Stress or Don’t Let the Baboons Get to You

Have you ever had that situation at work where someone new in the organization, oh, say a new higher-up, comes into the organization and goes out of their way to disrupt things in the name of change and causes a lot of extra stress? They think they are being disruptive for the good of the organization. Sometimes that change has been good, but in most of the situations this new person does a lot of damage to the morale and the function of the organization. I’ve actually lived through this a few times now in my career and at different types of organizations. It always goes the same. New person makes big splash! Knocks some heads! Things are going to change around here ya see! And then boom. Next thing you know they are either out the door or at least out of the corner office. In their wake are the stressed out and shell-shocked team they leave behind.

Well, apparently this is how baboons normally live–knocking heads and going out of their way to stress each other out. This weekend I watched the National Geographic/Stanford University documentary called Stress: Portrait of a Killer. The major focus of the documentary was the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky who has spent decades studying the physiology of stress. According to Sapolsky, baboons live in a very highly structured social hierarchy. They spend a few hours foraging a day, and then the rest of their time looking for ways to harass one another. And according to the research, the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the less stressed and healthier you are, and the lower you are the more stressed and less healthy you are. This research was also backed up in the documentary by some human research done in Great Britain among bureaucrats in the famous Whitehall study. The higher up…the less stressed the lower…the more stressed. This stress can cause cardiovascular problems, ages you faster and may also cause you to carry fat in “bad” places on your body.

But something interesting happened with the baboon troop that Sapolsky followed. The troop was foraging at a garbage dump and the higher up males who had the most access to the “choice” garbage accidently ingested tainted meat and died, leaving behind the females and the lower level males. The troop did not collapse. In the absence of the higher-up males–who happened to be the biggest bunch of jerky primates you can imagine (and if you don’t believe me check out Sapolsky’s book Memoir of a Primate), the females and the more “nice guy” baboons somehow made a change. They shifted the troop away from harassing one another. Now new males did move in–adolescents wandered in from different troops, would try to impose the old ways and eventually within six months would realize their jerkiness wasn’t tolerated and simply became “better” males.

I’m lucky to have also seen this happen in some of the organizations I’ve worked in. It is amazing what a calm, level-headed leader who expects a lot from their team and yet doesn’t pick on people can accomplish. And how much more worthwhile your work can feel under their guidance.

So how do you counteract the bad baboons? How can you counteract the stress in your life?

According to the documentary, bad stress can be counteracted by a couple of actions–connecting with others and by feeling you have more control over your situation. According to Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, mothers of disabled children live extremely stressed lives which then lead to shortened telomeres (which is a whole other interesting subject) and therefore significantly shortened lives by premature aging. But this stress can be alleviated by what? Connection with others in similar situations. Simply meeting and talking with other mothers of disabled children alleviated stress.

So when faced with the baboons at work–connect and talk and help others. And find a way to gain back control. That study of bureaucrats also showed that when people feel they have a sense of control over their situation or that things are fair or there is justice at work–this can also counteract the bad stress and make a healthier workplace for all.


Transformation #1 Finding My Style

One of my first purchases when I moved to the Pacific Northwest was a bright blue button-up shirt which I would wear with khaki slacks. For many years my work badge had a picture of me in that shirt. I bought it at Eddy Bauer, the summer of 1998, and it set the tone for “my style” for the next decade. Which is to say it was a decade of no style. With that uniform I completely looked ready to attend a trade show at any moment, all I was missing was the company logo. And to come clean, I owned quite a number of free shirts with the company logo which I might resort to when the laundry hamper went out of control.

Casualness became way of life on the West Coast during the dot -om era. To be dressed in a t-shirt and jeans meant you were serious about work and possibly making enough in stock options to say, “Screw you. I’m comfortable.” This was also the decade for me that my metabolism completely went whacko. I went from a size 4 in 1994 up to a high mark of 14 somewhere around 2004. For that I blame a daily diet of Starbuck mochas, all the free dot-com soda I could drink and baby weight.

But a few years ago I did a shift. It hit me that I was in mid-life, not late life. I made an effort to get back in shape and lose weight so I’d be alive to see my grandkids. I also started to get promotions at work, and since they say dress for your next promotion, I set out to find my style again. Oh, and I also started dating again.

But where to begin? I had no clue how to dress any more. I had no idea what was in fashion. What to do as a forty-something Mom? Take a lesson from her junior high self.

When I was in junior high I spent hours pouring over teen magazines especially Seventeen Magazine. In 1979 a pre-Fast Times Phoebe Cates was my favorite model. I remember the June 1979 issue where she had her hands hennaed. Boy did I want my hands temporarily tattooed. I absorbed that issue re-reading and re-reading it. Prairie skirts, side braids…I lived fashion. I would read the magazine and then hit the malls. That was the year I begged for cowboy boots…my white puffy marshmallow jacket…my simple peach satin Asian blouse…and then I started to experiment with New Wave by wearing long white opera gloves and bells as earrings. I didn’t say I looked great, but man did I have a certain style!

At my new effort to find my style again, I felt clueless. Walking in to a large store seemed overwhelming. The thing about fashion is you really do have to absorb it. So in order to get “with it” I filled out a subscription card for Lucky Magazine. I learned a lot of things–like dark wash jeans are in. Who knew? You can actually mismatch stuff now–like it is okay to put brown and black together as long as it is done purposefully. In fact, matchy-matchy looks lamey-lamey. The more time I spent with Lucky, I started to feel more confident. I started to figure out my style was eclectic. And just like in junior high, I decided I liked to have at least one conversation piece in my outfit.

I increased my knowledge by buying a copy of Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style. I started to collect items on Tim’s list of Wardrobe Essentials, a white blouse here, a little black dress there….Next thing I had a closet full of basics.

Now it was time to find the conversation pieces. I started with shoes. It started with a pair of Cole Haan bright red patton leather loafers. I saw them in an ad and I had to have them. They were red! Red makes me feel powerful. Red reminds me of a hot one piece bathing suit I owned when I was in my mid-twenties. Red makes me think of a Chanel style blazer I owned in the eighties that made me feel like a CEO. These shoes made me invincible! I went across town to locate these shoes. Next I ordered a jeweled pair of gladiator sandals from Those were the strappiest shoes I owned in years and I recieved a compliment the first time I wore them. No one ever complimented me on a shirt with a logo on it.

Then I started branching out to accessories like jewelry. I discovered that I loved Betsey Johnson. That pink rhinestone snake ring? It screamed “talk-to-the hand” and “don’t tread on me” right after my divorce. Asymetrical dangly earrings? They make me feel sexy and edgy without an extra piercing. Betsey you are one whacky gal after my own heart.

I started shopping more. I haven’t set foot in an Eddie Bauer but I did re-up an account at Macy’s and supplement that with an occasional drive by H&M.

I didn’t give up completely on being casual. Out of all of this I did discover a few things about myself. I like dresses–especially wrap ones. And I like blazers. But I really hate slacks and I just love jeans. So I save the most faded pairs for the weekends when I’m cleaning and I own just enough slacks to get by, but there is nothing truly as great as a fancy white blouse and a pair of dark jeans with boots.

Now with each season change I sit down with a copy of Lucky or Marie-Claire and make a small list of items I plan to keep an eye out for. I plan one trip to H&M a quarter and make a habit of stopping in at Macy’s. I feel much more confident about my appearance. I feel snappy, snazzy and sassy when I go out (even if it took three wardrobe changes to get there).

So don’t go gently into that good night wearing a pair of Mom jeans or sweat pants. Fashion can be fun! Rediscover it!

Start Here

I haven’t had much of a chance to write in the past couple years. What with a full-time job at a major software company, going through a divorce, raising a daughter half-time, managing a household, getting out on the dating scene… I’ve certainly have had a lot to write about. Unfortunately, most of it for the past couple of years has been pure drivel in one or another journal and not worthy for the eye’s of the world. And frankly, it would just embarress us both to read it.

And if you’ve known me for a number of years you know I have alot to say. Whether it is to recommend a tv show or a film, to talk about my first love –books and publishing, tell you about my divorce and dating…Let’s face it, I’m too much of a generalist to stick to any one topic for long. But I do love to write. And I haven’t had a creative outlet for a while.

So my hope is to just use this blog as a way to get back in to writing, something I enjoy doing, and to practice. That is one very cool thing about blogging–it allows you to try a bunch of different formats and styles without having to formalize the structure. Quick how-to article? Fine. Critique? Good. Plain Old Rant about minutia? Go for it. Full-blown personal essay? Do it. Link to that awesome recipe? Yes.

Who cares if few are reading. Heck, does anyone use an RSS feed anymore? I have no idea.

I know I will keep this as a personal blog. So I’ll leave the work stuff behind. Not that I won’t make the occasional entry about business. But this blog is not associated with my day job in any way. This is for me.