November 21:  Cardio Catch-Ups Make Me Better

IMG_8126

Ummm, this may not be my photo!  It was on my phone from 2017 and I can’t remember where it came from–I usually ask friends for permission to use… If it’s yours please claim it!

NaBloPoMo 2019

Is there something you should do but you don’t always want to?

Exercise perhaps, or laundry?  Dishes?  Cleaning and decluttering?

Last year I listened to Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.  It was a fun, relatable, well-researched and –reasoned book on habit formation and change.  I have recommended it to many patients for its myriad practical strategies.  One that particularly resonated with me was the idea of pairing.  Basically if we combine the thing we should-but-don’t-want-to-do with something we like or do-want-to-do, we are more likely to form and strengthen the habit of the ‘sbdwtd’.

In one of those Eureka! moments of instant understanding and integration, I started saving my favorite TV show to watch while doing the interval program on my elliptical.  Thanks to the hubs for positioning the cardio machine right in front of the TV in the basement!  Sadly, The Big Bang Theory has concluded and there are no other 30 minute shows quite so compelling to get me moving.  Thankfully I have my favorite podcast and Liked Songs list on Spotify, so I’m not totally sedentary.  On days when I’m really motivated, I still do the 7 minute workout or a TRX program.

***

Do you wish you could connect more often with friends?

Years ago I remember talking on the phone while unloading and putting away groceries or folding laundry.  My friend was in San Francisco, I in Chicago.  We knew each other’s days off and would just call when we had a moment, and talk if we were free.  Farther back, in college and med school, we could all just hang out at each other’s apartments, pretending to study, but really just eating and talking.  Now we text, which is nice, but it’s not the same.  Somehow it feels harder to get folks on the phone anymore, and even harder to meet in person…  I miss my friends.

I’m getting a little better, though.  Sometimes I make phone dates with people for my commute.  It can be challenging across time zones, but we make it work.  It’s finite and somewhat reliable—I have to spend 30-40 minutes in the car at some point on any given morning and evening on workdays.  I even managed to connect with two Counsel members for pep talks before important meetings recently.

This month my new friend Alex and I started a new connection method, the Cardio Catch-Up.  She lives in DC and has to walk her dog.  I still need to work out, which I usually do in the evenings.  So we arranged a call over exercise tonight.  It was perfect!  I had to commit to a certain time, and my friend held me accountable.  I got on the machine and didn’t even notice the time going by (okay it just went by a lot faster), while we bonded over our LOH learnings, musings on human behavior and tribal dynamics, and our shared progressive values and aspirations for the planet.  I got my workout in, check.  And we both alighted on themes for future blog posts.  Tonight’s nascent idea:  Is the contagion of urgency the best vehicle for motivation?  Who knows where it will lead, into what it will grow, with what it will merge?  Regardless, it was born of an optimal pairing.

***

The Cardio Catch-Up is the perfect multi-win:  Move the body, release stress and tension, connect with another beautiful human, exercise the mind, and inspire the spirit.  Who wants to do it with me next week?

November 20:  A Little Profanity Makes Me Better

IMG_2073

NaBloPoMo 2019

I swear I was surrounded by idiots today.  Not at work or home…  Mostly on the roads.  It started early, my friends, and they were everywhere.  Is the moon full?  Maybe there’s a toxic gas leak somewhere?  I found myself aggravated before I even got to the office, where usual hiccups in schedule and daily operations continued to poke my inner rage monster.

*deep breath*

Thankfully, I have learned a few helpful strategies over the years.

One is to vocalize.  There is a reason babies and little kids cry and scream at the drop of a hat.  It’s the most efficient way to discharge an acute emotion.  Then it’s over and they can get on with playing and learning.  As adults, this isn’t socially acceptable most the time.  But in the privacy of one’s own car, it can help.  After the fourth or fifth encounter with the truly insane on my morning commute, I growled.  It was not a planned, but I’m doing it more often over the years, perhaps.  It was spontaneous, and I noticed instant release and relief.  Then I literally chuckled a little.  I continued on my way and forgot about those vehicular fools.  I even found a little charity—must be the weather, or that toxic gas.

