A Polar Bear Plunge – New Mexico Style – at the ABQ BioPark

Twin polar bear brothers Kiska and Koluk demonstrate a real polar bear plunge at the ABQ BioPark.

At this evening’s volunteer dinner at the ABQ BIoPark, twin polar bear brothers Kiska and Koluk entertained us during their feeding time with a real polar bear plunge.

The brothers are 25 years old and enjoy fetching the 10-lbs of trout that the keeper throws to them each day. Kiska and Koluk have a beautiful habitat complete with 20-foot water slide, waterfalls, a 14-foot deep pool, an air-conditioned cave, and water that is kept cold with large chillers.

Polar Bear Exhibit at the ABQ BioPark

Green Sludge: Making Smart Choices to Optimize Our Physical Health

Why do we choose to make bad decisions when it comes to our health?

“I don’t want any vegetables, thank you.
I paid for the cow to eat them for me.”
— Doug Coupland

There are many mysteries in life, but the ingredients of a healthy lifestyle are not among them. When I first wrote this, it read like an academic journal. It contained mind-numbing statistics on how much sugar, salt, and calories we eat today, along with the inevitable scary lists of diseases and ailments that are linked to the typical American diet. I even added citations for scientific studies to ensure that your eyes would glaze over. In the end, I scrapped all of it. Why? Because we already know what to do. We just choose not to do it.

If you are part of the vast majority of people who fall down in this area, the more interesting question to ask yourself is, “Why do you choose to make bad decisions when it comes to your health?”

First, health is one of those areas where it’s easy to make bad decisions for a long time before we start to notice any negative effects. While the delayed consequences can be severe down the road, in the short term we feel pretty darn good about eating cake for dinner. We may even gobble down a few frosting flowers while we’re at it.

There really isn’t much we can do about the delayed consequences issue. It’s not as if we’ll suddenly gain 10 pounds after eating a cupcake or instantly develop symptoms of cancer after smoking a cigarette. It can take years or even decades for serious issues to develop. The key is to make healthy behaviors a habit—just a normal part of our everyday life.

The second major reason we may fail is the time, inconvenience, and cost of living a healthy lifestyle. With hectic schedules filled to the brim, it’s not easy to carve out time each day for sufficient exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. I have to schedule these things on my calendar each day or else they often don’t happen.

One strategy I use to cut down the time and effort needed for the healthy eating part of the equation is to use a VitaMix blender. I know this sounds like a commercial but, thanks to my blender, I can gulp down insane quantities of green vegetables in under a minute. My daily VitaMix concoctions are green, bitter, vegetable sludges that would make a billy goat pause and reflect before sampling. For me, this prospect is much more appealing compared to chewing my way through a monstrous pile of vegetables. Still, it takes a significant amount of time each day to prep the vegetables for my culinary travesties.

On top of that, the cost can quickly add up. The way I see it, I can either pay now in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, or I can pay later in the form of medical bills, so I consider it money well spent. The cost also pales in comparison to what I used to spend on wine and beer (I don’t drink alcohol anymore as I wanted to save some for the rest of you) so that serves as a handy reference point as well.

Given that it takes a significant amount of time, money, and effort to create a not-so-tasty product, it’s no wonder that most people avoid doing it. To help keep my mind on track, I like to recall the classic words on the basics of good nutrition from the late fitness and nutrition guru Jack LaLanne: “If man made it, don’t eat it” and “If it tastes good, spit it out.” I often think about these words while chugging my large quantities green sludge as part of my breakfast each morning.

Jack LaLanne: “If man made it, don’t eat it” and “If it tastes good, spit it out.”

Another important factor in your unhealthy decisions may be “decision fatigue.” You may start your day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a healthy breakfast and usually make it through lunch unscathed. But, as the day wears on, you start to feel tired. The vending-machine candy bars and the break-room donuts sing their irresistible, sweet song. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you manage to hold firm.

You finish work, and then you’re off to the grocery store where you’re rewarded with aisle after aisle of unhealthy temptations, displayed prominently at eye level. You avert your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and sing la-la-la as you try to locate boring cans of organic garbanzo beans.

Even if you finally make it back to your car with a grocery cart full of nutritious, whole foods, you’re not out of the woods yet. You arrive at home and enjoy a healthy dinner. Then, at the end of a long day, a cruel member of your family (whom we’ll call Beelzebub, for short) asks if anyone would like a hot fudge sundae. The other princes and princesses of hell scream “Yes!” as they shift their gaze to you: a sad figure sitting on the couch, trying to drink your eighth glass of water.

Your defenses are down. You’ve been saying “no” all day, and you’re tired of it: “Okay. Fine. Give me three scoops, and don’t be chintzy on the hot fudge. Add a Matterhorn of whipped cream while you’re at it. I might as well go down in flames.”

One effective way to avoid this depressing scenario is to incorporate a Get Out of Jail Free day each week, every other week, or every month. I call them “sugar days” since that’s my weakness in the unhealthy food department. On the days when we’re on the ropes, feeling down, or attending a planned event or special occasion, we can simply declare it a “sugar day” with much fanfare, and then it’s anything goes for the rest of the day.

In this way, everybody wins. Our friends and family are happy that we’re joining the fun and not making them feel guilty, yet they’re aware that we’re still meeting our health goals. We’re happy that we can cater to our weaknesses and enjoy some unhealthy treats, and we’re still on track with our overall plan to live a healthy lifestyle.

Misbehaving is part of the fun of life, especially when we have a Get Out of Jail Free card in our pocket. Having said that, I do try to keep it within reason so I don’t undo all of my hard work to keep fit throughout the week. A blowout sugar day can literally add 1000 – 2000 extra calories for the week! So I now “go small” with what I call a “micro-sundae” and I still find it to be very satisfying. On non-sugar days, I find a bowl of mixed berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries) to be a great dessert option if I’m dining with others. As a result, I’m often the one bringing mixed berries to a potluck event as it guarantees that I will have that option!

My go-to dessert

Finally, let’s address the argument that it’s hard to know what we should do to optimize our physical and mental health because there’s so much conflicting information out there. Really? I won’t say anything about this being a lame excuse to justify your bad decisions … whoops, I just did!

Regardless, let’s set the record straight. Here are some basic guidelines that hold true for just about anyone based on what science tells us today. Granted, there is still much research to be done and, of course, you should first consult with your doctor before starting any new diet or exercise program. Blah, blah, blah. Now that I’ve covered my butt with that legal disclaimer, here’s the CliffsNotes version of the key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle that will work for most people. Hint: You already know all of these (with the possible exception of the last one).

Don’t diet. A better option is to be honest with yourself about your bad eating habits, and then replace them with healthy eating habits that you can sustain for the long haul. Healthy eating should be a normal pattern of everyday life rather than a temporary exercise in denial in which you struggle until you meet a particular goal.

Eat whole foods. Avoid processed or refined foods whenever possible. As a bonus, this approach will also help you minimize your sugar and salt intake.

Drink plenty of water. Recommendations vary depending on criteria, such as your age and activity level. If your urine is colorless or light yellow, it’s a good sign that you’re drinking enough water.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables are a good target for optimal well-being. Variety is important too. Try for about 20 different kinds each week. If that sounds insane and overwhelming, like it first did for me, you may want to try a VitaMix blender. Tip: I steam my vegetables for 15-20 minutes before putting them in the blender to make it easier on my digestive system.

Prepare healthy snacks that are ready before you need them. Make it easy to choose a healthy snack alternative. I typically have a bag of carrots, celery, and apple slices that are ready to eat as soon as I get the craving for a snack. Bananas are another good option to help you feel satisfied until your next meal. Similarly, I have multiple bottles of my “green sludge” ready to drink throughout the day. It takes a bit of prep in the morning or the previous evening, but it’s well worth the time and effort as it fosters healthy food choices when I’m craving a snack during the day. It takes the thinking out of it, which is important because my eating decisions are not exactly stellar when I feel tired and hungry.

Move around every hour and exercise at least 30 minutes each day, doing something you enjoy. Yes, you should enjoy it! Otherwise, you probably won’t be able to sustain it, and that’s what we’re looking for here: long-term, consistent, moderate exercise. A weekly mix of cardio, strength training, and stretching is ideal. Also ensure that you get off your chair or couch every 30-60 minutes. Studies show that people who sit for prolonged periods of time have a higher risk of dying from all causes, even those who exercise regularly. If you have a Fitbit or similar device, take advantage of the 250 steps per hour functionality as it will give you a 10-minute warning to get off your butt if you haven’t yet completed 250 steps that hour.

Get ~eight hours of sleep each night. Darren Hardy (author, speaker, and former publisher of SUCCESS magazine) asked the well-known cardiothoracic surgeon and TV show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, “What’s the one thing somebody can do to help with their anti-aging and wellness?” His answer? Sleep. Dr. Oz put drinking water and walking as #2 and #3. Seven to nine hours is the sweet spot for most people over the age of 18; youngsters need more sleep. Better yet, don’t worry about the number of hours. Go to bed early enough so you wake up on time without the need for an alarm. Sleep is time well spent. If nothing else, you’ll look and feel better, and your friends, family, and colleagues will thank you for it too.

Go outside. Studies suggest that outdoor exercise improves your mood, reduces stress, gives you a jolt of vitamin D, and contributes to your overall happiness. The fresh air, sights, and smells of nature give your mind and body a rejuvenating break. The Japanese even have a word for it—Shinrin-yoku—that translates as “forest bathing.”

Find a healthcare provider who focuses on prevention. If you have crushing pain in your chest, then our healthcare system is the place to be. In the United States, our physicians are highly trained to respond to acute problems, such as heart attacks or other crises. However, when it comes to preventing heart attacks or managing other chronic conditions, the typical provider tool belt of prescription drugs and invasive procedures is a bad place to start. It’s far better to find an integrative medicine or naturopathic provider who will take a holistic view of your diet, lifestyle, family history, environment, lab results, and symptoms, and then work with you to develop a comprehensive, proactive plan that integrates conventional and alternative therapies designed to keep you healthy and out of the hospital. I also choose a provider who looks healthy and fit as I’m a firm believer in practicing what you preach. I don’t take preventive health and fitness advice from people who are obese and out of shape. If you work with your provider to improve your diet, exercise routines, sleep patterns, lifestyle, and stress management, you’ll prevent 80% of the typical ailments.

As Thomas Edison put it many years ago, “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”

But don’t take my word for any of this. Do your own research. Some people thrive on a carnivore diet, while others thrive on a plant-powered diet. I prefer to simply choose whole foods, avoid processed foods, and avoid sugar (other than the natural sugar found in whole fruit and vegetables) … except on a cherished sugar day. Figure out what works well for you. Consider the ideas I’ve shared as hypotheses to test in your own life.

Happiness is a Mindset Derived From Our Actions

Happiness is a mindset that is derived from our actions

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy. Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

– Dalai Lama

We all want happiness, but many of us waste a lot of time and money before we figure out how to get it. We’re all seeking something better in life, but we often end up chasing the wrong things. Happiness is much like success in that it eludes us like a rainbow if we chase after it. Happiness is a mindset. As Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it, “There is no way to happiness—happiness is the way.”

In 2014, I was fortunate to be able to attend a full-day, “Eight Verses of Mind Training” session with the Dalai Lama in Boston. It was just me and the Dalai Lama … and I guess there were two or three thousand other attendees. There was a heavy contingent of Vietnamese and Tibetan monks, and the rest were a bunch of yahoos like me who were along for the ride in the nosebleed seats of the Wang Theatre. In preparation for the class, I read through several of the Dalai Lama’s books, including The Art of Happiness, to get a sense of where he stands on the topic. Here are a few tidbits that stood out from the Dalai Lama’s books and train­ing course on the subject of happiness:

From a Buddhist perspective, there are four factors of fulfillment that people seek in their quest to achieve happiness: (1) wealth; (2) worldly satisfaction; (3) spirituality; and (4) enlightenment. This list correlates nicely with Western studies that offer the following components of happiness: peace of mind, good health, financial freedom, worthy goals and ideals, self-knowledge, and a sense of self-ful­fillment or self-actualization.

The different approaches to inner contentment can be broken down into two paths. One path is to strive to obtain everything that we want and desire, such as money, houses, cars, the perfect mate, and the perfect body. The problem with this approach is that there’ll eventually be something that we want but can’t have. An alternate path is to want what we already have. Care to take a wild guess which path the Dalai Lama suggests we pursue?

Yes, the Dalai Lama shockingly chooses Answer B: Want what we already have. However, he takes this to a deeper level than you might initially consider. The Dalai Lama reminds us that we already have everything we need to experience happiness and joy, regardless of external influences. Just like any skill, happiness is something we can deliberately cultivate by training our mind. We train our mind to be calm and at peace, with the realization that how we choose to interpret, feel, and respond to external events is our choice. In other words, Event + Response = Outcome. We may not be able to control the event, but we can control our response to it, and therefore change the outcome.

