Thursday, June 29, 2017

I can’t run metric miles

#ThrowbackThursday: After recently returning from vacation in Norway, where conversions of currency and metric distances were a daily exercise, I was reminded of the following column I wrote in December 1996. It was  published in “Keeping Contact,” then the newsletter for members of the Delco Road Runners Club.
On a recent Saturday, I was sitting down to breakfast with my running buddies after finishing an easy four-and-a-half-mile jog. The topic of discussion was the Philadelphia marathon and its companion race, an 8K. The question was asked: “Hey Amy, why don’t you run the 8K tomorrow?”

“No way,” I said. “That’s too far for me. I can’t run 8 kilometers.” Or could I? I was stumped. What’s 8 times .62? Who’s got a calculator? After doing some mental figuring—I can run a 5K, which is 3.1 miles; a 10K is 6.2 miles, so an 8K, it’s somewhere in between—I finally decided to bag the race. I could do the miles, but not the math.

Later, I did my homework and found an 8K equals 4.96 miles; a distance I can handle. But the thought of running in metric was another story. One that didn’t really interest me. Would I have to run on the other side of the road? Would I start running with an accent?

It was beginning to get complicated. I run to relax, not to practice metric conversions. I’m more of a words person; I just tolerate numbers.

In the lexicon of our language, miles rule! The beach resort of Avalon, New Jersey, advertises itself as “Cooler by a mile.” If you know a little bit about a lot of things, you’re said to be “A mile wide and an inch deep.” If you want to really get to know someone, you’ve got to “Walk a mile in their shoes.” If you do much more than is expected, you “Go the extra mile.”

It just wouldn’t be the same in kilometers. There’s no frame of reference. Is winning by a kilometer better than winning by a mile? Do condemned prisoners gain or lose time by walking the last kilometer? Nobody knows. At least not without thinking it through.

The very question causes people to scratch their heads and wonder why metric measures never caught on in the United States anyway.

In running circles, the only rationale I can think of for using kilometers in races is so entrants can set more personal records. They can have both a 5-mile PR and an 8K PR. Never mind that they’re virtually the same distance. There are sticklers who will argue that the .04-mile difference really matters!

For the rational runners among us—and that may be an oxymoron—why don’t we join together and start a movement to “deep-six” kilometers and go back to miles.

Who are we trying to impress anyway? A marathon will always be 26 miles and 385 yards. What’s THAT in kilometers? Quick. Who’s got a calculator?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Knit one, purl one, breathe…repeat

My grandmother was a champion knitter. Two of her handmade sweaters still sit in my closet, 38 years after her passing. One is a pullover she made for my late father when he was a teenager. The other, with a repeating diamond pattern of sequins, she made for me.

Wherever she went, she brought in-the-works projects. Sweater sleeves. Yarn balls. All sizes of knitting needles.

I would watch her click-clacking away, passing the hours, the days. She would wrap skeins of yarn around my outstretched hands, so she could untwist and wind them into more usable balls. She even let me knit a few stitches of her projects, under her close supervision. Back then, it was a passing interest for me. I don’t remember ever knitting anything myself.

Now I often find myself thinking of knitting. Maybe it’s because I am dog-tired of spending so much time in front of screens (computer, iPhone, Kindle, TV). Maybe it’s because I find knitting almost as calming as meditation.

On my last visit to my mother’s apartment, I tapped her stash of knitting needles and yarn. At first, she kept pressing me about what I wanted to knit. This would determine the size of knitting needle and the particular yarn. She didn’t quite get that I wasn’t looking to knit anything specific—I just wanted to knit. To practice the activity, not achieve an outcome.

I then tapped the great educator that is the internet, searching for knitting lessons. I quickly discovered there are two styles of knitting: English-style and Continental-style, which is what my grandmother taught me. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind came memories of how she cast on stitches, held the yarn, fixed a dropped stitch, and worked her knit and purl stitches.

The last thing I tapped were those memories, as I picked up a set of knitting needles and began. The process was soothing and peaceful. I could feel when I was doing something right and see when I made mistakes—which were many. It didn’t matter because the only point was to knit.

I would get to a certain point, then rip out all the stitches and start over. The ripping out was just as relaxing as the knitting, because all it took was one pull to make everything unravel.

It feels very Zen to knit, even—or especially—without knitting some thing. To knit is to be present, to stay in the moment, to let go of distraction. It’s a kind of woolly meditation, one with its own texture, sound, and rhythm.

Just knit one, purl one, breathe…repeat.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Retro tech: First gen is the new gen

Old tech still sought.
It’s classical conditioning. Pavlovian response. Each year, new technology is unveiled, and suddenly we hunger for the latest, shiniest thing.

My 2016 iPhone SE? That’s so yesterday. Today? It’s the Nokia 3310. Wait, what? Yes, it’s back and being heralded as iconic and a timeless classic.

Originally introduced at the turn of the 21st century, the simple Nokia cell phone has become “a modern classic reimagined,” with extended battery life and low price of 49 euros. Yes, euros, because the phone won’t be sold in the U.S.—at least not with its current incompatible frequencies.

Still, the new-old Nokia is a sign of the times. This year also saw announcements of an Android-powered Blackberry with a physical keyboard. I had been a blindingly loyal Blackberry fan, spending many hundreds of dollars on new devices I was sure would return the company to its former glory. No such luck; hence my switch to the iPhone SE.

Smartphones aren’t the only technology in the midst of a nostalgia boom. How else to reconcile buyers' interest in these items:
  • My old Aiwa boombox was essential to my short stint as aerobics instructor, but had been stored away, unused, for decades. Last month it sold on eBay. And this week a colleague emailed in hopes of borrowing just such a boombox for an event.
  • eBay also came through in attracting buyers for several old-tech items: a Polaroid Land camera, which went to China; a Mamiyaflex twin-lens film camera, sold to an art student at UCLA; and an early-model Garmin Forerunner GPS watch, to a runner with strength enough to wear such a big and bulky device while exercising.
  • My collection of vinyl LP records has moved with me since college days, and that’s been a dog’s age. Finally I found an entrepreneurial couple in the business of buying and reselling albums. They sat in my basement, using a raking light to illuminate the grooves and detect scratches, warping, and other imperfections in each one. Eventually, they bought 100. 
I don’t know if this retro trend is here to stay, but I certainly hope so. New is fine when there are worthwhile advances in technology, but I still have closets and drawers full of old technology. It's good to know someone somewhere might someday want to own a piece of it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Making and breaking contacts

As a freelancer, I’ve learned it's both what you know and who you know. The combination of expertise and connections keeps the business flowing.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of clients. Sometimes with individuals, other times with project teams. Out of habit I would add every person to my address book, along with their support staff and accounts payable.

As a result, my contact list overfloweth. In the digital world, this isn’t as much a problem as when I had stacks of business cards on file. Still, it was slow going to scroll past old and outdated contacts to find the ones I wanted.

My unwieldy list became a bigger problem when a syncing glitch led to duplication of all contacts on my computer and smartphone. That's when I knew some digital spring cleaning was in order.

First to go were the deceased contacts – and there were several, sad to say. Next were people associated with dead-in-the-water projects whom I haven’t heard from in years. Then the people who consistently called for quotes about projects that never materialized also disappeared. I trimmed a number of contacts I haven’t worked with in many, many years. Rounding out the business deletions were people I met at conferences and workshops ages ago and haven’t heard from since.

I wasn’t too worried about losing business contacts because I can find most of them through LinkedIn, if need be.

Where things got brutal were with personal deletions. I had contact information for the most casual of acquaintances: people I ran with once or twice in my life, people I met in airports, friends of friends, and friends from past lives. If there was a question to delete or not, I used this criteria: Would this person have me in their contact list? If not, they went from mine.

This isn’t as anti-social as it sounds. It’s more a matter of cleaning out the clutter that hadn’t been accessed in a dog’s age.

I still believe in making and keeping contacts. But I’ve decided not every contact needs to be kept forever.

If you want to make a fresh connection with me, just let me know. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter and the AMY INK website.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life hacks for aging boomers’ aging parents

Many of us baby boomers have been lucky enough to have parents and relatives live long enough to still be around. As the years go by, roles shift from cared for to caregiver.

Just about everyone I know either has been there or is now going through it. Advice, resources, and tips are mouse clicks away. But because every situation and every person is different, there are no universal solutions.

Still, it’s worth sharing a few life hacks I've found in case they work for you and yours.

1)    More is less with meds
There is a pill for everything, but not every condition needs a pill – or, if it does, there's no need to take it forever. More meds mean more potential for drug interactions and greater confusion about what to take when. So I was glad when my mother’s doctor cut out medications that were “nice to have,” “could be helpful,” and “not necessary at her age and could be harmful.”

2)    Play along
The lung disease COPD has no cure, but that doesn't mean the music ends. Some brilliant person made the connection between breathing exercises to strengthen lung function and playing the harmonica. Now “Harmonicas for Health” is a program offered by the COPD Foundation and Pulmonary Education Program. (Musical talent not required.)

3)    Daily reminders
We all have asked: “What day is it?” But when it becomes a daily or hourly question, it can signal a deeper problem. External memory aids sometimes help, at least in the short term. Among the tools we’ve used in the family are big wall calendars, wooden-block perpetual calendars, digital time-and-day calendars, and even Alexa. Yes, there is an Amazon Eco Dot in my mother’s apartment. When she asks, Alexa tells her the time, the day, or the temperature—and will even play Willie Nelson for her. She just has to remember to ask.

4)    Go for the assist
When broken hips mend, flexibility can be lost. Some helpful aides we’ve found include the Carex Upeasy Seat Assist, with a hydro-pneumatic spring that slowly activates as the user leans forward to stand. Even less high tech is the sock horse for help in bending down to put on socks.

5)    Help I’ve fallen
…And I can’t get up. Baby boomers have laughed at commercials for medical alert systems for years. Now the joke’s on us, as we scramble to research the various companies to determine what’s best for elderly relatives. Is it waterproof for the shower? Does the range extend into the yard? Can it detect falls? Is it GPS-enabled? Some independent-living communities even have their own devices. While any of these options are viable, there’s a bigger issue: getting Mom (or Dad or Auntie) to wear it. After a few accidental activations, my mom resists wearing her pendant necklace. It now sits on a nearby surface, safe from being activated but very unsafe for her.

The biggest change for me at this stage is being in a position to make life decisions for those who once cared for me. I'm sure I was no picnic for them back then. When my mom says I slept like a baby, she probably meant I cried all night and wet myself. I guess turnaround really is fair play.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Just four questions?

Four questions are an essential element of the Passover Seder. This was one of the first things learned by the non-Jewish Wikipedia-skimming couple who celebrated with us this year.

The purpose of the four questions is to engage children in the story of Passover, with the youngest asking why the holiday’s customs and foods are different than those of all other nights. That’s a lot of information to convey through just four questions.

Journalists use at least six in their reporting: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

I’m not a journalist, but I do interview clients to get to the heart of a story. And I do ask a lot of questions.

In some cases, clients ask for a list of questions beforehand. And while that’s easy enough for me to generate, it isn’t always helpful. After the first few questions, interviews usually take on a life of their own. They become what I call fishing expeditions. I let the conversation go where it will so I can discover things I may not have known enough to ask about. 

Questions don’t even have to be fully formed thoughts. If there’s good back-and-forth in an interview, just mentioning a key word or phrase can prompt the subject-matter expert to respond.

Generic questions also work better than you might expect:
  • Why is this topic important for readers?
  • What are the two or three key things you want them to know?
  • What are competitors saying about this topic?
  • What haven’t we covered?
  • Is there anything else you want to add?
I might even ask “Anything else?” a few times, until the final answer is: “No. I think we’ve covered it all.

One of the best questions I’ve found is a single word: Why? By asking “why” over and over, you can drill down into any topic until the relevant detail surfaces. It’s an approach most of us used as small children, to annoy our parents: Why? Why? Why? 
As an adult asking the same question, I can see why it’s so effective. The answer either starts with “Because…” or winds up providing background or rationale that puts the content into perspective.

Questions are useful tools for acquiring information...which leaves me with a final question about the Passover Seder: Why only four questions?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sweat the small stuff, big stuff, and all stuff in between

We live in a world of “stuff.” Stuff bought in stores or flea markets. Stuff received as gifts. Stuff inherited or donated. As long as this stuff is used, loved, or valued, there’s no problem.

Eventually, however, there comes a time when everything will need to find new homes. Over the years, I have pitched in during the cleanout process as relatives have passed away or downsized from houses to apartments. Lots of stuff was pitched out or donated to charities, while precious little was claimed by family members.

Their lack of interest surprised me. Years ago, I would spend hours browsing antique shops or refinishing hand-me-down furniture. If something was old and interesting, especially with family history attached to it, I raised my hand. These days, no hands are raised when younger generations are offered their grandparents' belongings.

Apparently, it’s a trend. I read as much in “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” subtitled: “Advice for boomers desperate to unload family heirlooms.”  The story relates how baby boomers and Gen Xers are faced with the task of disposing of their parents’ possessions – and nobody wants them. So much for sentimentality.

Even though people love the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” and HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip,” it is more as spectator than enthusiast. The lure of rusty gold or vintage collectibles doesn’t extend beyond the TV screen. After watching someone else dig through dusty barns or recondition old dressers, it’s time to visit IKEA or HomeGoods for trendier products and faux vintage stock.

My own experience helping to dispose of several households has left its mark. I now look at my belongings with a sharp, judgmental eye. If I don’t cherish it or use it, I toss it – and by toss I usually mean donate to charity. A while back, I found an entrepreneurial couple willing to comb through my vinyl record collection. I was happy when they carted away about 100 albums, but not as happy as if they’d taken the whole lot.

My husband has had some success on eBay, particularly with vintage photography equipment. His Polaroid 180 Land Camera shipped to China, his Mamiyaflex C2 TLR to someone at UCLA School of the Arts, and the Gralab 300 darkroom timer to Austin, Texas. He even sold my Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS watch, which was both cumbersome to wear and depressing, because it accurately recorded my continually slowing running times.

As much as I try to live lean, without too much stuff I don’t want or need, my house remains full. There still is stuff my mother wishes I would take after she downsized from a three-bedroom house. And she talks of thousands of photographs that were taken over the years of who knows who.

What to do with all this stuff? The good news is there are several donation centers nearby. Some even have a drive-thru. With these final options, giving stuff away has never been easier. Especially when family members don't want much more than mementos.