Surviving summer in Phoenix

It’s the middle of June, it was 110 today, and it’s supposed to be 120 in a couple of days. I just got back from a few days in L.A., where it was a civilized 90 or so, and I needed my sweater when I was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Griffith Observatory. Driving home across the desert, especially in the stretch where they tell you to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating – a message reinforced by the U-Haul truck with its hood up at the side of the road – I thought about how many summers I’ve spent here. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Respect the heat

Every summer, people trying to hike, bike, or jog in our beautiful desert collapse from the extreme heat. Some are rescued; some die. This article says it’s nearly impossible to replace the water you lose while hiking in these temperatures, even if you’re carrying enough water (you lose a liter an hour while hiking, double that in extreme heat, and your body can only absorb half a liter an hour). Heat stroke and dehydration kill dogs, too.

 …but don’t let it ruin your life

You don’t have to hole up all summer long. We average 110 days per year over 100 degrees, and 19 days over 110; that means you’ll lose almost a third of your life if you don’t learn to live with the heat. If you plan ahead, you can actually enjoy Phoenix in the summertime. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s less crowded without the winter visitors and university students. There’s not as much to do, which is okay, because in this heat you probably won’t feel like doing much anyway.

Follow these tips:

  1. Take advantage of free air conditioning. Movie theaters, libraries, museums, the gym, indoor malls – if you can find one – and stores are air conditioned on someone else’s dime. So’s your office, probably. Summer might be a time to forego telecommuting. Keep a sweater in your car for those places that are kept too cold for comfort.
  2. Go out in the morning, by which I mean as soon as it starts to get light out. It’s the coolest part of the day, using the word “cool” loosely, This is especially important if your dog walks with you. The sidewalk is way too hot for their feet later on.
  3. Hydrate inside and out. Carry water with you everywhere and sip it constantly. Walk under the misters at outdoor malls. Jump in the pool – yours, a friend’s, or the public pool. Visit the splash pad with the kids.
  4. Park in the shade. Yes, you’ll have to walk farther in the sun to get to your car, but you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel when you get there. Better yet, run your errands after dark if you can.
  5. Get out of town. Flagstaff, the White Mountains, Prescott, and Payson are all within a three-hour drive of Phoenix. If you want to hike, those are the places to do it in the summer. You can even drive to the beach in less than eight hours, or catch a cheap flight and be there in a couple of hours. Even a short break away makes the summer more bearable.
  6. Keep your house cool. Plant a fast-growing shade tree or two, replace your old windows with the kind that keep heat out, and install ceiling fans and cool-burning light bulbs. Use your vent fans and don’t use the oven. Learn to love salads. Use your swamp cooler, if you have one, before monsoon season hits – it’ll keep your house more comfortable for less $ than a/c.
  7. Give yourself permission to veg out. Other people do jigsaw puzzles in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside; you can do them when it’s too hot. Same with adult coloring books. Read. Alphabetize your spice rack. Plan your next big vacation. Take it easy, it’s summer.

What did I miss? Add your tips in the comments below.

Happiness

There’s something about being human that makes us less happy than we ought to be. I grew up on A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew a lot of the poems by heart when I was little. One little poem has bounced around in my head all these years:

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Research has shown that the benefits of an optimistic outlook include flexible thinking, creativity, longevity, and better health. What better way to solve the problems of the world, then, than to cultivate happiness in ourselves?

According to Dr. Lamees Khorshid, about 40% of our happiness comes from our genetic preset, our predisposition towards being sunny or gloomy. That means over half can be influenced by “happiness habits.”