The greater the calmness of your mind, the greater your ability to enjoy a happy and peaceful life. A calm, disciplined mind doesn’t mean that you zone out in a cave in some apathetic, insensitive trance. To the contrary. The Dalai Lama suggests that peace of mind is rooted in affection and kindness with a high level of engagement, compassion, and feeling. External things will not bring you hap­piness if you lack a calm, disciplined mind. When you possess calmness of mind, then you have everything you need to experience happiness and joy.

The Dalai Lama also writes that happiness is highly contagious and spreads like a virus, which in this case is a good thing. If you want to build a better world, then it’s your duty to be happy and keep the virus spreading. If it seems like nobody else around you is happy, then “be the change”. After all, happiness is an inside job and, as Gandhi put it, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … we need not wait to see what others do”.

So how should you respond when you come across people who are rude, ag­gressive, and unkind? In these cases, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should feel deep gratitude. Huh? Come again? Yes, gratitude. There aren’t that many people like this in the world, he explains, so when we do meet these unpleasant people, we should be grateful for the rare opportunity to practice patience and tolerance. I like that approach, and I find that it really does help to keep it in mind when I meet people who are in the “not so pleasant” category.

On the topics of meaning and purpose, the Dalai Lama says that each of us is seeking something better for our life, and none of us was born to cause trouble or harm others. In order for us to consider our lives to be meaningful, we must de­velop the basic human qualities of warmth, compassion, and kindness. Our basic nature is to be gentle and compassionate. When we pursue these positive human qualities, our lives will become more peaceful and happier.

The Dalai Lama wrapped things up with a reminder that our present expe­rience—positive or negative—is a consequence of our past actions. If we change our actions today, then we will change the experiences that we will encounter in the future. What happens in the future depends on the activities that we pursue today. “The secret to our own happiness is in our own hands right now. We must not miss this opportunity.”

“I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” (How to Apologize)

“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”
Tryon Edwards

To build on last week’s post on “How to Fight a Good Fight in a Relationship”, it might come in handy for us to review some best practices for the art of the apology. Apologies are simple in theory but can end up being difficult in practice. I’ve certainly botched my share of apologies over the years. Usually this was due to my peacemaking nature. My desire to avoid conflict in my younger days resulted in making apologies for the weather. I would apologize even when I didn’t think that I did anything wrong and had no intention of changing my behavior in the future. I had not yet internalized this lesson: When we don’t really feel sorry or don’t feel that we share any responsibility for what happened, then our apology will fall flat.

People are looking for sincerity in an apology, and different people have different ideas about what a “sincere apology” looks like. What follows are some key points taken from Gary Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas’s book, The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships.

To cover all of the bases, a good apology boils down to a few simple steps and one important caveat. We’ll start with the caveat. You must truly feel sorry, and you must feel that your actions or words played a role in the situation. If these conditions are not true, then hold off on your apology. You’re not ready to apologize yet. If, after some genuine reflection, you truly believe that you are innocent, then you may first need to practice your constructive confrontation and nonviolent communication skills. However, if you agree with the caveat’s conditions, then follow these four simple steps:

Step 1: Express regret, accept responsibility, and initiate restitution. While that might sound tough, it’s actually very simple. Say each of the following sentences to the person you hurt: “I am sorry”; “It’s my fault” or “I was wrong”; “What can I do to make it better?”. Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Step 2: Listen. Listen to the response, and thoughtfully consider what is said. Reflect on the requested amends, determine if you are willing and able to follow through on the requested amends, and take legitimate steps to prevent it from happening again.

Step 3: Verbalize your intended amends and request forgiveness. Okay, now it’s time for you to speak again. Thank the person for sharing his or her feedback with you. Verbalize what you intend to do to make amends and prevent it from happening again. Then request—not demand—forgiveness. This goes something like, “Will you please forgive me?”

Step 4: Take action. Now it’s time to follow through on what you said you would do to make amends. You may not be able to address the issues right away, and you may continue to slip up. However, the important part is to make it clear that you are taking concrete steps to improve the situation, and you are serious about it. If you apologize but don’t do anything to change your future behavior, then all of your efforts in Steps 1 through 3 may be wasted.

Different people place greater value on different steps of the apology. Some people really want to hear the other person ask for forgiveness before they consider an apology to be genuine and sincere; others are more interested in the “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” part of the apology. There is a large group of people who are much more interested in action, not words. Many people want to see each step take place. That’s why it’s best to go through all four steps to ensure that your apology will be interpreted as genuine and sincere.

That’s it … apology complete! If you make a genuine effort to go through each of these four steps, then chances are high that you’ll be forgiven, although it might take a long time in some cases. In the unfortunate cases where the other person refuses to forgive you—despite your honest attempts to apologize and make amends— then you need to move on while doing your best not to repeat the offense.

With experience, you’ll get better at identifying when your actions might have hurt others. You’ll be able to more quickly identify and acknowledge your role in something that went wrong. This awareness shortens the gap between your action and your apology and makes it much easier to address.

In some cases, you may catch yourself as soon as the words leave your mouth. When you call it out on the spot, you may prevent it from becoming a big issue and may even be able to laugh about it with the person you offended. As the gap in time increases between your action and your apology, you give resentment and anger time to fester. It’s good practice to apologize as soon as you are aware of a wrong that you have done.

In situations where there are mutual feelings of bitterness or resentment, consider the following words from Lao-Tzu: “Someone must risk returning injury with kindness, or hostility will never turn to goodwill.”

In Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao, he shares the previous quote from Lao-Tzu, along with the following words to consider: “As the storm of a quarrel subsides, you must find a way to disregard your ego’s need to be right. It’s time to extend kindness by letting go of your anger. It’s over, so offer forgiveness to yourself and the other person and encourage resentment to dissipate. Be the one seeking a way to give, rather than the one looking for something to get.” At the termination of any argument or dispute, choose to end on love, no matter what.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!

How to Fight a Good Fight in a Relationship

Best practices in effective communication and how to “fight a good fight.”

“What comes easy won’t last long, and what lasts long won’t come easy.”

—​ Francis Kong​

Communication breakdown

Given that many of us are spending a lot more time hunkering down at home with our loved ones to do our part to minimize the spread of COVID, it’s easier than ever for us to get on each other’s nerves and end up in an argument. We know that the goal of communication is to give and receive in a loving and compassionate manner. But when we’re confronted with judgment or criticism in our relationships, we often resort to knee-jerk reactions of withdrawal, attack, or defensiveness. So for today’s topic, let’s explore some best practices in effective communication and how to “fight a good fight.”

I recently attended a “SMART Conference” (virtually) hosted by Dave Ramsey, and one of the speakers was Dr. Les Parrott, Professor of Psychology and a prolific author of books such as The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer. In his presentation, Dr. Parrott shared four things that we should avoid in a fight, based on decades of marital stability and divorce prediction research conducted by Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute. In a 1992 study, Dr. Gottman was able to predict which couples would divorce, with 93.6% accuracy, by looking for the presence of the following four behavior patterns:

Criticism: Criticism is when we state our complaints in the form of a defect in our partner’s personality, and it’s typically how conflicts begin. “You’re always late!”, the bell rings, and the fight begins!

Defensiveness: Defensiveness refers to self-protection strategies that come in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. “You don’t know how busy my schedule is!” This is not a winning response as we’re basically saying “The problem isn’t me, it’s you!”

Contempt: Contempt refers to any statement that belittles the other person, putting the speaker in a relative position of superiority. “Are you ever going to learn how to tell time?” According to Dr. Gottman, contempt is the number one predictor of divorce and therefore is a big red flag.

Stonewalling: “What do you want me to say and I’ll say it.” Stonewalling is a strategy we adopt once we have retreated mentally and emotionally. We may withdraw from the interaction or simply stop responding to the other person. Not to brag, but I was particularly good at that last strategy and was on track to turn pro at one point in my life but then that relationship shockingly fell apart. Dr. Parrott did mention that guys are usually quicker to arrive at stonewalling.

Dr. Gottman’s studies found that that the presence of these “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” predict early divorcing, with an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. The characteristics of emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing, with an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.

Don’t worry if you feel like your relationship occasionally features some of these behavior patterns! We’ve all been there. But if Dr. Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” are a recurring theme in your relationship, then it’s probably time to experiment with some other strategies that have been shown to result in more productive, healthy conflicts. Let’s turn our attention to those strategies now.

Nonviolent Communication

A good place to start is to consider guidance provided by the late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (1934 – 2015), a psychologist, mediator, author and teacher who founded The Center for Nonviolent Communication. In Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships, Rosenberg encourages us to develop and practice deep listening skills that reflect an awareness of what we perceive, feel, and want, rather than an impulsive reaction to a statement or event. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication process has the following four components:

1. Observation: Observe what is actually happening in a situation without judgment or evaluation.

2. Feeling: State how you feel when you observe the action. This can include positive or negative feelings. Your statement should take the form of “I feel … because I …” instead of the reactive response of “I feel … because you …” Focus on discovering the needs of each party rather than point out what’s wrong with each other. By focusing on your needs, you’re more likely to receive a compassionate response to your needs.

3. Needs: State which of your needs are connected to the feelings that you identified. When you express your needs, you have a better chance of getting them met. Communicate your needs in such a way that it’s clear you’re equally concerned about the other person’s needs.

4. Request: Immediately follow Step 3 with a very specific request, indicating what you want from the other person. The goal of the nonviolent communication process is to build a relationship based on honesty and empathy and to obtain a positive outcome that will enrich both of your lives.

Each of the four pieces of information can be stated verbally or by other means, such as through physical touch. It’s even possible to do each of the four components without uttering a word.

Rosenberg offers the following simple example between a mother and teenage son to illustrate how the four components are carried out in practice: “Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?” It’s that simple. But, as we see in so many areas of life, what’s easy to do is easy not to do.

If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is angry, Dr. Rosenberg offered this memorable piece of advice: “Never put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person.” Answering with “but …” to an angry person will usually make matters worse. Instead, take a deep breath and focus your attention on the angry person’s feelings and needs, and then empathize with that person. This empathic approach will often disarm an angry person and get you both on track to find a positive outcome that will enrich both of your lives.

Repair Attempts and Preventive Strategies

Repair Attempts: For the inevitable situations we encounter when communication breaks down into an argument or disagreement, emotionally intelligent couples use what Dr. Gottman refers to as “repair attempts”—statements or actions that prevent negativity from escalating out of control. They can take the form of a statement, a joke, a hug, or anything else that brings feelings of love, compassion, and connection back into the room. Dr. Gottman believes that, “The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage is likely to flourish of flounder … and what determines the success of their repair attempts is the strength of their marital friendship.”

The XYZ formula: During the recent SMART Conference, Dr. Parrot suggested another strategy that we can use when we are responding to a conflict. He called it the XYZ Formula. The formula is as follows: “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z.” He gave the example, “When we are driving down the road, when you turn the radio station without asking me, I feel like you are not paying attention to me”, rather than the more tempting option of “Who made you King of the Radio?” This guidance is very similar to Dr. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication suggestion that we covered earlier which suggests that we should create a statement in the form of “I feel … because I ….” With either approach, we are sharing how we feel when we observe the action, which opens up the possibility of a more constructive discussion.

Sharing “withholds“:  An effective preventive strategy that Dr. Parrot shared was something he called “sharing withholds.” Dr. Parrot believes this strategy has the power to transform our relationships. So what the heck is a “withhold”? Each day, we typically observe many positive behaviors and negative behaviors in our relationships, but we never say anything about them. If we see someone doing something good, but we don’t say anything, that is considered a positive withhold. If we see someone doing something that we don’t like, but we don’t say anything at the time, that is considered a negative withhold. Thus, positive and negative withholds are observed behaviors that register with us throughout the day, but we don’t say anything out loud.

Now that we know what a “withhold” is, here’s how the “sharing withholds” strategy works. Set aside time each evening with your partner to “share withholds.” To start, each person gets a piece of paper and writes two positive withholds and one negative withhold that they observed from the other person in the past 24 hours. Then one person agrees to start by sharing one positive withhold, followed by one negative withhold, followed by the second positive withhold. The person who is listening is only allowed to say two words in response to the presentation of the three withholds: “Thank You”. No other words are permitted.

Now, it’s the other person’s turn and the same process is repeated, with the caveat that the second person must stick to the withholds that they originally wrote down on the piece of paper … we can’t adjust them based on what we heard from our partner (Darn!). After the second person finishes their presentation, there is one additional ground rule that both people must follow: For the next 30 minutes, nobody is allowed to talk about the negative withholds that were shared. Not one word. This provides time for the feedback to sink in and it removes the opportunity for us to go into defensive mode or lash out with a response that we might regret. Instead, let the feedback marinate your brain for 30 minutes and perhaps consider how you might respond in a loving way that will bring you closer together.

Parting Thoughts

In this post, we’ve only skimmed the surface on the vast topic of communication in relationships. Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources available on the subject of effective communication, and I encourage you to read advice taken directly from the experts on this all-important topic. After all, I’m a divorced, single guy! But rest assured that I’ve done a lot of homework on this topic after failing miserably and learning from my mistakes.

There is one point that the experts seem to agree on: conflict is the price we pay for a deeper level of intimacy in our relationships. When we fight “good fights”, the end result is a decrease in tension and an increase in intimacy. There’s only one way to find out if the suggestions in this article will work for you and your partner … give it a try!

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 2 of 2)

“Civility is not not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil.”

– Richard Dreyfuss

Ethical Arguments

It’s a pretty safe bet that few people would consider the current state of our political and social landscape in the U.S. as a role model for civil and ethical discourse, unless we’re using it as an illustration of what not to do. But what do we really mean when we talk about a “civil and ethical argument”, and how can we take steps to move in the direction? That will be the focus of today’s blog.

When we talk about “civility” in the context of an argument, we’re not just talking about being polite. That should be a no brainer. Instead, we strive to present our needs and beliefs without degrading the needs and beliefs of others.

I recently attended a lecture series hosted by The University of Notre Dame (my alma mater) called “Bridging the Divide“, that expanded nicely on this concept. In one of the lectures, Dr. John Duffy (Professor of English, specializing in ethics, rhetoric, literacy, and writing pedagogy) started the conversation by defining what we mean by an “argument.” He defined an argument as a set of reasons given to critique or defend a proposition that is uncertain. Professor Duffy also pointed out that interruptions, insults, personal attacks, and contradictions are NOT arguments. For an argument to be considered “ethical”, it must be grounded in principles such as truthfulness, trust, accountability, integrity, intellectual generosity, and open-mindedness. Those aren’t exactly the adjectives that come to my mind when I think of recent events in politics and the corresponding coverage in news and social media.

How did things get so bad?

I’m sure there are many reasons that have contributed to where we find ourselves today, but I’ve narrowed it down to just two big issues for this post.

Issue #1: Living in Our Customized Cocoon

Today, we have an unprecedented ability to choose the information we consume and the types of people we want to include in our life. Not so long ago, we had just a few TV channels, no internet, and no mobile phones. While we still chose our social groups, newspapers, and entertainment, we couldn’t imagine the level of customization that is available to us today.

These technology advances offer us some amazing benefits, but they also have some serious drawbacks. Today, it is easy to limit our exposure to ideas and people who bring us out of our comfort zone. When we do encounter these people, we tend to think they must be from another planet because they approach issues from such a different perspective. Of course, they feel the same way about us. Which brings us to the second major issue that is contributing to our current state of affairs.

Issue #2: The Media Trap

News media and social media are businesses that thrive on divisiveness and polarization. These businesses are competing for our attention, with the goal of generating more money through advertising. News and social media also have the ability to subtly manipulate our behavior, gradually causing us to become more comfortable with certain ideas and less comfortable with others over time. Thus, it’s no surprise that media can be a very powerful ally for politicians, businesses, and others who are seeking to shift the balance of power or market share in their favor. Pop culture adds to this by promoting TV shows, movies, and other entertainment that gets us accustomed to certain behaviors, such as seeing people yell at each other or engage in violence.

In reality, society is not nearly as divided and polarized as the press leads us to believe. When we meet people face-to-face and get to know them as human beings, we quickly learn that the vast majority of people are good, caring, smart, and compassionate. Similarly, we discover that the vast majority of people share the same set of negative traits, such as being insecure, selfish, lazy, and naïve, traits that we attempt to dial down as best we can. Finally, we uncover the fact that we share a lot of common ground on topics such as healthcare, education, national security, racism, infrastructure development, and even controversial topics such as abortion and gun laws.

However, when we look at the news, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that the fabric of our society is falling apart and we’re at the brink of civil war. When those thoughts cross our mind, it’s important to remember that the media attempts to capture more of our attention by fostering feelings of fear, anger, and divisiveness. They fan the flames by showcasing extreme activities on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum, a place where perhaps 10-20% of our population fall. The left-leaning media outlets highlight the worst, most radical activities of the right, and the right-leaning media outlets highlight the worst and most-radical activities of the left. This is how we end up with a ridiculous perception that anyone who voted Republican is racist and anyone who voted Democrat is a Marxist / Socialist. Yes, there are radical people out there on both sides of the political spectrum, but they do not represent the ~80% of people who fall in between the fringes.

We all know that negative media sells. It sells because it plays to our strong emotions of fear, anger, and insecurity. From a financial perspective, it’s in the “best interest” of media companies to stir things up and whip everyone into a frenzy because this will grab more of our attention, which translates to higher ad revenue for the media company. Elections are a boon for media companies. It’s a primo opportunity to traffic in stories about corruption, scandal, controversy, and crisis. These types of stories attract more viewer attention and therefore more ad revenue. When we hear of the billions of dollars spent in an election, where does the majority of that money go? The Media. Ramping up on negative stories attracts more and more of our attention, which the media views as positive reinforcement that their approach is working. Never mind the collateral damage it causes in the form of society’s negative view of “people in the other political party” and the overall state of the country and the world.

However, after an election, there is a window of time where media outlets on the winning side will start featuring positive stories of how everything is miraculously getting better, now that their politician of choice won the election. Meanwhile, the media on the losing side ramp up on doom and gloom stories about the future of our country. The winning side takes the bait, and then we’re back in our death spiral of negative content that serves to further increase our feelings of fear, anger, insecurity, divisiveness, and polarization.

Social media takes all of this a step further by optimizing their suggestion engines to capture our attention. Social media companies are just like any other company that wants robust growth each year. The way to grow is to generate more ad revenue. The way to generate more ad revenue is to sell us (our attention) to their clients who want us to buy their products and services or modify our behavior in some way.

What is the Path Forward?

Fortunately, there are some strategies that each of us can take to help move our society in the direction of civil and ethical discourse.

Media Literacy: Many of us could benefit from learning more about the inner workings of media. Consider taking a course in media literacy to become more savvy about the world of fake news, media bias, deepfakes, out-of-context photos, and the perils of only reading headlines. If you want to specifically learn more about the inner workings of social media companies, I highly recommend the movie “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix). For a broader understanding of how algorithms are created and used (often with unintended consequences), check out Cathy O’Neil’s book “Weapons of Math Destruction“. I’m sure there are lot of other great resources out there. Those are just two sources that I happen to be familiar with. If you have other recommendations, feel free to send them my way as I’m always eager to learn more.

Get Out of Your Echo Chamber: It’s all too easy for each of us to comfortably settle into our customized echo chamber. Heck, it feels good to see, hear, and read things that make us feel good and intelligent. Keep in mind that there are a lot echo chambers out there with people who feel like they have the right answer, and that answer is very different from yours. Aren’t you curious to learn why others think they have the right answer? Break out of your media cocoon and diversify your news feed. Move beyond the tribal mindset of being a “Democrat” or “Republican”. Rather than accept the party line across the board, learn to think for yourself and form your own opinions. Avoid a “cancel-culture” knee-jerk response, reserving that tactic only for egregious circumstances that truly warrant it … disagreeing with your political party or views doesn’t cut it. We shouldn’t be shouting people down so their voice can’t be heard. We can’t silence people into submission. In order to make any progress, we must engage with others in open, civil, and ethical dialogue. Diversity is not just a skin color, gender, or country of origin. We need diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to help us solidify our ideas and identify the best path forward for our life and for society. Let’s seek out opportunities to establish connections and friendships with people who are different than us and hold different perspectives. We will only grow from the experience.

Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable Conversations: Building on the previous suggestion (Get Out of Your Echo Chamber), attend lectures, conferences, and other forums that that encourage a variety of different perspectives and provide you with an opportunity to practice having ethical and civil discussions with people you disagree with. For example, one organization that does a good job with this for college students is called BridgeUSA. BridgeUSA is a group found on many college campuses today (and even some high schools) that has the “radical” idea to reach out to people on all sides of the political spectrum and host lectures and small-group discussions on a broad range of topics. Each group has a facilitator to help keep things civil. It’s a great alternative to the “us vs. them” mindset commonly found in Democrat and Republican organizations and it’s a great way to help you solidify your own position on the issues. In the words of the BridgeUSA:

“Political polarization is damaging to the health of American democracy. For most in our generation, a broken democracy is the norm. Young people are forced to choose between disengaging from politics or fitting a partisan mold. Democracy is in danger if the next generation is disengaged and polarized because young people are the future of our country.  BridgeUSA empowers young people to solve problems. BridgeUSA is developing the next generation of engaged, informed, and constructive citizens. Our movement catalyzes the passion of the next generation to invest in the future of democracy. The BridgeMindset defines our work. We champion ideological diversity, promote a solution-oriented political culture, and teach constructive engagement in order to develop a generation of political leaders that value empathy and common purpose.”

On a side note, if you know of organizations similar to BridgeUSA that cater to adults for whom college is a recent or distant memory, I would be interested in hearing about them!

The Gold and Platinum Rules: When in doubt, let’s always remind ourselves that the vast majority of people in the world are genuinely good, caring, and wonderful people who are doing the best they can based on their unique set of experiences in life. Cut other people some slack. We all have our strengths and flaws. That’s part of what makes life so fun and interesting. As the Golden Rule says, “Treat others as you would like others to treat you”. Better yet, consider the Platinum Rule, “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” Or perhaps best of all, “Love one another as I have loved you”. Yes that last one is a Bible quote (John 13:34), but placing love as the foundation of our relationships with our nearly 8 billion neighbors on this planet is a good recipe for moving us forward. If Bible quotes raise your hackles, then here’s one from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 1 of 2)

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse

“If government were a product, selling it would be illegal.”
P.J. O’Rourke

Politics 101: How Hot Dogs are Made

About 10 years ago, I made the mistake of watching a video clip about how hot dogs are made. It wasn’t pretty. Since that day, I’ve only eaten hot dogs when under duress. The political process, on the other hand, makes hot-dog processing look wholesome and tasty. But, like it or not, politics as we know it is unlikely to change anytime soon, so we might as well develop strategies on how to play nice with others when it comes to this potentially explosive topic.

Like religion, many of us get so attached to, or repelled by, a person or political party that all reason goes out the window, and it can be difficult to engage in open, honest discussions. We lose sight of more important goals because we’re too busy trying to protect our team and win the argument, even when we don’t agree with half of what our team stands for. Independent thinking gets lost in the process. Rather than throw food or insults at family and friends whenever the topic of politics rears its ugly head, here’s my strategy on how to keep cool—no matter what kind of pink-slime political horrors I inadvertently encounter.

My rose-colored political glasses enable me to view politics in the following simplistic way: Politicians have a large pot of money, collected via taxes from citizens and businesses, to manage our country. Each politician has an opinion on how that money should be divided and spent. Similarly, politicians have at their disposal a mind-bogglingly complex set of laws and incentives that they use to maintain a peaceful society and a semi-free market. Some politicians feel that the government needs more money, more regulations, and more government programs to effectively run the country; other politicians feel that government should have less money, fewer regulations, and fewer government programs; the rest fall somewhere in between.

The issues that politicians tackle can be extremely complex. Most issues are not black and white but rather many shades of grey. There are significant, legitimate differences of opinion about which programs should or should not exist. Politicians use a variety of means to push their agendas. The means can be sleazy, virtuous, or somewhere in between.

The money, time, and resources spent on one issue can impact the ability to effectively address other issues. Given the complex regulatory framework that we have created for such things as taxes, healthcare, and environmental issues, it’s not easy for anyone to be well informed on more than a few key issues. This means that politicians must rely on “experts” to provide them with sound advice based on available data—a mix of scientific, socioeconomic, and political—that provide a sense of what science suggests they should do and the political fallout they would suffer if they choose to do it. Some of the expert advice is based on solid, objective data; some is based on flimsy or biased data; and some is completely subjective.

Add to the mix public opinion polls, advocacy groups, lobbyists, current events, and pressure from other politicians to steer a given politician in one direction or the other. Each politician weighs the pros and cons, and then makes the final call on how he or she will vote. In some cases, the politician decides not to show up to vote at all.

Along the way, the full spectrum of human character traits will surface, and the media uses the most sensational stories to paint someone as good or bad. Each media outlet has its own biases, and most choose to focus on the bad stuff, regardless of bias. This translates to public character assassinations in print, on the traditional airwaves, or online.

Rather than offer solutions, some politicians focus their attention on trashing their opponent. Close to election time, things start to get really ugly, and the personal attacks are well below the belt. The press loves this, and apparently the public does too. We’re left with a cynical sense that all politicians are scum.

In the end, we may feel that we’re faced with the option of voting for either “bad” or “worse.” When our preferred candidate has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in a primary election, we may choose not to “throw away our vote” and instead vote for someone whom we don’t really like because that person has a better chance of winning against the opposing party candidates, some of whom we may despise. Alternatively, we may choose to “throw away our vote” in a primary election because we want our vote to be aligned with our core values, or we really detest the other candidates. In the final election, we may decide to adopt a mindless political robot approach and simply check the box for “democrat” or “republican” across the board without the faintest idea about the candidates or issues.

Finally, it’s time to vote. After a day of drama and speculation, the winners are announced. The loser makes a concession speech, the winners celebrate, and there is music and dancing in the streets. After the dust settles, and it becomes clear that it’s just going to be business as usual in Washington, D.C., we may be left with a feeling that the system is broken and that all politicians are corrupt, unethical, self-absorbed manipulators of public opinion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.

Rather than get mired in the hot dog-making process we call “politics,” there’s another approach to take. Ignore it. Go on a “media fast”. Don’t waste your limited free time reading about political squabbling and scandals. If you are passionate about certain issues, great! Get involved at a local, state, or national level, and help influence change. But, if following the negative political saga just inspires you to be angry, depressed, or fearful, without taking any positive action, then it might be best to ignore politics and focus on keeping your own house and relationships clean and healthy. That’s a decision that I consciously made about 6 years ago and I’ve been happily residing in the “media fast” camp ever since.

Despite my media fast, I do break it for a narrow window around election time. I research candidates and issues, discuss them with other people, and submit my vote. It takes me about three weeks to do this. After that, my work is finished. I put my blinders back on and focus on the priorities that I have set for that year. I’ve made the choice to be a semi-informed voter at the time of the election, cast my vote, and then move on to what I consider to be my highest priorities in life. For me, politics is very far down the list.

Don’t get me wrong, I regularly read books and articles that support my career and personal growth, and I research other topics of interest during my media fast, but it is nearly always for a specific purpose. When I do this, I tend to go deep, with a focus on primary sources – aka stuff that is typically jargon-filled, painfully dry, and loaded with data and quantitative analyses. These papers are usually free of the typical headlines we see that are designed to manipulate our emotions … the stuff marketing copywriters come up with that play on emotions such as fear and are designed to be irresistible for their target audience. If anything, primary source articles have titles that elicit the opposite effect, with fear coming in the form of “fear of having to read that technical paper.” Fortunately, these days we also have options to watch on-line lectures and conferences that feature the authors of primary source articles. These forums are particularly useful when there are panels that include multiple speakers and perspectives. More on that topic in next week’s post.

My Media Break-Fast for 2020

On September 29th, 2020, I reluctantly climbed out of my cave to see what is going on in the world of politics … starting with the first Presidential debate. Wow. Straight into the fire with that decision. Let’s just say that I was feeling pretty darn good about my choice to be on a media fast after watching that car wreck of a spectacle.

After the “debate” finally ended, I turned off the computer and sat down for a few minutes in silence. I was actually feeling a bit stunned. The main question I found myself asking was “How did things get so bad in terms of engaging in ethical, civil discourse?” I decided to dive a bit deeper into that topic over the past few weeks and that will be the subject for Part 2 of this blog post: my two cents on how we got to where we are today and how we might dig ourselves out of this hole to arrive at a place where ethical, civil arguments become the norm.

Stress is a Choice: Event + Response = Outcome

Stress is a Choice: Event + Response = Outcome

“Remember that stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life.
It comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life.”
— Andrew J. Bernstein

I often think of a handy equation whenever I’m faced with a task or a situation that doesn’t sound very appealing: Event + Response = Outcome. In other words, I may not be able to do anything about the situation or event, but I can certainly adjust my response to it, and thus change the outcome. Once I get over my initial whining and come to terms with the fact that a particular event is inevitable, I shift my mind to think of how I can make the most of the situation.

In the face of an unpleasant event, our knee-jerk reaction might be to assume that Event = Outcome. “It’s pouring rain, so I guess we’ll have to stay indoors and watch reality TV shows today.” That’s one possible response, albeit a lame one. When faced with the same situation, our kids might say, “Awesome, let’s go outside and play mud football!” That’s a very different response to the same event, and it sounds like a lot more fun. We can choose to be lame or awesome in our response to any event. It’s all about our perception.

Let’s take stress as an example. Stress is just a perception, not a function of an event itself. It’s a response that we choose. We assume that something negative is going to happen and feel anxious as a result. Why start out with such a negative prediction? After all, we don’t know how the event is really going to turn out. Why not envision something positive and optimistic instead? Consider the event as an opportunity to learn or shine and choose to feel excited about the opportunity rather than be stressed out about it. We are responsible for the perspective we choose to see and the feelings we experience in any situation.

Of course, there are some situations that warrant a stress response. For example, if someone throws us into a dark closet with a bunch of angry rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders, we can be forgiven for feeling a wee bit of stress. But there are plenty of other situations in which stress is something that we needlessly create in our mind. We don’t have to feel stress in response to most of the things we encounter in our day-to-day life.

The same is true for the preconceived notion that we’re going to feel bored or uncomfortable at an upcoming event. As an off-the-charts introvert, that thought may have crossed my mind a few times. Let’s say we receive an invitation to a party that we can’t decline, and we immediately envision being stuck in endless conversations about the weather, baseball, and the Kardashians or whatever else is trendy at the time (don’t ask me … I’m far from trendy). That’s one way to approach the event: with dread.

Another option is to reframe the occasion as an opportunity to practice a particular skill or meet a particular person. If we’re really desperate, we can frame it as an opportunity to practice making eye contact, giving a firm handshake, remembering names, or trying to find someone who has been to Mongolia. Make a game of it.

Better yet, become a detective. Recognize that everyone has an interesting, amazing story to tell, and our job is to uncover that story by asking the right questions. Whenever I’m stuck attending an event (ahem … let’s try that again.) Whenever I have an opportunity to attend an event, I try to think about who will be attending and I come up with a few good questions that might lead to interesting and meaningful conversations. Sometimes, I even type those questions into the Notes app of my phone so I don’t forget. The bottom line is that my fate is up to me. I can either take the time to come up with a few good questions, or I can roll the dice and risk wasting an entire evening talking about something that bores me to tears.

We have complete control over our own attitude in any situation, yet we often behave as if we have no control. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.” This timeless nugget of wisdom has been passed down through the ages, yet it’s all too easy to forget.

So the next time you are feeling stressed out, pause, take three deep breaths, remind yourself that stress is a choice, and choose a positive response that will yield a desirable outcome. Event + Response = Outcome.

Thanks for reading and choose to have a stress-free day!

Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave

Article Published in Perceptive Travel Online Magazine, December 2019

Story and photos by Mark Aspelin

Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.

“Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?” – Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late ’90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants “mine” salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I’d never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, “Sounds great—let’s go!”

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

We pick up our assigned armed guards to escort us to the cave.
We pick up our assigned armed guards to escort us to the cave.

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.

The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn’t know what he was doing.

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.

After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery…and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

Hiking along the trail to Kitum Cave in Mt. Elgon National Park, Kenya
Hiking along the trail to Kitum Cave in Mt. Elgon National Park, Kenya

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.

Our first glimpse of the entrance to Kitum Cave
Our first glimpse of the entrance to Kitum Cave

First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.

Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

Mark's "personal protective equipment" for the Kitum Cave exploration.
Mark’s “personal protective equipment” for the Kitum Cave exploration.

Hey, at least I had a flashlight.

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.

The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. “Sounds interesting, what book is that?”

Inside the entrance of Kitum Cave
Inside the entrance of Kitum Cave

That’s when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.

“What?!” I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.

I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before the trip?” I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.

Then things started to get even more interesting.

The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn’t put my mind at ease.

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That’s it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.

He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

View of Uganda from Mt. Elgon National Park
View of Uganda from Mt. Elgon National Park

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn’t figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn’t.

I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn’t worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents’ house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.

Thankfully, I’m happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.

What is the Best Short Hike In Albuquerque? Tree Spring Trail

As an avid hiker who has lived in the Albuquerque metro area for the past 15+ years, visitors frequently ask me the question, “what is the best hike in Albuquerque?”  My answer: If you’re looking for a longer, strenuous hike, then La Luz is the best trail in Albuquerque; if you’re looking for a shorter hike with nice views, then my personal favorite is Tree Spring Trail. 

The “La Luz” answer doesn’t come as a surprise to most people.  It’s a classic, well known 7.5 mile trail (one-way), that climbs 3,200 feet from the trailhead to the upper terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram.  You can learn more about La Luz at the following link:  https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cibola/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=64582&actid=50.  

There’s even an annual La Luz Trail Run.  I’ve done the race several times and I highly recommend it if you don’t mind some pain and suffering as you climb more than 4,000 feet over a nine mile course to the top of Sandia Peak.  It’s longer than the normal hike as the race starts lower down on a road to help spread people out before they hit the actual trail.  If racing to the top of Sandia Peak sounds appealing to you, you’re not alone.  The race sells out every year and you’ll need to enter a lottery to get one of the coveted 400 slots that are permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. 

But let’s get back to the topic of this post: Tree Spring Trail.  Tree Spring Trail is located in the “East Mountains of Albuquerque.”  In other words, if you’re in the city of Albuquerque, then you’ll need to take I-40 East and drive to the other side of Sandia Peak.  It’s about a 30-minute drive to the Tree Spring trailhead from downtown Albuquerque, but it’s well worth it.     

Here are directions to the Tree Spring Trailhead:

  • Take I-40 East from Albuquerque and get off on Exit 175 toward Cedar Crest / N-14.
  • Take NM-14 North for about 6.5 miles to NM 536 (aka the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway).  You’ll also see a Shell gas station on your right as you approach NM 536, as well as the Lazy Lizard Grill … a good place to stop after your hike for pizza, beer, and other food (and Live Music if you time it right) to help ensure that you’ll end up gaining weight despite going on a hike. 
  • I should also note that if you need to use your phone for any reason, do it here.  Phone service is very spotty once you get to the trailhead.
  • Take a left on NM 536 and follow it for 5.5 miles until you see the Tree Spring parking lot on your left side. 

Your view as you approach the parking area will look something like this:

Approaching Tree Spring Trailhead Parking Lot

You’ll either need to pay $3 per vehicle or $10 for a high capacity vehicle (15 or more passengers).  Bring exact change as you’ll be putting the money in an envelope and dropping it in a narrow slot.  Too many coins will make the envelope too thick to fit in the slot, so try to remember to bring some dollar bills.  It’s a self-service pay station so there’s nobody there to give you change or charge your credit card.

For the detail-oriented readers out there, you may notice that the trailhead sign calls the trail “Tree Springs Trail”, while the USDA Forest Service website calls it “Tree Spring Trail”.  Feel free to use whatever option sounds better to you.  I usually hear it referred to as Tree Spring Trail, without the “s”.  

You can also use an annual pass if you happen to have one of the following approved passes:

…and you’ll also find some picnic tables and a toilet near the parking area.

Now it’s time to hit the trail.

As you can see from the signs below, Tree Spring is a multi-use trail and dogs are welcome if they’re on a leash. Keep in mind that your dog will likely encounter quite a few other dogs during your hike so be prepared.  In addition to dogs, I’ve seen quite a few mountain bikers, two crazy unicyclists, horses, and several alpacas in the 25+ times that I’ve hiked Tree Spring.  In the winter, you may find some people snowshoeing. Yes, snow is common in the colder months since the trailhead is at 8,470 feet and the top of the trail is at 9,440 feet.  This side of Sandia Peak has much more shade and it’s about 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the west side of the mountain, which feels nice in the summer.  

The shade and moisture means that you’ll also find different flora and fauna on the east side of the mountain, such as ponderosa pine (pictured below).

The trail is well-marked and easy to follow in the summer, as you can see below.

However, if you’re hiking in the winter or spring, you may find quite a few downed trees that are blocking the trail.  You should be able to walk around or over the tree and pick up the trail again without much of a problem. Here is an example of a downed tree (a relatively small one) that is blocking the trail.

If you’re hiking in the winter, snow may be completely covering the trail and you can quickly get off the trail without realizing it.  To help keep you on track, many of the trees are tagged with a blue spot, but it can still get confusing at times, particularly after a fresh snowfall that covers up previous tracks.

As you climb up the trail, you’ll be rewarded with nice views to the east, such as the picture below.

You’ll also come across two signs indicating trails that run perpendicular to Tree Spring.  In both cases, just keep going straight.  The first sign that you’ll see is for the Oso Corridor Trail (pictured below).  You’ll keep going straight over the rocky section of the trail in the photo below.

The second sign that you’ll see is towards the very top of the trail – for 10K Trail.  Just keep going straight through the opening between the two fence posts … otherwise you’ll miss the best part!

The trail is narrower now and it can be muddy due to melting snow.

Finally, just 2.0 miles from the trailhead, you’ll suddenly find yourself on top of a saddle of Sandia Peak, with fantastic views of Albuquerque to the west.  It’s often very windy at the overlook, so you’ll literally want to hold on to your hat!  

Here are the views from the top – a great place to snap some family photos such as the one below from a recent “Father’s Day hike” with my father, brother, son, niece, and nephew (a crew ranging from 14 – 77 years old).  

Summit of Tree Spring Trail

After you’ve had a chance to enjoy the view, then you’ll simply descend 2.0 miles back down the same way you came up.  It usually takes people around 45 – 90 minutes to climb up and 30 – 60 minutes to descend, depending on your fitness level and how many breaks you take.  So you can expect to finish the hike in 1.5 – 2.5 hours round trip, including some time to enjoy the views at the top.  If you’re really going for it, you can do the hike much faster.  My fastest time (back in my trail running days) was 31:42 up and 20:34 down for a total round trip of 52:16, and many people can do it much faster than that.  But I recommend taking your time to enjoy the trail – it’s a great hike … my favorite short hike in Albuquerque!

Happy trails!