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Category: "Skill Building" - Back to Basics

Category: "Skill Building"

Stand Up Straight

August 3rd, 2018
Just watch a cable television station long enough to catch a few commercial breaks and you'll be wondering how we ever got along without medications, surgeries, fitness equipment, or weight loss pills. In response, I'm recycling the following post from 2013. I want to remind you of one, simple, basic practice that can help prevent the need for any of that: learn to stand tall. You too can have strength, confidence, poise, and vitality. But wait, there's more. Proper posture makes you more attractive. And this can be yours today for the bargain investment of just two minutes of your time. Beautiful models, successful salespeople, effective leaders, and focused athletes all know about this secret. Read on to learn how you can have all this and more today.
Hiking the mountains
Okay, enough sales talk. Our moms and dads told us to stand up straight when we were kids. But there is more to it than just straightening up and pulling your shoulders back. Feeling tall. Holding your head high. Centering your balance. Commanding a presence. These are auxiliary goals, which require a mindful timeout from hunching over our 40-hour-work-week positions.
You probably spend most of your day in a physical position that is redundant. Our accommodating bodies remember this. Then, for another 56 hours per week we sleep, curled into a reflexive comma. This leaves very little time for our skeletons to be in the state of equilibrium required for our whole bodies' optimal function. We need to remind ourselves what perfect posture feels like. We have to practice. Like the computer you are now sitting at (and have been sitting at for too long), your posture needs to be rebooted regularly. The muscular system needs to be reset in order to let the frame return to true alignment. The kinks must be gently stretched to spread out the workload evenly across the entire body. Even our inner ears need to be reminded of what balance means. When you stand tall, oxygen and blood circulates more effectively. Overworked muscles get some much-needed assistance from one of the other 600(+) muscles in the body. Thought, strength, and agility sharpen. And you just feel better. And good posture takes visual pounds off in an instant, particularly in the abdominal area. Have you ever seen those before-and-after photographs for diet-pill commercials? We joke about how obviously the subject is sucking in his or her stomach for the after shot, but the truth is, holding in the stomach to some degree is what we should be doing anyway. Engaging those muscles as we stand, sit, and move removes some of the burden from the lower back, reducing its sag and its pain. A popular yoga position called Mountain Pose starts at the ground and consciously moves up each section of the body until the crown of the head is reaching for the ceiling. But you don't have to practice yoga to learn how to feel like a mountain. Of course, you should never feel sharp pain when doing this. If you do, stop immediately and address the problem with a doctor. Otherwise, getting into perfect posture goes a little like this:
Take all the time you need to achieve each step; don't hurry. 1.) Stand on a level surface with your feet parallel to each other, about hip-width apart. 2.) Spread apart every toe, so your balance is even on each, then center your balance between the ball and heel. Be sure you are not leaning forward, back, left, or right; your weight must be centered. 3.) Focus on your knees. Aim them straight ahead and engage your thigh muscles to make it feel as if you are pulling your kneecaps up. Make sure your knees are directly above your feet. Do not lock your knees. 4.) Focus on your pelvis. Engage your stomach muscles to tilt the top of your pelvis back (to adjust for the involuntary sag) and align your hips above your knees, which are above your feet. 5.) Lift your waist to hold your rib cage, feeling your back straighten as each vertebra spreads apart toward the ceiling. Fill the rib cage with oxygen. 6.) Pull your shoulders back (to adjust for involuntary hunch), adding more air to your lungs and more space between each vertebra. Let your arms hang comfortably, but extend each finger toward the floor. Do not lock your elbows. Shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and feet should all be on the same vertical plane. 7.) Relax your face, but lift your chin enough to get your head above your shoulders while pulling the crown of your head toward the ceiling. 8.) Stand and concentrate on this posture. Program it into your mind. Breathe deeply and slowly. Tell yourself good things. Come out of the stance gently; sway around if necessary to shake any out any stress that gathered anywhere.
Also, when sitting, center your upper body parts on your hips, while keeping your feet flat on the floor. The stronger you are, the more difficult some portions of this may be for you. If any part presents problems or produces discomfort, then take measures to stretch out the overdeveloped muscles, or better yet, make full body stretching a part of your daily route. And breathe. Muscles need oxygen. In fact, forcing a cold, suffocating muscle to stretch can cause more harm than good, so it's good to get the blood pumping a little first. Don't be frustrated if this doesn't come naturally or feels uncomfortable at first. Keep practicing every day. When you are able to get to perfect posture without effort, you can practice it in the grocery line, while cooking dinner, while watching a soccer game, etc.
Don't waste time while waiting for the ship to come in.