Happiness and Mindfulness

  • Cultivate positive emotions and work on countering the natural negativity bias (a survival trait when it was important to remember the lion attack). Rewire your brain through practice:
    • Choose to see problems as challenges and opportunities. This will increase your sense of control.
    • Reverse the tendency to blame others when they make mistakes – we tend to blame the environment when we mess up, but think other people cut us off in traffic on purpose. Let it go.
    • Change the channel – choose to forget negative things after they happen.
    • Think happy thoughts.
  • Practice gratitude.
    • Make a list of what you’re grateful for. Keep going past the obvious first few things.
    • Pick one of the people you’re grateful for and write a paragraph about why. Read it to them. It will be good for both of you.
  • Engage in life. Plan your time so you include the things that give you pleasure.
    • Figure out the things that take you to a flow state where you lose track of time, and plan your day to include those things.
    • Identify your time thieves and the things that replenish you. Schedule time for the things that nourish you. Things that give you short-term happiness, like watching tv, can detract from your long-term happiness.
  • Get adequate sleep. Without it, it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You function better and your memory’s better when you have good sleep. A lot of people have trouble sleeping. If you do:
    • Create a sleep climate about an hour before. Dim the lights, do relaxing things. Don’t eat for 2-3 hours before bed, don’t exercise for 4-5 hours before, and avoid stimulants after 2 p.m.
    • Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends.
    • Don’t have a tv, phone, etc. in the bedroom. Keep the lights off.
    • If you’ve been trying to get to sleep (or get back to sleep) for 30 minutes, get up and go do something boring. If you still can’t sleep, do it again. Don’t just lie there and worry about how you ought to be sleeping.
    • Naps reverse your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, skip the naps.
  • Movement and music. If you can only do one thing to improve your mental well-being, make it exercise. A brisk 10-minute walk is better for mild to moderate anxiety and depression than medication. If you have to choose between 30 minutes of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise, you’ll get more benefits from exercise.
    • Don’t schedule exercise for your most tired time of day.
    • Morning workouts give you a stress buffer that lasts through the day, and your schedule’s less likely to be interrupted by things that come up during the day – but if you aren’t a morning person, you won’t stick with it.
    • Make it a routine, not dependent on whether you feel like it. You still get the benefits of doing it even if you don’t want to.
  • Nutrition. A low glycemic diet is best for your mood; it keeps your blood sugar on an even keel. Frequent small meals are better than a couple of large ones. Avoid sugar, which lights up a part of your brain that makes you want more and more – this is even true of sugar you don’t taste that’s been added to non-sweet foods.
  • Manage stress. Identify your stress triggers so you can avoid them or prepare for them. Having a baseline level of energy and physical health (sleep, exercise, nutrition) will help. Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and rely on your social supports and relationships. If your stress comes from all the unfinished tasks on your to-do list, start with the one thing on the list that will make the greatest difference today.
  • Practice mindfulness. We recycle 95% of the same thoughts every day. Mindfulness keeps us in the here and now. Use meditation, which will improve your ability to process emotions and be less reactive.
    • Non-judging awareness: notice your wandering thought, name it, and then come back to the here and now.
    • Beginner’s mind: don’t expect a life-changing epiphany every time you sit.
  • Take care of relationships. Other people can be a major source of both happiness and stress.
    • The 4 horsemen of broken relationships are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This applies to friends  and coworkers just as much as it does to couples and families.
    • Check out the Seattle Love Lab for tons of information on this topic.
    • If you have gridlock problems that you can never fix – like your and your uncle’s opposite views on politics – it’s actually healthier not to talk about them.
    • Practice the art of the start: the way you introduce a topic predicts how the discussion will end.
    • Support the other person’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Ask their opinion. Look for moments of connection.
    • Learn the other person’s “love language” – what makes them feel loved. It could be gifts, acts of service (doing things for them), physical touch, words of affirmation, or quality time spent together. This works both ways: you can give the other person what they need, and you can also recognize the ways they’re trying to show you their feelings.
  • Find your purpose. Not having a purpose or mission is as bad for your health as smoking. When you’re doing things that align with your values, you’re happier. Figure out your own top values, and set goals that align with them. Dr. John Izzo studied end-of-life reflections and identified being true to yourself and following your heart and dreams as two important factors in a well-lived life.
  • Simplify. Forgive and let go, don’t make social comparisons, and spend on experiences instead of things.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. I wrote a bit about this a few weeks ago when I talked about Mike Robbins’ class. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
  • Use humor and laughter! Learn to appreciate the ironies in life. Bring funny stuff into your life – photos, videos, comics, comedy shows, that coffee mug showing nervous little dogs preparing for their day by making espresso. Laughter is contagious. It induces a relaxation response and it benefits the immune system.

