My Secret

I have a secret that I want to share with you, but you have to promise to not tell anyone.  Do you promise? If the answer is “No,” stop reading now.

Before I reveal my secret, I want to tell you a little bit about my wife, Julie.  When I met Julie, she was an avid runner, and that habit continued throughout most of our marriage.  You may have noticed that I used the word “habit” rather than “hobby.” My choice of words was not random.  A habit implies a repeated behavior incorporated into one’s psyche, where a hobby is a pleasurable leisure activity.

Julie loved to run. Running gave her energy and made her feel emotionally happy. Several years ago, she had a knee surgery that resulted in a bad outcome. That ended her running career.  This was devastating to her, and she grieves the loss to this very day. To understand why that is the case, you need to learn just a little about how the brain works. 

A structure in Julie’s brain, the nucleus accumbens (NA), becomes more active when she runs. The NA is part of the brain’s reward pathway.  This is a pathway that is activated to reinforce behaviors that are necessary for species survival. Have you ever eaten a great meal and had a sense of ease and contentment afterward?  When someone gives you a genuine hug, does it feel wonderful? Do you feel happy and mellow after a positive sexual experience? What you are feeling is an activation of the reward pathway; all of these activities are directly or indirectly necessary for our species’ survival. 

There are ways to corrupt this pathway.  Drugs of addiction, including cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, abnormally activate the reward pathway.  Process addictions, like shopping and gambling, also activate this connection.  The reward pathway doesn’t have logic; it is reflexive. When a drug like cocaine activates it, the brain assumes that cocaine is necessary for survival. Your brain seeks out cocaine, and an addiction is born. 

The reward pathway’s sensitivity is governed by several factors, including a person’s genes, and different brains are likely activated by different things.  Alcohol may over-activate one person’s brain but not others. Likewise, exercise may be triggering for one individual but not so much for someone else.

Why would one person’s NA be highly sensitive to exercise when another person is not? Is physical exercise necessary for species survival?  As a species, we need physically active members.  However, exercise is less important than eating or procreation.  If you have more active and less active individuals, your overall species survival may be enhanced.  Individuals who like to exercise could become warriors and builders.  Those who prefer a more sedentary lifestyle would be content serving in other important but less physically demanding roles. 

Our automated lifestyles are very recent in our evolution; everyone had to exercise to some degree in the past.  However, over the last decades, the physical demands of humans in developed countries have diminished exponentially.  We can order our groceries online, drive to our appointments, and even use a “robot” to vacuum our carpets. Our increasingly sedentary lives have had increased health consequences ranging from obesity to dementia. Since we don’t have to toil in the fields, some go for a run or spend time at the gym.  For someone like my wife, it is easy to adopt an exercise program. Why? Because she has  direct emotional and physical benefits from exercising.  Who doesn’t like doing things that feel good?

Here is my secret, I don’t feel good when I exercise.  In fact, I feel sort of lousy when I do it.  I used to feel guilty that I hated exercise.  I thought that there was something wrong with me or that I was just plain lazy.  However, I now know that my brain just operates differently than some. Yet, I know that it is essential for me to be physically active.  How does someone like me exercise regularly?  How do I turn a negative into a positive? 

When I married Julie, I was carried away by her exercise enthusiasm. I outfitted my basement with thousands of dollars of gym equipment.  Every day I would force myself to go into the cellar and exercise.  Every day I hated it. Despite my feelings, I exercised for over a year until I had a minor injury.  I then stopped altogether.

Many years ago, my friend Tom encouraged me to join his gym.  I would meet him at 5 AM most days before I worked with my personal trainer.  Afterward, we would have coffee. I looked forward to going to the gym and reaped the benefits of all of my physical activity.  After some time, Tom’s schedule changed, and he stopped coming.  By then, I had established myself with some of the other gym rats who welcomed me into their fold.  However, I found myself getting bored, and soon I came up with reasons to sleep in. The new reward didn’t offset the pain. 

I knew that I had to do something physically, so I came up with another plan. I would get up very early and walk to my local Starbucks-a round trip of 3.5 to 4.5 miles, depending on my chosen route. I do enjoy walking, thinking, and meditating. At Starbucks, I formed friendships with some of the customers and had good relationships with the baristas.  As a bonus, Tom would visit me on occasion.  However, the real draw was that I used my time at the Starbucks to write, and I even had a dedicated table at the coffee shop. I was motivated to walk every day and did it one day when it was -27F outside.  Unfortunately, all of that ended with the onset of the pandemic.

Walking and hiking are my favorite exercises, as they have many sensory dimensions.  Movement for the sake of activity doesn’t do it for me.  Exploring nature is motivating, but unless the scenery is incredibly engaging, it is still insufficient to get me out of bed every morning. I have found that I must combine my walking with another activity.  Tom bought a townhome closer to my home, and I’m motivated to walk there to visit with him.  My kids like to walk, and it is enjoyable for me to walk and talk with them.  I also like to walk somewhere with a purpose.  For instance, I don’t mind walking to our local market to pick up a few groceries.  I have found that combining exercise with something that I enjoy reinforces my desire to be active.

I have also come to realize that some exercise is better than no exercise. In a perfect world, I would do various exercises that increased many aspects of my physical well being.  However, I don’t live in an ideal world.  Instead of constantly feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough, I am committed to celebrating what I am doing.  Such an attitude promotes the continuation of a behavior.  Guilt often has the opposite effect.

If I can pair a positive with something that I don’t want to do, it is much easier for me to accomplish my goal.  This has been the case with exercising regularly, and I also do this “combining” technique for many other things that range from making dinner for my family to paying bills.

I pass this idea to you.  Are there things that you need to do in your life that you procrastinate around?  Consider pairing them with something that you do like, and you will probably have more success in accomplishing your goals.

Peace

Mike

I like to walk in nature. I can enter a walking path very close to my home.
Trees give me a feeling of comfort.
This path abuts a river.
Walking with a practical goal motivates me. Here I walked to my local market to buy a few things for dinner.
It is important to plan ahead. A shoulder bag makes the return trip home easy-hauling a number of plastic bags would be a drag.
I love looking at scenery when I walk. Here I’m spying some graffiti on a viaduct.
I love walking with my kids.
Here I’m walking by our carillon. It serenades our downtown on the hour.
The only exercise equipment that I need is a decent pair of shoes.

The Cabinet Under The Sink

“Dad, it’s dripping.” I looked towards the sink and witnessed a single drop of water form and fall from the kitchen faucet. “Maybe the handle isn’t all the way off,” I commented.  I went to the sink and tapped both the hot and cold handles.  They were already closed, but I was hopeful. A minute later, another drop was perched and ready to dive.

Our faucet had been replaced 10 years earlier when we did a partial remodel of the kitchen.  I had long forgotten the faucet brand, or even where I purchased it.  Also, I had no idea how to fix a leaky faucet, although cloudy images of washers and O-rings danced in my head.  It was time to visit YouTube.

I quickly found several fix-it posts. Like most DIY videos, the process looked simple enough. “I can handle this,” I thought. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may be thinking, “Why not call your contractor friend, Tom?” Dear reader, I am privileged to have a talented friend, but I don’t want to abuse his goodwill.  Besides, I was already encouraged by my recent dishwasher repair.  But as George Bernard Shaw said, “Beware of false knowledge, it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

Armed with a Phillips screwdriver and a pair of channel locks, I faced my foe.  With a MacBook by my side, I played the first segment of the video. “Make sure that you turn off the water valves under the sink.” That sounded like a reasonable step.  I reached into the chaotic mess in the cabinet below and blindly felt for the rough metal oval that functioned as the shutoff valve.  Grunt!  Grunt, grunt, swear… more swears….more grunts. The valve was frozen.  Defeated within 5 minutes of starting!  With my head hanging low, I pressed the FaceTime icon on my iPhone and then hit the button labeled “Gizmo” for my friend Tom. He answered, and I asked in earnest seriousness, “How can I close a frozen water valve?  Can I hit it with a hammer or something?” “No, don’t do that; you could have a flooding disaster! Hold on, I’m coming over,” Tom replied.

Ten minutes later, Tom was at my front door, his toolbox at the ready.  He reached under the sink and found the offending water valve.  Tom was able to close the valve without difficulty.  Dear reader, you have to understand that my hands have only had to grip objects like pens. My digital muscular strength was developed to accurately hit the keys on a computer.  Tom has a definite advantage as his mitts frequently turn wrenches, carry heavy objects, and twist bolts.  I can only feel so ashamed about my inferior gripping and twisting ability. 

With water off, it was time to remove the faucet’s handle and replace the defective water flow cartridge.  This involved releasing a special retaining nut.  The nut was where my problems escalated.  The thin metal was calcified by being subjected to years of Chicago’s hard water. When we tried to loosen it, the nut disintegrated.  …more swearing ensued.  

The planned obsolescence reality is that it is easy to buy a replacement faucet cartridge, but it is impossible to purchase its companion retaining nut.  This latter fact was confirmed after visiting three different hardware stores and talking to two “plumbing experts.” My only option was to buy and install an entirely new faucet.  Now I really needed Tom’s expertise.

I also had to tackle the mess in the space below the sink, and that cabinet is the central metaphor for today’s post.  I apologize for my long preamble, but I needed to provide you with some context for today’s story.

The region under my kitchen sink has long been the equivalent of a junk drawer.  A place where nearly empty bottles of cleaning chemicals live.  A zone that collects never to reuse grocery bags.  A region of specialty cleaners that I buy but then forget that I have.  Four different granite cleaners and at least three different types of glass cooktop polishes were only two of many categories found.

The cabinet was bursting and chaotic because of its massive overflow.  I found two brand new buckets of dishwasher packets even though I thought we were completely out.  Three different glass cleaners were also located. There were enough unused sponges that, if “real,” they could have repopulated a small coral reef.  

Confusion ruled. Empty products had equal status with unopened new containers.  The space was so disorganized that it was easier to buy a new bottle of something rather than to look and see if one already existed.

The first category to be tossed was my massive collection of useless plastic grocery bags. I then categorized the other items.  One pile became a mountain of sponges, another zone had powdered cleaners; still, another region was designated for granite products.  Nearly empty items were discarded, as were those that had broken sprayers or cracked caps.  I then organized the groups into plastic bins.  

With a small amount of effort, years of disorder were transformed into a neatly organized and functional space. My life had instantly become simpler by applying a little time to the problem. Why did I wait so long? 

In many ways, the lazy behavior that I exhibited was no different than other actions that have hampered me in my life.  It was simpler to go with business as usual than to take a little time and change a bad habit.  It was easier to maintain broken relationships than to admit that it was time to move on. Having to deal with life’s clutter made it impossible to enact simple solutions to make beneficial changes.

Just like cleaning my “junk” cabinet makes sense, it also makes sense to evaluate my life’s situations regularly.  What should I keep?  What should I get rid of? What should I reprioritize?  Items that entered my cabinet with the promise of making a task simpler often just made things more complicated, and it made sense to recognize their false promise and rid myself of them.  The same can be said of my life; some situations that promised benefit actually delivered the opposite.  It is my personal responsibility to make sure that my life is uncluttered so I can see the forest for the trees.

Once I had emptied out the cabinet, it was simple for Tom to replace the errant faucet.  Another lesson can be learned here.  I probably could have completed the repair myself, but it would have taken me much longer, and the outcome may have been worse. Yes, you need to solve your own problems, but sometimes it makes sense to call on an expert to assist you.  Their knowledge can turn a difficult job into a simple task.

Do you need to clean your metaphorical cabinet?

Peace

Mike    

With a small amount of effort disorder became order.
Sometimes it makes sense to call on an expert.
No more drips!