Monday, July 31, 2006

An Outbreak of Blogging: Get the Doctor Fast, Print Magazines and PR Departments

I proudly announced to my dance class today that I had attended the BlogHer Conference over the week-end--800 women bloggers, a beautiful thing to see, etc., etc., still full of enthusiasm for what I had just experienced.

There was a group wrinkled brow and comments:

"I don't know. I don't get the blogging thing."

" I feel like I'm wasting my time when I sit at the computer and read all that stuff."

"A real time-sink."

These are women mostly in their 40s and 50s, who consider themselves with-it. Otherwise, they wouldn't be learning this new dance/exercise technique called NIA. In fact, someone, ironically, actually brought up this "willingness to take risks" and referenced an article they'd read in a magazine about risk-taking (it was in Men's Health!) and proceeded to say how we're all women ready to take risks (a good thing, judging from the directional shaking of heads around the room). They were talking about NIA, not blogging.

"How many of you have read a blog?" I asked. Everyone shoook their heads in the other direction, as in 'No."

"Wow!" was all I could say. Do they think they're just personal journals and boring diaries? I offered to make a list of some good ones so they could taste a pu-pu platter of blogs. We'll see what happens.

CEOs are apparently unaware of blogging, too. As the NY Times pointed out in "All the Internet's a Stage. Why Don't CEOs Use It?" this past week-end. They mentioned Jonathan Schwartz at Sun Microsystems as one of the only CEOs who blogs and who apparently values open communication. Although not mentioned in this article, GM's CEO is another. That's two. TWO??? I note that most CEOs are also in their 40s and 50s. Is this an age thing? Uh-oh. And the train is definitely leaving the station.

This reminds me of CEOs and other executives in the 80s who thought that the computer was only for secretaries and wouldn't be caught dead with one in their offices. We all know what happened to those guys (and they were all guys then).

Don't they realize that the pace of blogging is moving far faster than other technologies and comunication techniques before it? At least geometrically. Incredible that so many leaders are so far behind. I'm wondering: what's happening in business schools re: blogging? I think Debbie Weil will be teaching somewhere big soon.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

BlogHer '06: Link, Link, Link!

I was there yesterday with almost 800 other women bloggers (and a handful of men) to meet each other, hear what else is going on in the blogosphere, and figure out if this blogging thing is going to stick and grow. On that last one, pul-lease! I haven't seen this much enthusaism since my Peace Corps training days. But then, there were about 80 recent college graduates all gung-ho about saving the world. Some bloggers do want to change the world but they mostly want to be heard (and it's about time!). These women come in every age, color, nationality, and shape with a vast spectrum of interests. They're moms, business consultants, writers, politicos, small buiness owners, large business employees, experts on science, technology, education, and who knows what else. What a collection all in one place and all with blogging in common. It was a beautiful thing to see.

I met women from all over the world: Kate from Australia, Barbara from Vermont, Megan and Beth from MA, and Millie from Florida (who also happens to be 80!), and ran into Erika (the only woman I saw who I'd met before), who lives in the Bay Area. Women are busy changing their worlds in small and big ways, blogging about peace, cars, parenting, sex, books and movies, and practically every other topic imaginable. I had a nice chat with Joan Blades of fame. She's started a new organization, Moms Rising, "working together to build a family-friendly America." I also watched her documentary, "The Motherhood Manifesto." Very persuasive about our collective need to work on our laws governing paid leave for mothers (and fathers)--to be able to spend sufficient time with sick and newborn children or elders-- and equal pay for women with children.

Kudos to the organizers, the sponsors, and all the great women who traveled to San Jose for the conference. I had a great time.

I may be forced to branch out on the topic front. I can't stand to just sit here and see all these women (and some men) talking about interesting things without taking my own shots.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sweat = Happiness

We all know about runner's high and the general feeling of well-being after a good swim or walk. Check out Gretchen Rubin's blog for hints on how to stick to a regular exercise schedule.

I think most of us also generally accept the idea that our brains are healthier if we exercise them, the "use it or lose it" school, and we also feel that great sense of well-being after a few minutes of concentration on a task, whether it's a knotty work problem or a challenging puzzle. We can feel good about being on the right track. Yet another research study has just been published in the August issue of the American Journal of Pathology. This one by Ambrée et al, reported on in Science Blog, examined the brains of mice that had lived in enriched enrivonments. The scientists found substantially fewer plaques and tangles associated with cognitive disease than in the brains of those not exposed to such environments. By chemically analyzing these results, the scientists discovered that mental and physical exercise (the enriched environment) offer protection from the build-up and aid in the clearance of certain enzymes associated with cognitive decline. And further, the effects appear to extend to multiple neural pathways.

I'm reminded of Prof. Marion Diamond's studies of enriched environments. Although most of her research has focused on the developing brains of children and the critical need for highly enriched environments, Prof. Diamond has now turned her attention to the other end of the developmental spectrum, which she sees as a continuum. She argues that we need "enriched" environments that offer mental and physical challenge all our lives if we are to have fit bodies and minds.

Friday, July 21, 2006

PIN Hell

Is anyone else having trouble remembering PINS or those pesky Logins and PWs? I have little pieces of paper all over my desk, stickies on my computer, and a drawer full of PINs. And when I need them the most, I can't find them, remember them, or come up with any remotely close facsimile. The secret handshake is driving me wild.

OK, so we know we shouldn't use the same ones for everything because that's how identity thieves get into our bank acccounts, credit cards, and who knows what else. So what in the hell do we do? This is a very aggravating problem. Memory tricks? Acronyms? Maybe. And what about the latest request--must include at least six figures of letters or numbers but at least one must be a number--is this a trick question?

Just think. Soon all the databases of the world will know my mother's maiden name, the city of my first elementary school, my favorite dog's name, and god knows what else. Make that "ours." What's a person to do?


Researchers tell us that we Americans have fewer close confidants than ever before. A few years ago, the average was three and this year it's down to two people that qualify for important discussions. And the percentage of people who put one non-relative in this group went down fairly precipitously, from 80% to 57%, implying that we don't have time to make friends or we don't go outside our own families or our definition of friendship may have shifted.

On the other hand, we've just found out from the Pew Research folks that there are now 12 million people blogging, with males and females taking to this new communication form almost equally. Even more interesting, 57 million people are reading blogs regularly. And the majority of the blogs have to do with the experience of just living life, in spite of the high profile ones on politics and tech. Sounds like people are discussing important things.

And blogs, people talking about what's important to them, are definitely a huge way to get the word out--about almost anything, according to Steve Rubel, among others.

Does anyone have any idea how many emails a day there are or in a month or a year? Don't some percentage of those count as important discussions? Ironic that high tech has pushed us into what had become an outmoded way of expressing ourselves just a few years ago--writing. As some fabulous letter-writers of centuries past knew, far more depth and intimacy can often be expressed in writing than in face-to-face conversations. And, bonus for our minds, thoughtful writing usually takes good thinking.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

WordPlay: the Movie

I found WordPlay just plain fun, very much like the NY Times crossword puzzles that are the center of attraction here. The movie was short, crisp, amusing, and interesting. The clips of President Clinton, the Indigo Girls, and Jon Stewart, among others, added texture.

I also know the thinking by researchers on crossword puzzles. There's been a huge surge in interest in them in part because people think they help keep the brain fit. But many scientists have looked at crossword puzzles over time and come to the conclusion that the cognitive skills needed are so one-dimensional that the brain is really not worked very much at all. But there have been some studies in which crossword puzzles did increase the probabilities of keeping sharp throughout life by 41% compared to reading at 35%, and dancing and interactive games from 69-76%, if participation was at least four times/week. In other words, the more we spend time on mentally stimulating tasks, the greater the probability that our brains will continue to be quick and agile. Scientists have dismissed crossword puzzles in the past because they are typically just memory coding exercises that don't translate to much else. Once the player knows the author's style, it's an even smaller memory finding subset.

But the NY Times puzzles have got to be different, especially Saturday's and Sunday's. I note that the study cited above was in the NYC area. Maybe those study participants---oh, well, you know where I'm going with this. But, really, these puzzles require deductive thinking, grasping an overall theme, and , OK, yes, calling up puzzle memory but also large doses of general cultural knowledge memory not to mention good visual scanning skills. Typically, exercises that use multiple cognitive skills at once are the ones that make a difference in brain fitness. I think the NY Times puzzles qualify.

But mostly, they're fun. And we all know less stress is good for every part of us, including our brains.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why Speak?

Back in the 70s when I was in graduate school studying linguistics, I thought Chomsky had it all wrong. He emphasized the uniqueness of human language and the deep structure of grammar and syntax programmed into our brains. He calculated that this structure wafts up to our mind's surface to become language, innate only to us humans. He hypothesized this predisposition to innate structure as the driving force behind expression.

I studied linguistics, the science of language, in graduate school not long after I returned from a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa where I had to learn new languages--French and Arabic-- to communicate enough to live on a daily basis, buying food, finding transportation and housing, and dealing with the other critical basics of life. I was forced into situations that were so different from where I grew up in rural Georgia that everyday made me wonder about and examine the links between culture and language, religion, food, among many other topics. Which comes first--the cultural meaning or the language. how do they shape each other, how can the syntax of languages be so different and so conceptually the same, why do the people of the world speak so many different languages, what really makes us want to communicate? Is it really possible, as Chomsky said, that syntax and grammar programmed into our brains make us want to speak? I didn't think so then and I don't now. I was motivated to learn to speak in a strange, new situation and language because I wanted to fit into the social fabric of my town. I wanted people to think I had a brain--communicating does that for us--and that I could live independently and responsibly.

