yep, two. It turns out you can be something and you can BE something.

Ser versus Estar

The following is an article excerpt from Duolingo. I truncated it to illustrate my point, but I would encourage anyone interested in practicing a foreign language to check out Duolingo. It’s a fantastic, free tool that has an excellent online community.

One of the hardest things to learn about Spanish is the distinction between the verbs “ser” and “estar,” since in English they both mean “to be.”

“Ser” refers to what something is, while estar refers more to what something does. For example, “estoy enfermo” would mean “I am being sick” or “I am currently sick.” On the other hand “soy enfermo” translates to something closer to “I am a sick person” or “I am sickly.” Below are more examples:

Estar
                                                                        Ser

Estoy feliz = I am currently happy                        Soy feliz = I am happy by nature

Estoy cansada = I am currently tired                   Soy cansada = I am a tired person

Él está callado = He is being quiet                        Él es callado = He is introverted

You can think of “ser” as being equivalent to “equals.” Alternatively, you can think of “estar” as refering to a temporary condition, while “ser” frequently refers to a permanent condition. 

I love that there is a differentiation between the current state and the permanent condition. Like most languages, English only has one be verb. “I am happy,” could mean “I’m a happy person” or “I’m happy at the moment.” Spanish is so much more efficient in the distinction. But the real reason I’m excited about this distinction is because it makes me think about the words we use to describe our feelings and ourselves.

The Impact of Labels

Recognition and naming a feeling or behavior is a great way to begin the problem-solving process to overcome it. The practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has been proven effective in psychological studies. However, as in the Spanish separation of estar and ser, there must be a key differentiation between giving something a current state name and allowing it to slip into a permanent label. For instance, saying that we are “anxious about public speaking” can go from an acknowledgement of an emotional reaction to a labeled pattern of, “I am always anxious about public speaking.” The labeled pattern can then become quite limiting. “Oh no, I don’t speak in public; I’m far too anxious.”

I routinely fell into this labeling trap in my early adulthood. I’ll avoid the labeling details here, but I had much more fixed political views at 21 than I do at 43. I used to think silly thoughts like, “I can’t eat that or drive that car or shop in that store because I’m a [insert label].” As I have aged, I am happy to say that I have repeatedly challenged my labels. I’ll take running as a fairly innocuous example. I used to carry the moniker, “I am not a runner.” I would joke that I only ran if being chased or if I was being punished in sports (Coach: Take a lap, Gregory.). I eventually challenged the label that I was “not a runner.” In my early 30’s, I got back into recreational soccer. I started running to become more competitive in my league. A funny thing happened. I began to recognize running as a meditative and restorative force in addition to a pretty good way to build some midfield running capacity. Slowly, I dropped the label “I am not a runner” and started to accept that just maybe I am.

Interestingly, I have found that I can take it too far. I will readily admit that I’m a self-improvement junkie. Is that a label, Gregory? Take a lap! As I take in new information and accept new interests into my life, these new labels can also become burdensome. Over time, I started to describe myself as a runner. Last year, “I am a runner” became “I’m a marathon runner.” That meant that I upped my weekly running totals to 6 days and as many as 60 miles. I began to transfer my current state into a label. It gave way to things like, “I can’t go out to dinner because I’d miss my training run; and I can’t do that because I’m a marathon runner!” Granted, some of this was driven by necessity. I had specific marathons that I had signed up for and I’m not the kind of athlete that I can just show up and knock out 26 miles. But I think the message comes through. Labels can be limiting on both fronts. Labels can inhibit our development and they can box us into requirements.

As I grow, I’m trying to embrace estar in lieu of ser. I want to think about who I am currently without falling prey to the permanence of a label. Clearly, there are things that are woven into the fabric of my being. I stand for justice, equality, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie. And FC Barcelona… but I digress. Take a lap! As I’m getting older, I have fewer free moments and I don’t have time to paint myself into corners. I need to evaluate my labels from time to time and discard what isn’t serving me.

As I close, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions.

What are your labels? 

Are they limiting your progress or promoting a happier, healthier life? 

Is it possible to transition those limiting labels into current state assessments that have room for change?

