Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Grind

I’ve been a chemistry tutor for over five years.  What started as helping out a friend has become a new career, and I’ve added math, including calculus, to the mix this year.  Gosh, I so missed solving hard math problems.

Many people think they’re bad at math because they don’t have all the answers instantaneously.  They don’t even know what skill they need to start a problem.  Chemistry is challenging because it’s usually the first time you’re using math to solve science—an entire year of those dreaded word problems.

One of the many secrets to mastering math and chemistry isn’t a formula or a cheat sheet or having mad skills.  It’s being able to attack each problem, each test question.  Look at what you’re given, look at what they want from you, and go from A to B.

How do you do that?  Practice.  The practice of doing many, many problems until you are able to attack anything that might be thrown at you.

It’s no different than anything else you practice—an instrument, a sport, an art.  In order to master any subject, you have to do the grind.  The grind of waking up and doing the same thing day after day.  The grind of focusing on perfecting each little detail.  The grind of continuing to move forward so slowly that you see more failure than success.  The grind of brushing yourself off after each failure and getting back on the path.

Over the years, people are in awe of my chemistry degree, like I have this amazing talent.  To be honest, it’s just that my love of the subject gave me the determination to grind out problem after problem.  I can’t sleep on an unsolved chemistry or math or computer programming problem, often waking at 2 am to finish what I started.  It just tumbles in my brain, crying to be solved, just like the baseball player down the street throwing curveballs at a net late on a summer evening or the oboe player next door playing the same measure of music over and over again on a Saturday morning.

Of course, it’s easy for someone with a passion for baseball or a talent for playing the oboe to do the grind, but have you ever heard someone express a huge passion for being a cog in a Corporate America cube farm?  How do you grind at something you don’t love?  That doesn’t come easily for you?

How many of you loved school when you were in second grade, but hated it by the time you were in high school because the classwork was just so hard?  How many of you grew up playing Little League or taking dance lessons or studying piano, but quit when it seemed that you had hit your limit? 

I joke that I’m the utility ballplayer of life because I’ve done so many things, but quit before I had mastered them.  I’m competent in a lot of skills, but not exceptional.  My resume goes from research chemist to quality consultant to executive director of a political party to tutor.  I’ve taken dance lessons and piano lessons and figure skating lessons.  I played clarinet in the school band, nine years total.  Even where I do have talents, math and science, didn’t help me push through the challenges in college.  I graduated with my degree, but barely.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was on top of the world with my running, having negatively split New York through the hardest part of the course to break 5 hours and get my second fastest time.  2020 was supposed to be the year I took a break from racing to focus on how I could get that Boston qualifying time.  Then the world shut down, and my focus turned to survival.  As the months tickd by, and races continue to be cancelled, delayed, postponed, and modified, I thought about my quest to finish all six majors by my 50th birthday.  The deferments, the cancellations were definitely going to impede my ability to grab slots in Toyko or London once things returned to normal.  There’s usually half a million people who apply for those lotteries in a normal year, but what now?  As for Boston, losing one, if not two years for charity runners will make it even harder to get one of those coveted spots, and I’m so busy trying to survive that running has taken a back seat, derailing my efforts to qualify.

I have five years to get into three major marathons.  I’m barely scraping by, financially, my mental health is a mess, and there are now millions of runners who didn’t get the spots they thought they’d get this year.  How on earth am I going to finish this quest?

Then I thought of my students, past, present, and future.  How many of them feel dumb at school?  How many hate doing homework because they just don’t even understand the lesson?  How many want to give up and say they can’t do chemistry or math?

Tutoring isn’t just about AP exams and letter grades.  It’s about helping these kids overcome challenges, solve problems, and learn how they learn so they can apply these skills for the rest of their life.  Odds are that you won’t have to use the ideal gas law or Rolle’s Theorem in your 40s, but the skills that got you through those assignments and tests, will.

Just like my quest; it is more about the journey more than the end result.

In 2021, I need to figure out how to do the grind when it’s something that isn’t easy or fun or exciting or interesting.  After some soul-searching, I came up with three things I’d like to accomplish this year for three very different reasons.  They are all going to take that grind, though in different ways:

  1. British accent.  As a high school drama kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could switch into a British accent without even thinking about it.  When I got a part in the fall play and had to do five lines in accent, I spent hours and hours listening to Brits read books on tape, trying to figure out the intonations and pronunciations, but never feeling like I got it right.  Now, with YouTube and Zoom and all sorts of tools (there has to be an app, right?), as well as maturity and wisdom, perhaps I can master something that I was convinced I couldn’t.
  2. Daily routine.  It’s been a year, right?  As I navigated the roller coaster of part time work and furloughs, I saw a lot of my regular maintenance routines falling apart from running to brushing my hair every morning.  I’ve put down the list of things I do want to accomplish every day.  It may not be fun or exciting, but going through the steps to get my life reset will do wonders for my mental health.  (If you were wondering about running, it’s part of this routine.  Baby steps.)
  3. Blogs and Coffee.  As part of my daily routine, I’m reading blogs I find on Twitter over my morning coffee.  I had a great idea a couple of days ago to use the hashtag #blogsandcoffee to share the blogs that I’m reading.  Now, I’ve had a lot of great ideas over the years that get lost on the wayside for a number of reasons, so my goal here is to post #blogsandcoffee every single day in 2021, even if it’s a tweet to say why there wasn’t a #blogsandcoffee.  Maybe it will develop a following, maybe it won’t, but at least I ground through the challenges and finished what I started.

Unlike most New Years resolutions, which have an endpoint, I am creating a focus, an intention, to grow as a person, regardless of whether or not I meet my goals.  If I figure out how to grind through things I don’t enjoy, it’s powerful—and it’s a power I can teach my students so they can succeed, whether it’s third grade math or AP Physics.

Also, rather than a personal, specific goal, it’s a theme we can all take together.  Let’s face it.  2020 was a struggle in many ways.  We survived, but not without damage.  We’re not the same people who started this year, but to continue to thrive, we need to continue to evolve.  We need to grind through our challenges, whether it’s AP Calculus or working from home or figuring out how to change the oil on the car.  What are you needing to grind through in 2021? 

Friday, December 25, 2020

I Dream...


I dream….

Of always having perfectly manicured nails,

A daily facial and makeup routine,

More than two ways to do my hair.

I dream….

Of a home where everything has a spot,

Nothing accumulates,

All comfy and cozy and warm and safe.

I dream….

Of everything going as planned,

Not having to put out fire after fire,

Because all the preventative things were done on time.

I dream….

          Of feeling healthy and powerful,

          Not afraid that every little ache and pain,

          Is something more serious.

I dream….

          Of a month where I don’t have to worry about money,

          Or paying the bills,

          Able to do the work I love.

I dream….

          Of seeing a woman who exudes confidence and success,

          When I look at the mirror.

I dream….

          Of having a surplus of time and energy,

          To do nice things for my friends,

          And to help those who are struggling.

I dream….

          Of a neat, ordered life where nothing is out of place,

          Where I can give more than I take,

And my mind is finally at peace.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Please, Don’t Fix Me

Last time, I talked about how I’m putting stuff I want out of my life on FB Marketplace.  I’ve had people over the past couple of years suggest to me that they would come over, clear out the stuff, and wouldn’t I feel so much better without the clutter?  Isn’t that just an easy thing to do, and then everything would be fixed?

To be honest, no.  This process of choosing an item, listing it, and selling it is giving me a great deal of pleasure.  As well as a few extra dollars for the savings account.  I enjoy the ability to give each item the time I need to make a decision, instead of having the stress of making hundreds of decisions in one day. 

Besides, why do I have to complete this project so quickly? 

I don’t have a spouse.  I don’t have children.  My cat just doesn’t care.  (Seriously, as long as she gets one spoonful of wet food with gravy, lap time, and scritches, she’s pretty happy.)

Nobody is depending on me to finish by a certain date, so it’s nice to have something that is completely on my terms, within my complete control, according to my plan.  So little in life is like that, and instead of stressed, I’m calmed by this process.  It’s been an adventure instead of a chore.

I mean, who doesn't want an antique rocking chair?
(Santa, lamp, and pan not included.)

Perhaps that’s why, when people ask me for marathon running advice, my response is simple:  own your training journey, because that’s what will take you through race day.  You need to do what makes sense for you, not what other people tell you to do.

I’m not running those 26.2 miles….you are, so you need to feel proud and determined and successful as you wait in the starting corrals.  That happens when you prepare on your own terms, taking the information you like and ignoring the information that doesn’t work for you. 

It’s such different advice than I’ve received through my journey in this world.  People like to fix problems, so when they hear about an issue, they often blurt out the solution that works for them, whether it’s why you’re stuck around a 5:30 marathon or have a cluttered house or are struggling with a relationship or unhappy at work or have a phone with 30% charge on it.  They so want to alleviate the anxiety in the air, and it worked for them, so why not everyone else?

Well, we’re all different.  All. Of Us. 7. Billion. Humans.  We are all going to have different dreams, different challenges, different belief systems, different ways of seeing a problem.  Your “simple” solution may not be the best for the person with ADD.  Or dyslexia.  And definitely not someone with OCD.

Instead of jumping to fix everyone else’s issues, why not just listen?  Why not just ask questions to help clarify?  Why not help the person find what works for them instead of telling them what they should do?  And if they say, “I’m okay, thank you,” let it go.

While the solution may seem completely obvious to you, there’s power in the process of problem solving.  When you give someone the space to own their solution, you give them the confidence to grow and learn and be even better than they ever imagined.  It’s an uncomfortable space, letting someone sit with their issue that appears easily solvable, but usually, the end result is beyond your expectations.

Instead of asking someone to conform to you, you’re empowering them to be exceptional.

So please don’t fix me.  I’m on my own path to healing, thank you very much, and as I grow from this process, great things will happen.  Well, at least a few hundred dollars from FB Marketplace sales….

Monday, November 30, 2020

My OCD as a Superpower

Just like my morning cup of coffee, I need to have every single step of my day organized in my head.  It allows me to go through everything smoothly, like a choreographed dance, calming and clearing my mind so I have the energy and focus to pursue my dreams.  It’s as satisfying as setting up a domino show, then watching it tumble:

Isn't that soothing to watch?  The order, the organization, the choreography....

Life, however, almost never operates that easily.  As things start falling off the rails, my head starts filling with anxious noise.  I’m thrown into a tizzy of multiple thought streams speeding across my neural net, rendering me unable to focus on any one item for more than a few seconds.  The noise will escalate until I can barely see or hear or feel the real world, my brain completely disconnected by the overloaded circuits.  I can even be so stressed that I struggle to breathe.

I need to take some time, calm my head, clear my brain, and reset the dominoes.  Sometimes, it’s just a few breaths or a walk around the block or completing an online survey or playing a video game or taking care of something that is hanging over me.  Other times, I escape to dreamland, wishing for a life without worry.  Occasionally, I can get so agitated that I have to lie down and take a nap just to avoid a major panic attack. 

While I’m doing all these things to soothe my overwhelmed, overloaded brain back to coherent thought, time continues to march forward, as do the schedules and deadlines and time limits that trigger my anxiety in the first place.  No wonder I’m always pressed—or stressed—for time.  I never have enough time to finish a project or respond to someone or get somewhere because it just takes more time than I have.

Time becomes my enemy, and as the clock ticks, so does my anxiety, and as everything churns inside me, I start having the urge to act impulsively.

Sigh.  The only thing worse than my relationship with time….is my relationship with impulsivity.

The beauty about having my head organized is feeling clear and calm and able to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions.  I love being thoughtful, being able to think things through, being able to plan my decisions and their ramifications. 

As I start stressing over how little time I have to get things done, my mind fills with panicked responses, ways to get the anxiety to clear as quickly as possible.  I no longer care about being thoughtful or kind or considerate.  I no longer care if I’m doing the job okay.  I no longer care about anyone else’s feelings.  I just want the chaotic mess out of my brain and back to calm and organized.

If I react to these impulsive feelings, it never ends well.  I’ve lied and cheated.  I’ve done work that was so careless and awful that it had to be redone.  I’ve said horrible, hurtful things to people.  I’ve made terrible mistakes.  I’ve destroyed things that I had so carefully built.  In the attempt to alleviate the chaos, I end up creating a bigger mess and losing even more time to the anger and panic.

