Moving on

When people say that you need to move on, it sounds so simple

As if all you need to do is get in the car and drive to another city

Just move on

Just walk from here to there

But in reality, moving on is so very hard

It requires inner strength and discipline

Something most of us don’t have anyway, so where get it now?

It means saying good bye to feelings that you may still carry inside

Feelings that took a long time to manifest themselves cannot be shed so instantly

It involves forgetting, especially all the beautiful moments

But how can we do turn off our thoughts?

And moving on usually is a sole venture

But who looks forward to travelling alone?

So tell me, how should I move on?

Focused Mind = Happy Mind

There are times when I am extremely thankful to all the work done by researchers on the topic of happiness and mental well-being. It seems that in recent years, one can find increasingly more information on these subjects. I have never been someone to just accept the things that happen to me. I was lucky, the Wall fell and I was able to travel to other countries. But many of my childhood friends stayed behind and never even explored the world that is now open to them. An accomplished goal is never a final destination for me but rather a motivation to set another goal. But when it comes to controlling my mind, I have often, and still miserably fail. I let it wander. And this wandering can sometimes cause quite some waves, often ending in complete frustration and unhappiness.  As a teenager growing up it never occurred to me that this is something I can actually control. I always felt I was the victim of some unfortunate external complot directed only towards me. Sure, you hear encouragements such as “Stay calm, keep your head up, it will get better,” but I found these never really helpful.  And then I started coming across the topic of controlling one’s thoughts in leadership books, usually mentioned as a strategy for leaders trying to build a positive work environment. And for some reason, at work I am more successful than at home with this concept. I am comfortable that I contribute to the happiness of my employees by practicing a leadership style that is build on empathy, passion, communication and a positive attitude. In my personal life, however, events and situations vary much more than at work. Two days ago, Texas was hit by severe hail storms and several tornados. As I am standing in the shelter at work waiting out what is to come, I am thinking about my house and the possibility of it being gone. And I thought a lot about the reaction I would have if that was the case. Mostly, however, I feel there is not enough time to think about a possible reaction. Many events are sudden, but even more are slowly building up in our minds. It could be a slightly offensive email that we read first thing in the morning, followed by other small events that put us on the edge in the course of the day.

A few weeks ago I read an article in the Jan/Feb edition of the Harvard Business Review. It talks about how our bad mood can be attributed to our minds wandering. We are great at controlling what we will do with our physical selves, but often forget about the mind. We should focus our thoughts. Coincidentally, I am reading a book on coaching that takes a similar approach and states that we have the tendency to exaggerate both the good and the bad things in our lives. And to top it all off, I received a speeding ticket the other day and as I go through the online defensive driving course, again, I am being reminded to be aware of my state of mind as it interferes with our judgment or reasoning abilities on the road. I discovered that the power to control my mind will make me a better person because it affects all aspects of my life. But how hard is that? Very. But it can be done.

So, here are a few tools I have compiled for myself on my quest to make sure my mind does not wander off in directions where I can’t reach it anymore:

  1. There are really bad events that occur in some peoples’ lives and that warrant very emotional reactions. For the rest and the majority I always ask myself “Is this worth dying over?” Meaning – is this really so bad to justify a bunch of fuss? The answer is usually no.
  2. I try to recall similar situations that have happened to me in the past. In almost all cases, I was a happier and wiser self after these. Thus, I try to envision a positive outcome. Sayings like “there is always something positive in every negative situation” are not far off. The trick is to imagine that positive something while you’re in the midst of a crisis. It can be tough.
  3. I keep a list of things I have accomplished in my mind. When people say “Wow, you came to the US all by yourself and started a life here?” I don’t think that it is such a big deal, but maybe it is. But when I am thrown off course and lost without direction, these things come back to me and help me to stick it out.
  4. I will call a friend. Usually it helps me organize my thoughts better when I can talk through them. I am action-oriented. When I can finish the call with a couple of steps to take then I feel much better. This will prevent me from just reacting and prepare me to react. For example, for a tough conversation at work, I may write down a few notes to help me organize my thoughts.
  5. I divert. As a manager I cannot afford to display my negative emotions. So I discovered that, by making an effort to be friendly with others and even complimenting their work, I completely distract from myself and begin to realize that it’s not all about me and that other things matter just as well.
  6. I look at my dog or a picture of her and say to myself “learn from this wonderful creature.” She is happy no matter which stands in stark contrast to my exaggerated complications. It makes me realize how insignificant some of them are.
  7. And lastly, I try to avoid the spiral of negativity. Here is a good one: “My life is nothing compared to others. I should be already in a higher position, making more money, having a greater impact. I am useless.” Don’t dwell, is all I can say. I love this phrase. Don’t dwell on the negative, the sad, the lesser, the frustrating. Focus on the positive. Every day. I put a reminder on my phone that pops up at 8pm every night: Write down one of today’s many successes.  Then I review them once in a while and for me, there is nothing more satisfying than a sense of accomplishment.

