Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Education, Part II

So today I went over to my daughter's school for a Parent/Teacher Conference. I had previously spoken with the principal and the teacher on separate occasions, and got very different vibes from each regarding my daughter. This turned out to be very telling, at least to me.

The meeting this afternoon was between me, the principal, the school counselor, and the teacher. We very quickly agreed that the goal for all of us was for Carolyn to be successful. Academically, there is no problem, at least in terms of grades. She excels - surprise - at all her work. Homework is often done in class, and if not is usually done very quickly at home. No, the academics are not an issue. At issue here is behavior.

We got into a detailed discussion about the behaviors that were being seen, and not just what those behaviors were, but why. The counselor and principal seemed very in tune to the fact that Carolyn is very advanced intellectually for her age, but that the realities of asynchronous development in gifted kids often results in a wide disconnect between the intellectual level and emotional/judgment level of the same child. Carolyn is probably operating intellectually as a 9- to 11-year-old in many areas, but may not be quite to the level of her age peers in terms of judgment and emotional control.

And then came the surprise.

I had been prepped - by family, friends, and other - to not expect much. That there really wasn't much they could do, given the structure of the school system. That most educators and administrators really don't know much about dealing with gifted kids. That I would have to fight hard to get the kind of instruction that my child needs. Apparently, it was our lucky day.

The discussion between the principal, the counselor and myself turned to how we can challenge my daughter more. How insufficient challenge leads to boredom, frustration and potential behavior issues. We discussed methods with which we could further engage Carolyn, while still fitting into the basic day to day curriculum. What kinds of rewards would entice her? How could we give her more choice in what she does and what how she is rewarded, while still guiding her onto the right path and helping her learn the social skills necessary to survive in a school setting? What tools, what methods could we implement to let her grow at her accelerated pace, while staying within the structure of the classroom?

We discussed better techniques to communicate with her. Her teacher was taken aback when the principal, counselor and I all told her to talk to Carolyn in adult terms. She had been talking to her in a tone slightly more than a 1st grader. To Carolyn, this was coming across as talking down. We don't talk like that with her at home. The teacher admitted that she had never had a child like this and was unsure how to proceed. So we came up with a variety of game plans and goals to set, and ways to hit those goals that would minimize the conflict and maximize the potential for learning.

I had expected the teacher's lack of experience with a gifted child. But I had also expected a lot more resistance from the staff. Instead, I had a great, constructive experience with staff members working to find solutions, and educating a teacher in dealing with a gifted kid. We came up with some mentoring solutions, allowing Carolyn to express herself and investigate science and art - as long as she can maintain behavior in the classroom. We came up with a plan to give her more advanced reading, and then have her produce projects on what she read - create a board game, produce a skit of puppet show, get rewards by completing specific books with comprehension.

The ideas were numerous, inventive, and productive. Will they all work? Probably not. But some will. But most importantly, I got acknowledgment from the staff that with a gifted kid, an approach will only work so long before it needs to adapt. The child will outgrow the usefulness of the particular approach, and will change their behavior. And that's when we need to adapt to that change and figure out the next plan of attack. As we zig and zag with these adaptations, we will get closer and closer to achieving the goal of being able to self-regulate her emotions and behavior, while still feeding that Ferrari of an engine that is her mind.

I left the meeting, after 90 minutes, feeling optimistic and empowered. As a team, we will find what will work. If we don't, if they can't follow through on what was discussed, then other avenues exist. But if they are willing to work with us, and commit as they have to finding the right solutions, I'm going to give them the shot to do it.

Forward Thinking In Education

I wish this program existed when I was in school, and that more schools were aboard with it now:

From High Ability:

So what is Credit Flexibility, and how can it benefit gifted students? Credit Flexibility is a change in thinking. According to the ODE website, the “plan shifts the focus from “seat time” to performance.” Students now have several different avenues to get those extra credit hours needed to graduate. This benefits gifted students in several different ways. One benefit is that students can now test out of a class, and get the full credit for the class. This is very similar to the way universities operate. If a student can demonstrate that they comprehend the material at a mastery level they will have the option to test out of that class. Another benefit that is given in this provision is “education travel,” which basically allows a student go to a foreign country and learn the culture and language. The student then completes a project about what he learned and incorporates that into some real-world activity. And the student can get high school credit for that. There are other ways that students can earn those graduation credits:

According the ODE website, students can earn credits by:

* Completing coursework;
* Testing out of or demonstrating mastery of course content; or
* Pursuing one or more “educational options” (e.g., distance learning, educational travel, independent study, an internship, music, arts, after-school/tutorial program, community service or other engagement projects and sports).”
This is really thinking about the needs of gifted kids, and gives them an opportunity to excel at their pace. With a program like this in place, kids and educators can minimize the time spent in classrooms rehashing material that the student already knows, and instead focus on the new material to feed those hungry minds. In return, we get kids who flourish with brilliant minds, the kind that bring us new ideas, and new solutions.

Kudos to the State of Ohio!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Education

Tomorrow, I get to experience my first parent/teacher conference. Included in this meeting will be the teacher, myself, the principal, the counselor and the behavioral specialist. Sounds like fun.

So, what is this meeting about? On the surface, it's about Carolyn's behavior. She's had a hard time the first six weeks of school. She's fidgety, she questions authority, she is sensitive and intense, she seems to lose focus. I have been advised that they are going to want to label her Emotionally or Behaviorally Disturbed.

That's the surface. What they're missing - and a lot of folks have a hard time understanding - is that she's neither. There's a very good, valid reason for the behavior she's exhibiting. She's bored. Very bored.

Recently, we tested Carolyn's reading ability. She tests out somewhere between 4th and 5th grade reading level. Today, she was curious about how bees make honey, so I pulled up a few web pages for her to read. I put them up on the big flatscreen TV so that she could read them more easily. She read about how the bees draw nectar into their honey stomachs from the flowers, and how enzymes break the complex sugars into simple sugars, then regurgitate the sugars into the honeycomb cells, sealing them with wax. She read about how 80% of nectar is water, and how many bees serve the queen bee on average.

When she finished reading one, she asked me to look at another. I pulled it up and she began reading, and noticed - very quickly - that much of the information about water content, enzymes and hive population were the same. I directed her to where the information was new, and she read that as well.

When she was done, she asked me what an enzyme was. I explained that it was a chemical that allowed other substances to react and change. She said "Oh, so that's how the nectar changes into the honey in the honey stomach. So how come it's so sticky"?

We talked a bit more and I sent her off to read a children's encyclopedia to try to find more information on bees.

Carolyn is not yet 7 years old. She reads - with comprehension - three to four years ahead of her grade level. In speaking with her teacher last week, I mentioned that Carolyn had used the word practical to describe someone, properly, in context, and spelled correctly. The teacher looked stunned. "Really? Practical? She proceeded to tell me that Carolyn had maybe two other children in her class that were slightly above grade, two or three more that were at grade, and the rest below grade, some of whom can't read at all. Carolyn is reading and comprehending the basic idea behind the conversion of nectar to honey.

Carolyn is gifted. That's not a proud dad talking. It's actually a specific term for individuals who perform in one or more areas significantly above their peers. But even that definition doesn't come close to describing how these individuals process information, or truthfully, the challenges they face. For example, the kids in her class are spelling three- and four-letter words: "cat", "hat", "sat". Carolyn, in writing about what might be an unacceptable behavior, wrote "disrespectful".

When you talk with her, she sounds much older than she is. Which, of course, is part of the problem. One of the first challenges gifted kids face is that of "asynchronous development". While in some ways they are far ahead of their peers - particularly in intellectual areas - other areas are at, and sometimes below, the norm for their age. They talk like a ten-year-old. They act like a 6-year-old. This disconnect causes problems because people expect them to behave like an older child.

Gifted children are also more intense by nature. Things that make them happy make them very happy. Things that upset them make them very upset. It's one of the reasons that gifted kids get misdiagnosed as suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder. But there's a big difference: BPD sufferers won't cycle from minute to minute. Their cycles last days, weeks, even months, traveling up to a mania and back down into depression. They don't go from high to low. And there usually isn't a specific trigger. Gifted kids will get very upset about something, but there is usually (at least in their reasoning) an explanation for it. It will usually make sense, even if it is from a mistaken impression. Child expects A to happen, has nor reason to believe it will not, B happens, child wigs out. The child has not yet learned to adapt (she's six), and the reasons she has built her expectation on have gone away. As a rule, kids don't misbehave because they want to cause trouble. They misbehave because there is something else bothering them and they don't know how to deal with it. Intellect and judgment are not the same thing. Intelligence and wisdom complement each other, but are not the same trait. One is inborn, the other is acquired. At six, how much wisdom, home much judgment could they possibly have acquired?

