Thursday, September 30, 2010

Anonymous in Atlanta

This week’s interview requested that she be kept anonymous, for security purposes.
She was a Physicians Assistant in the large hospital I work in, before she transferred to Atlanta.

Susan assists with a lot of surgeries, so she is dealing with not only her own stress, but the heightened stress of the patients, as well as the doctors. So her job is very stressful. Honestly though, she either has a really good mask or really handles stress well. You wouldn’t think she has a care in the world, to talk to her. So I asked her about it.

She said that her two biggest stressors are making sure that her patients’ needs are met in a timely manner. This would include medications, pre or post-operative care, to just making sure they are comfortable. If there is anyone who can put an ailing person at ease it is Susan.

Always the joker, she certainly can’t be accused of taking things too seriously. She’s always got a prank or a joke up her sleeve. I can guarantee that you won’t spend 2 minutes with her before you start laughing.

Though I couldn’t imagine it, I asked her if she ever had disagreements with anyone, staff or patient, and how she handled such altercations.

“Aside from cussing them out?” she asks. Then she explains, “physicians and doctors have egos, you have to be careful not to bruise their egos, let them know [that your way might be better] in a non-threatening way.”

She says her best ways of releasing stress are grinding her teeth, Peruvian coffee beans and humor. She has her gal pals. She always knows where the party is. She says good people make all the difference. She cites my cardinal rule, Leave work at work.

c. 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

No Contest: Night Owls, Early Birds

I found a blog today discussing the benefits of early risers as opposed to late sleepers.

The early bird gets the worm? Not always.
To me, there is no need for early birds and night owls to vie for success. Not only will they both be successful, but they will be less stressed if they work when they are most alert. I am most alert in the morning time. I get more done before 8 am than many people. However, don't ask me to do anything requiring thought after 5 pm, when I am at my most sluggish. Most "normal' people can get a lot done then. It all evens out.

The Zen Habits website tells us in the article, Simple Manifesto: Break Free from the Tyranny of the Clock;

"The clock is a very very recent invention, and even more recent is our modern society’s slavish adherence to the dictatorship of the clock.
Only very recently have we been forced to work from 8 to 5, and to go to school and follow a very rigid class schedule. Only very recently have we become obsessed with tracking and making use of every minute, so that we have things to do when we’re waiting for other things to happen."

You will be most successful working with your body's own clock, not necessarily the world's.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interview with Starbucks' Manager Jamal Magness

This week I decided to interview my manager, Jamal Magness. Let me just say, that Jamal is the best example of how to handle stress. He is by far the most laid back person I have ever met, [and certainly ever worked for]. So I talked to him to find out his secret.

He tells me kind of incredulously that he has been working in the food service business for 12 years. When I asked him how he has stayed sane all those years, he laughed wryly.

“A lot of exercise and a lot of patience; but really the best thing you can do is leave work at work.”

His rule of separating work from his personal life is probably the best advice I know of. I also can attest firsthand to it.

Since Jamal seems so unaffected by the stress that comes naturally with his job, I asked him how he handles conflict in general, and with his superiors, in particular.

He claims he’s been very “lucky,” not to have ever had any interpersonal problems with his managers. At the same time, he says “as long as you are doing the job to the best of your ability, you shouldn’t have conflicts.”

He said that when he has disagreements with his superiors about how things should be done, the only real way to change their minds is to demonstrate how his plan is the better one.

He laughs about “the customer is always right” rule. He says it’s usually a situation where we both end up being 50% right. Both of us will have to compromise.

I asked him to share a funny stress-related story. He brought up one I clearly remember because I was there. This lady who is by no means a regular. The last time she came in had to have been at least a year ago. Our espresso machine was broken, so we couldn’t make a good majority of our drinks. She wanted a double espresso. Her response to our machine malfunctions was to throw a fit. I would like to say that I have never seen an adult behave that way, but unfortunately I have. [Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve
been her once or twice].

“You mean I can’t get my espresso?” When we told her that that was indeed the situation, she started to whine. “I HAVE to have my espresso.”

Jamal handled this with nothing less than aplomb. He was sympathetic. “I’m so sorry,” he said knowing her disappointment.

He said that many customers don’t understand that our job is more than just pouring coffee. They don’t realize the many variables that go into it. If something is off, it won’t be right.

So, how does he respond to this? He often goes above and beyond the call of duty.

“I’m not going to serve you bad coffee,” he says. “These days stuff is expensive, and that is a source of stress.”

That is one thing you don’t have to stress about if Jamal is serving your drink.

c. 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tales from the Cafe...

There was a no-nonsense, harried, business-type lady who came into the Cafe the other day asking for a doppio macchiato; a hard-core drink to match her personality, it seemed. (A doppio macchiato is a double shot of espresso marked with a dollop of foam.)

She asked for a doppio macchiato in a larger cup with foam all the way to the top. Simple enough for a coffee connoisseur, only we work in a hospital, where a lot of the clientele aren’t well-versed with our menu. There have been several instances where people will order an espresso macchiato meaning a completely different drink. To avoid any confusion, I clarified, do you want a caramel macchiato?

To be fair, I probably would have responded similarly, had the situation been reversed. She kind of rolled her eyes, and very curtly corrected me explaining what she wanted. “No, not a caramel macchiato. I want 2 shots of espresso with foam all the way to the top.”

Now this is also a source of confusion. Some people want a little milk with their foam, because it is really not much of a drink, as a powerful gulp, otherwise. So I usually confirm that is what they, indeed want.

This woman clearly did not have time for questions. “OK, this is what I want. 2 shots of espresso in a tall cup with foam all the way to the top,” she replied in an oh my gosh, can they be so ignorant tone.

Granted, we are in a hospital, so I can’t even begin to imagine what sorts of stress she is feeling. The fact that she is venting a little on an easy target, the baristas who can’t seem to get it right, is understandable, I guess.

And I’ve probably have done it too….

c. 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Interview with Comic Book writer, Don Smith

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing my friend, Don Smith. Don writes comic books, and he has made me a fan. Right now Don has a column on,
as well as the New Jersey Patch

BROOKE: I've read several genres of your work; articles, reviews, fiction. You have a real talent for writing. How did you narrow down your writing skills to comic books?

DON: First, thank you so much for the kind words about that. I really appreciate it.

However, with writing skills, I tend to have one view on writing and that is just to keep it simple as possible.

For me, I find if I spend my time wanting to over do my writing or go into directions I do not need to, I tend to ramble.

With comic book writing, what appeals to me as opposed to say fiction, is getting right into the action. Instead of saying, "It was a dark and stormy night and he felt his heart beat faster. It was just thunder, he thought, as he heard the rumble."

BROOKE: As a comic book writer, what are some of the stressors you typically encounter?

DON: Much of what stresses me is meeting deadlines. To be 100 percent honest, I have a major deadline due towards the end of September and right now as I write this I have a pit in my stomach.

I call it a tightening and I think there may be some anxiety issues here.

Simply, at the risk of sounding like some sad person dealing with self-esteem issues, I have been a newspaper reporter but my real love has been comic books, and now that I acutally write them I am waiting for "the man" to come in and say, "Mr. Smith, there is a mistake. You need to go back to data entry!"

But a lot of my stressors are more personality inflicted and that comes from me never learning how to deal with personality conflicts and the like, but for the record, I have been reading and talking to some real smart people and learning how to do it.

BROOKE: What sorts of conflicts does your particular work group encounter? Do you always agree with the way the artist portrays your work, does the artist always agree with your story line?

DON: Oddly, the biggest conflicts I have are intnernal (see the previous question). I still can't believe I get to do something I love and a lot of it coming to terms with that.

However, I will say that biggest issue I find in this industry is jealousy.

There is so much about the entertainment industry that is a crap shoot (comic books especially). A guy who has been slaving in his comics for years will go unnoticed, but some kid comes out of left field and happens to be the son of the landscaper for the president of Marvel Comics and boom, this kid gets a comic like SPIDER-MAN.

(For the record, this did not happen, but I use this as an example).

The old-timer begins an underground backlash of the kid's success (whether deserved or not).

While I get the old man's frustration, and I get the promotion and nepotism that has been going on since the beginning of time, the old man needs to realize, we all have different paths.

I find I end up meeting the dumb old guy.

That can be very, very disheartening.

Now regarding artists, a lot of times, I have a "Let the artist do the job" sort of thing. To me, they are very, very important, so I almost do not want to make waves.

Also, some of the comic stuff the publisher has the final say in the artist and I don't. I hate to say that I have been known to "Grin and bear it," but I have too.

Sometimes I voice my concern, other times I don't. It depends on the time and place.

BROOKE: You’ve written some political comics, which are incredibly deep for what people would expect from comics. Do you ever run into problems from the editor/producer?

DON: Actually, right now my experience has been very positive with the few editors I have worked with.

If something needs to be changed, I tend to go along with it.

BROOKE: Do you ever experience writer's block? How do you deal with it?

DON: Writer's Block is interesting. Some days the words come flying out of my fingers to keyboards like I am taking Supernatural Dictation.

Other times trying to get the next word on to the page is like squeezing out that last bit of toothpaste. Or better yet, it's like getting that last sip from a soda at the bottom of a cup of ice.