Still, controlling one’s mind is hard work. Its so easy to slip. Just seeing someone in better shape and in nicer clothes can be the onset for a really depressing evening. Don’t get distracted, I tell myself. Cottrell calls it focus inside your boat in order to control what you can. As for the rest, smile and move on.

A running day

Running means a lot to me. A good morning run will change my entire day and if I repeat it day after day then my body and mind transform to something better. On mornings when I don’t run, I feel down, I drag through the day without energy and motivation; I feel tired and resort to artificial means to make me go, like coffee. On my running days, I don’t need any caffeine.  My heart rate is up, my mind awake, and my body ready to take on the day’s challenges, both physical and mental. During the run, I think. I sort out problems, go over upcoming tasks or meetings, or dream up new ideas, some or which I have successfully implemented. That running hour is a perfect ME time. Sometimes I have unique encounters since in the wee hours when I am out, animals are often still active. I learned that armadillos take pleasure shuffling around in moist grass. Rabbits, startled by my sudden approach freeze, which allows me to admire them up close.  I truly enjoy the peacefulness of an otherwise very busy street. I never run with music in my ears, mostly as a precaution because I am quite alone at that time, but I also like to listen to the stillness around me.  All day I am surrounded by noise, so this is a nice change. The feeling of exhaustion following the run quickly changes into energy once I step out of the shower.  Although my weight does not change from a day without a run, I see myself heavier, fuller, pants tighter around the waist. Following my run, I feel slim, I use belts to keep my pants snug, and overall experience a sensation of being fit and in shape. Running also changes my nutrition.  My appetite longs for leaner, healthier foods. After 6 miles I am not in the mood for coffee and donuts, but rather stand in the kitchen and toss fresh food and protein powder into a blender and sip on it in my car (sometimes I also spill it and then that’s not so much fun – blueberry on khaki …. Not a good day). And then, usually it kicks in when I get to work, after I lock my car and walk through the parking lot into the building – I feel my legs tighten  and I know I have already accomplished something great that day while its only 7am.  I walk into the office with high spirits, motivated and happy.  Yes, running gives me happiness. And all day long, this sensation stays with me. In the afternoon I have a little sleepy phase where I may go and hunt down some chocolate but know I don’t have to feel so guilty about it. And when I drive home and see all the evening runners on the trails, I relax and tell myself – I am already done. I can hit the couch with my book and enjoy the rest of the evening, or I can do some upper-body exercises to tone and strengthen.  I don’t have any trouble falling asleep at night, nor do I need any additional fiber intake to get my bowels going. I love running – it keeps me healthy, alert, improves my performance at work and restores my balance which I need at home.  Not only is running the quickest way to drop a few pounds, it’s also an excellent workout for the heart.  

Tomorrow will be a running day.

Lunch Time

When growing up in Germany, lunch was always the most substantial meal of the day. Dinner consisted of salads made from vegetables and herbs that grew in my grandmother’s garden and open sandwiches, sometimes leftovers. These were simple salads such as lettuce with olive oil and lemon juice and chives. Or she would grate carrots, add some raisins and there was another side salad. Bread, usually rye, from the local baker was cut thinly and was topped with butter and lunch meat such as salami or cheese. But again, single layers, not over the top 10 slices of ham like here. I remember I would love to sometimes just add sliced cucumber and salt. And still today, I enjoy simple, filling meals. I keep weeknight dinners very light since I usually don’t get to sit down until 7.30pm. And yes, the common advice on nutrition is not to eat late at night. I agree, but everyone needs to adjust their eating habits to their lifestyle. I run in the mornings, fairly early, 4.30am most days. Without some food in my stomach I will not have the energy or strength for a 6 mile run. I recommend always considering your daily routine and adjusting your meals to that instead of following some pre-cut diet plan. These never work for me. The key word when it comes to nutrition is healthy. I choose wholesome ingredients that I know my body will love and digest easily.