I cannot give into this insanity, and yet, life often forces me to do so.  I’m filled with regret over the impulsive decisions I’ve made over the years, many of which haunt me decades later.   

Which brings me to my garage.  It’s filled with an eclectic collection of stuff my ex-boyfriend acquired in an attempt to start a reseller business, but never could get it off the ground.  What do you do when a global pandemic hits after you’ve drained your emergency savings?  You start selling things. 

Any day when I’m not working my other three (!) jobs, I’m in the garage, listing his random stuff online.  It’s actually been cathartic to go through this process of selling each item, feeling like I’m stepping closer to financial freedom.  However, I tend to be a little impulsive about pricing…..

I priced these cards from the 1970s for $5.  Whoops.

What do you expect happens when I am selling things like electronics and tools and collectables at bottom-barrel prices in a county with a population of 700,000?  Yup, my phone blows up like Jennifer Aniston’s did when she joined Instagram.  (Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve gotten some serious empathy for those IG folks with millions of followers.)  it’s absolutely insane how crazed people get about a computer monitor I can’t guarantee works or a power drill without a battery, just because it’s only $5.

Most of the responses are male, and clearly impulsive.  They are willing to run out the door and fly straight to my house to pick up the item, lest I sell to someone else.  They offer more money than I’m listing in hopes that they can jump ahead in line.  Their overly forward, determined behavior to mow down every obstacle in their way is unsettling, to say the least, especially for someone is often already stressed and overwhelmed by time and impulsive behavior.

In this chaos, my OCD becomes my superpower, treating the madness with rigid rules to implement calm and organization.  My response to the impulsive insanity is on my timeline, a timeline that allows me to feel calm and organized.  If I feel the need to impulsively respond, I set the phone down and wait until I’ve thought through my response.  What’s amazing is by controlling the timeline and refusing to be impulsive, these guys calm down as well, becoming much easier to work with as they realize I’m going to be fair and considerate and thoughtful.  Probably why I’m a highly rated seller.

Now to harness this superpower and apply it to other aspects of my life.  And yes, to double my prices on Marketplace…..

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Tornado Warning Syndrome

When you grow up in the Midwest, tornado warnings are a part of life.  The hot, humid, sticky day, the darkening skies, the alerts to a tornado watch, and then the sirens, blaring the news that a tornado might be in the area.

My hometown of Crystal Lake, IL, has not seen a significant tornado go through there since 1965.  That tornado was deadly and scary and at a time when the only way meteorologists knew there was a tornado on the ground—was when someone called them and told them a tornado was on the ground.

By the time I was in high school, the idea of a tornado hitting our town, while very possible, seemed very unlikely.  Tornado warnings were still issued primarily by observation and covered a wide area.  Even the worst storms produced funnel clouds, brief touchdowns, or what were ruled later as microbursts, straight line winds.

What we usually get from a tornado you see any rotation?

Perhaps that’s why, when eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant one summer evening a few years ago, I raced to the window when the tornado warning alerts came over the phone….instead of taking cover.  Peeking through the blinds, I thought, “oh, that’s just a microburst,” rolling my eyes that once again, the National Weather Service got it wrong.

Haha, trust the meteorologists. I can now say I’ve been through a tornado.  Thank goodness it was very, very weak, but as I run around town near the tornado’s path, I can still see the swath of branches that were ripped down by nature’s fury.

I’m in one or two tornado warnings every summer, and yet have only been in one tornado.  Over the course of my lifetime, that means I’m probably 1 for 50—2% chance—of being hit by a tornado when a warning is issued.  With those odds, it’s not a surprise that, when severe weather alerts are issued, people don’t even understand what they mean.  You have no idea now many times I’ve heard, “There’s a tornado watch, which means there’s on the ground.  Well, it’s sunny here, so I’m not taking cover.”  Of course it’s sunny—a tornado watch means conditions are favorable for a tornado to form, so you should be on alert.  The storms are on their way.

I call it the Tornado Warning Syndrome.  You’ve been through so many tornado warnings without actually seeing any significant tornado damage that the warnings are no longer taken seriously, even though tornadoes continue to be a threat.

I’ve been thinking about this mentality as our covid case numbers have been rising exponentially.  When the pandemic began, our governor put the entire state under a stay at home order for two weeks, essentially, a “pandemic” warning.  While we were in a place where only those who needed tests were taking them, the positivity rate was far below 100%.  People were getting sick, but not nearly in the numbers we expected.  Even so, our governor continued to extend the stay at home order for a total of two months, then rolled out a slow reopening plan, based on whether or not spikes would occur.  You could call it a “pandemic watch.”

The problem was that in Chicago, cases were growing exponentially, but even in my little community in the north suburbs, they were trickling.  By the end of the lockdown, early June, less than 200 people had tested positive.  In the rural western and southern parts of the state, the rates were even lower, with many counties having less than a dozen cases.

For the hundreds of thousands of people who not only didn’t know someone who had gotten severely ill, but didn’t know a single person who tested positive, it was just like those tornado warnings of my childhood.  Lots of anxiety and thunder, not a single home destroyed.

The summer continued, positivity rates declined, and people stopped taking the pandemic seriously.  Gatherings that had been postponed started to happen again.  Businesses reopened so they could continue to pay their employees.  People formed “pods” of friends, people who they trusted to stay safe, and continued socializing. 

Like a tornado that can rip a whole house down to the foundation while leaving the next door neighbor intact, outbreaks of covid were occurring, and people were still dying.  However, unless you were connected to an outbreak, the alerts and warnings felt like the tornado warnings with no tornado.  People became increasingly complacent, and businesses tired of struggling for no obvious reason.

As the chilly fall weather approached, people turned inside to gather, and cases started jumping up again.  The pleas to stay at home were falling on deaf ears, as families wanted to see each other, friends wanted to celebrate, and people craved social contact.  As the governor tried to stop the spread by restricting indoor dining, restaurant owners fought back, citing that not a single one of their employees had tested positive for Covid, so they were being unfairly punished when the actual outbreaks were tied to private gatherings where protocols were not being followed. 

When a storm system produces a large number of tornadoes, ironically, it is called an outbreak.  Well, we have an outbreak of Covid—a SuperOutbreak, even—but will people heed the warnings as hospitals and ICU beds fill?  Or will they feel like they’ve been told the sky is falling for so long that they’ll just ignore the warnings?

Don’t be fooled.  I’ll never forget my senior year first semester final exams.  It was January, and of course, a snowstorm was headed to Chicago.  The forecasters, based in Chicago, didn’t think it would be a significant snowfall, and so my district didn’t plan to cancel school (because, first day of finals).  Being so far from the city changed the forecast drastically.  While Chicago proper had a typical snowy January day, we ended up having to traverse heavy snow—the final storm total was over a foot—to get to school in time to take our finals.  The buses were having so much trouble that the school had to adjust the entire day by 20 minutes so everyone had the full time for their exam.

Just because you don’t see the havoc that these skyrocketing numbers are making doesn’t mean you’re not in danger.  Just like our school, watching the Chicago media, was caught unaware of a narrow, heavy snow band, don’t think that just because you don’t know someone with Covid means you have no risk.

Stay home.  Wear your mask.  Wash your hands.  Be safe.  Be well.  And don’t fall for Tornado Warning Syndrome.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Finding My Way out of Dreamland

I have a coffee cup that says, “Stop Dreaming and Start Doing.”  It’s one of those mantras we see everywhere, from wall hangings to planners to….well, coffee cups.

Are you dreaming, or are you doing?

One day last week, I intentionally chose that cup because lately, it’s felt like I’ve spent more time dreaming and less time doing. 

Then my toilet clogged, triggering my contamination OCD and just making me too anxious to do anything beyond the bare minimum.  I went to bed, frustrated at what little “doing” I was able to accomplish.  However, I did a great job dreaming my day away, fantasizing about a life where everything was just…easier.

Dreaming has been my coping mechanism ever since I learned to read.  Falling into books, creating characters, being the person I wish I was instead of the person I saw in the mirror.  As a child, I would hide in my room, acting out the scenes I created to alleviate the stresses from school and home and a Mensa-level IQ and an undiagnosed mental illness.  (OCD is something you’re born with, and I knew it was the right diagnosis when my childhood memories and motivations suddenly made sense.)  No wonder at times of stress, I would lose myself in a fantasy of my own creation.

This time, however, the message on the mug stayed with me.  I’d fallen into my fantasy so deep that it was running as a continual stream in the back of my head, impeding my ability to function on a daily basis.  My escape from stress and anxiety was now creating so much noise that I couldn’t focus on anything.  I would read emails and not remember a word of content.  I would complete a task and then redo it, having completely forgotten that I had just done it.  I would ignore the people in my real world, preferring the interactions of the scenes in my head.

Looking backwards, it makes sense.  Before there was a global pandemic, I had run out of savings.  Before I ran out of savings, I had a horrible ending of a four-year relationship.  Before my ex and I broke up, I had a complete mental breakdown.  Before the breakdown, I quit my job to save my mental health.  The need for escapism was real, but it had gone too far and too deep.  I was now lost in my dreamworld, avoiding reality at all costs.

I looked back even further and saw the hours I spent over the years dreaming about what could be, rather than doing the hard work to make these dreams happen.  Pursuing your dreams… hard.  It’s the grind of plinking forward, failing, picking yourself up, and plinking forward again.  It’s fighting the boredom and the burnout and the monotony of spending so much time on something with so little progress.  It’s dealing with challenges and roadblocks and people who think you aren’t worthy. 

Just like….running a marathon.  Or nine.  Why was I able to do that and not this?

In my real life, I’ve always felt powerless and silent, not worthy of attention.  As a child, my mom would tell me that it was best if I didn’t speak my mind because she feared me being rejected by society.  I bit my tongue, became invisible, and created an alternate world in my mind where my ideas were valued and appreciated.

Fast forward to January 1, 2020.  I decided it was time to start writing down my ideas, my scripts, my scenes, my stories.  Then the world turned upside down with the coronavirus, and I lost my way, reality being so grim that my dreamworld was my only safe place.  We all have been finding some form of escapism this year, whether it is getting lost in video games, social media, Netflix binges, or scenes being played out in my own house.  We all need an escape right now. 

But for there to be any possibility for my dreams to come true, I need to leave my dreamland behind and re-engage with reality.

Instead of dreaming, I need to be writing down my dreams.  Instead of watching YouTube videos, I need to be watching Khan Academy videos.  Instead of disconnecting into fantasies, I need to be connecting with people. 

Just like the mug said, instead of dreaming, I need to be doing.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Of Avengers and Presidents

Fall…is just the worst time of year for me.  Not only is the world losing the warmth and green and sun of summer, but September is the anniversary of my two longest relationships ending.  Just looking out the window at grey skies, seeing the dead leaves swirl in the chilly wind, makes me feel all the sadness in the world. 

September is also the anniversary of the passing of a college classmate, killed while training for the Chicago Marathon in 2003.  Even the excitement and happiness of fall marathon season is twinged with sadness of what could have been for him, and I find myself thinking about Scott a lot during the “taper tantrum,” the last few weeks of training where you rest your body before Marathon Sunday.

Cue in…escapism via Hollywood.  Without the usual distractions of marathons this year, I found myself coping by catching up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As self-care, it was perfect mind-numbing fun, and hey, I might as well get the most out of my free trial of Disney+ before it ends, right?

The one thing I noticed throughout the movies is that, outside of the plot to assassinate the President in Iron Man 3, the President of the United States is a non-entity, to the point that only Iron Man 3 is the only time an actor portrays the President.  Congressmen, United Nations, Cabinet members, military officials, but no President.  The Winter Soldier is a political thriller where the President is completely irrelevant, relegated to a name on the wall in a Smithsonian exhibit. 

Shouldn’t Tony Stark have the President on speed dial?

Obviously, it’s Hollywood, and especially when you have something like 25 Avengers and who knows how many side characters in the last two films, there’s just not time—or plot—to include any sort of normal governmental response to events.  However, watching these films on the eve of a Presidential election, the lack of a President in 22 of the 23 MCU films stands out—and has me reflecting on the role of the President as defined in the Constitution.

The whole point of the President was for him (or her) not to become a dictator or a monarch.  He or she only carries one third of the power, sharing with the Supreme Court and Congress.  You can even argue, with their power to create laws and distribute funds, that Congress, a body of normal citizens elected by normal citizens, has slightly more power than the other two branches.  Rather than being led by one person, we are led by 545.  (President + Supreme Court + Congress)

In addition, the President is given a Cabinet of department Secretaries, who help manage the Executive Branch.  While the President appoints those Secretaries, these appointments are confirmed by the Senate.  While the President, often through the Secretary of State, negotiates treaties, they are not valid until the Senate approves them.  It’s no surprise that the Avengers, when it comes to the Sokovia Accords, have to deal with a Secretary of State confirmed by the Senate, rather than the President directly.

The tweets and posts and grams and snaps (as in chat, not Gauntlet) about our Presidential election tell a very different story.  There seems to be this mythos within the American people that the US President is the most powerful person in the world, a modern-day Queen Victoria, who can do anything they want with a sign of the pen.  My social media feeds oscillate between posts describing how a candidate can fix every problem in our country to how a candidate will rule by fiat if elected. 

The importance and weight we have put on electing a President is not unusual.  Since President Trump was elected, however, the amount of energy that has been given to every single Tweet or speech or action has been elevated.  The fear that the President can do whatever he wants, the anger and rage when the President does something undesirable, and the anger and rage of the people who are tired of the former’s anger and rage—it’s a constant stream of energy and attention.  However, nobody considers how all that energy is feeding the beast, inadvertently growing the power of someone who shouldn’t have all that much.  Perhaps I’ve just invented the next Marvel villain, a politician who feeds off of social media drama to the point of developing superpowers…

Seriously, people.  The Democratic Party has control of the US House, leaving the US Senate stuck between the President and the House.  (You want to know why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is so wishy-washy?  He’s literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.)  The Supreme Court, even Trump’s own nominees, have shown independence in their decisions, continuing the history of taking each case as it is and comparing to the Constitution, rather than blindly following the President who appointed them.  The checks and balances are in place.  Our Constitution is working.  So why do so many Americans fear a President who can only have 30% of the power, and therefore, cannot do half of what he claims he can?

More importantly, why are you giving a man who clearly feeds off this negative attention so much brainspace in your life?

The President is not Thanos.  The President is….the President, limited by the Constitution.

So take a piece of wisdom from the MCU and stop putting so much energy into our President.  The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election.  One third of the Senate as well.  Local officials, who have a greater ability to fix the problems in your community are up for re-election as well.  All people who help limit the power of the person in the White House.

Voting, 2020 be honest, I was there to help Mike Nerheim and Howard Cooper get re-elected as State's Attorney and Cororner more than I was interested in casting a vote for President.

That is, after all, what our Founding Fathers intended.  Who knew that the Avengers would be so wise in Constitutional law, paying attention to the people who actually held the power?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

A Simple Cup of Coffee


I have to start every day with my coffee and my ritual....

Step 1:  Wash hands.

Step 2:  Turn on cold water in kitchen sink.

Step 3:  Wash hands.

Step 4:  Fill kettle, place on stove, and turn on burner.

Step 5:  Wash hands.

Step 6:  Open dishwasher with right hand.  Pull out coffee mug and spoon with right hand.  Close dishwasher.

Step 7:  Wash hands.

Step 8:  Scoop spoonful of coffee into cup.  Open refrigerator door with left pinky finger.  Pull out creamer and add to cup.  Open refrigerator door with left pinky finger.  Put creamer back in fridge.

Step 9:  Wash hands.

Step 10:  Wait for water to boil.

Step 11:  Wash hands.

Step 12:  Pour boiling water in mug.  Turn off stove.

Step 13:  Wash hands.

Step 14:  Stir coffee with spoon.

Step 15:  Wash hands.

Step 16:  Grab mug by handle and enjoy.


Not so simple, right?  With today being World Mental Health Day, I wanted to give you a glimpse of what it’s like to really, truly have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  I start every morning with these 16 steps.  Every. Single. Morning.  Every. Single. Step. 

When I do it perfectly, it brings me great satisfaction, calming my mind so I can focus on my day.  When I don’t, my mind is plunged into a chaos of anxiety and fear, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to find order in that mess and re-right the ship of my day. 

The ritual keeps the monster of mental illness away, a monster of overloaded circuits and being so unable to think that I can’t drive, work, or be functional in any way, shape, or form.  It’s a battle I fight every single day, and no, it’s not as simple as “mind over matter.”  Trying to force my mind to be “normal” ends up causing physical issues, like insomnia or digestive issues.  Mental illness is truly illness.

This year has taken a toll on so many people’s mental health.  The pandemic, the lockdowns, the protests, the election have been so stressful, so traumatic, that anger and sadness fill our world.  Please take some time to listen, to learn, to grow, and to truly understand what it is like to live with mental illness.  Pledge to stop joking about “being OCD” because you want everything neat and clean and organized.  (It’s really, really not funny or cute or true.  OCD is a very complicated diagnosis where your brain is just not wired like everyone else’s.)  Commit to listening to others talk about their issues without feeling the need to give advice, because “what you would do” probably won’t work for someone else.

We still have a long way to go before this chapter of history ends, and we can only thrive if we face it with compassion and empathy for each other.  World Mental Health Day seems like a good place to start with a simple cup of OCD coffee.

Monday, September 21, 2020

You. Yes, YOU can Stop Election Fraud

I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing about election fraud, from my Facebook friends to Presidential candidates.  Things like ballots being in trunks of cars to dead people voting are no longer jokes.  From my experience as a political operative, most of these stories of fraud come down to incompetence, whether on the part of the voters, the officials running the election, or even the local party offices.  While in most cases these incidents involve such a minority of votes being cast that they only impact the local and regional elections, we all saw in 2000 that they can—and do—affect our national elections.    

However, there is a solution.  The way to stop election fraud is to reduce the amount of incompetence in the system….and that is actually easier to do than you think.  In the days of smartphones and social media, the information is at the tip of your fingers, so here are three things you can do to help fight election fraud:

  1. Know your laws.  While the federal government makes overarching rules about elections, the details of the mechanics of voting are left to the individual states.  State statute determines the rules about polling places, electioneering, mail in voting, and so forth.  One common “disenfranchisement” I’ve seen in Illinois is that if you apply to vote by mail and still come to the polls, you have to vote “provisionally,” meaning that your vote cannot be counted until it is determined that you did not vote your mail-in ballot, usually two weeks after the election.  Said that way, it makes a lot of sense—they can’t count your ballot until they know you haven’t voted twice—but since the law allows political parties, assisted living community activity directors, and other third party organizations to facilitate mail-in ballot requests, people often don’t realize the thing they sent to the Tenth Dems or the Lake County Republicans was actually a mail in ballot request and think what they got back was a sample ballot from the party.  Fast forward to Election Day, and the only thing the election judge knows is that you already are holding a ballot, so they cannot allow you to vote normally.  With so many vote by mail applications going around this year, it’s a great example of a detail you should learn and tell others.
  2. Downticket matters.  While the state legislatures create the laws concerning elections, the actual operation of managing the election falls to local officials.  They can be an elected county clerk, like I have, a commission of people appointed by the county board, or even an elected judge.  Many people don’t know any of these names on the ballot and just vote by party, often electing people who have little to no experience managing an election or even a basic understanding of election law.  If there’s one office on your ballot that is worth taking the time to research, it’s that one, and if I could do it using dial-up in my hotel room 15 years ago, there’s really no excuse for not doing it today.  These offices rarely the resources needed to put a full campaign together, so we can all use social media to help exceptional, competent, unbiased leaders are the ones managing our elections.
  3. Be part of the process.  Did you know you can help manage your local election?  Election judges are citizens just like you who have been trained to enforce election law and ensure smooth voting processes for all.  In my area, the election judges tend to be retirees who aren’t working, but since they are high risk for covid, the need is greater than ever.  Don’t have the time to commit to being an election judge?  You can also be a poll watcher, a trained volunteer observer that sits in the polling place and monitors if election law is being followed.  Both political parties use poll watchers to observe what is going on in specific polling places, and there are non-partisan groups who use poll watchers to ensure a fair election.    

If you think it’s too time consuming and complicated to make a difference, note that Russia and China do as well.  The sheer amount of resources and coordination needed to change a national election result would not escape notice from the multitude of local election officials, especially in a country where local elected officials have the freedom to speak their mind.  As do the media, from the talking heads to the local reporters.  Even the much-maligned Electoral College acts as a deterrent because anyone trying to interfere with our election would have to operate in multiple states, rather than just focusing on upping the vote total in one populous state.  An organized, Mission: Impossible, type operation is truly impossible.

However, when elections are decided by voters who spend more time focused on celebrities and the British Royal family than the happenings in Congress, the misleading ads and the flat-out false mailers are able to change election results.  It’s not isolated to the Presidential race, either.  Actually, since people don’t even know their local candidates, voters are easily mislead by negative ads and mailers designed to push buttons instead of inform.  Not only do these candidates have websites and social media channels, but they take the time to fill out endorsement questionnaires from the local newspapers, giving us the resources to become educated voters and to help educate others.  I mean, should we really be deciding our judges, our coroners, our county clerks based on who is running for President, or should we be picking the best qualified officials with no regard to party affiliation?

My local grocery store checkout line, filled with celebrities and tabloids, but we don't have time to research local candidates....

How will I be preventing election fraud?  I’ll be voting early in person this year.  If there are any issues, it will still be before the deadline to request a mail-in ballot.  Why not a mail-in ballot?  My state uses signature verification to verify voters, and since I registered to vote in 2004, my signature has changed quite a bit.  After my horrible experience voting in the primary, I don’t trust my county clerk’s office to verify my signature correctly, so I want to make sure I’m present for that verification.  It’s a simple way to ensure that my vote will count, because I’m educated in how our election is supposed to work.  I may even volunteer as a poll watcher this fall if I have the time to make sure other voters are given proper treatment. 

Always displaying my "I Voted" stickers!

Now that you know what you can do, what will you do to stop election fraud?  Will you endorse a local candidate?  Will you post the website from your local election authority?  Will you work as an election judge or a pollwatcher?  If every one of us did one little thing, we can combat election fraud.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Paradigms, Masks, and All the Anger from Paradigms and Masks

My freshman year of college, I had to read a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.  It blew my mind.  I was the science loving kid who talked in her college essays of the random science experiments she did with her makeup set when she was 5 and the hours spent watching clouds pass overhead, her inner meteorologist wishing for a storm.  Science was truth.  Facts.  Unbiased.  Solid.

Kuhn, a University of Chicago professor, had a different idea.  Ever hear the term, “paradigm shift?”  That was his idea.  What we think today about science can change, based on new information and data.  When he wrote it in the early 1960s, it took off enough that “paradigm shift” entered the modern vernacular, but his second idea didn’t.  It was that science is a series of paradigm shifts that take us closer to the truth. 

I loved it.  Whether looking at Galileo and Newton or the science section of the Sunday newspaper, every discovery, small or large, shifted the paradigm.  The study of facts and laws had become a journey of problem solving to get closer to the truth.

It was the start of four years where science wasn’t the study of facts but the study of what truth could be.  Classes where I manipulated virus DNA and played with organic dyes, and a senior year studying the paleoclimatology of the Lake Winnebago region of Wisconsin for an attempt at an honors thesis I was just too exhausted by May to finish.  In that process, I learned the journey toward the truth wasn’t always easy or kind or simple.

Fast forward to this January, as I started hearing about a novel coronavirus appearing in Wuhan, China.  Having a friend living there, I followed the story fairly closely as it traveled to Europe and Kirkland, WA, and New York City.  Suddenly, the paradigms that had served the CDC well during SARS and MERS and H1N1 didn’t work, and we were plunged into lockdown, with everything closed except the essentials. 

Kuhn, it seems, served me well.  I understood that we were in a situation with so many unknowns—so many variables—that we were far from the truth, and as such, were in for a roller coaster of paradigm shifts.  I expected changes and conflicting information as the scientists worked tirelessly to get closer and closer to the truth.

Which comes to masks.  With so little known about what would be called Covid-19 (or Covid for short), the question became, “Will wearing a mask prevent getting sick?”  At first, scientists didn’t know how Covid was spread.  Was it droplet?  Was it surfaces?  Was it close contact?  How close?  Plus, the largest producer of N95 masks, the ones being used in hospitals, was Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the Covid pandemic, so there were serious concerns about shortages from panic buying on an item that was critical for those treating Covid patients.  The official recommendation back in March was “No.”

Everyone accepted what the scientists were saying back in March as truth and made do with our new normal, but then the paradigm shifted.  What was true in March wasn’t true in May, including that the scientists learned that transmission was through droplets, so wearing a mask, especially in interior, confined spaces, would reduce infections.  The CDC shifted their recommendation, governments started to put in mask mandates, and citizens…scratched their heads at what they saw was an about-face.

Let’s not forget that masks are hot and uncomfortable, especially in the heat of summer.  People feel so suffocated that I see someone every day who is pulling off their mask every minute or so to breathe. 

While one population was struggling with wearing masks, another group of people were keeping on top of each and every news story about the virus.  These people were scared—even terrified—of getting sick and ending up in the ICU with Covid.  Whether they were high risk due to medical conditions, knew someone who had gotten sick, or just saw the reports from Italy and NYC, their fears were real and valid, and even one person dying of Covid was one too many, because it could be them next.

When the paradigm about masks changed, they breathed a sigh of relief, something that was visual and tactile to alleviate their fears.  If everyone wore masks, they don’t have to be scared.

However, there was more than the mask paradigm shift.  We were learning a lot about the little balls of protein that had taken our country hostage.  They didn’t live on surfaces.  It was actually safe to go to the grocery store (provided that you wear a mask).  You needed to be within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes without wearing a mask to risk being exposed.  Being outside was safer than being inside.  Doctors in hospitals were learning better ways of treating patients so they didn’t require ventilators.  We got smarter in how we protected our most high risk, vulnerable populations.  The refrigerated trucks were no longer needed.  The makeshift hospitals were taken down. 

Covid, it seemed, wasn’t the black death we thought it would be in April, as long as we continued to wear masks.  The people reading every news story, struggling to make sense of it all, couldn’t.  There were too many shifts, too many changes….and we were still very far from the truth. 

We forget how few people in this country haven’t taken a formal science class in decades, probably in high school or to fulfill a requirement in college.  Even then, those are classes focused on teaching the basics, which don’t change much year to year.  When I started tutoring chemistry, I was concerned how much had changed since the 1990s.  At the high school level, not much, and for the most part, are things that they were predicting were true 30 years ago.

We also forget that for a lot of people, getting through those classes was a challenge.  I’ll never forget my chemistry teacher first introducing the concept of the mole my sophomore year in high school.  I saw classmates’ eyes glaze over in confusion, and some of them struggled for the rest of the year.  Even now, when I tell people I have a degree in chemistry, people respond with appreciation because high school chemistry was just that hard for them.

It was too much to understand why a hot, uncomfortable mask was necessary when nobody they knew had gotten sick.  It was too much to understand why people couldn’t take the illness that brought New York City to its knees just a few months ago seriously.  In this heated, divided environment we call the United States of America, the anger simmered over.

From angry posts on social media to protests about government overreach to actual confrontations in stores, people scared—of government overreach, of dying, of getting sick—lashed out in anger, creating more fear, more defensive behavior, and more doubling down on the divide.  We find the sources of information, the articles, the facts that support our viewpoint, and pontificate to the masses, accusing each other of “not believing in science.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but science isn’t black and white, or right and wrong.  When it’s something new and unknown, it’s fluid, and it will take a long time to figure out the truth.  It took scientists until World War II to figure out that the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic….was caused by a virus.  Like, they were trying to save people’s lives and couldn’t agree whether it was a bacterium or a virus. 

We may be faster now, but we are still many, many paradigm shifts before the science of covid is part of the hard facts in a high school biology textbook and we’re back to our pre-covid lives.  For me, “believing in science” is believing that until we get to the truth, science will be filled with unknowns, conflicting information, and change, something very different than what we learned in high school.

I know it’s scary, but it’s time to ride the wave of paradigm shifts, being okay with what is truth now and being okay with when it shifts.  Even if it doesn’t make sense, it will soon, and sooner if we all start working together instead of against each other.  Starting with… nice, be kind, and wear your mask.

 Pink bandanas make everyone happy

(Oh, and if you want a great mask that does good in the world, check out 2 Little Mask Makers.  Custom masks for $5, which goes to the Northern Illinois Food Bank and local school districts in need.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

We all agree.  It’s been a rough year for the United States.  Americans are stressed and frustrated….and angry.

From politics to masks to the politics of mask-wearing, social media is filled with angry rants.  Rants that, at the end of the day, are just one form or another of “Listen to me!  Agree with me!  I’m right!”

It’s like we have become a real-life version of the Dr. Seuss book, The Sneetches.

Masks, Covid, Presidential candidates, and everything else has a “you’re either with me or against me” mentality.  Either you agree with me 100%, or you are evil.  No middle ground.  No compassion.  No empathy.

Remember the guy in the Sneetches with the Star-On and Star-Off machines?  He manipulated the division to become a very wealthy man.  Same is true today, as people on both sides capitalize on the partisanship for wealth and power and glory.

"The Sneetches" was originally published in Redbook in 1953.  Yet, so little has changed.

We have forgotten that our nation….was founded on dissent.  We fought a war to have the freedom to oppose the King.  We wrote a Constitution that gave a legislative body of elected citizens equal power to the President.  We amended that constitution to guarantee freedom of speech.  We also spelled out that the states had the power to organize and govern independently of each other.

Of course, we think this all happened in a room full of men wearing powdered wigs congratulating each other.  However, as a college classmate reminded me, the arguments that created the Constitution were probably just as heated and foul-mouthed as the ones on Capitol Hill today.

I’m fortunate to have worked hard through high school so I had the opportunity to attend a college where dissent was part of the culture.  Listen to dissent.  Challenge it.  Defend it.  Change your mind.  Respect that not everyone is going to agree with you 100%.  That, my friends, is critical thinking. 

In order to critically think, you have to be able to listen to people who disagree with you.  You have to respect people who disagree with you.  And that’s not happening.  Instead, I see people building bubbles of people who look like them, think like them, and act like them.  They’ll embrace someone who might be different, but only as long as they fit the checklist.