A dear friend recommended a book this year, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, which I love.  The third commitment is ‘Feeling all the Feelings’.  The authors explain: “Feeling a feeling all the way through means letting that feeling have its full life cycle (less than 90 seconds) by breathing, moving and vocalizing, resting in calmness, and riding the next wave through to completion.”  In other words, rather than repressing, denying, or wallowing in our emotions, we can acknowledge, identify, accept, honor, and release them.  Then they don’t rule us, driving us to hurtful action, damaged relationships, and toxic work environments.

Here is their method:

When a feeling arises, pause and…

  • Locate the sensation in your body. What are the ‘bits’ doing?
  • Breathe and allow the bits to simply do what they do.
  • Move and/or make a sound to match what the bits are doing.

Sometimes the bits need something more than private growl.

Recall the daily work hiccups.  Most of the time, I can roll with them easily.  I am blessed with a truly amazing team—flexible and smart, able to anticipate patients’ and my needs with keen precision.  But today was a true aberration for me—my already tenuous mental state (apparently not yet resolved) unraveled quickly in the first hour of work.  So, in the safety of the workroom, surrounded by the team I knew could hold the space, I let loose at least two or three sonorous f-bombs, accompanied by some appropriately expressive full-body gestures.  Not only did the team tolerate the outburst, they offered loving support and encouragement.  “Let it out,” one told me.  Once again, I felt instantly better.  I took a deep breath, thanked them, exited the Cave of Camaraderie, and faced the rest of my day with exponentially more grace and generosity.

It was not my best moment.  I should apologize for making anyone feel uncomfortable—cursing in the workroom is not the example of professionalism that I aspire to set.  Still, I don’t regret it.  And it will not become a recurring pattern, I can say with confidence.

Some evidence suggests that swearing raises pain tolerance and relieves stress.  I didn’t lash out at anyone, I didn’t destroy any property.  But my little episode helped me regroup, get my head on straight, and show up my best for my patients today.

Looking back, there were probably no more insane drivers out today than any other day. I will reflect more on what I brought to this day that created my experience. I attribute my ability to approach this reflection with calm and intention to the freedom from emotional tumult that vocalization and a little swearing affords me.

Recent research has shown that swearing while exercising increases physical strength and power.  I may test this self-improvement theory in my workouts this week—in the seclusion of my home gym, of course.

November 19:  Board Review Makes Me Better, For Sure

MKSAP flyer

NaBloPoMo 2019

Are you required to do continuing education for your work?

Since 2013, the Illinois Chapter of the American College of Physicians has run a weekly internal medicine board review webinar, MKSAP Live Online Study Hall.  We use questions that ACP publishes through the Medical Knowledge Self-Assessment Program, covering topics in general medicine and its subspecialties, including cardiology, pulmonary, infectious diseases, and rheumatology.  Every Tuesday night at 8pm Central time, two of us moderators and one webinar organizer get online and review about 14 questions, SAT-style.  We interact with audience members through a chat function on GoToWebinar, and we poll some of the questions each session.

I love this program for multiple reasons.

First, I was there when it started.  Gathered around then Governor Dr. Marie Brown’s dining room table, a handful of local ACP members brainstormed and created what is now an international, comprehensive internal medicine board review webinar series.  After some playful, off-topic, post-prandial banter between Dr. Sean Greenhalgh and me, our colleague across the table said wryly, “I’d watch that for an hour.”  Hence the dual-moderator, morning radio DJ style webinar was born.  That was in the fall of 2012, and the Study Hall is now halfway through its third two-year cycle.

Second, I get to hang out with my doctor friends online.  Besides Marie and a couple others, I did not know any of the dozen folks involved in the project before that night at her house.  We did improv workshops at the beginning to form our team and ease our communication skills.  Since then we have all become friends—a clique, even.  We have followed kids’ graduations, births of babies and grandbabies, and some personal challenges as well, all while getting together every few weeks to talk shop for an hour online.  We have even become celebrities of sorts—first at Illinois Chapter meetings and now sometimes at ACP National, people come up to us to say how much they like the program.  We’ve become a fixture in some colleagues’ lives.  We feel pretty proud and special about that.

