On steering away from shore

Chart_MatinicusThe end of summer is approaching. Technically we have until September 22nd before the Autumnal Equinox. Practically speaking, on the coast of Maine summer ends in the middle of Labor Day weekend.

The town is quiet. Eighty percent of the summer jerks [Ed. note: aka “people” but I let it go. – Debbie] are gone. By Sunday another ten percent will depart. By Monday five more percent will depart and only the extended summer folk will be left. I am trying to become one of them.

Stonington’s Main Street has been packed for the last six weeks. Parking on both sides of the road has narrowed it to a single lane in many places. Tourists, treating it like a pedestrian mall, have further snarled traffic. The restaurants have been crowded for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now there is room to spare and traffic flows smoothly.

The weather is cooler. The days are shorter. Autumn is in the air.

Trying out loneliness

I feel lonely. I want to try loneliness.

I have had the six summer weeks of my dreams including weeks of perfect weather, boating, sailing, island hopping, golf, birding and planning. Never before have I had so much of Maine. The previous pattern was one week here, two weeks there and fighting weekend plane traffic. It has been no more spectacular than before, and some memories have already been lost as the days blend together, but the absence of travel hassle has been wonderful.

Now we get serious, however, as we look into the future of beautiful autumn weeks with far fewer people to share them. This was part of the Gap Year plan; to test a quiet time; to step into another void.

Matinicus Island: 22 miles offshore

Matinicus-Island-600x314This week we cruised to Matinicus Island. It is described as a “godforsaken rock” by many. Indeed, it is a small community of lobstermen, their families and minimal support services, twenty-two miles off the mainland.

It was the first time that I personally steered my boat away from shore and to an invisible point out in the ocean. I was alone with Debbie. We looked toward the horizon. Nothing was there. [Were we looking at empty ocean all the way across the Atlantic? – Debbie] We had every advantage of modern nautical instruments that allowed us to “see” over the horizon so we knew, intellectually, the island was there.

Pointing to the unknown

Debbie and I have traveled beyond the horizon many times with others at the helm. But emotionally and metaphorically, this was a special moment. We were steering our own little boat into the unknown. The next morning, making our way back through pea soup fog it took no extra strength to sail home on instruments alone. We had already taken the big step of sailing away.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of people set sail over the horizon everyday, mostly for work, sometimes for pleasure. I will do so again, someday. It may seem like just another day to them. I suspect they remember their first turn off shore.

The total engagement of coastwise piloting

All of my personal boating has been coastwise piloting. This is the term for making one’s way from place to place around the shoreline. In Maine the coast is particularly unforgiving with granite ledges, spirited seas, tidal changes and ephemeral, often violent, weather. It takes the use of every sense (and supplementary technology: radar, plotter, depth sounder, radio) to do it safely.

It can totally engage, and in my case, satisfy the intellect. I had a random thought while returning by boat from dinner on another island last week. Monitoring the horizon, the compass, the radar and the seas I was completely “connected” in a way that social networking can’t replicate.

Today I toured the Sunbeam. She is a 75- foot vessel operated by the Maine Sea Coast Mission that supplies medical, spiritual, economic and youth development programs to the Maine island communities, including Matinicus. The captain and crewmembers were a pleasure to meet. I am jealous of the never-ending wonder of the ever-changing coast that they get to enjoy.

Looking for new safe harbors

As I poke my nose into health care issues both large and small around the Coast of Maine I am looking for a place to resume my life’s work. As I turn away from my former routine, indeed, as I turn from former shores and safe harbors, I am looking for new challenges and new safe havens.

I have just learned that I will never sail solo around the world. [When we were scanning the horizon for Matinicus, I believe I said I didn’t think we were destined to sail around the world together. – Debbie]

The challenge of coastwise piloting in a boat, or in life, suits me fine.


Life on an island: water, rocks, high tide, repeat

Grog_2_Aug2013READ THIS POST on our new blog.

One of the surprising things so far about our Gap Year is what I’m learning about Sam, my husband of 40 years. The most surprising thing, of course, is that there are surprises.

I knew he was a good writer, for example. But I didn’t realize how good until I started editing his posts. He writes with a lovely cadence (short sentences mixed with long), provocative phrases, precise descriptions.

What he says about my family’s island is so spot on that I can’t improve upon it. I’ll repeat so you can enjoy:

An island evokes a kaleidoscope of feelings that is so reproducible from year to year that it acts on the brain like a hard reset on the computer. There are feelings of isolation, power, exceptional independence, safety, danger, vulnerability, and (curiously) a primitive eroticism. >> More.

But I do want to add a few words. I won’t name the island because the privacy and isolation are what my siblings and I cherish the most. My father, with amazing foresight, bought the property in the late 1960s when he and my mother were cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Family lore has it that he moored his sailboat in Stonington’s protected harbor on a foggy day. Then he rowed into the town dock and walked around the, then, largely undiscovered fishing village.

There wasn’t much going on in those days other than fishing (meaning lobstering). But there were several real estate offices along the main street. He wandered into one, sat down and inquired as to whether any of the dozens of small islands in the Deer Island Thorofare were for sale.

There was one, quite small and conveniently located a ten-minute boat ride from town. The price was low. So he bought it. Then he rowed back out to their boat and told my mother. Ha!

July and August are the golden months on the island

Of course there is a lot more to it than that. I must check the details with my dad. It seems there was some dispute over title to the island and it took several years to clear up. Not until the early 70s was ownership firmly established. It was then that my parents built the cabins. They are simple but “modern” in design with sloping roofs and lots of windows. Forty years later they are still in remarkably good repair.

About a decade ago, my dad gave the island to his four children so we could manage repairs and maintenance, pay taxes, etc. I won’t get into the family drama of how we decide who will use the island when during the summer. Suffice it to say that July and August are the golden months and we squabble – despite having a clearly organized rotation of who gets to pick which week first.

Grog_rainbow_Aug2013I was #1 this year. So I called primetime, a stretch that included the first weekend in August. Some old friends joined us.

As is usual on the island, we had every kind of weather from rain and fog to blue skies and hot sun. A double rainbow one evening was stunning but not without precedent.

On the island you don’t think, you feel

As for my reflection on our island, it comes down to this: my scurrying, worrying brain goes into hibernation. I don’t think. I feel. At high tide I drink in the sight of the perfect clear water lapping on the rocks.

We live by the 10-foot tides. High and low are separated by six hours. They occur four times every 24 hours. Low tide is good for collecting mussels. One year (a long time ago) we were awash in starfish. They clung to the rocks so you could only reach them at low tide. My mother paid each grandchild a quarter per starfish. I can still see them, pink and prickly, piled up on the granite blocks.

Mostly, we wait for high tide

Grog_E_RA_Aug2013Mostly, on hot sunny days, we wait for high tide to fill the little cove so that it’s perfect – despite the frigid temperature of the water – for swimming and sunning on the flat rocks. The pure, physical beauty of the island with its pink and gray granite rocks, evergreen trees and mossy paths is a tonic and, as Sam puts it, a reboot.

I can never get enough of it.

Life on an island: an annual hard reset

Grog_4_Aug2013There is nothing like your own island.

It’s a private island but we’re not talking Richard Branson’s Necker. We have spent the last week on a single-family eight-acre island off the coast of Maine. In other words, it’s a piece of property that happens to have water around it.

We timeshare it with other family members. There are five rudimentary cabins. There is no electricity. There are gas lamps and gas refrigeration. There are three flush toilets and three buckets. There is running water in two of the five cabins.

We have spent several of the nights alone and several with friends.

An island is a hard reset for your brain

I say again, there is nothing like your own island. An island evokes a kaleidoscope of feelings that is so reproducible from year to year that it acts on the brain like a hard reset on the computer. There are feelings of isolation, power, exceptional independence, safety, danger, vulnerability, and (curiously) a primitive eroticism.

As I look at the sunrise across the water I feel the protective moat that surrounds me and buffers me from the world of high society and health systems. I feel the wonder of disconnection. I am the master of my domain. It is a geographic domain, not a social or business domain, and that geography feeds a primeval sense of self.

An island’s physical and emotional challenges

Grog_Aug2013An island is a physical challenge. It requires loading and unloading – like cruising on a boat but raised to an exponential power. Everything to be used on an island (and I mean everything, including firewood, drinking water, food, propane gas, clothes, laundry, construction materials, repair equipment, replacement parts) has to be carried from the mainland onto the boat and then off the boat for distribution to the various cabins or project sites on the island.

Later, the process has to be reversed. Everything has to be collected, carried down the dock, transferred to the boat, transported to the mainland, transferred to the town dock, up the ramp and distributed to the waiting automobiles, homes, trash dumps and other destinations.

This is physically strenuous work. Because the cabins are sited on hills and along root strewn pathways significant climbing is involved. The main cabin is sited thirty feet above high tide. That means the ramp is a stiff climb up if it’s low tide. [Ed note: one of the pleasures of Maine are the 10-foot tides.]

An island is an emotional challenge. Although the mind can be occupied for a good deal of the day with the details of coordinating meals, repairs, and everyday logistics it is always possible to lean back and let feelings of peacefulness, aloneness, power of domain, isolation, and vulnerability sweep over you. Although the power of one’s personal domain is inspiring, to look across the bay and see a storm line build is a reality check of unequaled dimensions.

I prefer life on a small scale

I have always preferred to live life on a small scale.

I wanted to practice community medicine and never had designs on leadership positions or an academic career. I never wanted to be on the “bleeding edge” of new technology.

I enjoyed caring for Washington celebrities, socialites, ambassadors and cabinet secretaries but I did not seek them out. I preferred a few friends to a complicated social life.

I enjoyed the public golf course and preferred a pub with a “heavy pour” to a country club or social club.

Maine, a low-density state, is small scale and this island is the smallest scale possible. I am not a hermit and I do not want to stay here forever, but now is my chance to learn how long I can enjoy it.

The puzzle of turning vacation days into “real life”

When we started my Gap Year we planned to spend the first few months doing for weeks what we used to do for days. [Ed note: hat tip to my favorite Uncle Bobby’s naughty variation on this phrase.  – Debbie] We planned on turning our vacation days into our “real life.”

At first, that plan seemed to lack imagination, both when describing it to others and while living it ourselves. But now it feels right.

At first I was disappointed that the extra time did not lead to an explosive personality change and the inspiration to take on giant new challenges. Now it is ok.

Embracing my old, small world feels right. Enjoying it now without time and schedule constraints is right. Our plan is a good one. By finding our old selves we will learn to find our new selves and expand our horizons.

There is nothing like your own island to help you see your horizon.

Tapping into the hunger for change at the World Domination Summit

If you can’t see the video above, click here.

After attending World Domination Summit 2013, I was bathed in the glow of connection and acceptance and graciousness of the 2,800 attendees. What a lovely bunch of people.

WDS_debbie_front_rowWe convened in Portland, OR for a carefully curated fest of “community, adventure and service,” as founder Chris Guillebeau describes it. If there is a common denominator for attendees, it’s that they are in thrall to the idea – articulated on Chris’s blog – that you can live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

That may sound overly aspirational. But it is a marvelously sustaining thought and Sam and I are buying into it as we embark on our Gap Year After Sixty.

I want to tell you about my experience doing a short talk from the main stage (that’s me in the orange blouse) but first, a key observation.

WDS was *not* a sea of 30-somethings

From the write-ups of the World Domination Summit in 2011 [recap] and 2012 [recap], I expected a sea of 30-somethings. I was struck and pleasantly surprised to see many 40, 50 and even 60-somethings attending this year. WDS is definitely not just an event for Millennials.

I had been worried about the WDS demographic given the topic of my talk on taking a gap year… 40 years after you are supposed to. So I worked hard to prepare, rewriting my talk a dozen times and practicing at least 50 times.

I worked on it with Sam. And also got some very useful feedback from Ishita Gupta. As Ishita, who has worked with Seth Godin, puts it, “Seth says don’t go out on stage and address an audience unless you intend to change them.”

Hungering for change at the World Domination Summit

I only spoke for two minutes and thirty seconds but I think I succeeded. Let me amend that. I’ll snuff out my usual self-doubt and say it more clearly.

Yes, I changed the audience!

WDS_debbie_talk1I’ve given many, many talks and keynotes over the past decade, but none that resonated more strongly than this one. I was astonished by the number of people who came up to me afterwards to say, “Were you the lady in orange? I loved your talk and here’s what it meant to me… “

That’s the part that was so gratifying. Not that the audience liked my talk but that they wanted to connect and share their own story about a gap year or time out or proposed radical change in their lives.

Either they are planning a gap year now or they know someone who just left their job to explore other options for work or in several cases (Caroline and Josh of Traveling9to5; Brittany and Drew of MrandMrsAdventure) they are traveling around the world for a year.

I tapped into something that this group, and so many other people, are hungering for: CHANGE. One of the main stage speakers reminded us that, according to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of U.S. employees are unhappy or disengaged at work.

The three important questions to ask

As I said in my talk,

“You don’t need to live your entire adult life… you don’t need to get to the age of 60 or 50 or 40… before you ask three important questions:

How do you break out of your familiar patterns?

How do you redefine yourself – and explore a new purpose?

How do you embrace the uncertainty of life?”

Huge thanks to Genevieve Santos, who was sitting in the front row, for the informal vid of my talk!

Finding my voice at World Domination Summit 2013

Sam_WDSI tend to do what I’m told (for example, Bollywood dancing at the closing party) so when Chris Guillebeau advised World Domination Summit 2013 attendees to go to a breakout session on a topic that might be uncomfortable or new, I took his word.

I decided to go to the Improv Workshop with Portland legend Gary Hirsch, knowing that improvisation would be a stretch of my public persona skills. I was 15 to 20 minutes early. But not early enough to get a seat. Was I hoping to be shut out??

Dozens of people arrived later than I did. I floundered for a few minutes and then decided to try the pirate-themed, glow-in-the-dark, miniature golf course a few blocks away in downtown Portland, OR. Chris had mentioned it several times from the WDS main stage.

Naah. I went back to our hotel room to write this blog post.

One WDS theme: becoming more self-aware

WDS_riverfloat2Although the guiding principle of WDS is how to lead a remarkable life in a conventional world, it is becoming clear that there are several sub-themes and several types of people here.

One theme is to find one’s true self and become more self-aware. This is frequently coupled with a desire to more comfortably express one’s self, particularly when speaking in public before a large crowd.

Because this is one of my great stressors I had hoped to start at the improvisational level. I am no good at improvisation because I always want to have the mot juste pass my lips. That means a mental block unless, of course, I have had just the right amount of beer.

So there was to be no progress in public speaking skills at #WDS2013.

In the photo above, we are participating in the river float on the Willamette to break a Guinness Book of World Record for longest floating human chain. Yes, we did it.

Another WDS theme: taking a gap year

Another theme coupled with finding one’s true calling is the sabbatical or gap year theme.  One speaker said that 70% of people want to change careers and a gap year appeals to most of them if they can swing it.

WDS_Debbie_talk4I suspect that’s why Debbie was chosen as an Attendee Story Teller: our story of my leaving a successful medical practice after 31 years and us moving from a big city to a small town resonated with many attendees. (Debbie is also an experienced speaker and has an online persona, which I do not.)

More importantly for me, even if I do not improve my public speaking skills at this event, is that I have learned that I must write about my anger and disgust with the way the private practice of medicine evolved during my career.

WDS has shown me that I have to purge myself of this even at the risk of alienating readers.

Well, as I find my WDS voice and as I try to transform myself, a bit, I need to clarify what contributed to my need for personal change.

Prepare yourself, dear reader

So, gentle reader, prepare yourself for some angry perspectives on medical care.

The speakers all come with a variety of skills, with the exception of one devoted and compelling attendee who could not keep it together on stage, and all had good presence.

But they do not all have the ability to move the audience.  Two of the first eight speakers were so genuine that they brought the audience to their feet. The others, in my opinion, were too polished or too self-absorbed to truly move the group.

Tess Vigeland, the former host of NPR’s Marketplace Money, was one of the genuine speakers who described leaving her job without a plan or established safety net. Her situation is perhaps the most comparable to mine in terms of the level of career “sacrificed.”

Tess clearly wanted to return to broadcast journalism and described for us the heartbreak of losing, very narrowly, the tryout to be the next anchor of Weekend Edition of NPR’s All Things Considered.

I am more comfortable knowing that I will never practice medicine again than she is considering she might not broadcast from a national stage again.

Why am I comfortable giving up the tiny celebrity of the successful physician?  Is it because I am most comfortable as an introvert? If so, why am I seeking a more public persona by starting a blog on medical excess and self-rejuvenation?

Go figure.

Q. & A. with Debbie and Sam on “collaboration”

GapYear_June2013_croppedDebbie: Is this really our first collaboration? What about our three children?

Sam: That was different.

Debbie: You’re right; it was.

Sam: This is doing creative work together.

Debbie: And you don’t mind me being your editor? It’s not that easy.

Sam: You mean because of our different approach to quotation marks and periods and spaces at the end of sentences?

Debbie: No, because sometimes I don’t love every word that you write. Your prose is generally very, very good. But sometimes you are a little repetitive and not entirely clear.

Sam: What?!!

Debbie: OK, never mind. I shouldn’t have said that. You are an amazing and prolific first-time blogger. I only want to encourage you.

Sam: That sounds better.

Debbie: I take this blog very seriously, you know.

Sam: I do too.

Debbie: I have high standards.

Sam: I’ve noticed.

Debbie: I’m not entirely sure where the blog is going but I think it’s important to articulate what we’re experiencing.

Sam: How honest do you think we should be about how we’re really feeling one month into our Gap Year?

Debbie: Giggle.

Sam: Seriously, how much should we reveal?

Debbie: Well, as the resident blogging expert I would advise us to be authentic… but not to reveal everything. I don’t want people to know how discombobulated I feel, for example.

Sam: That will probably pass when we have established a better routine.

Debbie: But isn’t that the point? That we’re breaking out of our familiar routines?

Sam: Yes and no. Once we’re properly unpacked and settled on the coast of Maine we’ll feel better.

Debbie: What if I miss DC?

Sam: I don’t miss DC.

Debbie: I do sometimes. All this traveling (back and forth between DC and Stonington, ME; to Portland, OR for the World Domination Summit) makes me unsettled. I’ve been talking for years about how cool it is that my work is “location independent.” But so far I haven’t adjusted to a nomadic lifestyle.

Sam: Give it time. Imagine how I feel giving up my daily routine with patients at the office and the hospital.

Debbie: I worry about that a lot. Sometimes I think I’m worrying for you; that you might miss it too much.

Sam: OK, enough with the touchy feely.

Debbie: Yes, and… 

Written 33,000 feet up on Alaska Air #35 bound for Portland, OR.

Heading to the World Domination Summit… as a travel-hacking, old-age blogger

Gap_Year_July2013The first month of my Gap Year is over. Eleven months to go. I have had two business discussions about potential future endeavors but remain committed to holding off on serious talks until I have really separated from my practice by several months.

Over the weekend a patient called. She is one of the few who have my cell phone number. I instantly went back into the “Doctor” mode for a few minutes of advice. It was not comforting or comfortable. It just was.

We (Debbie and I) remain in limbo as the “transition” of the first month bleeds into the second. We have decamped to our cottage in Maine but because of construction delays we cannot completely unpack and settle in.

We are living in transit among boxes, suitcases and unhung art. This blocks the flow of progress. I cannot redefine myself if I have to devote my limited brainpower to organizing rooms.

We are also preparing for the World Domination Summit (WDS). I have my new business cards. This is a break from my past. The old cards were black on white with name, number, subspecialty and “By Appointment.”

Now they are in color, with a photo (avatar head shot), blog site, email address and motivational (or demotivational) quotes on the obverse.

My family will recognize most of them. For example: “Always be sincere, whether you mean it or not” – Michael Flanders. And “Neither man nor woman can be worth anything until they have discovered that they are fools” – Lord Melbourne.

And particularly apt, “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else” – Tom Stoppard.

Of course my family will not be anywhere near me when I am passing them out and pretending to be a new age thinker.

Debbie was selected to do a two-minute, main stage presentation on Gap Year after Sixty. We are writing the talk together. She has done short talks before, for Ignite DC, and is a good choice.

This is our second collaboration. It is going well. The first collaboration is to allow Debbie to edit my rants. She is a good editor but is completely inflexible on certain punctuation issues. [Ha! – Debbie]

For example, why not end a sentence with the period outside of the quotation marks? It is good enough for the Brits and it is promoted by the space bar function on the old Blackberry. On my current iPhone a double tap on the space bar inserts a period before the next sentence.

This function also promotes my old habit, on a typewriter or full keyboard, of using two spaces between a period and the start of a new sentence. Where did I learn this? Debbie insists it should only be one. I cannot easily break this habit but it is killing her to eliminate the space between sentences as she edits. Who will crack first?

On to WDS, where I will try on a new persona as a travel-hacking, self-redefining, old age pensioner-blogger.

More medical rants with my next posts. They are therapeutic.