Our mental and physical wellbeing relies heavily on our body's alignment. You can improve this, no gym membership, pills, or surgery required. Subtle results will yield great benefits, one muscle, one action, one breath, and one thought at a time. by Ruth Heil

    Deception in the Wind

    June 19th, 2015
    Finally we got a chance to comfortably put our kayaks in the water. My husband and I had been visiting the Finger Lakes region of New York for days, hoping the weather would improve. Our bags were packed with warm-weather clothes (shorts, tanks, sandals) but the only outfit each of us had worn so far consisted of a fleece sweatshirt, a pair of boots, and a raincoat. This day was different. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better, and we smiled as we pulled into Keuka Lake State Park. Yet, even in the satisfaction of doing what we had traveled so far to do, the day became another lesson in the need to remain flexible, accept what comes, and learn from our mistakes. The problem was the wind. Had it not been for the constant blowing, the temperature might have reached 70 degrees. More than the chill, the swiftly moving air made it unpleasant for floating, at least when compared to times of quiet stillness, when water could be glass. No, today we would have waves and churning and noise in our ears. I tightened the band on my hat, just enough so it would stay (hopefully); loose enough that it wouldn’t hurt. We unloaded the kayaks and carried them 100 yards to the stone beach. A couple crouched together on a bench as their dog stretched its leash, searching for our displaced scent. With lifejackets on, water bottles filled, and sunscreen applied, we were ready to tour a portion of the shallow Keuka Lake.
    Getting ready in the sunshine
    The clear water of Keuka Lake
    “Let’s go that way first,” Glenn suggested, pointing to the north, into the wind. He had read my mind. Do the hard work while we were strong, and let nature blow us back home when we were tired. We shoved off. Since I’m not an experienced paddler, the waves made me a little nervous as they tossed my boat around. But once I got the nose facing directly into the wind, I became surprised at how easily I could glide through them. I began to relax and admire the shoreline as I paddled along. Boats of various sizes were tied to docks of various sizes—some long and fancy; others short and weathered—which led to houses of the same description. Shoulder to shoulder, shacks stood next to luxury homes, each one quiet, as if everyone was someplace else. A solitary man fished from a small-but-well-equiped motor boat. I crept past him, being careful to stay in the opposite direction of his cast. I navigated the choppy water, again with surprising ease. We stayed near the coastline, because it was more interesting to look at than the wide open expanse of churning lakewater, and the surface was calmer and the air quieter. At a productive pace, Glenn and I found ourselves at the north end of the lake in no time. There the waters transitioned into a small, lazy stream, just deep enough to get a shallow motor boat through. Nearby trees on the shore and tall reeds in the marsh acted as a wind break, so it was pleasant and peaceful there. I let the kayak drift against a rock inside an eddy to rest. Glenn brought his boat against mine and we drank some water and shared a bag of cashews. That sure was easy, I thought to myself. I barely felt tired at all, and we had crossed a fairly long stretch of lake. I watched the breeze occasionally lift up the edges of the lilly pads, making them look as if they were waving to me. Red-winged Blackbirds hovered and then landed on the five-foot high reeds, bending the vertical stalks 90 degrees, then hopping sideways down toward the ground. They were feeding on something I could not see, and they clicked and called to each other, hovering, landing, disappearing into the tall grass.
    Glenn went ahead of me as we explored the marshy area. Then, I heard a sudden and alarming honking noise. When I turned to look, I saw expansive wings, laboring to get into the air. He had stirred a Great Blue Heron and was receiving a scolding for doing so. When it disappeared into the tall grass, I assumed it regained its statuesque position, rendering it camoflauged once again. Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a beautiful day. “Ready?” Glenn asked, meaning he wanted to go back. Not really, I thought while my mouth said, “Okay.” We were now on the western shore, the opposite side of the lake from where we had started. “Let’s row to that point, then cross,” he suggested with a wave of his paddle. I followed agreeingly. We hugged the shoreline again, where we passed a small marina filled pleasure boats. I smelled charcoal, proving someone else was enjoying this windy Friday afternoon. Boatslip owners had setup patio scenes--complete with furniture and canopies--on the docks by the most luxurious looking boats. Sailboats rocked and clanged in rhythm with the wind and waves. Under the awning on one boat, I saw the soles of two. Ankles were rested on top of a tan leather captain’s chair, crossed in relaxation, the body hidden from view. Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a peaceful day. Then, we had reached the point where the hard trek would begin. I dug in my paddle and began to row. My eyes spied a place, north of the beach, in the middle of the lake, where the waves settled into a pattern of two directions, one southwest, the other southeast, the latter being exactly where I wanted to go. I expected it would be difficult to get through the wavy chaos in between, but I could taste the reward of reaching that point: a wind-powered push home.
    But as I paddled, it seemed as if I could never reach the spot. Was it a mirage? Why was my boat so keen on laying against the waves instead of obeying my southbound steering? Fortunately, the sun’s energy kept me warm as some of the waves splashed over the sides of my kayak, spraying water across my legs. There would be no rhythmic paddling: right, left, right, left. It was only a hard left. Another hard left. Followed by a rudder-like dip on the right. No matter how hard I fought, I could not get the wind behind my back. I grunted and rowed and then began to curse. I had reached the halfway point. The waves were rolling right toward home, yet still I had to dig in and compensate and dig in again. My notion of an easy ending had been smashed into a frustrating fight with nature. Only near the shore did the pressure ease. I landed the kayak and disembarked, not with the pleasure of a satifying tiredness, but with the damning of plan gone bad. As I watched Glenn glide in and looked out over the lake, I tried to determine the error of our ways. Then, the only answer I could think of came to me. Keuka, like all the Finger Lakes, drains to the north, toward the Great Lakes and Canada. The wind was blowing toward the south. I had been fooled by the southbound wind into ignoring the northbound current. We had reacted to what was happening on the surface, without considering what was happening underneath. And suddenly the experience had become a string of metaphors. • When planning, base your strategy on consistent fact (current), not fluctuating trends (wind). • Don’t let the loud and boisterous distort your respect for the quiet and strong. • Be willing to adjust your plan, keeping tuned to your instincts. I should have changed course when I realized how easy it was to paddle into the wind. Or at least I should have stopped to ask why it was so. • Be prepared for a plan not to work. Luckily I was not tired from the first leg of my trip. I had taken water and a snack, thus I had the strength to fight my way home. • Do not curse what beats you. Learn from it instead. We hauled the boats back to the truck, uphill this time. I tried to shake off the frustration and center myself again on the pleasures of the day and of the entire trip, rain or shine. Such as...
    With cold rain outside, we explored the indoor wonders at the Museum of the Earth
    We walked to places special enough to be considered sacred, such as the 215-foot Taughannock Falls ...
    and looked inside the earth at Watkins Glen Gorge
    Outside the woods and off the lake, we investigated the best of what the region offered...
    including a few stops for some very good beer.
    We visited the institution that recorded the birdsongs I first listened to as a child, setting in motion my lifeling appreciation for nature.
    Yes, it isn’t perfect, it isn't always easy, it isn't always what we expect, but life certainly is wonderful.

    Lost Without Recollection

    April 17th, 2015
    Here comes another attack on technology. I can't help myself; things have gotten absurd. It's not that the tool isn't good. For the right application, it can be very useful. However, like buying a field mower to maintain a center-city plot of grass, our chase for the latest and biggest has as run us right past common sense. GPS. Global positioning systems. The Garmin. The talking dashboard. The I-can't-tell-where-I'm-going-without-her box that, in my opinion, is the new "boob tube," a nickname once reserved for the mind-numbing television set. Yes, if you are a salesperson who must mow a large territory or if you are a scientist who needs to document your remote location via satellite, you should have a GPS. But if you are a parent driving back and forth between local rivalry soccer fields, you do not need a GPS. You need to have a friendly conversation with a live person who can tell you how to get there. You need to look at $5 map instead of programming a $200 machine. Still, to each his or her own. Except that stupidity frightens me. Not only do I fear for my future, I worry about people. And today's overuse of dashboard GPS products is about as stupid as firing up a 70" tractor to pass over a 36" piece of ground. I've heard of stories in which drivers, following the digital instructor, have crashed after turning onto roads that didn't exist. A good friend of mine--an otherwise intelligent and perceptive gal--allowed her GPS to get her lost inside in a very harsh neighborhood, one that was so bad a police officer saw her, came to her aid, and escorted her out of town. Logical intelligence is being traded for gadgetry dependence. Both those examples were hearsay. But last summer I came face-to-face with a nearly tragic example. Were it not for the kindness of a brave bystander, the outcome would have been worse. I was camping in a wooded Pennsylvania State Park with friends. So spread out were the hiking routes that you had to drive to the trail heads if you didn't want to spend more time hiking to them than on them. My friend, Jane, and I set off in her hybrid Ford for a short, late-afternoon excursion to see some of the park's most impressive waterfalls, including one that was 94 feet high.
    We climbed the steep trail and oohed and awed and snapped photos and breathed in the lovely scent. Then, we climbed back to the parking lot. The sun was falling toward dusk. Exhilarated, Jane said, "Hey, while we're out here, do you mind if I stop by the payphone to check in at home? There's no cell service out here." (For those who don't know, a pay phone is metal box with a wired handset and buttons numbered zero to nine. You put coin money into a slot so you can place a call.) "Absolutely not," I said. "Sounds like a good idea." The phone hung outside the park office, which was closed since it was after 7pm. Knowing the weather bulletin was accessible in the foyer, I walked inside while she dialed. I snapped a photo of the threat of thunderstorms to report to my friends back at camp. On my way out, I met a young man. Our conversation was a little chaotic, because he was a little panicked. Did I work there? Did I know how to reach a ranger? Could I point out where we were on the map? Isn't there some sort of emergency number to call? The severity of his dilemma came out eventually. He was completely lost and nightfall was coming. The three others with him looked tired. "I'm never going to get my family back to the car before dark," he said hopelessly. "Where is your car parked?" I asked. "It's in the lot where you must cross the road and then there are bridges and then a trail...." None of that sounded familiar to me. I desperately searched my mind so I could help him. By now Jane had finished talking with her family, and she walked up to see what was happening. "They need help and there is no way to reach a ranger," I explained. He repeated his story while his family rested on a wooden bench. The young girl swung her feet, the mom remained calm, sweaty, and collected, and the teenage boy showed no emotion at all. "Well, I can give you ride," Jane said in the same emphatically helpful way she approaches most situations. While I was still trying to picture bridges to a trail, Jane dove right into a carefree and generous solution. It seemed obvious this was not a ploy to hurt us, but it was notable that risk or inconvenience never caused Jane to hesitate. Old-fashioned humanity came first. I wasn't sure how we were going to fit anyone else into a vehicle stuffed with camping gear. Jane quickly determined that the best thing to do was to drive him to his car so that he could come back and pick up his family. "Oh my God; thank you." He looked as if he might cry. "So, where are you parked?" she repeated my earlier question. "I don't know...bridges...cross a road." "Is it the Beech Lot?" "I have no idea." "Hmm. Okay; it's probably the Lakeside Lot. Let's try. We piled in, waved to his slightly worried-looking family on the wooden bench, and yelled, "We'll be right back." In the review mirror, I saw them walking toward a water fountain. But as we drove, Dad just kept repeating his description and nothing looked familiar. "Jane, can I have that park map?" I asked. I scoured the 8 1/2 by 11-inch photocopy for other parking lots. "I bet he's parked down on Route 118." I turned to the stranger in the back seat. "Did you come in on 487 or 118?" "I don't know; my wife used GPS and just told me where to turn." "Did you come in from the north or the south?" "I have no idea." "What towns did you pass through? "No idea...GPS." "We gotta' give it a shot; he must be all the way down in that lower lot." Mind you, this was NOT around the corner. He was probably parked on the other side of 13,000 acres. The road would take us six miles down to an elevation that was more than 1,000 feet lower than where we found him. Along the way, he began to recognize things. "We were here," he almost shouted. "This is where we came out of the woods when we knew it was getting dark. We were told the trail would loop back down, but it never did. I had to get my family out of the woods. Then some guy told us to turn around. We should have kept walking." I assured him that it was best he turned around, because we were only about a half-mile into our six-mile journey. "This is going to be a little bit of drive. The road veers away from the park for a bit." The Ford's transmission hummed while the low gear prevented us from flying down the hill. We passed a ranger's truck with no ranger it in it as well as a runaway truck ramp (an uphill clearing onto which a truck that has lost its brakes could make an emergency landing). We passed trees and more trees until we finally got to the bottom, where we turned left in hopes that we were headed to the right parking lot. Still, since he hadn't walked all the way down the mountain, this section once again was unfamiliar. "Let's hope you just came in from the other way," Jane said in a reassuring tone. I think she was trying to ease her own mind even more than the stranger's. People were likely wondering where the heck we were, and we were both in an unspoken thirst for that post-hike beer. The backseat stranger said, "This is not like me. I know how to read a map. I thought this loop would be clearly marked. I've got to keep my family safe. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail soon, but I guess I'm going to have to get better at orienteering. There's no way we would have made it back to the car!" The closer we got, the more he seemed to think this was the correct place. "It should be coming up on the right," I said. "Yes. Yes. This looks like it. Oh my God; I think this is it." "Are you going to kiss your car when you find it?" I joked. "Absolutely," he said. "There it is; that silver Jeep." The next few moments were filled with a flood of sincere gratitude and relief. "How can I get in touch with you? I want to pay you." There was no way Jane would have accepted it; her reward was already received. Heightened by his appreciation, the chance to make a positive difference in a stranger's day was more than enough payback for her. "Do you know how to get back?" "I think so." I began describing the two turns, when Jane simply said, "Just follow us." This time the hybrid complained, unable to exceed 35 mph. “Take your time,” I kept urging her. "You don't want to wreck your transmission over a good deed." We knew the silver Jeep behind us was anxious to get to its destination, but this was a hill that couldn't be rushed. Once at the park office, we waved happily to the family as they climbed into the car, their ordeal finally over. I was proud of my friend. I'm not sure I'd have realized the gravity of their situation as quickly as she did or be as willing to get involved. I was still stuck on getting a ranger's help by the time Jane had clicked her seat belt. But while it was all happiness and gratitude, I couldn't get over how an individual who clearly displayed a love for his family and a respect for his responsibilities as a father could not begin to describe where he had been beyond the scenery he witnessed when he got there. I began to understand why he, when we were looking at the map back at the ranger's office, couldn't figure out where he was. All he knew was that he was far from where he started and that he should probably head downhill. Because Jane had a paper map and because I was familiar with that paper--my guide for the weekend--the three of us are not still driving around looking for a parking lot across the road from a trail with bridges. In a society that continues to invent new tools to find its way, I see that we are becoming increasingly disoriented. Thankfully there are still a few map-reading humans such as Jane and me alive in this world, people who are willing to help when the way-finding computers fall out of reach.

    A Sense of Accomplishment

    January 23rd, 2015

    New ideas give me a rush. They flood in and overwhelm all other thoughts, consuming my ability to focus on whatever task I was doing at the time. To make the most of a good idea when it comes, I drop the mundane and chase the possibilities.

    "That would make a fantastic website."

    "This is a story I need to write."

    "Why hadn't I thought of that sooner; I must get started RIGHT NOW."

    New ideas make me feel alive, as if I might still have something to contribute to this old world. Why keep plodding through an unfinished task, a report about yesterday, that letter I'm tired of writing, this data-collection scheme weighing down my eyelids? Finishing things is boring; I want to devour freshness.

    Why? Because a sense of accomplishment never gets stale. In fact, it lets me sleep at night. After I finish a task I hear things such as, "take a break," "time to celebrate," and "good job." And because every idea is virtually worthless until it reaches completion.

    So, what to do?

    There is a way to trap the ideas so they don't get away, without having to act on each one the second it develops:

    Write them down.

    For those who get explosive torrents or regular good ones each day, take this advice to the next level: Start an Idea Journal. A simple spiral-bound tablet will do. Record the date if you want, but more importantly, document your thoughts. Write down enough information so that you can recall not just the concept but also the enthusiasm and emotion and the reason for the urgency.

    Put the paper aside and go back to what you were doing. Then, on those days when nothing comes, open the journal and be inspired.

    Humans are losing their sense of accomplishment because our brains are evolving with technology. This is especially true for the brain that grew up with computers. We are increasing our ability to process multiple streams of information at once, but we are decreasing our ability to focus. This is great for starting things, but not so great for finishing them. Still, we need to close the books, tie up the lose ends, and put the laundry away.

    This blog post is an example of the "save it for later" technique I am suggesting. The premise originally flashed through my brain in October 2014, while I was updating the html code on my Website (boring). A few days ago, knowing it was time to post to the blog, I was burned out and empty. I opened my folder, plucked out a concept, and suddenly I was back on track. Not only did I successfully finish updating the navigation links at www.thewritebeat.com, I have completed this post, and thus can now celebrate two minor-but-mighty accomplishments.

    A Path to Health and Connection

    October 24th, 2014
    Do you wish you could get more exercise? Do you wish you had more time to yourself? Do you wish you could escape once in a while? There is a phenomenon in American culture: we don't do the things we know we need to. No matter how much we understand the value of exercise and stress reduction, we push aside the activities required to achieve our goals, as if these were luxuries we haven't yet earned. "I cannot take time for myself; my family needs me," the tired mother says. "I cannot afford the equipment I need to start an exercise program," the busy employee says. "Somehow the day's end comes before I manage to take that walk," the blog writer says. Guilty as charged. Productivity. Health. Focus. Happiness. Success. I know I can gain all five with one act, yet day-after-day I don't do what I need to do. And all I need to do is go for a walk.
    Thus, I have made a commitment in order to break this cycle of failure. I have woven together a plan, and I hope you'll come along with me. Loyal readers already know that I've had a new project on the horizon. I hinted at it when I sent out an exclusive readership survey invitation last season. Fifteen percent responded (thank you!), and a synergy was found in what was written. Here is a summary: • Of all the subjects listed, no one liked gym best in school. • No two respondents share the same profession. • 80% want to be outside. • While only one person gets to be outside for his or her job, the majority is satisfied with number of hours they work. • Everyone has reasons to care about the environment. • No one believes the earth's climate is remaining the same. • Most people check the weather every day but not more than once. • Birds and water ranked highest among people's favorite outdoor-related things. • We live in a variety of environments (urban, rural, etc.) • Most of us began using a home computer after the age of twenty, and most still prefer to read digital content on a computer or laptop, none of us via a phone. As for what was liked and disliked about this blog, the answers were all over the map. "Too long," "a bit preachy," "not enough graphics," and "not enough solutions" were negatives offset by "very succinct," "love the kindness," "informative," and "clean design." Of course, I've taken it all into account, both negative and positive. Each comment is a thread in my woven plan. And so, here it is:

    Today's Walk
    This is a new blog that is set to launch in the next few days. Walk with me each day, in all kinds of weather, down a variety of paths, and through a world that offers an unlimited supply of prompts to get me thinking about my role in it. Each post is short and falls into one of four categories: facts (nature-related knowledge), events (cyclical or unusual), observations (life-related metaphors) and tips (instruction, gear, advice). This does not mean Back to Basics will end. The frequency may change to every-other-week, but the writing will remain the same. I cherish you loyal readers of the Back to Basics blog, many of whom have been here every week since it began in 2008. With fewer than 300 people on the mailing list, 60 of whom I know read every post within 24 hours of its release, I am honored to continue to share my thoughts with you. Meanwhile, in order to continue to write, in order to stay healthy both physically and financially, I need to expand. And here's where I need your help. Today's Walk must reach an audience that is 100 times greater than Back to Basics. This is for a variety of reasons, most of which centers on satisfying the wants of the publishing industry. I am actively seeking an agent in a very competitive marketplace, and nothing peaks the publishing world's interest more than a large reader following. In short, Today's Walk has to be big. The first post will be ready soon. After the release, if you like what you see, please tell a friend. Please continue to offer feedback, privately or via the comments. Please continue to care about the natural world so that together we can inspire more people to walk down the path that connects us all to better health.