During my work week, the key meal for me is lunch. After my morning run, my body is busy trying to recover, build muscle, use stored energy and does not require much food. My hunger kicks in at lunch time. My advice is to always be prepared for lunch so as not to become a victim of junk food from machines or cheap restaurants.  Even though my dinners are light and require minimal preparation, I do stand in the kitchen at night cooking – my lunches. The simplest lunch is soup. I can prepare a big pot that will cover three weekdays. I look for filling ingredients, because a summer vegetable soup in light broth will leave me hungry. I use lentils, beans, sometimes chicken or pasta in my soups. If I do fancy a light soup, then some other item goes on the side, maybe leftover grilled chicken from the weekend. You see, I like control over my food. Restaurants, as healthy as they appear, don’t give me the warm and fuzzy when it comes to nutrition. Even if I just eat salad, I don’t know what they added to the dressing or what types of spices or condiments they used. I often find myself with an aftertaste in my mouth, a bloated belly or some type of indigestion. I am also not as strong when it comes to selecting. After all, here I am paying for the lunch, so why not get

something hearty. So, I truly try not to go out for lunch when at work. Here is a list of easy-to-prepare types of meals that make a filling and healthy weekday lunch:

  • Raw Salads. Any combination of veggies works, depending on your preference. You can cut them the night before and combine them quickly in the morning. Drizzle olive oil and lemon juice and add salt and pepper and a fresh herb such as parsley, dill, mint or chives. Top with a filler such as tuna, boiled chicken, even grilled sirloin.
  • Salads with cooked ingredients such as rice, orzo, quinoa, pasta or beans. These I usually prepare completely the night before and divide up into containers that I just grab from the fridge on my way out in the morning. They are usually more filling because of the carbohydrate-rich ingredients. I may eat some fruit following the salad to finish with a fresh note.
  • Sandwiches, filled pitas or tortillas.Great option for a healthy lunch. Even here I try to incorporate some type of legume,such as a garbanzo or bean spread that can be prepared the night before. I am not a big fan of processed meats anymore, so I try to add other items such as grilled tofu or boiled eggs. Avocado is a healthy alternative to processed spreads like mayo.
  • Simple meals. This could be a piece of salmon or halibut prepared the night before. Fish cooks so quickly, 5-10 minutes in olive oil and white wine, with salt and pepper. Steam some veggies and add rice or mashed potatoes and there you have a great meal that your coworkers will admire when they unwrap their greasy and sad-looking burger next to you.

I also always keep a stash of almonds and protein bars at work for the afternoon snack attack.

The great news is that after lunch, you still have half a day to move around and allow your body to use the meal you just consumed instead of storing it. If you exercise at night, the lunch you ate 4-5 hours ago will provide you with the energy you need to perform well. If you are trying to cut down on heavy dinners, a useful tip is eat lunch later, 12.30pm instead of 11 or 11.30. That way you won’t be hungry by 6pm and a small snack will usually do.

So, no matter your goals, whether weight loss, or simply healthy nutrition, it’s about control. I find that this country has made it so easy to access food that we stop to think about and plan our meals. In

communist Germany, stores closed at 6pm and only few opened on Saturday. Fast food joints did not exist so a family had to think ahead and plan the provisions for the weekend and holidays. Maybe that upbringing makes it easier for me, but I also always find that my meals taste so much better than the mass-produced stuff sold outside.

Looking for Enchantment

Last week was challenging at work. One of those where it was less about the daily operation and so much about human relationships. But now, looking back, and as I prepare myself for a new one, I find the highlights that will motivate me and give me energy. I finished Enchantment, a quick read that was a final push to get this blog started. I enjoyed the concise, tell-me-what-to-do style. Focus is partially on business owners but also has good tips for us working for a boss. “Drop everything and do what your boss asks” – love this. It’s not about getting on good terms with him, but to demonstrate that you are focused, enthusiastic and get things done. I try this daily and enjoy when my followers do so too.  Then, my company opened its 54th store,  only 10 minutes from my house. (Convenient for me because I really love shopping there.) I attended the Opening Preview Party, met many people from work and ran into a former professor from SMU. I find it wonderful to meet people from the past and I am excited to see the doors this unexpected encounter may open.

On Friday I decided to leave the week with a positive action. I left a note for the company president with her assistant. Why? We spend an hour together when I first started there – to get to know each other, to connect, and to share my initial expressions and her many years of experience. We graduated from the same university and she had mentioned that she would like to visit the DC soon. So, I used my encounter with my professor at the store opening, a few other thoughts and this action item she proposed as an opportunity to reconnect. I wrote a note and attached it to a ThankYou card friends of mine had written me for a company coupon I had sent them. It is so easy to get into a daily rut at work and only worry about our little world of responsibility. But every time we meet new people and have interaction, we have an opportunity to plant seeds which can grow, if we feed them some water once in a while. I think we are often so afraid – to say the wrong thing, to not matter to anyone, or just to get into some kind of mess that may end up in HR. But meeting new people at work, even forming friendships is important. Guy recommends it as part of Enchantment.  It makes going to work much easier and we just don’t feel so lonely anymore. So, let’s look for some small seeds to plant this week that may lead into something bigger, as big as a friendship. Wouldn’t that be great?