You thought Mean Girls was only about teenagers…..our country is filled with cliques.

Maybe because my brain functions so differently than normal, I can’t fit in those bubbles.  I don’t have a lot of true, close, real friends.  I can’t even have a normal conversation with my family.  But that crazy brain also allows me to have wonderful, insightful, interesting conversations with people who don’t look like me or think like me or act like me.  Due to those experiences, I have something important to say:

*grabs bullhorn*

If you’re too busy demanding that people listen to you and agree with you, you’re missing out on what makes this country so wonderful.

One of the “silver linings” of the pandemic is that I’ve gotten to know my neighbors, now that we’re all at home more and walking around the neighborhood.  I had no idea how beautifully diverse my neighborhood is.  Yes, beautifully.  Since we’re sort of stuck at home, we’re out of our houses, having the conversations we need to have to strengthen our community, because we’re all part of this community.

You see, the power of our country is our diversity.  Whether it’s a diversity of genetics or a diversity of ideas, what makes the US a superpower is that we validate everyone equally.  It’s not perfect or a sunny utopia, but as we hit rough roads, we grow and change and evolve.  (Though in some cases, not as fast as we should.)

Do you watch the Olympics?  I’ve been watching the Opening Ceremonies for decades.  It’s always fun when the USA is at the end of the Parade of Nations, because we spend an hour watching the rest of the world walk in, homogeneous, formal….and then there’s USA.  All colors of the rainbow, all backgrounds, all states, just dancing and filming and waving the stars and stripes.  Unified within our diversity, and in that, being one of the most successful nations in terms of medal haul, even as other countries cheat to compete with us.  It’s one example of how diversity makes our country great.

For us to get through 2020, we need to stop sticking our fingers in our ears while screaming “I’m right” at the top of our lungs.  We need to take a breath and show a little empathy for our fellow citizens.  We need to listen, honestly listen, to understand why they disagree with us.  You can be empathic without changing your viewpoint, you know.  You might even find out that you agree on a few things.  We need to go outside our circles, our communities, to try new things and experiences—because they’re interesting, not because they’re trendy or that’s what the celebrities on social media are doing.

(I know the partisans will hit his point and point fingers at the other side.  You can start by treating politics more like a policy debate and less like a Bears/Packer playoff game.  I mean, how do you want to be seen?  A thoughtful intellectual or a drunk tailgater?)

You see, once we open ourselves to those who are different, we gain the confidence to go outside the norms and be different.  We start seeing the world through other people’s eyes—yes, empathy—and we see the creativity and innovation that is inside all of us, the creativity and innovation that might solve one of our country’s many problems, and right now, we need to support that creativity and innovation, rather than squelching it, simply because we are afraid of being “wrong.”

The truth is that in a country of 330 million people and a Constitution that guarantees freedom of belief…there are 330 million belief systems in this country.  There is no “right” or “wrong.”  There is just being and living and growing and respecting and accepting and encouraging and innovating to a place where we continue to be the superpower we are.

So stop making people fit in your box.  Stop making yourself fit into other people’s boxes.  Be you.  Be nice.  Be kind.  Respect your fellow citizens.  Encourage all forms of diversity, especially within yourself.

We’ll get through this, everyone.  Together.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

I Was on a Break....from Running

Global Pandemic.  Record Unemployment.  Civil Unrest.

Not what I was thinking when I said the 20s would roar.

It’s been a year—no, wait, a decade—and we’re only seven months into the 2020s. 

Our New Normal

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a blog about fun and running and traveling around the world?  Well, when the marathons cancel and borders close and the run club stops meeting and you get furloughed from two jobs, running takes a back seat to life.  Life, as we knew it, had changed.

I wasn’t in a good place when this all started.  My mental health took a huge hit last August, and I’ve been slowly trying to get back to functional.  Things that you may take for granted, like the steps you take to make it to work in the morning, are very stressful to my OCD mind.  There are just so many steps, and if I don’t do them right, the anxiety surges, just like an electrical power surge.  Do I have a clean outfit?  Do I have a clean coffee mug in the dishwasher?  Did I remember to brush my teeth?  Did I brush my teeth before I put my shoes on?  Did I make sure to only touch the door handle with my pinky finger?  Did I wash my hands after touching (water kettle, sink handle, laptop keyboard, dryer handle, fridge, or anything else in my house)?  All while trying to get out of the house at a time that gets me to my job on time.  I’m exhausted before I even put my key in the car.

Running, especially running with a group, has all of that, too.  How am I supposed to put my hair in a ponytail without contaminating everything?  Where do I put my purse while I’m running?  What about my car key?  And shoes.  I’m afraid of shoes right now.

I can run or work, but I can’t do both.  And I have to pay the bills.

It’s so frustrating, after such a victory in New York, to have slid down to a place where I’m going to have to start over from scratch.  Unlike a physical injury, where your body is begging you to stop and heal, you feel like such a failure because you can’t get yourself out there.  The negative thoughts creep in (because your brain is already hurting) about how I’m going to get to do these last three marathons, especially Boston.  I’ve gone from “I can totally qualify for Boston” to “I’ll never run Boston” in the span of six months.

Then I think about why I run and what I love about running.  For me, it’s the meditation, the ability to let my brain get exhausted by the physical effort, to be outdoors and see new trails.  It’s the companionship of friends as well as the quiet solace of an empty trail, hearing only the wind and the birds.  Then I think about all the athletes who not only have seen their competitions and races and Olympics get postponed and cancelled, but also stuck at home, unable to do the training that they love so much, that would alleviate the grief of losing their Worlds or Olympics or Boston Marathon.

Running cannot be a chore.  It has to be my solace, not my obligation.

Quests are never easy.  Even Hollywood fills epic quests with monsters and quicksand and Eyes of Sauron and Darth Vaders.  I knew five years ago when I started my quest that there would be epic challenges (though not a global pandemic that would completely shut down the US for months), and the point of the exercise was how I grow from the challenges laid before me.  So I will face my struggles, heal my mind, and find a new path to traverse.  Some day, I will cross that sixth marathon finish line and kiss the ground.

I want to get back to this woman

We are all challenged now with so many things right now.  Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Treat each other with love and kindness.  Open your hearts and minds.  Let’s walk together.