150 Miles, 10 Runners, 24 Hours

This past weekend, I captained a team of 10 runners that ran 150 miles in just over 24 hours. When I tell people that, they usually say, “I don’t know how you do it.” But when you break it down, its actually not very tough. Each runner covers on average 15 miles, which is really nothing compared to a marathon. The toughest thing is finding a way to rest as you cycle in and out of a van and in and out of a camp site or hotel room. However, taking 24 hours out of my life and focusing on one goal instead of balancing work deadlines and automotive repairs and upcoming graduation ceremonies, etc. offered me a chance to pick up a couple of life lessons.

Lesson 1: Let go

Coming into this run, my training wasn’t perfect. Far from it. I didn’t get to the speed work I intended to accomplish. I also didn’t do the hill work that I knew I would need to charge up and down the Appalachian foothills of Ross County Ohio. Part of the reason for my training misses were injury related. I busted my foot playing soccer three weeks before the race. My own fault. Another part was illness, I came down with some mystery bug for about 48 hours that had me all out of whack 2 weeks before the race. The other part was just life – too many irons in the fire.

My team also wasn’t much for being a team. Out of 10 runners, I had six replacements; 4 in the four weeks running up to the race. I offered up team training runs and the occasional team outing. No one replied. My Van 2 driver offered up a plan to travel together to the race location. Everyone drove separately without responding. Without any sense of team or camaraderie, I wondered how we would handle the stresses of working together for 24 hours.

Here’s the funny thing: None of it mattered. I wound up turning in great times for my segments, so my busted training plan had little effect. Where I could find flat ground, I was running 2 minutes per mile faster than I had in months and my hill work was respectable. My team also came together on race day like a well oiled machine. People knew where they were going and got there on time. We didn’t have a wasted moment during race leg hand-offs, no one forgot any critical pieces of equipment, and we cheered each other on like we were one happy family. As our last runner crossed the finish line and we all cheered him on, I paused for a moment. All my concerns were for nothing. Sometimes the best thing to do is let go and let the chips fall where they may.

Lesson 2: Leadership is a journey

I’ve been a manager in my professional life on and off for 20 years. I’ve taken training galore and read all the right books. Leadership is practically a formula, right? Nope.

I came into this race with the baggage that I wasn’t as fit as last year with the knowledge that I had signed up to take on the toughest run of the race. I wound up letting that baggage through in some of my communications. I mentioned to one new runner that I “laid the hammer down” and was putting in some quick miles on one of my early runs in spite of my lack of training. I watched him glaze over and think about something else – probably how I sounded like a self-important peacock. I wasn’t inspiring him. I was stroking my own ego to feel better about my performance; and he wasn’t impressed. I had this malarky story in my head that to be captain, I had to demonstrate that I was among the best on the team. I later realized that this was my insecurities talking, which shines through for others to see like a broken bone in an X-ray machine.

I have this iceberg belief that if a leader isn’t where he or she needs to be (preparation, experience, whatever), that leader cannot possibly ask for more out of others. I call it an iceberg because it isn’t something that I outwardly communicate, but its there lurking under the surface and it can certainly sink my ship. This comes from my blue collar, Appalachian, Protestant, ultra-egalitarian, roots. If you’re going to tell me what to do, you damn-well better be standing on higher ground than me. So I hold myself to that standard. The reality is this: Life gets in the way for everyone. At no time in life is anything ever perfect – including for the person selected, volunteered, or otherwise promoted to leadership. But that can’t stop someone in a leadership position from asking of their team what they need. The leader’s role is to lead; to get the most out of the team, regardless of other limitations. Although I didn’t feel comfortable about it, I delivered some less than perfect news to the team late into the event and asked them to deal with it. They did it without question and it worked out nicely.

So, I lived and I learned, and that’s the good news. To quote the Dalai Lama, “If you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

The satisfaction of accomplishment

At the end of the run, the whole team was there cheering on our last runner. The sense of accomplishment started to sink in for all of us. It was a bit rainy and the after party wasn’t as upbeat as the year before, but none of that mattered. As we stood around and shared stories and traded pictures that we took over the course of the run, our achievement took shape. We just ran 150 miles in 24 hours! All of us were operating on too little sleep. None of us trained as much as we wanted. Yet here we are. 150 miles later, injury free and smiling at our accomplishment. The fact that our team fees helped benefit drug prevention programs in the epicenter of the American opioid crisis certainly helped our feeling of purpose. In addition, I picked up a couple of lessons along the way. All in all, it was a good weekend.

If you’re interested in taking part in this run next year, please visit The Buck Fifty. Its a great cause and a great time. And like me, you might just learn something about yourself along the way.

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat