The Stillness is the Rest

I travel a lot for work. After more that 20 years of these trips, I’ve learned that I have no special abilities at conquering time zones. If anything, because I keep a pretty fixed schedule at home, and try to sleep at least 7 (or more) hours every night, going to new time zones takes a lot out of me.

Things that help me adjust include: exercise, meditation before going to sleep, not looking at my laptop or phone within an hour of sleeping, earplugs, and, if I’m flying East, Benadryl. I wrote a post about these, with a bonus recommendation about the world’s best suitcase.

That collection of approaches notwithstanding, I still often find myself lying awake, either at the start of the night trying to fall asleep, or some time very early in the morning try to stay asleep.

When I find myself sleepless in Seattle (or Nairobi, or Bangalore), I will lie still and do some version of savasana (yoga corpse pose), with the intention of focusing on my breath going in and out. I often count my breaths in a cycle of eight, one breath corresponding to each finger on my hand (thumb, second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third, second…and then start again). I mix this with a progressive body scan, paying attention to one part of my body and then the next, focusing my attention on relaxing that part of the body, or feeling it bathed in warm light (Headspace has lots of great guided body scan meditations). Through all of this, I aim to keep my mind clear and not let myself get hijacked by each passing thought.

In truth, all of this helps, but that doesn’t mean it puts me to sleep. I spend a lot of time resetting myself, clearing my thoughts, breathing and counting…and then quietly getting frustrated that I’m both exhausted and awake.

When this happens, one new thought that has helped me a lot is: this stillness, right now, is the rest. My mind is clear, my body is relaxed, and that is what rest entails. It is enough.

It’s a freeing thought that can release me from the goal orientation / failure cycle that trying to fall asleep inevitably entails.

I’m am here.

I am breathing.

I am resting.

And that is good.

Atoms Shoes – Cloud Walking

My most astute, long-time readers will recall that I’ve shared in the past the amazing story of Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani co-founders of Markhor (originally Hometown) and now co-founders of Atoms. Waqas and Sidra are living the long, hard road to overnight success.

They’ve already pulled off a number of firsts: the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever run out of Pakistan, the first social enterprise to get into Y-Combinator.

And now, after having put on my first pair of Atoms, I think they just might have created a whole new category of shoes.

To be clear, I don’t have a particularly well-developed shoe or fashion vocabulary, nor am I young or hip enough to do a proper unboxing, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack here.

The short version of the story is: I put the Atoms on this morning, and I don’t want to take them off. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I just want to keep wearing them because they feel so darn good. And I’m already getting compliments on them.

They are a wild combination of just firm enough to feel like real shoes, just flexible enough to give me feel of the ground, and they have what I can only describe as a “squishy” feel under my feet that makes me feel like I’m being pampered. I have wide feet and most shoes are uncomfortable, but these are luxurious. I also love the mesh top, the same that my beloved, travel-essential and worn-down Nike Free 4.0 Flyknits have.

And, as an unexpected bonus, the shoes come in quarter sizes. Plus, when you buy them, you can mix and match each individual shoe to get a perfect fit–they send you multiple pairs and you keep the two (one left, one right) that fit best. If you’re one of the many people whose feet aren’t the same size, or if you’re fit-challenged for any other reason, this makes a big difference. Plus, since Allbirds only come in whole sizes, this could convert a lot of people.

And don’t take my word for it, here’s what TechCrunch has to say:

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter-sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last two months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy-looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

I guess this all explains why more than 4,000 people have signed up to be on the Atoms waitlist before the public launch. You might want to sign up too.

Atoms Shoes

Rough Draft Packing

I find packing for work trips onerous and unduly stressful.

I think it’s the mental exercise of trying to anticipate the details of the trip (including weather, any free time, etc.) and the associated things to bring, coupled with my unrelenting desire never to check a bag (which is helped by having my One Bag to Rule Them All).

One thing that has helped is a checklist that I consult before international trips. I’ve built it up over the years and included stuff I might otherwise forget (international currency, water bottle, Oyster card, plug adapters) as well as things I need to do (set up international data plan). I don’t always remember to check this list, but every time I do I find a few things I might have forgotten.

My new addition is to do “rough draft packing.” The goal is to decouple the gathering of the things I know I will need from the mental work of making sure I’ve got every last thing.

