Estimates of Expectations

I am a scientist. Let me qualify that…the letters behind my name herald the fact that I studied science in university. Biology. As my pal Kathy MacDonald is quick to point out, biologists are different from other scientists…we estimate.

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass...another skill set of biologists!

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass…another skill set of biologists!

I’ve been a runner for almost 40 years, and though I don’t keep detailed records of my runs[1], I have a general idea of how many miles I’ve covered in my lifetime…TONS!!! I run next to cars, trucks, tractors, combines and all sorts of vehicles as they pass me coming and going. I have learned to run on the edge of the shoulder so that I’m not a) splashed b)veered at or c)pushed off the road. Last year, in a personal running “research project”, I estimated (because that’s what biologists do) that:

  • approximately 70% of drivers do not slow down near runners (Imagine!)
  • the remaining 30%, drivers slow down and often wave or smile (especially if I make eye contact and smile at them).

(Needless to say, I made it my goal to get as many people driving near me to smile…and consequently slow down. Happier people, and definitely happier and safer Susan.)SusanCheerMarathon-1

I’ve recently moved to bustling community of Belfountain, home of the Salamander Festival, Lobsterfest and a lot of traffic! Upon moving here, I based my expectations about safety and running on my previous scholarly estimations – so I had to be über careful because more traffic meant no one was going to slow down or move over in this fast-paced community.

WRONGO!!!!

The first time I noticed something different was shortly after I moved in. I was running on a busy road, and there were 2 cars coming towards me. Lucy, my constant running buddy, and I moved close to the ditch, just in case. But to my surprise, the first car pulled over into the next lane, away from me. The second car slowed and then did the same thing.

Well now.

How unusual.

The next day, I was out on another road. An old BMW comes rumbling up behind me, slows down and then waves as it passes me by.[2]

This morning, I was on Main Street during rush hour (or Belfountain’s version of rush hour…more like rush moment). Not one, not two, but four separate vehicles pulled into the other lane to give me lots of room. By the time the last car passed by, I was grinning like a fool. And the passenger in that last car grinned right back and waved.

As a runner, I am delighted that I’ve found a place where people are considerate. As a simple human, I am once more struck with the knowledge that what I expected was not what happened. My assumptions, no matter how strongly grounded in science they were (or weren’t!), were not at all accurate.

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

I’m sure there are countless reasons why these drivers seem nicer than others. Perhaps they are used to runners. Perhaps the town just has nicer, kinder drivers! Then again, when I head out again, someone might aim at me while I’m running and blow my theories all to smithereens.

Despite assumptions and expectations, I have found, yet again, to expect the unexpected. In this world where we are deluged by stories about the horrors of Ebola, the tragedies in the Gaza, about the alarming unrest in the Ukraine…there are simple joys that manifest themselves all around us, if we are willing to take look for them; indeed, expect them. A driver pulling over for a runner isn’t really momentous occasion. But the frequency of its occurrence has made me happy. Which makes me smile. And if I smile when I run, people smile back and are happy. Which, in the bigger scheme of the world, Ebola and everything else not withstanding, is something we should all strive for and expect.

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[1] Unlike my friend Eleanor’s brother George Aitkin, who was recently featured in the July/August Canadian Running Magazine with all his journals of accurately measured distances!

[2] No, it wasn’t a LOLWBH (little old lady with blue hair); it was a young guy wearing a Jays cap and “wife beater” t shirt!

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Arianna and Norm

It was just a small photograph online; a group of young women in bridesmaid’s dresses. They were all lovely – their hair and makeup done elegantly, smiles all over their faces, and energy radiating from the screen. But one of the girls was clearly more radiant and attractive than the others. She was my friend’s daughter, Arianna[1]. As I looked at the picture, I was confident that everyone else who saw this picture would feel the same way.

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

Then I went for a run. Running always clears my head. I sometimes use my run time to focus on something that is challenging me. Or I might use that time to be creative and dream about “what ifs”. But often, I run and let my mind take me where it wants to go. And what entered my mind was this: “Of course Arianna is more beautiful than the other  girls! You know her. That’s who your eye is attracted to when you look at the photo.”

As I kept running, I considered the phenomenon of “knowing” someone. I have shared memories and experiences with this young woman. I remember sitting in the living room, having tea and laughing out loud about something ridiculous. There is context for her in my life. The other women were just faces and smiles, with nothing else attached to them. They were less important to me than the wonderful person with whom I had shared something.

So why is this remotely important? It reminds me to consider each person I encounter in my crazy, busy life as an individual, and to try to find or create a context for them.

I conducted a small and entirely unscientific experiment on myself the other night. I went with my friend Eleanor to hear the band “The Outside Track” http://www.theoutsidetrack.com/ at Hugh’s Room. (If you’ve never heard them, you must!).

The Outside Track drivin' 'er!

The Outside Track drivin’ ‘er!