It occured to me that we are all driven by intent--don't we just need to get things done? I know that was a big motivation for me. I just needed to buy food or get my hair cut or pay the water bill. And knowing the language made it all much easier and more efficient. And I got the respect of others in the process. Few others spoke English then so being mute or considered stupid was not an option I liked.

So when I heard a recent NPR piece on the research advances made in working with apes, it rang a bell in my memory. Researchers at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines, Iowa, have observed that apes can learn to understand oral language and express themselves, if given tools that are suitable to them. Furthermore, they make the effort because they need to be understood. In other words, they want something and the easiest and most efficient way to get it is to use language. They also want to be part of the human social network, since there aren't many apes in Iowa. From this work, it's beginning to look like meaning and intent drive language acquisition and use. Grammar and syntax may just be part of our capacity for fluid intelligence, logic we need to make the rules of language so that everyone uses those rules and the social network wheels are greased. It seems logical. If this latest research is correct, then meaning may be the driver of the whole communication thing. We communicate because we need to. I like it. Makes sense to me.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Tree Sometimes Sways

When I was younger, I didn't get why there was so much fuss about Yoga. It seemed to offer some spiritual something or other but with little aerobic umph. I was in good shape and the poses I tried were almost effortless for me. My mind wondered. I was bored. I have always enjoyed practically all things athletic but, in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I was deeply into sweating, using energy, moving fast and furiously, climbing mountains, seeing how far I could go or how fast I could get there or how much physical risk I could manage in the process.

Now, I am a little surprised at how much I enjoy Yoga. For one thing, my Yoga sessions are challenging. I don't usually sweat, except inside my brain, but I am very aware that the whole process is extremely challenging. I am not bored and if my mind wanders, I fall over with a clunk, awkwardly. Clearly, I have not been flexing, stretching, or using many parts of my body. They've just been sitting there, still, rusting, getting creakier by the year. Even some of the most traditional poses like the Warrior II or Half Moon, I find take energy, attention, balance, and, yes, a little grit, at times. There I am, standing on one leg, with the other one pulled up above my knee, my foot pressed against the thigh of the standing leg, with my hands lifted straight up to the ceiling, my eyes glued to one spot on a point across the room so I don't tip over. Just to stay balanced in this position takes will. The Tree Pose. Trees sway and sometimes fall. I'm too busy with my own body to care what anyone else is doing with theirs. There is no competition here, except with myself. And it starts inside my brain as much as in my body.

I've tired several kinds of Yoga--Ashtanga, which has faster, more aerobic movements, and of course, Hatha, which seems to be the foundation of everything. But my favorite lately is Shadow Yoga, which combines traditional Hatha Yoga with martial arts. The combination yields movements that are linear--back and forth, up and down like traditional Yoga--with circular movements, which are good for joints and flexibility, from the martial arts.

The other thing that never ceases to amaze me about Yoga is that if I take a hiatus from classes or fail to practice on my purple mat at home, I can barely touch my toes and creak into the poses when I start again. But it only takes three or four sessions to be able once again to stretch and twist into all kinds of shapes. And, best of all, I feel so great afterwards. Refreshed, calm, focused. Mind and body working together seamlessly.

Yoga is a meditation for the body and the mind follows along, unable to think about anything else except the Pose at hand. I've come to believe that concentration, and Yoga is a great way to train the brain to focus, is the most important skill of all. Everything else follows.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Slogging through Blogging

Over the last couple of days, I thought I'd throw in the towel. The writing part of the blog is the easiest part. Figuring out the code to put in the template and then devining where in the template to insert this meaningless gibberish has made me grind my teeth. But then I found Feedburner--so easy to use, such a delight to read, so transparent. Alas, there may be hope. Of course, as you see on this site, I clicked to my heart's delight, constantly choosing all kinds of things I didn't really know a thing about. But I just loved copying and pasting. Because it worked! At last. Something worked. The proverbial candy store. What fun! I may add some more chiclets tomorrow. Why is this reminding me of a toothpaste commercial? We'll see if anything at all happens. I mean, really--will anyone visit this site?

BTW, I now subscribe to about a thousand Google help forums. They're clogging my email and doing me no good so far. I am really determined to figure this out. Now on to reading other blogs and commenting and working full-time to find the right links (or at least some links). I'm trying it frustrating and invigorating, sort of like hiking straight up a steep mountain with the top in sight but realizing that the distance is illusory--much farther than I figured. But I'm determined to get there.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The fourth of July is my birthday and I have been, as my husband has inscribed on my birthday cake, soixante all day. We Americans always think things are fancier in French and I have felt very fancy and special today and for the last several days leading up to this big event. I am living with two men, my husband and my 18-year-old son. My other son wanted to be here today but he's busy working a catering job so he can pay his way to Europe in August. I want him to work but I liked that he called me no less than five times today to say happy birthday, he loves me, he hopes I have a great hike, he wishes he could be here, too. These men I live with indulged me today and went on an 8-mile hike with me, along the breath-taking Dipsea Trail that goes in a loop from Stinson Beach through Douglas Fir and Bay tree forests to open grasslands and incredible views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. We saw wild orchids still in bloom and hawks circling in majesty above us. We tramped over two-feet deep roots from Redwoods and Firs. Beautiful. And we only saw a few other hikers along the way. The Steep Ravine part of the trail was, well, steep and the Matt Davis part of the trail was rough climbing but there were so many payoffs, so many majestic views and small lovely moments--the hawks circling above, munching on sandwiches on Flat Rock high above Stinson Beach and the Pacific, the "ladder," the steep climb down a ladder to make it past a waterfall, dark, mysterious moss and ferns with overatching tree trunks and earthy smells. We ended feeling jubilant. And tired. We stopped in a Stinson Beach restaurant for steamed muscles and clams and a glass of red wine, afterwards. Perfect.

Hikes like this give plenty of time for reflection. At first, I felt like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, one of my favorite movies. The main character, played by Burt, of course, swims from pool to pool and in the process, moves through the history of his life. He starts off charming and perfect and as he moves through the pools, various other things come to the surface. His life was complicated. He wasn't perfect.

That's the way I felt today. I thought of all the idyllic hiking times I've had: Appalachian Trail hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia with my father and brother in my childhood and teens, hikes in the Nantahala and Pisgah Forests of North Carolina, hikes on little hills called mountains in New Hampshire, hiking the Grand Canyon and the Sierras, my honeymoon hike, the Milford Track in New Zealand, hiking in the Catskills, the Rockies, and the Alps. Then my mind began to free-associate to create all those links to other hikes. I realized that I have had some friends, ok, some of them were more than friends--and our main interest in common was hiking. I've had other situations where hiking made the situation abundantly clear--this relationship was going nowhere. But hiking, especially through mountains, has been a constant in my life, a sign that I'm getting in touch with myself and feeling at peace. How perfect that I hiked today, the day that I turned 60. And that I hiked with men that I like. And who indulge me.

As we walked down the last few steps of the path to the highway near where our car was parked, my son, David, said quietly, "Happy Birthday, Mom."

Getting Ready for My Birthday

I was born on the fourth of July and it's been a really great birthday to have--always a holiday with fireworks, swimming, and family picnics and barbeques. I've had my share of delicous, gray cakes--the ones where the red, white, and blue all run together--too. This year I realized I had some tidying up to do before my birthday--a big one. I still had leftover presents from previous years. My two sons gave me a gift certificate for a mud bath and massage at Calistoga last year. Somehow, the whole year has flown by without my making time to enjoy this luscious gift. So I went yesterday. The massage was terrific. The mud bath was, well, interesting. I can see why couples might like to do this. It would have been nice to have a friend or my husband there to yuk it up while sinking into the sulfuric-smelling, hot, buoyant, dark gray, well yes--mud.

"How do you sterilize this mud?" I asked. The question had obviously been asked a thousand times because the answer was quick and efficient.

"We run water in there that's a zillion degrees and then drain it and half the mud drains out so we have to replace it." OK, I thought and slid in. I guess the new dirt is clean.

"What does this mud do for you?" I asked the next time the attendant came in to put a cold cloth on my brow.

"Opens the pores," he said, as though that were a very good thing. Remember, I was submerged by this time in the mud, totally covered by the slimy goo.

After slinging my leg over the tub edge and extricating myself from the gray sludge, I took a shower and soaked in a jacuzzi. The attendant then led me to a dark room to rest under blankets, to "cool down, "and contemplate my coming big birthday. My pores were wide open and I was relaxed. So I pulled out the The Namesake. Two years ago, I received the book from a friend for my birthday. It has high time I'd read it. What a wonderful, lyrical, prodical son (or daughter) story. Hey, I'd moved from rural Georgia to New York City and then to California with no family around. It wasn't half-way around the world away (Calcutta to Boston in the book) but sometimes it's felt like an entire world away. And I too have realized that understanding and appreciating my roots can make what was previously an embarrassment transform into a treasure. Great book--why did it take me so long to read it? Great massage and mud bath? Why did it take me so long to use that gift certificate?