Sunday, January 30, 2011

Merci Beaucoup Revisited

One day last week, while walking in the snow, I happened upon a twelve-year-old boy who was shoveling a path on the sidewalk. Instead of shuffling by with just a nod or smile, I decided to go a step further, and so I said, “Thanks for clearing this path and doing such a great job!” The boy stepped to the side as I passed, smiling ear to ear.
            Most of us are taught to say “thank you” at a very young age, and we instruct our children to say please and thank you as soon as they are able.  But plenty of times these “rote” thank you’s are fairly meaningless. I often find myself robotically chirping, “Thank you! Have a nice day!” to store clerks who are chatting with their friends on their cell phones during the transaction. Afterwards, I always wonder, “Why aren’t they thanking me, the customer?” Automatic thanks don’t really do much, either for the thanker or the thankee.
            I decided to do a little experiment and spend the week thanking people in a more specific and personal manner. I thanked the technician who gave me my mammogram, adding that she was so proficient at her task that I hardly felt any discomfort. She grinned with surprise, and we ended up having a heart to heart about alternative medicine. I thanked the guy who had to schlep into storage to locate a sale item at a local discount store. “Thanks for getting this so promptly and for finding exactly the right thing.” As a result he carried the item down the stairs to the cash register for me. I thanked my best friend for listening to me "pre-worry" one night, and I thanked the waiter who showed up in a crowded restaurant to refill my decaf at just the right moment. “I noticed from afar that the steam wasn’t rising from your cup,” he joked.
            Maybe this seems silly (and it is kind of starting to sound like a children’s book I once read) but the more I thanked people---specifically for things they were good at or thoughtful about—the better I felt. And I noticed, too, that not a single person said, “What the hell are you thanking me for?” (Except my best friend, who insists I don’t need to thank her for listening to my ramblings.) Most people, it seems, like to be appreciated, and they know when your thank you is heartfelt.
            In yoga we often close our sessions with the Sanskrit word “Namaste.” I’ve heard it translated a few different ways, but the one I like best is “The Divine in me honors the Divine in you.” When a thank you is sincere, that’s sort of what we’re saying. It’s recognition of and gratitude for the generous nature of someone who has made an offering—whether the offering is a clear path through the snow, a hot cup of java or a warm embrace.  “Thank you”—from the heart---is an echo of the gratitude we feel for life.
            Next week: You’re Welcome. (Only kidding!)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

New AOW Study: Project CARE

Project CARE Study:


Project CARE Study:
Study Summary This study is evaluating a stress management, relaxation skills training, and breast cancer education program for Black/African-American women with breast cancer. It is being conducted by researchers at the University of Miami.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Message in a Snow Day

Kids don’t have to be told the value of snow days. They go to bed at night dreaming of snowflakes, and wake up in the morning to a miracle. The math test is cancelled! A chance to watch cartoons! An opportunity to build a snowman, go sledding, or play nonstop video games. Rarely do children complain about snow days because—and rightly so—they see the snow as a way to just stop everything and start over! A snow day, to a child, is a gift to be thoroughly savored.
            Not so for adults. Yes, the snow looks lovely, for a moment. But then there’s shoveling and clearing out the cars.  Snow means, possibly, that you can’t get to work, or if you try, you’ll be driving in dangerous conditions, or waiting for a bus that may never arrive. Snow means that your book club meeting is cancelled (in my case for the third Friday in a row!), that you can’t meet your best friend downtown for lunch, or that you have to reschedule the doctor’s appointment you’ve waited a month to get. Unless you’re a skier, snow is just plain aggravating in spite of its ephemeral beauty. It upsets your plans, your day, your expectations. We grown-ups, it seems, detest a snow day for the very same reason that kids love it.
            I will admit that I’m tired of the snow already, and it’s only January. And every time I wake up to that deep blanket of white I struggle with the adjustment. It takes a few moments before I can let go of my plans for the day and settle into the fact that everything needs to be revised. But after a brief interlude, I invariably surrender to the snowflakes.
            Why fight it? Yes, a snow day means that you can be practical: straighten out your over-flowing recipe box, get a head start on your income tax return, or call the office and work from home. But it can also mean snuggling back into bed with a book, pulling out your yoga mat, or just sitting by the window with a cup of tea and watching the juncos and sparrows having the time of their lives at the bird feeder. When you wake up to five, ten—or twenty—inches it may seem like the day is shot. Or you can look at it as a great opportunity to erase your expectations and welcome the possibilities. Anyone got a toboggan?

Friday, January 14, 2011

I'm in the "Army of Women" Now

Me? The Army? The Dr. Susan Love “Army of Women,” that is--a national online effort to find the causes of breast cancer and help in its prevention. But let me backtrack a bit.                                  
          Five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer: This week I had my annual mammogram, and am “good to go,” as they say, for another year. True cause for celebration! But is there any guarantee that I’ll never get breast cancer again? Not really. We don’t even know for sure why some women get breast cancer and others don’t. After all, I didn’t have any of the “risk factors.” No one in my family had had breast cancer, I wasn’t overweight (ahem!), I didn’t carry the gene, and I'd nursed my three babies seemingly forever (a supposed safeguard).
          So, I wondered, where did this come from? Was it the result of my own negative thinking over the years (nothing like blaming the victim)? Was it something about the water or air? Was it because I tended to "burn the midnight oil" a lot?
          I’ll probably never know. But I did decide, on the day of my diagnosis, to change my lifestyle. Formerly an occasional smoker, I quit cold turkey. I began practicing yoga two or three times a week, working up to a daily practice. I scoured the health food stores for antioxidants and other supplements, began to eat only organic meat and vegetables (eventually going whole-hog vegetarian), cut sugar almost completely from my diet, began walking daily to get a natural dose of vitamin D, bought a low electric magnetic field hair dryer, stopped wearing a bra except when absolutely required (yes, I know that one's a stretch, but I'm happy to be rid of it anyway), began meditating and using affirmations and visualization, cut way back on wine, started going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, practiced gratitude and living "in the now," and researched, researched, researched on my own to find out what I could do--if anything--to ensure that I would never have to re-live this experience.
          With all of this, is it one hundred percent certain that I will never get breast cancer again?
          Unfortunately not, because there is no definitive answer to the question of what causes the disease. Enter Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women, for which I am now an approved blogger. I’ll occasionally be posting their research calls on this site. The Love/Avon Army of Women (AOW) is a unique program of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit breast cancer research organization funded through a grant from the Avon Foundation for Women. The AOW provides an opportunity for men and women to take part in breast cancer research studies aimed at determining the causes of breast cancer–and how to prevent it. You need not have had cancer to participate—many of the studies call for help from those who are cancer-free. Check out
          This internet-based effort to help researchers pinpoint the cause of breast cancer costs participants nothing and is completely voluntary. When a research study is looking for folks, AOW sends out an email and anyone who fits the criteria can sign up. Some current examples include a study at Stanford University to determine if too much stress and not enough sleep are linked to breast cancer. Another study in Chicago, the BEAM (Breast Estrogen and Methylation) study, is looking into finding a better way to predict a woman’s breast cancer risk. In the past, it could take researchers as many as five years to recruit for studies. The AOW has been able to expedite the process, using the internet to provide researchers with subjects in less than 48 hours. 
        In the past five years, several of my friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer: one--a talented musician and brand new grandma--didn’t make it. This is a disease that is not going to go away without relentless effort. The cause of breast cancer is a mystery that must be solved (if only that fearless investigator in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were a real person!). The AOW’s goal is to sign one million women (and men) to help researchers find the cause of breast cancer. (In the relatively short period that this effort has been in motion, nearly 350,000 have signed on.)  Determining the cause will aid in finding the path to prevention.
            Though there is no guarantee,  “knowledge is power,” and power fuels hope. I’m hoping for the best! I invite you to join me in the AOW’s quest.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Back to School Again!