El Salvador

During my morning cleaning routine I still see black sand on my Q-tip, even though I returned from El Salvador over 2 weeks ago.  This is a daily reminder of the high waves at Playa Zonte that tumbled and whirled me around quite heavily on my last day in the country. Those were surfing waves, and that is what these beaches along the coast, south of La Libertad, are famous for.  And the black, glittering sand.

San Salvador is only a 3.5 hour flight from Dallas and welcomes its visitors with a small but roomy airport, quiet and focused immigration officials and a general relaxedness about things. I still recall the tropical evening heat that enveloped me upon arrival. I was wrapped in several layers of clothes due to temperatures in the 40s in Dallas, which I slowly removed as I stood in line waiting to have my passport stamped.

Since the airport is near the coast, we began our 6-day trip through this beautiful country at Costa del Sol, a getaway destination for many Salvadorians. It’s easily identifiable on the map as a long, straight strip of sand with the ocean to one side and the estuary on the other. The road is lined with villas and hotels. I did not get the sense of luxury that the first edition of this travel guide alluded to. But then again, little can be seen from the road as all entrances are closed by huge wooden gates and stone walls. At the tip of the strip, La Puntilla, I had the best mariscada, a fish soup with a variety of shellfish in an insanely tasty broth with rich cream.

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and I was amazed at the number of places we were able to visit in one week.  With a map in my lap, fresh coconut water in a bag and the windows rolled down, we drove on many roads, some without pavement, and several not even on the map. A burning smell seems to linger in the air everywhere in El Salvador. I saw people burning trash, probably due to the lack of proper waste management.

In San Vicente, a small town at the base of a volcano, I tried fried yucca, chatted with men that carried machetes on their belt and climbed an interesting-looking tower. It was here that I ventured into the famous Pollo Campero, which turned out to be a Latin American version of KFC. But honestly, I was not in the mood for fried chicken, but was told that this place has the cleanest restrooms, which turned out to be true. Needless to say, I visited Pollo Campero more than once.

On the road into the capital we stumbled upon Olocuilta, famous for rice flour pupusas. You get to choose your fillings, which took me some time since several vegetables pointed out to me did not sound familiar. They are topped with escabeche, which is a mix of pickled jalapeno peppers, cabbage, onions and carrots. Loved it.

Entering San Salvador I was stunned. A modern and clean city greeted me with everything any other western city has to offer. I expected to see more signs of poverty, crime and gang life. I learned that there are two parts to the city and that the old capital, with the cathedral and cemetery was the trouble area. I asked my friends to take me there because I had come to get to know the country in its true colors.  The old side is not nearly as clean and the streets bustle with all sorts of vendors trying to make a few dollars with fruit, veggies or cheap import goods. Several houses bore gang-related markings. We entered several side roads, one of which suddenly became so small that we were afraid the car would not fit through. A man lying on the street mentioned that there is probably no way out, which was enough for my friends to turn around and head out of the city.

A beautiful country opened itself up for me. Fresh and exotic fruits are sold at the side of the roads. And if you stop and buy, you meet the whole family, and even get to use their outhouse, which works in cases of emergency. The air became cooler in La Palma, where we tried interesting baked goods and fresh, local coffee to warm us up. Artesanias are sold here everywhere, gifts made out of wood and fabric, beautifully painted in bright colors and then lacquered. Check out Fernando Llort, a local artist whose gallery we visited. From here we went higher up into the mountains, almost at the border of Honduras. We stopped in Metapan for an afternoon drink with family and drove on a gravel road for two hours to get to what must have been one of the remotest places in the country, a huge property that ends with a small river which I crossed swimming just to be able to say I stepped into Guatemala.

We then took La ruta de las flores, which starts after Santa Ana, a city that has lost a bit of the glamour described in my guidebook.  Outside the city, we stopped at the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, which, disappointingly, were covered in cement. I spoke to an employee at the museum and was told that upon discovery, heavy rains started and the archeological team could not think of another way to prevent destruction.  I really enjoyed Juayua, were we wandered quiet cobblestone streets in the evening, helped a Mayan girl set up her stand for the next morning’s market, and stayed in a cabin.

The people of El Salvador are reserved, but very friendly people. Every encounter first begins with a handshake, even if though a gate. Pleasantries are exchanged, apologies for the late disturbance. People are humble even if they own half the city that you are visiting. They seem honest and genuinely interested. They are happy you are visiting their country. They allow you to pass on the road. They are accommodating to your need, always willing to help.

I know that I will rid my ears of the sand in a few days but my fond memories of El Salvador with stay with me forever.