Another folly is to try to get a gifted kid to do something "because I said so". Gifted kids are too bright for that. They want to know why, and it had better be a good reason. If it's not, they'll call you on it. Not because they want to cause trouble, but because it's the way their brains work. They have a need to know, to learn, to grow. It comes across as defiant, because we all too often fall into the trap of thinking in terms of what we think is "appropriate" behavior for a child. But for a gifted child, the questioning is in their nature - they're just wired that way.

In the November 10, 2009 issue of The Tech, MIT's campus newspaper, Ryan Normandin gives some great examples of the challenges facing gifted kids and their parents:

The Maryland Council for Gifted and Talented Children has an excellent list that compares talented children to those who are gifted. Some of these comparisons include: while a talented student knows the answers to the questions, the gifted student will ask questions of the teacher. While a talented student listens well and learns easily, a gifted student displays strong opinions and emotions and is often bored in class, having already known, sometimes intuitively, the answers. Other characteristics include a willingness to challenge authority, a subtle, sophisticated sense of humor, and the ability to see patterns, trends, or connections that others do not pick up on. Some gifted students will often accomplish high academic achievement with little effort while others will suffer bad grades due to a lack of challenge, lack of interest, and boredom with what they view as basic or intuitive subject matter. With abilities so different from the average student, is there any question that there is a need for a comprehensive, federally mandated gifted program? Apparently there is.
So, these kids need to be fed the fuel to keep their mental engines running. When you don't they start to let you know with their behavior. I've been reading a number of books and blogs on the topic, and in virtually every example they give, you can take out the subject's name and drop in my daughter's.

It has been an education for me. Some of these things I knew intuitively because I was identified as a gifted kid, and I think she's ahead of where I was. Some I have had to learn.

But the real education seems to be with others. With family and educators who don't yet understand the difference between these kids and the average kid. And what I feel is now my priority. We make accommodations for kids who are behind their class, and rightly so. We need to help these kids be the best they can be. But along the same lines, we need to help gifted kids be all that they can be. That should be the goal of all education - to help our kids achieve the most they possibly can. And that means learning about how to help the kids who are behind, and the kids who are ahead.

So tomorrow, I'll be walking in with some information, with some knowledge, and the hope I can bring better understanding to the situation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009


Originally, I was going to write a post about gifted children, and the challenges in identifying and parenting a gifted child. While we have always believed Carolyn was ahead of other kids, I have recently been doing some suggested research on parenting a gifted child specifically. I was going to write about that. Now, I'm just too exhausted.

Tonight, we endured a 45-minute screaming freak-out from the kidlet. What was the freak-out about? She had been told that using a hairbrush she found on the playground could result in her getting lice. Cue atom bomb.

This isn't the first time she's gotten wigged out by ideas of bugs in her hair. A couple of months ago, while at daycare, one of the kids put a mop on her head and told her that now she had cockroaches on her head. She insisted that she had to wash her hair because of the aforementioned cockroaches. When the teacher at daycare wouldn't let her soak her head in the sink, she flew into a rage, hitting a teacher, screaming and crying. Of course, there were no cockroaches, but the damage had been done.

Tonight was close to the same. In fact, the tantrum went on for a solid 45 minutes, insisting that since Melissa told her that she *might* get lice, that meant she would. And that she wanted clean hair and didn't want to be itchy, so we had to cut off all her hair RIGHT NOW! She kept repeating it, over and over and over - "Just cut my hair off! I don't care if people laugh at me! Just cut it off NOW!", all the while tears streaming down her face and screaming as loud as she could.

She finally calmed down after her Grammy called and explained that we would just comb through her hair and if there were any lice, we'd find them. Of course, we'd already explained that, but she wasn't upset with Grammy. And she went to bed, and off to sleep. And we were exhausted. Emotionally, physically, mentally spent.

But this behavior, as I'm learning, is not unexpected. Gifted children often have to deal with "overexcitabilities", extra sensitivity to certain stimuli. These include intellectual, sensual, imaginational, psycho-motor and emotional stimuli. Carolyn exhibits at least some of the signs of each of these, with some very strong. From the book "A Parent's Guide To Gifted Children":
"People with emotional overexcitability may show frequent temper tantrums (beyond the age of three) and displays of rage, possibly related to losing a game, feeling left out, needing to be the best, or not getting their way.  Their emotions can be extreme, and also puzzling, to adults."  Id.  Sadly, children with this overexcitability are often accused of  "overreacting."
 Hmm... sounds familiar.

Kids who suffer from this type of overexcitability are often described as "sponges". They soak up everything, sights, sounds and emotions. And when the things don't work out the way she expects - boom. As Miss E over at "Loving Your Gifted Child and Much, Much More" explains:
I learned early that she wouldn't fall apart over not getting her way, she would fall apart over her perception of reality being different than the reality itself.  It LOOKED like she was having an "I want my way" tantrum to the casual observer, but it was actually that she


that the situation was different than the expectation she had created for it.
In Carolyn's mind, the possibility of getting lice was a reality. She had already processed in her mind that she had lice, that it would itch, that it would mean she had dirty hair, and that the only solution was to cut off her hair. And no amount of discussion, explanation, or reasoning was going to convince her otherwise.

This happens a fair amount. She paints pictures of how things are, and when they turn out not to be that way, things go south. I don't believe she's trying to be difficult - she just sees things a different way. Of course, once she gets locked into an emotional situation, it's done until she can't get back in control.

This results in an exhausting battle. In the end, we just stand there, letting her scream, keeping her from kicking the walls or breaking anything. And eventually, she calms down. Eventually. Meanwhile, you're spent watching your child go off the deep end, screaming in your face to cut off her hair.

We'll work through this, and we'll all figure out how to teach Carolyn the skills to get better control of her emotions. But in the meantime, we'll be a little more tired.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bittersweet Memories

There are moments in everyone's life that mark a turning point. Some are tremendous, others simply a whisper. Some, like the birth of a child or joining in matrimony, mark a change for the better, an opening of a new chapter. And some mark a loss, a change that affects you from that day forward, even if you don't know it at the time.

Often, these moments are marked by the senses. The smell of a flower, the sight of a newborn, the taste of a good meal. One of my own bittersweet moments is marked by a song.

In what seems another lifetime, I used to be very active in theater. Running technical crews, designing lighting and sets, acting, singing - whatever spare time I had was spent in a theater. As with most performers, you develop a repertoire of music that you use for auditions, depending on what you are auditioning for. One particular favorite was "Bring Him Home", from Les Miserables. It's a beautiful song, almost a prayer. It has power, and yet has a sensitive, almost vulnerable quality to it as well. I worked for quite some time to get to where I felt comfortable with the song. I was able to audition with this piece and did fairly well, landing a featured role in a production of Guys and Dolls.

Flash forward about 6 years. I had moved to Boston with my wife (we met during the production of Guys and Dolls). I hadn't done any theater for about 5 years, as getting married meant I couldn't eat rice four nights a week to support my theater habit. I missed it, but I had chosen a path that meant less time for theater and more time spent on earning a living and supporting my family.

On one particular weekend, my wife and I had taken my newly purchased '69 Volkswagen Bus and were headed down to Jones Beach in New York for a VW event. On the way down, we got into a discussion about her starting to get into theater, and the roles she was interested in. Somehow, something got her angry, and she informed me that when I had auditioned with "Bring Him Home", I had destroyed the song, ruining it for her. And that moment, without me knowing it, created a most profound change in me. In that moment, someone for whom I cared very deeply had taken something I was proud of, and turned it into a point of embarrassment. Had I really destroyed the song? Was I really that bad? I hadn't thought so, but if not, why would she say such a thing?

Of course, years later I can see that it was said specifically to hurt me. But in the moment, all I felt was shame, embarrassment and disappointment. And in that moment, my confidence was shattered.

I didn't notice it right away. In fact, I think it was three to four years before I first fully recognized it. Since I had not been doing theater, I had not been in a position to sing for others. Since the reason for singing in public wasn't there, I did not realize the extent of the loss. But when my daughter was born, I found it hard to even sing a lullaby, especially if my wife was in the room. I didn't want her to hear me. So I would hum, or whistle, but never actually sing if I thought she was in earshot. This hurt me deeply, because I wanted to sing to my daughter, and yet the fear of another rejection, another embarrassment had affected her as well.

My wife and I had a discussion about why I wouldn't sing, and she had no idea what had been the trigger. She apologized, saying she said it completely out of anger, and that it wasn't true. But the damage had been done. By this point, it had been nearly 10 years. My psyche had simply shut down the confidence that I once had, for fear that I would create another situation where I could be hurt again, embarrassed again.

The full realization of how deeply this hurt me came about 2 1/2 years ago, when my wife moved out, leaving me to care for my daughter. Doing the best I could, one day I took her to the local library. Outside the library is an amphitheater where they stage a variety of productions. My daughter asked if she could dance on the stage. I said "Sure" and lifted her up onto the stage. And then she asked if I would sing a song for her to dance to. I couldn't.