The best thing about the Study Hall, though, is that just in the space of one hour on a Tuesday night, I am consistently humbled by the sheer volume of knowledge there is to absorb, just in internal medicine.  This is only one specialty of the whole medical profession!  And it’s not just the volume—it’s the complexity, the context, and the ever-evolving research, diagnostic and treatment development, and guidelines.  MKSAP publishes a new set of comprehensive questions every two years, and I do not envy the writers their colossal task of keeping us all up to date.  Without fail, every session I learn something that I will use the following week in clinic.

As this month of daily posts progresses, I feel increasing awe and gratitude for all of the people and opportunities in my life.  Thanks to all my colleagues, leaders, family and friends who make this life so full and loving.

November 18:  Relentless Curiosity Makes Me Better

IMG_4440

NaBloPoMo 2019

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Tonight, in the month of gratitude, I feel deeply thankful for Coach Christine.  I might have been a curious person all along, but it was not until I got a life coach that I learned the vast and profound value of curiosity in every realm.  As I wrote earlier this month, standing always in curiosity liberates my mind.  It relieves me of unnecessary urgency for an answer.  I can exercise professional creativity in forming better and better questions, and the answers (often multiple, intertwined, and intriguing) emerge more easily and artfully than if I chase them demandingly.

The business of medicine is to solve problems, to heal, to cure.  So we assume that the faster we get to answers, the better.  And they had better be the right ones, because lives are at stake here!  It’s always interesting to me when patients talk about my work as ‘saving lives.’  I can’t remember a time when I could actually make that claim, at least at all directly.  But to my colleagues—emergency medicine and critical care docs, trauma surgeons, suicide hotline counselors—thank you, you really do save lives every day!

I love primary care because I usually have the luxury of ‘(living) the question.’  When patients present with new problems, as soon as I know they are stable, I get really excited.  I’m liberated to get deeply curious, ask as many questions as they will tolerate, paint the big picture together.  I follow the standard physiologic and diagnostic process initially, which often yields a straight forward answer and plan of care.  But life and work would be pretty boring if that were always the case.  When the usual suspects are all acquitted and the mystery persists, that’s when things get fascinating.  This is when I really get to know a person.  When I ask truly open, honest questions—the questions I don’t know the answers to and that are not meant to lead anywhere—I never know where the conversation will go.  And I always learn something new and relevant, something that helps me connect.  This is the information that makes a person memorable, because it is truly unique to them.

One of my favorite moments in a patient encounter is when I have to pause a few seconds to form a really good question.  What do I really want to know, what am I after, what will really break open this conversation?  It happens regularly, and wow, what a rush.  OH, I just never know what I will learn!  You’d think people would get impatient and grumpy with such prolonged, sometimes meandering interrogation.  But I find that they often lean in, look me in the eye.  They get on the train with me and look as eagerly as I around the next bend.  What will we find?  Let’s explore together!

Relentless Curiosity.  It’s the funnest part of my work.  I love it.  And as we all know, loving our work makes us better.

November 17:  Elasticity Makes Me Better

IMG_2649

NaBloPoMo 2019

What was school like for you growing up?  Were you bored?  Confused?  Frustrated?  I had a pretty easy time, but many of my classmates did not, even the ‘smart’ ones.

In high school I was on the speech team.  One of my events was persuasive speaking.  I chose one year to advocate for teachers to broaden their teaching styles to match a wider variety of learning styles.  I used the Gregorc Mindstyle Delineator as an example of how styles can vary (mine is Abstract Random, go figure).  It was an interesting thesis and I sincerely believed what I wrote and presented in those 8 minutes each weekend.

Thirty years later, I wonder how much I walk this talk of meeting people where they need me.  Simply asking the question, raising my awareness, makes me better.

Parenting.  It doesn’t matter how many parenting books you read or how well you think your parents raised you.  General principles apply, of course.  But every kid is unique, and we parents do better when we realize that the methods we use for anything on kid #1 won’t necessarily work with kid #2, #3, an onward.  Flexibility is key to a happy and functional household, for getting out the door every morning without yelling.

Marriage:  According to the Dr. John Gottman, about two-thirds of marital problems are perpetual, meaning they will never actually resolve.  So how do couples stay together successfully?  Among other things, they learn to accept one another and work around the hard stuff.  At least partially, we have to soften our rigidities, learn to bend and sway, embrace the supple, intimate dance of commitment.

Teaching:  Not all students learn best by watching.  Not all learn best by doing.  Or by hearing, mimicking, or competing.  Luckily, medical education gives trainees multiple platforms on which to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to care for patients.  For all its flaws, our profession actually does well here.  I’m happy that I realized this in my own experience.  When I precept students in clinic, they shadow, scribe, see patients alone or lead a joint encounter, so they can experience the work from different perspectives.  I think this mutual versatility and adaptability makes us all better.

Patient Care:  Over the years I have accumulated myriad articles and books to share with patients.  But not everybody’s a reader like me.  Not everybody wants to meditate or journal.  Some people do better with a personal trainer, others in spin class.  It’s my job to assess how each patient is most likely to succeed in health habit optimization, and present the most appropriate resources for consideration.  Primary care definitely does not work with a one size fits all approach.  So now I include audiobooks, podcasts, phone apps, and YouTube videos in my repertoire of medical information sharing.  I am blunt when it’s needed, and also gentle and diplomatic.  I can speak from the head and the heart, often both at the same time.

Speaking Engagements:  Here is where my elasticity has grown the most in recent years.  For the first decade of my career, I still used the expository presentation style I learned in high school.  Thankfully in 2014, I watched Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on transformative oral presentations, and then read her book, Resonate, in 2015.  Make the audience the hero, she says.  Tell a story, contrast what is with what could be, paint the vision of the blissful future clearly.  Engage people’s emotions and aspirations.

This is not easily done with Power Point decks full of words.  But words are my medium!  I had to add color, diagrams, cartoons, photographs.  I started making my presentations more interactive, between myself and the audience, and between audience members themselves.  Now I have people stand up and move their bodies.  I may bring raisins to my next talk and do a mindful eating exercise.  I need to learn how to embed music and videos into my slides.

What is the objective in all of these relationships?  It’s connection.  How do we best connect?  We reach out.  We extend ourselves to others—make ourselves relaxed, flexible, spring-like.  That is how we gather people closer.  It’s not formless or weak.  A strong elastic maintains its integrity even under high tension.  But it must be stretched often, or it becomes stiff, brittle, and ultimately ineffectual.

 

November 16:  Loving Subversion Makes Me Better

IMG_1901

NaBloPoMo 2019

Friends, do you already follow Seth Godin’s blog?  His post from Thursday stirred something a little irreverent in me.  It was about ‘allies and accomplices’:

To be an ally means that you won’t get in the way, and, if you are able to, you’ll try to help.

To become an accomplice, though, means that you’ve risked something, sacrificed something and put yourself on the hook as well.

We need more allies, in all the work we do. Allies can open doors and help us feel a lot less alone.

But finding an accomplice–that’s an extraordinary leap forward.

I thought immediately about my fellow Better Angels volunteers.  We have all committed time, talent, and treasure to the depolarizing of America.  We do it in public, in front of audiences and cameras, to reporters and members of our communities.  We openly challenge the prevailing culture of ad hominem, oversimplification, and overgeneralization.  We all come to it from our own internal optimism and hope.  But in the face of entrenched polarization and a culture of self-protection above all, we could never make any headway as individuals.  It is only together—as mutual accomplices—that we can truly claim and exercise our collective agency.

I feel even more buoyed by Ozan’s latest post.  He describes a series of well-known studies showing that people will organize themselves into in-groups and out-groups with remarkable loyalty, even around random and arbitrary distinctions like taste in abstract art.  This, of course, carries grave and important implications for prejudice and discrimination.  Ozan then points to two exemplars of the opposite, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama.  In their most famous orations (see links), these remarkable leaders speak directly to what unites us as the foundation for solving our problems, rather than what divides us.

MLK:  The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Obama:  The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.  We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

I get goosebumps just reading the words.

It really feels like a loving subversion—of cynicism, scarcity, antagonism, and fear.

Who’s not better for that?

 

 

 

November 15: Smiling People Make Me Better

DSC_0521

NaBloPoMo 2019

Winter has set in here in Chicago. Oh well, this too shall pass. The kids were off from school today, so my morning exit was quiet and solitary. I drove along our alley, coming up behind on a slight female figure pushing a stroller. As I passed her, she looked up with a big smile and waved with an open, ungloved hand. She really seemed to look for eye contact with me, the unknown driver passing her. I had wished for the same, but had no expectations. In my pleasant surprise, I smiled back and nodded, one hand on the wheel, the other holding my coffee, which I raised in greeting. I had learned long ago that life in the big city is usually not this friendly.  She pretty much made my morning.

I’ve been thinking about it all day. How many times a day do we contact strangers? How often does a person on the street look at you, make eye contact, and smile? Or say hello? How often do you do this? Does it not just brighten your day, even a little? How does it feel when you pass a dozen people and nobody acknowledges your existence? The most fascinating is when someone looks at me, makes eye contact, expresses nothing whatsoever, then looks away and keeps walking.

I used to be much more judgmental of these behaviors and people. I may have even taken it personally in early adulthood. But now I’ve lightened up a little. I don’t think it’s about me. But it makes me wonder about people—what is it that closes us off from strangers? Based on people’s expressions, I tell stories that they are worried, anxious, angry, distracted, rushing, arrogant, oblivious, or just mean. I make it about them. But this is neither productive nor healthy. It just makes me resentful and less likely to smile at the next person I meet.

Every one of us is one of these things I listed at some point—I think I experience each of those states at least once every day. I apologize in advance if you meet me in one of these moments. So now I try to tell myself that everybody has a unique story of getting through life and the world. This attitude shift has done two things for me. 1) It makes me appreciate smiling people that much more. I notice the twinkle in someone’s eye, the dimples, the cheekbones, the sterling white and/or crooked teeth. I appreciate these joyful strangers and let their joy sink into me. 2) It makes me more, rather than, less, likely to look for eye contact with others. If you’re not having a good day, maybe I can make it better by seeing you and smiling. I do this especially when I see moms with little kids or babies. I remember those days (so hard!) and how reassuring it was when strangers smiled and looked at us lovingly.

That woman really did make my day.

Crossing the street on my way to the parking garage after work today, a car turned left in front of me. The driver had not seen me crossing until the last second. When we made eye contact I could tell he was apologetic. He mouthed, “Sorry,” and raised his left hand in a humble wave. I smiled that I understood, no harm done. Further down the sidewalk a couple walked quickly in the cold, coming toward me. The very tall man marched in front, apparently focused on his destination behind me. His female companion came a couple steps behind. I smiled, and she smiled back—big! She had on a puffy black faux fur coat, a stylishly coordinated black fuzzy hat, nicely coifed hair jutting out from underneath, and neat, metal-framed eyeglasses that complemented her round, friendly face. I think she even said hello. My mood was definitely better for having passed them.

I’ve been in a great mood all day, maybe because of these strangers.

I think we profoundly underestimate the impact we all have on one another, positive and negative, in our smallest interactions. A genuine smile from a stranger on the street can really make your day better. When you smile at me, it makes me smile back at you, and vice versa, obviously—but the best thing about it is that we are both better off for it. That’s how joy works, I think—it doesn’t matter who starts it. It just grows wherever it is, and expands exponentially with each person who shares it.

So here’s to smiling people. You make me better. May I always smile back at you and keep the pageant of joy alive and well.