The best way to deal with Writer's Block I find is stepping away from the computer. I have been known to go and lay down for a half hour, not sleep, but not think about anything. I meditate, I call it.

Recently, I have found that going out for a walk and not thinking about it helps.

In the HITCHHIKER'S TO THE GUIDE GALAXY series, Douglas Adams said that the best way to fly is throw yourself to the ground and think about something else. Your mind will be so used to the idea of you hitting the ground it will be distracted and you can levitate up.

In an odd way, writing is like that. Writer's Block even more so.

You know when people say they do their best thinking in the bathroom, it's the truth. Without getting too graphic, people go in the bathroom to either shower all saw the movie DUMB AND DUMBER (thank you, Jeff Daniels and a bottle of Super Lax). But the point is your mind is so wrapped up in the story or the problem that you need something to take you outside yourself and all the synapses that were not connecting, connect.

Same principle.

I try to think about something else, and usually that refocuses me on the writing problem.

BROOKE: Part of the writer’s life, is dealing with unemployment. How do you deal with the ups and downs of this industry?

DON: You know, I wish I had some massive answer to say, "I let go and give it to God."

But some days are harder than other.

Right now, I am learning to surrender things over to God. I don't mean one of those "I give up!" sort of deals, but a full blown, "I offer God control of this situation."

Some are easier, and some are harder. I am dealing with some stubborn issues right now, that as I said, are ingrained in my core, so I am praying this gets lifted.

Not the thing causing me stress, but learning what my real worth is.

As much as I love comic books and being a writer, if something should happen where I stopped doing this (here I mean like a disease or something that stops my brain from working) I want to be defined by myself inside not because of people's views of me.

Make sense?

BROOKE: Absolutely. What is your best outlet for stress?

DON: I find a lot of time just walking away and going "I can't deal with this. This is to big, God I give this to you" and then focus on something else tends to help.

I would love to say, "I burn off my stress with jogging or racquet ball " but none of that is me.

I will admit, I do walk a lot, and I tend to do that when I feel more stressed and that really works wonders, but most of the time, I look for the cause of the stress and eliminate it.

It makes things so much easier.

BROOKE: Is there a particularly funny story involving stress on the job that you experienced, please feel free to share?

DON: Yeah, I have one.

In my comic book POLITICAL POWER: RUSH LIMBAUGH, I wrote myself in as narrator (which is the custom of the comic series). For the heck of it, I wrote in my cat Banjo to bring the narration some more life.

BROOKE: Oh yeah! I heard that!

Anyway, when the comic came out in May of this year, a caller called into Rush Limbaugh's show. The reader was some "genius" from Ohio who said, "Well, Rush, did you have a cat named Banjo?"

You see, I admit I am a big guy, and the artist drew me similarly to Rush. However, if he had read the comic he would see the narrator say, "I am Don, this is my cat, Banjo."

Well, on national radio, it was great for Rush to talk about the comic, but it was inaccurate. My goal was to be as accurate as possible, because I thought Rush really did get the raw end of the deal on a lot of media.

Thank God I did speak with one of his producers Kit Carson and told him what I was about and what the comic was about. He told me that the people he spoke with had responded positively to the comic, so I was happy.

But several months later, THE NEW YORK TIMES ran an article about Bluewater Comics (the publisher of the Rush Limbaugh comic) and they brought up the Banjo incident.

All I can say is considering THE NEW YORK TIMES is putting the details of the United States Terrorist Surveillance Program and done with an erudite manner, I am not surprised.

But still I will say, "Don Smith, whose work has been featured on the RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW and in THE NEW YORK TIMES, has a new comic book coming out."

Either way, it works out.

BROOKE: Indeed. That’s quite a feather in your cap.

Brooke, thank you for this chance. I really appreciate it and am grateful for it.

c. 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Being Present

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday's burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it. ~John Newton

In an age where multi-tasking is admired and encouraged, few people even know how to live in the moment. It takes no rocket scientist to determine that this is probably the reason most are so wigged out.

We’ve all heard the quote from John Lennon, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” I could take it a step further and say, “Life is what happens while you are doing other things.”

We consider it to be more productive to be “doing” all the time. Not that there is anything wrong with doing. But in order to be truly effective, “doing” needs to be balanced out with “being.”

How often do we enter a conversation with our friends or family, and not recall what they said, because we are busy planning our next move? It is impossible to truly spend quality time with people if your mind is not engaged. This most definitely affects our relationships.

The Zen Habits website list some benefits of being in the moment:

• Increased enjoyment. I find that I enjoy life more if I’m present rather than having my mind elsewhere. Food tastes better, I have more fun with my family, even work becomes more enjoyable.

• Reduced stress. Worrying about the past and future gives you stress. But being present is almost like meditation. There are no worries. There is just experiencing.