                                                                                     B Kriegler
A few weeks ago, I made an unfortunate error while checking a text message on my cell phone. Instead of deleting only the message I’d just read, I mistakenly pressed a key that caused all my text messages to self-destruct. Although I frantically tried to get this automatic erasure to cease—even repeatedly stabbing at the “off” button in total panic—within seconds my inbox was reduced to zero. All one hundred text messages were gone in a flash!
            “So what?” you might reasonably ask.
            The cause of my distress—I actually felt a sense of sorrow and loss--was the fact that among those trite and useless text messages were a number of witty, clever, and hysterically funny missives from my three sons (two of whom are in college). It was my intention to never, ever delete those messages, in the same way that I have never thrown out their very first baby outfits or their Cub Scout badges.
            In the world of yoga (which I frequent daily), we call the ability to quit clinging “practicing nonattachment,” and it’s a concept with which I have always struggled. I have always been inordinately attached to people, places, and things, including mailboxes and mailmen, sweaters that my deceased mother gave me a dozen or more years ago, lakes, trails, seashells and pebbles, earrings, ancient letters, and yes, even text messages.
            You might think parenthood would have cured me of this, and in fact, it has helped somewhat. After all, while raising children one is constantly reminded that nothing stays the same, that the toddler trying to climb up on the coffee table is now a ten year old shooting hoops in the backyard, is now a teen sneaking a beer from the back of the fridge, is now a college student loping off to his dorm and a life all his own. But even with this knowledge, it’s difficult to let go. Of just about anything, it seems.
 Today I delivered my youngest son back to school for spring semester, and once again I felt sorrow. If I can’t part with text messages (let’s not even discuss the thousands of old emails on my computer), how can I once again say good-bye to my kids?
And yet, I must. So as I send them on their way once again, I try to think positively and practice nonattachment: on the up side, there will be less laundry, fewer trips to the grocery store, and a whole new slew of clever texts to look forward to.
Will I delete them as they come in? Not on your life. But maybe I won’t have to: one day, text messages will no doubt be obsolete, as will my current cell phone.
Addendum: I made a lovely photo of my son loping toward his dorm today, carrying his bags and guitar.  But I accidentally deleted it on my new digital camera.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Ya Just Never Know!"

© Colleen Coombe |

A few days ago I was at a New Year’s party in Teaneck, NJ, chatting with a couple I see once or twice a year—friends of friends who always show up at this same annual event. We’d already discussed our kids, our new color Nooks, health, and various and sundry other subjects when for some reason or another the topic of a particular year in the seventies came up. One thing led to another and before we knew it, we realized that in 1976 we must have been drinking Rolling Rock beer and listening to the exact same Blue Grass band in a funky bar that was situated at the end of a long, winding dirt road on a mountain just outside of New Paltz, NY. How could this be? And how was it that we’d never stumbled upon this little-known shared experience before?
            The conversation made me think of another friend and another day at the town pool, when I causally mentioned that my family had always vacationed at Lake Pleasant in the Adirondacks when I was a kid. The guy’s eyes lit up, and soon we were both reminiscing about all the same stores, fishing holes and beaches, because apparently this fellow had also vacationed at this same place when he was young. It was just a “fluke” that while floating in a New Jersey town pool we happened upon the realization that we’d also been swimming in the same place at the same time forty-some years ago. Who knows—maybe I’d even built a few sandcastles with this guy (or knocked his over!)
            So why am I bringing this up now, instead of writing about New Year’s resolutions (which I will probably make but never keep)? The reason is because it seems to me that these little conversations are simply clues to the common thread that runs through all our lives. You may look at someone else and think you have very little in common  (after all, the first guy is a jet engine mechanic and the second a furniture merchant), but the truth is,  “ya just never know” when you’re going to run into someone who has been through what you’ve been through—whether that experience is slugging down a Rolling Rock in the Shawangunk Mountains or facing down cancer. Those little “Ahah!” moments of a surprise connection are reminders that we all have a lot more in common than we may think.
            And, in my opinion, remembering that our lives are interwoven in beautiful and mysterious ways is an excellent way to start the New Year. Happy, healthy, prosperous 2011 to all!