Read more

In Dr. Lamees Khorshid‘s book, I Want to Be Happy, which provides a 21-day plan for forming happy habits. Her class at my office inspired this post.

In Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s books, like Wherever You Go, There You Are, to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and to find video guides.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project (and on her website & podcasts).

On Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (he writes about this topic often!):

Starting Yoga (Again)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to do more than I’ve been doing, exercise-wise. I have a fantastic personal trainer I see once a week  (Jeremy Jones, co-owner of Funktional Fitness in Gilbert & Chandler) but for several reasons more sessions funkgearthere aren’t practical for me right now. I walk the dogs every day for a little over a mile, which is great, but not enough.

Last Monday, I was thinking about it when I was at the park with the dogs. I figured out that what I want is to gain strength, balance, and flexibility. So, yoga. There’s a place near me called Floating Lotus Yoga, right in downtown Mesa, and it turns out they have a Groupon – 10 sessions for $26, which is a dynamite deal.

Floating LotusIt’s a nice place – a big open room, wood floor, pretty wall murals and other decorations. Plenty of mats, bolsters, blocks, and rugs to use to make the poses more comfortable or more achievable. No mirrors. A bit of music.

I’ve been to three classes so far – two Mindful Flow and one Yin-Yang Flow. Good choices for starting out, I think. The movements are slow and deliberate, and the instructors do a great job of explaining them and helping the students. Even though the movements are slow, they’re challenging, and I can feel them working on those three things I want to improve. And bonus, it provides that mental well-being you would expect from yoga.

I’m really pleased. I think the key was thinking about what I wanted before deciding what to do.

Floating Lotus website

Funktional Fitness website

 

 

 

 

 

It’s more for the dogs, but…

In July of last year, I spent a week at the beach in Carpinteria with the family. There were lots of walks on the beach and around town, and I came home with a resolution to walk every day.

Obviously, the dogs were one hundred percent supportive of that resolution. They have a doggy door and a big back yard, but going for walks where they can smell new things is their absolute favorite thing in the world. Well, except for eating. And tummy rubs. And sleeping. Okay, they have a lot of favorite things, but walks are right up there at the top of the list.

So far, we’ve gone walking every single day with just a handful of exceptions. I was sick for a few days in November, and I’ve been out of town without the dogs a few times. Otherwise, rain or shine, we walk. When it’s hot like it is now, we walk as soon as I wake up in the morning. In cooler weather, we can go out whenever we feel like it, but we still usually go in the morning. Lucky (the white dog) tells me to get moving if I wait too long.

Walking is never going to make me thin, but it’s still good for me. The way the dogs & I walk, with lots of stopping to smell stuff, it’s not much of a cardio workout. It’s still weight-bearing exercise, though, so good for staving off osteoporosis. It makes me more aware of how my body is working, too. Earlier this year, something went awry in my right foot, and it was painful to walk even a quarter of a mile. Frustration at being unable to keep up my daily walks gave me the impetus to try acupuncture, which somehow magically did the trick for me.

The best thing about walking is seeing what’s going on out there in the world. We usually walk around the Cubs spring training stadium and practice fields, so sometimes we get to see baseball practice, and the grass is always green and there are beautiful trees and shrubs. We see people walking or playing with their dogs, bicycling, running, playing soccer, and doing complicated outdoor routines involving orange cones and pushups. When it’s cooler, we walk over by Tempe Town Lake or at Papago Park, where sometimes we can see the desert bighorn sheep at the zoo and we can visit Governor Hunt’s pyramid tomb that overlooks the zoo’s savannah exhibit with its giraffes. And then there’s the weather, and the sun, and sometimes clouds or wind or even rain.

Sometimes I use my walking time to think about the plot of the novel I’m writing, or do music theory memory drills, or plan my day. Other times I listen to a podcast or NPR or an audiobook on my phone. Usually, though, I don’t think about much at all. I have my eye out for loose dogs, because my dogs are small and they aren’t good with other dogs; and I’m constantly adjusting how I hold the leashes as Lucky wraps himself around my legs.Otherwise, I’m just in the moment – thinking about whatever I’m looking at, registering the warmth or cold on my skin, feeling my feet hitting the ground. I guess it’s more like meditation than anything.