The idea is borrowed from how I now write blog posts: instead of doing them all in one sitting, now, when an idea hits me, I just sit and write, unedited, to get the bulk of the post down on paper. I write until I run out of steam, which is hopefully near the end of the post, and then I leave the post alone for a day or two. When I come back to it, my job is to be a finisher and editor, not an author. This decreases stress and leads to a better finished product, since I’m almost never looking at both a blank sheet of paper and a deadline.

So too with rough draft packing: no stress about getting it just right, no running mental checklist in the background while folding shirts or counting socks.  I know the main categories (work clothes, sleep clothes, exercise clothes, toiletries, etc.) so I just run through these categories and make a pile of folded stuff all in one place. Then, I return to that pile later, see it with fresh eyes, and start to make any obvious cuts (“am I actually going to swim on this trip?”), and find the things from my checklist that I’ve not gathered up.

Somehow this approach takes the stress out while also helping me pack right.

For more advanced tips (almost half of which, to my surprise, I seem to use), here’s a useful list from T+L.

One Bag to Rule Them All (and more international travel tips)

I’m just heading out on an international trip, and I’ve been meaning to write a rave review of the bag I bought a year ago, so here goes.

Let me start by saying that I don’t care much about this sort of thing: I don’t need the perfect bag, pen, belt, watch, etc. – as long as it’s functional, I’m fine.

That said, international economy air travel is its own special version of “how can we make this even more unpleasant?” and my biggest gripe is the insult-to-injury-ness of the lost time spent after 24+ hours in the air, as you wait at 2AM in the baggage claim for the roller bag they forced you to check.

Which is why I didn’t buy a roller bag, I bought a duffle.

It’s this Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel bag, which, in my experience, has the following benefits:

Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
  • It has more packing space than most small rollers, because roller bags (especially smaller ones) have lots of wasted internal space for the handle hardware.
  • It is soft, so it squishes up well
  • I have yet to find an overhead compartment (domestic or international) it doesn’t fit in
  • I even once had a stewardess walk by and say, “wow, what a small bag”

Getting a week’s worth of clothes into this bag, as long as you’re sensible about toiletries and shoes, is easy. Last year I managed a two week trip (NY – India – Uganda – New York) with just this bag and a briefcase (OK, I was pushing it a bit).

The one big caveat here is that it doesn’t roll. So if it’s going to be your main bag, you have to have a decent amount of upper-body strength to comfortably get through the airport. I think it’s a good trade in exchange for being 100% sure that you’ll be able to carry on a bag that easily fits a week’s worth of clothes.

As long as we’re at it, a few other bonus travel items that keep me sane:

  • YogaPaws: this is a new one as of last year, and to my surprise they
    YogaPaws. Image from Wanderlust and Lipstick

    work for 95% of the yoga poses I want to do, and I now bring them on every trip I take. They take up the space of a pair of socks and you can do yoga anywhere as long as the floor/ground is clean enough. Since my biggest international travel challenge is falling asleep when I fly east, not having to think twice about being able to do yoga every day, even if just for 15 minutes, is heavenly.

  • Slipper-like running shoes: back when I was transitioning back from
    Nike Flyknit 4.0
    Nike Flyknit 4.0 (why did they discontinue them?!)

    barefoot running I bought a pair of Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit mesh running shoes (sadly, that model has been discontinued but some places still have it in stock). They take up almost no space in my bag, I can wear them with a pair of jeans on a casual day, and I can still run five miles on them without issue.

  • Meditation Podcast: I don’t have a regular meditation practice at home, though I’d like to. For my last few international trips I’ve been more consistent about meditating for 15-30 minutes before going to sleep. Not only is that a good practice for winding down, but it reminds me that emailing up until 5 minutes before turning out the light is not what I do at home, why would I do that when I’m on the road?

    Kindle Paperwhite
    Kindle Paperwhite
  • Kindle Paperwhite:I love this device so much more than I’ve ever liked an iPad. It costs less than $100 (which is great, and it means I’m not stressed about traveling with it), it’s lightweight, lasts at least a month on a single charge, creates no eye strain, and I can’t google something from the book and then get distracted by my Twitter feed or whatever else.
  • Eye cover: essential for the plane, whether a hat to pull over my eyes or eye shades, these are much more important than those bulky, uncomfortable neck pillows. Oh, and no movies on flights unless I’ve got two 8+ hour flights, otherwise I never fall asleep.
  • Foam earplugs: no noise cancelling headphones or other such
    3M E-A-R Plugs
    3M E-A-R Plugs work best for me

    nonsense, for less than $0.10 a pair I keep out the roar of the jet engines, which helps me stay asleep and lessens how tired I feel after a long flight. These E-A-R Plugs from 3M don’t fall out my ear like other shapes do.

  • Sleep aid: I stick with over-the-counter, and find that Benadryl and/or Melatonin do the trick, and help me get through the first few nights.
  • Global Entry/TSA Pre: this is just for U.S. citizens, but it’s great at the end of a trip to breeze through immigration (with my always-fits-in-the-overhead-carry-on) and get from the gate to the curb in 10 minutes or less.

That’s pretty much it for me.

Any other essentials you’d add to the list? Throw your suggestions into the comments, I’d love to know what’s missing.

Dispatch from Padrauna, India (Part 1)

I often end up running for trains, so it was no real surprise that I found myself in the Delhi train station with just four minutes to spare, having to run from Track 1 to Track 16 against the crush of hundreds of passengers advancing in the other direction.  It was only when I caught a glimpse of my colleague Karthik Chadrasekar’s eyes that I realized that our 2:45 train might leave on time and without us – never mind that just minutes before we’d confirmed online that the train was running two and a half hours late.

A short, breathless sprint later, we bounded down the steps and onto platform 16 at exactly 2:45, and, seeing the train start to move, dove into the steamy, overstuffed third-class cabin.  A couple of minutes later, the train ground to a halt, affording us the chance to jump out again and head to the front of the train to our much-more-spacious second-class seats.  Just as we plopped down, the massive, iron beast groaned its way out of the Delhi station –  just 14 hours to go until our scheduled arrival in Gorapkhur.

Karthik, Molly Alexander and I were setting out on a two-day excursion to visit Husk Power Systems, an Acumen Fund investee that is providing power to some of the poorest areas in the northeast Indian state of Bihar.  Like most Acumen investees, Husk is doing what others said could not be done – provide power in rural India in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner.

All very exciting, but first we had to get there, and the best way to get there is a 700 km train east from Delhi to Gorahpkur followed by a two hour drive to the town Padrauna, where we’d arrive in (hopefully!) 16 hours’ time, just a few hundred kilometers away from the Nepalese border.  Just a week prior, I was in North Carolina for a family vacation, and I couldn’t help but feel a shot of traveler’s whiplash at how much ground and how many worlds I’d crossed in such a short period of time.

I’d heard lots of stories about Indian trains – the crowds, the mayhem, the lack of safety – and while the many stations we passed along the way were a sight to behold, with hundreds of people splayed out and settled in on colorful cloth and plastic squares, seemingly settled in for the night, the ride itself was singularly uneventful (might I have felt differently without a native Hindi speaker as a travel companion?).    And so, after some long conversations with Karthik and Molly and all-too-little sleep, we rolled into the train station in Gorahpkur at 4:30am, foggy from the lack of sleep but still in high spirits.

A few heated cellphone calls later, Karthik located our driver, and we piled in to a little, nimble Tata Indica for our two hour drive to Padrauna.  I would have given anything for a bit more sleep, but the road (full of both speed bumps and holes) and our driver (for whom two trucks coming head-on in the other direction was not cause to waver) were enough to dissuade me from that plan.  So we quietly watched the sun rise over rich, green rice fields bursting with monsoon rains, while all around us hundreds of people began their days, mostly squatting in fields and at the side of the road to relieve themselves (less romantic, but that’s reality)…


Delta: Melancholy in Seat 41F

Dear Delta airlines,

Oh what a tangled web you weave!  You, Delta, have achieved an oxymoronic height of customer (dis)satisfaction I didn’t know existed.  Who but you could get me across the country twice, safely, and without hitch or delay in my flight, and yet still manage to make me feel like I’d rather never fly your airline again?  Could it be that this is all part of some Grand Marketing Plan, a word-of-mouth viral campaign premised on the notion that “there’s no bad press” and the surprising, even counterintuitive revelation that coupling on-time arrival with terrible customer service will create stories that spread and a groundswell of interest in experiencing this impossible cocktail of joy meets frustration?

How else could one explain that, for the second time this month, I’ve booked flights on your airline and been denied a seat assignment?  That twice in the last month I have been seated in the very last row of coach, in a seat that doesn’t recline, optimally placed to have my head bashed by the beverage cart that cheerfully offers Delta’s signature $7 “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” cocktail, a coy mixture of Bacardi Rum, Minute Maid Orange Juice, and a splash of Minute Maid Cranberry Apple, served over ice, created by Delta Flight Attendant, Linda Kelly (product placement home run!)?

Yes, it’s true, I was one of 30 confused, nearly irate passengers who, without a seat assignment, eschewed going to the bathroom or grabbing a bite to eat and instead queued up for 45 minutes for the gate agent in JFK.  What a tantalizing possibility it was (“Might we get bumped from the flight?!”).  And then, miraculously, like Scotty on the Starship Enterprise, you saved the day and (drumroll please) got us all on the flight!    Ah, the market research must have shown that we would appreciate it so much more, appreciate YOU, so much more, if you snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Now I’m beginning to see the contours of your master plan, now I’m beginning to understand why, heading to San Francisco, my video screen would turn on but not play any movies; why you’ve simultaneously added Wi-Fi to your flights while ripping out the power jacks that will fuel our laptops and our power-hungry 802-11g Wi-Fi cards.  You can fool me no longer!  You want us to know what is possible and then take it away, to whet our appetites and leave us wanting more!

So here I sit, in seat 41F, just three rows from the back (“You like me!  You really really like me!”) no longer confused or perturbed that I’m one of only a handful of people told that I couldn’t bring my small rolling carry-on onto the plane.  Now I understand why I was made to check this oh-so-tiny bag and pick it up at baggage claim at 8:30pm in JFK, where I, shifting my weight anxiously under the flickering lights of a cramped airline terminal, will wonder if I’ll see my wife before she heads to bed.  Yes, there was plenty of space in the overhead bin, yes the stewardess told me it made no sense to her and suggested that I should try to get my bag back.  But now I understand that ever elusive happy-yet-melancholy state you hope I will achieve.

This even explains why your tray tables don’t slide, so that when the person in front of me reclines his seat (as he did an hour ago), not only am I almost hit in the nose by my video screen (Will it work this time?  Ah the mystery!), but my laptop literally is pushed onto my lap, testing the very flexibility of my shoulders and daring my now-gnarled, aching hands to keep on typing.

Oh Delta, your mysteries elude me no more!!  You are the yin and yang of airlines, the sweet and sour pork that makes flying across the country an adventure.  You deposit me where I want to be when I want to be there – nay, sometimes even arriving early! – and yet you find a way to leave me just a little bit crabby, annoyed, and yet, strangely, elusively, wanting more.

A clever strategy indeed, and it’s working.

Sincerely yours,

Melancholy in Seat 41F

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Yesterday’s salad

Traveling on Monday morning, and hoping to avoid on-board food, I picked up a $9 Caesar salad at the Balducci’s in the Delta terminal at JFK. A few hours later, my laptop dead, I popped open the plastic box to dig in.

The salad looked beautiful, but it was very sad indeed.  The first clue was a squishy crouton. The second crouton also didn’t crunch. Then I picked up a piece romaine, and it had turned a little red from spoilage. So had nearly all the lettuce in the salad. Red, wilted lettuce and soggy croutons for lunch? No way.

It turns out that I had paid, at 9 in the morning, $9 for a day-old salad at one of the upperiest of the upscale food chains in New York.

It’s so easy to convince yourself to sell the day-old salad, to give your customer something other than your best because it is cheaper or easier or because you’re just plain lazy. Plus, you convince yourself, they won’t notice.

The thing is, they will notice and so will you.  The only question is which will happen faster: you losing them as a customer, or you quietly begrudging yourself and your organization for delivering such a shoddy experience?

There’s old salad somewhere in your organization – old reports or analysis or ways you treat people that might have been good enough when they were fresh, but they’ve passed their expiration date.

Throw out the old salad. Today is a new day.

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“Biz Class? Ha!” I scoff.

Middle seat linebacker gets

me off my high horse.

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