Our waiter was busy and a bit harried, and when I asked him his name, he was taken by surprise. But he said his name was “Norm”, and off he went. Each time he came to the table, I thanked him and said his name, to cement his value and personality into my mind, to create a context. Later in the evening, I turned and surveyed all the tables. The room was a-bustle of activity, with many wait staff hurrying to get tables cleared before the band started. As I scanned the room, amidst all the activity, Norm stood out in my view, and I noticed him wherever he went. I knew there were other waiters, but my eyes were drawn to Norm.

Unscientific and elementary, but still interesting to me: the one individual with whom I had a connection and a context was the one I continually noticed. Norm and I didn’t go way back in our relationship…it was built on a polite repartee´ between a client and a waiter. But we had something, and like Arianna, that connection brought him to my attention more than any others wandering around that evening.

So what? In my personal life, I am always making connections. But this served as a reminder to me of its value in my professional life. Reflect on the last meeting you were at, where introductions were made. Most people will announce their name and job title. This provides the listener with absolutely no connection to the speaker. You don’t learn what floor of the building someone works on, let alone whether or not they play the fiddle, fly fish or have burning love of peanut butter toast. Context is not made.

When I facilitate a meeting, I spend an inordinate amount of time getting people to introduce themselves. I’ve been chastised for this in the past, because it does take precious time. But I tend to ignore that admonishment, because in the long run, it saves time. When people are connected to one another, with a shared context, story or experience, they communicate in a more personal and compelling way. And that’s when the real work gets done.

Jaime, being more "individual" than most!

Jaime, being more “individual” than most!

So I ask you to think about Arianna. And about Norm. In work, and in your personal life, take the time to make connections. Friedrich Nietzsche told us that invisible threads are the strongest ties. Don’t forget to lay out those invisible threads. You will be grateful that you did.

[1] That’s not her name, of course!

Phantom pain and the scent of pine

I’ve been working pretty hard and the to-do list on my desk is a bit overwhelming. Time for a run. I suit up and head out the front door. The first part of any run from home involves a bit of trail running, so I have to focus carefully on where I step. But once I get out on the road, my mind wanders and I think about other things.

I was flying up Escarpment hill, and an unbidden cacophony of scattered  “to-dos” dance around in my head – gotta finish writing up workshop results, do a briefing note – who reads them anyway? – plan for the team training initiative – who will be there? upgrade the latest strategy…OMG!

PAIN! Lightning bolts of agony below my left knee cause me to stumble and sway, like the theatrical soccer player who flings himself on the ground when he stubs his toe, as Merebeth well knows! I’m cursing out loud, angry and helpless.

I am so stupid. Yet again, I let the stress of work take over my life, and my body’s reaction is one of extreme, phantom pain. When I broke my leg years ago, I had all sorts of metal inserted and screwed into my bones. Over time, as my leg healed, most of the titanium has been removed. But I find when I am under stress, I get phantom pain in my leg where the screws used to be. Each time it happens, it is related directly to my own state of mind, and I have learned I can make it stop very quickly, if I can reduce my stress.

LIttle scars below my knee mark the history of titanium screws in my leg.

Little scars below my knee mark the history of titanium screws in my leg.

According to Mika Nagel, Studio Director at Chopra Yoga Centre (and I imagine according to most practitioners who deal with this topic), stress is a choice. Rather than value and savour the moments I was spending running, I had chosen to think about my workload. My body’s reaction was one that forced me to stop experiencing the stress and focus on something else completely…PAIN. Talk about a wake up call.

Naturally, despite the pain, I don’t stop running. I’m a runner. We don’t do that. But the pain forcibly reminded me that I need to allow myself to experience the run. I can and should be mindful of the moment and shift my perspective, bringing awareness to the here and now, and not the “what if”.

Funny, when I do that, two things happen. First, I inhale and my nose is filled with the sweet scent of pine. And second, as I push-off with my leg to run another step, the pain is not noticeable.

I realize that the pine scent comes from branches torn off tree stems during a storm last week; I see two pileated woodpeckers chasing each other into those very trees; the heat from the spring sunshine makes my hair stick to the back of my neck, when the day before, I was wearing mittens…all that I would have missed, if I had still been thinking about…what was I thinking about?

When I am mindful of the moment, I succeed. If I am working, I am productive and I don’t miss out because I am perpetually functioning with focused attention. When I am running (insert whatever you want here), I don’t miss out either because I am mindful of what I am experiencing at the time.

Try it. Let’s hope you don’t wait until your phantom pain brings you to a grinding halt. Choose mindfulness, choose to pay attention to the present.  Life can be profoundly moving and you don’t want to miss it. Enjoy the sweet scent of the pine.

Capitol Experiences!

A person can learn a lot from three days in the nation’s capitol. I’m doing some interesting but unusual work for Natural Resources Canada, and it will take me to Ottawa fairly regularly for the next while. 2 mornings of running along the canal and 3 days of meetings generated a lot of learning opportunities for me. I’ve distilled them below, for your reading and learning pleasure. Enjoy!

Cab drivers can be amazing! Rory asked me if being in Ottawa improved my sense of nationalism. I told him it did, all because of a conversation I had with a cab driver. My driver was originally from Lebanon, hadn’t been home in years and missed it terribly. But his son is going to graduate from med school this summer, and his daughter is already a lawyer. He told me that coming to Canada gave his children a future, and he is so proud to live here. Chatting with him made me proud to be Canadian.

Eating alone in a fancy restaurant can be fun. Too often those of us who travel a lot spend our time ordering room service and working while we eat. This visit, I ended up going out alone to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Mama Theresa’s. It was busy with couples and groups, and as I sat at my table, people looked at me with curiosity and a perhaps a dash of pity. That is, until the waiter brought me a free glass of chianti, and waited on me as if I was the most important patron in the entire place. And as I sat sipping my wine, I couldn’t help but listen to the woman sitting behind me talk to her dining companion about her parents. They had moved from Budapest to Belleville in the 1950s, and she was so proud of their brave decision to leave home. It put tears in my eyes. I might have missed that had I been with other company.

Civil service working conditions are not glamorous. I spent one day moving from meeting to meeting, bouncing between cubicle to small, windowless boardrooms. The next day, I was in a government building that was built in the 1700s (I am only speculating here) and was filled with dust, darkness and mildew. The folks I am working with are vibrant, interesting and motivated people who have to do their work under these challenging conditions. If you work for private industry, you’d never have to work in conditions like that. These folks believe strongly in what they do to put up with those conditions.

Runners in Ottawa are TANKS! Either that, or I am one serious wimp. Each morning, I ran out to the canal and danced over the icy trails, wearing my IceBugs (http://icebugcanada.com/). I wore winter running tights, jacket, a wool cap and mitts. The Ottawa runners wore ¾ length spring tights, little ball caps and had bare hands! Perhaps living in the nation’s capital forces you to toughen up more than the rest of us. I was duly impressed.

Smiles are infectious.  Running along the canal, most runners keep their faces turned inward. Not me. My experiment involved smiling, no, beaming at everyone who dared make eye contact with me. Each and every runner I saw smiled back. Then the guards who work security in the government buildings? I grinned at all of them. Most of them now think I am certifiable. But by the end of my second day, I had a new friend behind the security desk who loved Stompin’ Tom and offered to be my escort in the building. Smiles are a valuable commodity. Use them well and use them often.

So when in Ottawa, listen to your cab drivers, eat alone, be vibrant, respect the toughness of runners and above all, smile!!!

This is the kind of grin that works!

This is the kind of grin that works!

Stop, look and listen

My running buddy, ready to go!

My running buddy, ready to go!

Noon o’clock, time for a run. On go the tights, jacket, my winter IceBug running shoes, iPod and out I go. 6 degrees with a breeze on my face that feels almost like spring. I’m listening to Sprag Session (http://spragsession.com/) playing in my ears, and I’m pumping up the Escarpment hill with my most wonderful running companion, Lucy Blue.

When Lucy and I reach the top (and my breathing starts to slow down), I take a glance over my left shoulder…and come to a complete halt. The view I see are fields of white, green and brown, with the Toronto skyline in the distance. It is both elegant and peaceful, and takes my breath away.

Remember when you were a little kid and your parents taught you to “Stop, look and listen”? Why that thought came into my head, I don’t know, but since I was stopped, I thought I’d complete the steps by looking and listening.

I looked. Not just a glance, but a long, careful look. Then it occurred to me that I was only looking in one direction, so I took a few steps and turned 360 degrees. I not only saw Toronto, but I saw the red pine forest behind me, the snowy, gravel road ahead of me, and a red-tailed hawk that I would have missed if I hadn’t turned.

Just for fun, I crouched down to look at the world from a lower level – the level from which Lucy sees the world. The dirt on my shoes was much clearer (and closer), and I realized that she couldn’t see over the grass to see Toronto! Her line of sight was much different from mine, though we were traveling together.

I listened then. I could hear my own breathing, slower now, and that of Lucy’s. I heard the wind in the pines, and whistling call of a blue jay, almost like a summons for me to stand up and get moving. The sound of my steps, crunching in the muddy gravel, was louder than I expected. Lucy was ready to bounce and play again – she is such a joyous running buddy – and we headed west with a renewed sense of adventure.

I rarely stop when I am running. I tend to suit up and just go, letting the cares of the world slide away while I focus on form, breathing, movement. But my stop, look and listen session was a gift I gave to myself that made the entire experience a better one.

This got me thinking about my work, and how I need to spend more time stopping, looking and listening.  I have a tendency to try to work as fast as possible, to provide my clients with their outcomes as soon as I can. But there is a time and place for stopping mid stream, looking at the work to date, and then listening to the client, to my colleagues and my own conscience, to ensure I am providing the best quality work possible.

We are all so busy in our personal and professional lives that stopping sometimes is the furthest thing from our minds. But if you stop, only for a few moments, you can focus on things that are not in motion. You can see things from different perspectives, and find things you might otherwise have missed. You may appreciate those who travel with you a bit more as well, because you see and understand their efforts. Stop, look and listen. And learn.