Here, my little girl, 4 years old at the time, just wanted to dance on the stage, and I couldn't muster the courage to simply sing a tune. I choked up, but told her I would whistle instead. And as I did, she twirled and flitted about, tilting her head back and looking at the clouds above as she spun in joy. It was right then that I realized how that one moment, that one statement blurted out in anger, that one fit of angry attack had so deeply bruised me.

Since then, I have made efforts to recover that confidence. My daughter has heard me sing, usually in the car. We have a few favorite songs where we alternate lyrics. But I still have that fear, that lack of confidence. My girlfriend, after over 2 years, has still only heard me sing on one occasion. The fear is still great. I want to, but can't bring myself to do it. I'll get there, but right now, that idea scares me.

A couple of nights ago, I was taking my nightly walk, enjoying a beautiful sunset, listening to streaming music over the Internet, when "Bring Him Home'' came on. And those bittersweet memories returned. The joy, of having sung it at the audition, feeling I had done so well. And the pain of having it thrown in my face as a failure. All these memories rushed in at the same time, wrapped in the hues of the dying day, the sunset in all its glory.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone.
These lyrics from "Bring Him Home" are what I'm reminded of. How long will I continue to allow the callous comments of another to keep me from something that brings me joy? How long will it be before I set aside the fear of embarrassment and simply let what is inside of me out? Will I allow myself to continue, day after day, to rob myself of the pleasure I once knew? Doesn't the group of people I care most about deserve to see me at my best, and not the scared rabbit?

We all have these moments, some stronger than others. We all must work beyond those moments to be our best selves. I talk a good game, but I must put it into practice myself. I hope you will as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Alam Jackson at M Resort tonight. Meanwhile, roadies are eating @ja ckbox ...

-- Sent from my Palm Pre

A Visit From Pops

If you haven't found yet, try it. It's a blast. You pick an artist and it starts streaming music from that artist as well as similar artists. That's what I was doing tonight, as I played poker online. I had it streaming from my phone first, but when I got tired of headphones, I pulled up Pandora on my laptop.

That's when my dad paid a visit.

Understand, my dad passed away over five years ago. No, I didn't see a ghost, didn't hear a voice, nothing as "out there" as that. No, Pops visited me the way he usually does - with just a reminder.

For Pops' memorial service, I chose Billy Joel's "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)" to be sung during the mass. It was sung by a family friend with a beautiful voice. Not real smart on my part, as it hit me hard right before I was supposed to deliver the eulogy.

Goodnight, my angel
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you've been asking me
I think you know what I've been trying to say
I promised I would never leave you
And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away

Goodnight, my angel
Now it's time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I'm rocking you to sleep
The water's dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You'll always be a part of me

Goodnight, my angel
Now it's time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on...
They never die
That's how you
And I
Will be

I was always picture Carolyn when I hear this song, and Pops. The lyrics are a dad trying to explain to his little girl about what inevitably happens. Our loved ones move on, leaving behind the others. And what we have left is memories. The harder times fade, and the good memories float to the surface.

But in our human selfishness, we want them back. We want to have that one more day, one more hour, one more minute with them. Another laugh, another hug. We want more than the memories.

It seems when times are tough, or stressful, or just confusing, Pops shows up. Tonight, when I opened up Pandora, "Lullaby" was the first song to play. Hi Pops.

It starts the tears coming in rivers down my face every time. It gets hard to breathe, to catch myself from sobbing uncontrollably. I miss Pops. And while these moments don't come as often, they still show up every once in a while.

And then I remember Pops. And the lyrics:

Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on...
They never die
That's how you
And I
Will be

Out of nowhere, Carolyn will ask about Pops, and I'll tell her how much he loved her, how happy he was with her. How he bounced her on his knee, singing to her. And as long as I can tell her those stories, he's right here. 

And I hope that when my time is done, that Carolyn will sing a lullaby to her little one, and that she'll remember that I'll always be there with her as well.

Goodnight, Pops.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Will I Be Successful or Be Of Value?

"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” Albert Einstein.

This quote was in a tweet from Tony Robbins today. It rings particularly true for me.

My family was never one of means. Neither of my parents made a lot of money. In fact, we didn't have much money at all. But we were always provided for. Nevertheless, many folks would say he was not "successful". He had a failed business, in a second marriage, had fought alcohol and cigarette addiction. Not the textbook example of a "successful" man.

When my dad passed away a few years ago, I was honored to give the eulogy. It was a very difficult time for all of us, as you can imagine. I was seated on the front row in the church, along with the rest of my family. When the time came, I stood up, walked to the lectern, and turned to face the congregation. And what I saw almost took my breath away. There, in front of me, were all of our family members. But there were many, many more faces I didn't recognize. Row upon row of people I had never met, had no connection with. And they were there to honor my dad.

I had chosen to build my dad's eulogy around memories we all had of my dad. Funny stories, touching stories, all describing the kind of person my dad was. And all the while, I saw heads nodding, people smiling at the memories the stories elicited. Later, as we headed in the procession from the church to the cemetery for the interment ceremony, I looked in my rearview mirror. We had crossed a freeway overpass about a mile prior, and all I could see was cars in the procession from the overpass to my car. A long line of cars headed to my dad's final resting place.

At the reception afterward, I had dozens of people come up to me to say, "Hey, let me tell you a story about your dad", and every one of them was a warm, funny, telling story about the kind of person he was. And all had a common thread - they all told how my dad touched this person's life.

My dad was not "successful" in the financial sense. But he was of value - great value. He touched so many lives because he wasn't wrapped up in the money, the possessions, the material. He card about people. Was he a pain in the ass? Occasionally. But it came from a place of love, of caring. As I said in the eulogy, if you were in need, he was the kind of man that would give you the shirt off his back, and the back to go with it. His value to those around him was evident in the mass of people who came to pay their respects - and to make sure that I heard about how he had touched their lives.

This is where the rubber of the Einstein quote hits the road. It doesn't matter how much you amass in wealth, in possessions. It doesn't matter what kind of a "name" you make for yourself. What matters is whether you added value to the life of another. How have you served your fellow man? How have you touched the life of your friends, your loved ones? And how have you touched the lives of those who aren't family or friends.

And in the end, this makes the title of this post a moot point. Because if you do make yourself of value, if you do enrich the lives of those around you and make the world a better place, even just a little, then you are a success. I only hope I can meet the standards my dad set.

I love you Pops.

Monday, June 1, 2009

3 Ways To Start Change Successfully

Changing your life can be incredibly rewarding. It can also be one of the most difficult things you can do.

Most of us start with good intentions - to lose weight, to stop smoking, to get ourselves organized. And we go out with the true desire to make the changes necessary. So much desire, that we often take on too much, or we see the obstacles ahead of us, and start losing our sense of motivation.

In the last few days, I've talked with a number of friends who are feeling they can't get past the first hurdle. They want to make changes, but can't seem to get over the hump to get started.

Here's three tips to get you past those hurdles, and on your way to succeeding!

Tip #1 - Small Changes, Big Effects


Start small.

Don’t try to make all these huge changes, and change your entire life at once. It’s too hard, and overwhelming. You can’t do everything at once — you can only do one thing at a time.

So pick one thing to change — something easy. Don’t pick the most difficult thing — just the easiest. Something you can focus on for the next couple of weeks.

This is phenomenal advice. But I would expand on it further. Don't just start small - start REALLY small. Pick something that you know you can achieve without much effort in a short period of time. You'll get a feeling of accomplishment that will help you get to the next milestone.

Tip #2 - Little Pieces

This tip goes hand in hand with Tip #1. When you have a big goal to achieve, it helps greatly to break up the task into its component pieces. For example, if you're trying to quit smoking two packs a day, it's pretty difficult to make that change in one fell swoop. Instead, break it up using the idea from Tip #1. Today, leave one cigarette in the pack. Tomorrow, leave two. It's a small goal. But when you start to add them up, you achieve the ultimate goal of reducing your smoking to zero.

Weight loss is much the same way. Instead of saying "I need to lose 30 pounds", think to yourself that you need to lose two. That's it. And when you hit that two pound mark, you set a new mark of two pounds more.

By breaking the big task up into smaller components, you increase the chance of success and the odds that you'll continue.

Tip #3 - Celebrate Your Successes

We're all pretty good at beating ourselves up when we fail. What we aren't as good at is celebrating the wins. When you achieve one of your goals, hit one of your targets, regardless of how small or large - celebrate. Go to a show, have a nice dinner, do what makes you happy. And celebrate, for tomorrow, you set a new achievable goal.

But what if you don't make it there? That's OK too. Look at why you didn't make it. Did you aim too high? Did you have to rely on others to achieve? Instead of beating yourself up, look at the reason you didn't get there, and make corrections. Then try again!

Bonus Tip - How Bad Do You Want It?

The real key to success in change is to have a strong motivation. But where many folks falter is that they try to change for someone else. Noble? Yes. But it will likely be unsustainable. For true change to occur, you have to want it, and want it more than the comfort zone of not changing. I recently watched a video of a lecture by Randy Pausch where he makes the point that obstacles aren't in your way to stop you from achieving. They're there to find out how bad you want something. If you really want something, you'll do what it takes to get there. When you think about making changes, know the "why" of the change. If the "why" is strong enough, the "how" will take care of itself.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Two Weeks In - And Going Strong

Two weeks ago, I started on the path to a challenging goal: to summit Mt. Whitney during the 2010 season. If you're interested in joining me, take a gander at my Facebook Group Whitney2010. This goal would give me a year to get into the kind of shape necessary to make the 11-mile, 6,000 ft. climb from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt. Whitney itself.

But the journey isn't just about climbing Mt. Whitney. It's about setting a challenge and surpassing it. I've done this before, over 20 years ago, when I decided to run a triathlon. I was easily 30 pounds overweight, and hadn't really trained for a triathlon before. But I started working at it.

At work, people who heard about me running the triathlon ridiculed it. Who did I think I was? They were in better shape than I was. And yet, when it came time to actually run the race, they didn't show. I ran the race, and I completed it. I was dead last. They were picking up the cones off the road behind me, cheering me on all the way. I was sore, my muscles screaming. And I was triumphant.

The victory was not about doing what my coworkers thought I couldn't do, nor about doing something they wouldn't do. The victory was about doing something that I didn't know I could do. And the feeling of accomplishment, of strength, was amazing.

So that's what the Whitney summit is about. To do something because it will challenge me, push me. I don't know if I can do it. I intend to find out.

So for the last two weeks, I have been training. I started with 2 mile walks, and tomorrow I graduate to nearly four miles a day. In addition, I have been doing one "altitude" hike per week, where the hike starts at over 7,000 ft. in altitude. In two weeks, I have hiked/walked about 40 miles.

I have also cut back on sodas. I was consuming anywhere from 44 to 64 ounces of sugared sodas in the morning, with another 2-3 12 ounce cans at night. That's somewhere in the range of 1500-1800 calories a day - in sodas. The popping of the seal on an ice cold Coke is like a siren song. Nevertheless, I'm now down to one a day. I've added salads to my diet. I'm doing more to take better care of myself. And I'm feeling better, stronger, and I'm losing weight. My weight right now hasn't been this low in at least 15 years.

But there's a long way to go. And today was the first day I started walking and started feeling less motivated. That's a dangerous place to be. It's like hitting a wall that's been palced to keep me from getting to my goal. Today, I got around the wall, but it didn't feel good.

But recognizing it means it can be surpassed. Knowing that the wall is there means I can go around, over, under, through the wall. It is the next challenge and the part of the journey that currently is tougher than any steep climb or set of switchbacks on the trail. And this time, they won't be picking up the cones behind me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A New Goal

About a week ago, I spent a week camping, taking a mini-sabbatical from the world at large. Sort of. No Internet, no phone service - but text messages still got there. Go figure. In any case, I spent the time hiking, shooting some great landscapes, and thinking.

Many of those thoughts will be reflected in blog posts on my various blogs. But one particular experience has caused me to initiate some changes.

I had taken a morning hike, about 1.1 miles each way, and about 550 ft. in elevation change. And I was gassed. I hated that feeling. I thought I should be in better shape.

I hiked back to my campsite and drove up to Whitney Portal, the trailhead area for Mt. Whitney (highest peak in the lower 48 states). I had a snack and checked things out, watching some people head up the trail, others coming down.

I saw an older couple start out on the trail and thought to myself "Yeah, right". And then I suddenly realized how hypocritical that was. I had completely bonked on a smaller hike that morning, and yet I thought it was ok to judge how an older couple would do. I hemmed and hawed, then grabbed my pack and about 3 liters of water, and started up the trail.

I decided I would go as far as Lone Pine Lake, a 2.8 mile, roughly 1,600 ft. climb. It felt good to stretch my legs a bit, and for the first 3/4 mile or so, it was fine. Then I really started climbing. Really.

I started really sucking wind, With about 25-30% less oxygen at that altitude (over 9,000 ft.), it was a challenge. after a while, I had to start breaking the hike down - to the next rock, the next tree, the next switchback. And then I looked up about 4 switchbacks and saw the older couple. Now, it was a matter of pride.

I caught up to the couple about 3/4 of the way up to the Lake, chatted for a minute or two, and headed out. We reached the destination, all three of us, about the same time.

I had a snack, took some shots, and started to head back down. Each step down was a little lighter, a little quicker. And when I got to the bottom, I clenched my fist in a silent triumph. 

I hadn't planned on making the hike. I just decided to go. And then I looked up at Mt. Whitney. Why not?

It was a watershed moment. It had been quite some time since I had pushed myself physically to find out what I could do. I could use lots of excuses if I wanted to, but what it really boiled down to is that I had not given myself the permission to do so, and had not carved out the time from my day to make it happen.

So I set my new goal - to summit Mt. Whitney in 2010. I have created a Facebook group for anyone interested, just click this link: Whitney2010.

I have started a regimen of daily walks tied to weekly hikes at altitude. We're fortunate here in Las Vegas that less than an hour away are a number of hiking trails that are at an altitude of 7,000 ft. or higher. I'm doing 2.5 mile walks each night (going to 3 miles soon) and today did the first altitude hike - an easy one at 7,500 ft., 1.3 miles with very little altitude change.

It also pushed me to start taking better care of myself. I somehow managed to get appointments to three different clinicians within a week - two on the same day. I've restarted controlling my blood sugar, have drastically reduced my sugared beverage consumption, and checking my blood sugar regularly. I figure if I'm going to hike to the top of a 14,000+ ft. peak, I'd better have my ducks in a row.

So that's the new project, the new goal. To climb a mountain. Why? To use a cliche - because it's there. And to prove I can. To challenge myself. And to be better because of it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fearful / Fearless

A few nights ago, I had the opportunity to talk to some old friends whom I hadn't talked to in over 20 years. Lately I've been able to connect with folks who knew me at a different time, in a different circumstance. Perhaps even a different person.

In our chat, one of my friends and I were catching up, and she asked if had been doing any theater lately. When we had last seen each other, I ate, slept and breathed theater. Performing, creating, working onstage and backstage. I told her it had been 15 years since the last time I performed, and that I had been dealing with an issue of confidence. She told me that she couldn't believe it. She remembered me as fearless.

She didn't know it when she said it, but that one statement hurt. She had no way of knowing. But it hurt because she was right. There was a time when I was fearless. There was a time when nothing was impossible, where there was no hurdle that couldn't be jumped, no problem that couldn't be solved. There was a time when I reveled in performance, in doing what others found terrifying. Now is not that time.

We had a nice conversation, and discussed getting a bunch of us together for a reunion. But as I hung up, I felt shaken up. I had felt the difference, but hadn't put it into words. And a voice from 30 years ago said it - I used to be fearless. Now, I am fearful.

I asked someone else who knew me back then, "Would you have described me as fearless?". The answer "Yes".

How did I get from fearless to fearful?

The answer is not a simple one. Part of it was a conscious decision. To become "responsible", to put someone else's needs and desires ahead of my own. Part was unconscious, born out of years of taking care of someone who did not have the tools to take care of themselves, of being so vigilant of their condition that my own was a distant second. But none of this should have made me fearful, should it?

Some of it was the pain of losing. The pain of losing my first love. Of losing my second. The pain of losing a home, and a dream. And yet, those still did not steal it from me.

No, the most impactful thing was a phrase uttered by someone who was angry and was trying to hurt me. That one phrase shattered the confidence that I had, bringing my confidence to a low I had never before experienced.

What all the other things, the other experiences could not do, that one angry utterance accomplished. How did that one phrase, that one "blurt" cause such a shift? Because it came from someone that mattered.

I have run a triathlon. I have re-created orchestrations for musicals from scratch. I have lived on a boat. I have edited a magazine, spoken in front of a stadium full of people, been interviewed as an industry expert on MSNBC, local tv and radio. And now, I have trouble simply singing in front of my girlfriend.

I used to look at any challenge life presented and thought "So what?" and found a way around/over/through the obstacle. I built a solution if one wasn't there. Now, it's easier to think of why it can't be done. Now, it is easier to be fearful.

When I got off the phone the other night, I was truly shaken. And Melissa asked me why I was now fearful instead of fearless. And I couldn't answer why. Because there are truly many answers, but none of them good ones. Why do we allow the little things that people say destroy that which is strong in us? Why do their words carry such weight?

I suppose the first step is to decide that they won't affect us any longer. Easier said than done, I fear. When you're fearless, not achieving your goal the first try is ok - you know you'll get there. When you have allowed the fear to creep in, it's diametrically opposite - you can't see how you can possibly get there.

So what do I do?

My first step is to start trying to think what I would do if I was fearless.

And one thing I hope will help is reconnecting with those old friends who knew me in my fearless days. Perhaps their memories of me, their collective energy can re-spark that powerful guy that I once was - with perhaps a bit more wisdom of life to guide him.