• Better relationships. When you really commit yourself to being with someone, to listening to them, you are being a better father, husband, friend, daughter, girlfriend. You have better conversations. You bond.

• Get things done. I find that focusing on what I’m doing, rather than trying to multitask or multithink a million different things at once, I actually complete what I’m doing, do a better job on it, and get it done faster. I don’t necessarily do more, but I get things done. Focus tends to get things done, in my experience, and when your focus is split among a lot of things, it is less powerful.

I’ve never been a good multi-tasker. I hear others say that it is the same for them. But we do it anyway to try to get things done. I know for me, if I can focus on doing individual tasks correctly and thoroughly, it will improve my overall performance, as well as enjoyment with the tasks.

Being present is a win/win situation for everyone involved.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pianist, Yvonne Musterman talks musical stress

Yvonne has run a piano studio for as long as I’ve known her. I’ve known her all my life, because she’s my mom. Strange as it may sound, it only recently occurred to me that running a piano studio is a business. She has always had so much fun with it, that it never seemed like work to me.

When I started to realize that she actually had to deal with real business-like stressors, I was a little dumbfounded.

She shared some of her stress-relief tactics with me.

Like any business involving humans, confusion is going to happen. People are going to forget to practice. People are going to be late with tuition. Time schedules aren’t necessarily in sync. Life is going to get in the way.

• How do you handle this?

“I have a policy letter where I address all of these issues. If they have a problem, I just refer them back to the policy. “

She went through the list of bad behaviors, and made each a policy item. Constantly making up lessons for people due to last minute schedule changes really stressed her out. So after years of making accommodations for every last minute plan, her policy states that, unless she is the one with the conflict, it is up to the student to arrange for a make-up lesson.

• You enter your kids into national competitions. How do you handle kids who are nervous about playing?

“My ego isn’t wrapped up in their performance, I can only expect their best.”

She realizes that all students learn differently, so she teaches according to the student’s learning style. She obviously wants them to play well, so she trains them with the best of her ability, and expects them to play to the best of theirs. But she doesn’t stress if they happen to hit a wrong note.

Unlike a good majority of teachers, she doesn’t have a performance mentality. She doesn’t push students to perform if they don’t want to. As a result her students excel, and their enthusiasm is not contrived.

• What about when a student doesn’t practice, or is otherwise unprepared?

If someone is consistently unprepared and never practices, they are wasting their time and hers. She has let kids go for not practicing. “They are wasting their parent’s money,” she said.

Yvonne has tapped into some important tool of success. Keep first things first.
If a student is stressing about a piece, she will always be the first to say, “it’s not a hill worth climbing and dying on.”

And above all else, enjoy what you’re doing.

c. 2010

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Only man clogs his happiness with care, destroying what is, with thoughts of what may be. John Dryden (1631-1700) British poet, dramatist and critic.

What is anxiety? How is it different from worry? Is there any difference? Are some people more prone to worrying? Is it outside our realm of control? Can I stop it? Would I really want to? Am I really stressing out about the nature of anxiety and worry?

There are few people in today’s world that don’t suffer from anxiety. How am I going to keep up with my job, where is my next meal coming from, or maybe even less importantly, what am I going to wear to my job? But there are others who are constantly plagued by it, who can’t seem to stop it. Is it an actual health condition?

For all practical purposes, anxiety and worry are basically the same. You will find the words often used interchangeably. Anxiety is a diagnosable condition of worrying, with several different varying classifications.

When we are anxious, we can be submerged into what Stuart Smalley calls, “stinkin’ thinkin’.” If only the solutions to my worries came as fast and expediently as do the actual fretful thoughts. I’m sure not only would I have solved the worries, but probably be the smartest person in the world. So what causes anxiety, a mix of factors seem to contribute.

Personality and life experiences are probably the first things we would point to as a cause. We would probably not be too surprised that a particularly high-strung person exhibits anxious traits. Nor would it be too much of a shocker that someone who has a bad life experience tend to worry and be anxious.

Heredity plays a huge role. If you have anxious parents, you also will tend to be anxious. But is that a result of conditioning, or genetics? Probably a bit of both.

The chemicals in the brain also play a large role. I know you are thinking like I was at first. Chemicals?! How can I possibly have any influence on that outside of drugs? Actually, we have more influence than we know; and it is very simple. Our thoughts are the biggest influence on our mood or mindset. But how can I control my thoughts?

The brain runs on automatic much of the time. Thoughts are like files that the brain will pull up. These thoughts will affect our mood.
You will have to manually control your thoughts. It is possible to build a “storage” of good thought files. It may take a while to train, but soon it will become habit.

But it does and will work.

photo credit: