Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Every industry has its fair share of buzzwords. From social impact investing to emotional intelligence, it feels as though more and more industry terms are being inserted into everyday jargon with each passing year. The "new" term being passed around every board room in my non-profit industry last year was "collective impact." What does it mean? Well, it means exactly what it sounds like; a group (the collective) working strategically together can create a deeper impact. In other words, it's a shared vision for change. This is not a new idea. So why all the buzz surrounding this buzzword?

The difference between Collaboration (old concept) and 
Collective Impact (new, slightly different, concept)

We are all guilty of using these terms. We buy in to the buzz. From level five leadership to leaning in, no one is immune from throwing these terms around in conversation. But do these words really matter all that much? They sound like great concepts and will most likely help a lot of people. But I still believe that actions speak louder than words. Even louder than the most popular words of the year.

Because I still believe in actual sustainability. Good old sustainability, the biggest buzzword of them all (in my industry). I'm no stranger to the term; I've been working toward sustainability for the majority of my life. It's the very basis of why I do what I do. I am constantly asking myself, "why am I working so hard for change if it doesn't turn out to be long lasting? What will my program's impact really turn out be?" Despite all the new buzzwords, these are still the main things I care about thinking through and discussing.

Every day I find myself still relying heavily on measuring the "sustainability." But what is sustainability? And why do I care so much about it? Because sustainability is still the mother of all end results; it is meant to signify success. It's meant to move the needle. It's meant to bring about change in the world.

But how does one buzzword accomplish so much? Because it's not about the word itself nor its definition. It's about the thought process. That's what all these ideas and phrases have in common. They remind us to remember to act collectively. To remember to lean in (only if you want to). To remember to measure your ROI and to present your company as a social impact investment.

I recently heard the following quote, "if you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros."1 This quote makes me smile every time I come across it. It's a pretty honest reminder to stay focused. To stay cheap and stick to your grassroots. But also don't forget about your sustainability plan. 

Keep sustainability in mind all the time. Even if it becomes your mantra. Even if you can't stand hearing the word even one more time. Let it guide every action you take. Don't throw a dart at a board, grab some money and run off to a place you know nothing about. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be long-lasting. In other words, be sustainable. Be willing to change. And if you're like me, become a part of this change. Pick your passions. Start small if you have to. But don't be afraid to get big. 

I can see my big picture. I know what I want for the next generation. I want all high school seniors to graduate this year. I want every mother and daughter across the globe to get an education; the highest they can possibly find. I don't want women's rights or gay rights or minority rights to exist; can we please just eliminate the qualifiers already and look at the "rights" of all? 

Ten years later, my Honduran host brother is still studying. 
However my host sisters are not.

I can't do everything I want to and I don't plan to. If I do my piece well, then I've truly achieved something. Because perhaps through the course of my existence I'll have helped one or two or hopefully even ten people out of a vicious cycle of poverty. Because that's what is important to me. And I certainly don't work at it alone. I choose to surround myself with like-minded people; people who also want to be a part of the change. People who also thrive on this change, as tough as it may be. People who also want to watch change pass on through a few generations before calling it a success. People who want to see this change become truly sustainable. Because it means we're not needed anymore; our jobs are done. And it's an incredible feeling. One I very much look forward to experiencing one day.

For even more fun, check out this sustainability buzzword generator game.

For sustainable grassroots development, join the Peace Corps. Just kidding (maybe). 

And check out Proyecto Itzaes. The most sustainable education program I've ever come across (and that's saying a lot).


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

the killers

I find myself going through phases. Sometimes I'm a hobby person, other times I'm not. I find I have a wide variety of rapidly passing interests. Except for one. Most of my life I have stuck to one very specific interest. It's the same interest I've had since I was in high school; it has never wavered. I'm interested in true crime.

What do I mean by interested? Well, I spend my free time learning about different types of killers. Before you call the police and then go running for the hills, let me clarify what I mean by learning about killers. First, I'm not learning about killing. I'm not really interested in the gory part. It's just so...gory. I usually look away during a horror movie. I'm not into seeing nor reading about any of the blood and guts. That's not what I mean by learning about killers.

I mean learning about the people behind the killing. The individuals who have gone off the straight and narrow. Because, well, I simply find all people interesting. Everyone has a story and if you tell me yours, I'll gladly listen. I'll be all yours while you fill me in. I just find stories of murder and mayhem to be more interesting than other types of stories.  Because when it comes to the real serial murderers, they are by far the most compelling. Because they are real. And they all have some of the most incredible stories.

And in this regard I know I am not alone. The number of books about murder, the number of movies about crime, the number of TV shows investigating murders and murderers is never ending.

Ann Rule, a prolific true crime author, worked as a police detective alongside Ted Bundy in Seattle. 
She also had the privilege of figuring out just what Bundy was up to.

So why has this life-long hobby of mine become so incredibly popular lately? Looking at the prime-time TV guide lineup, there are no less than 20 shows centered specifically around serial killers (real and fictional alike). So why the massive number of serial killer shows? Your guess is as good as mine. According to the whole of the internet, audiences love sexy killers who can let loose and act out our own violent fantasies. I do not agree. I have no interest in the good looking TV killers; most real life US serial killers are white middle aged men and they're the ones I read about. I just love a good mystery. With a little psychology thrown in for fun.

My interest in serial killers began one week back in 1994. I watched one specific TV program every day: the Biography Channel's "serial killer series." It had all the greats; Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Ed Gein, Albert DeSalvo. Five hours of the real lives of the most prolific American serial killers in history was just enough to solidify my interest for life. These men were, in a word, fascinating. What makes someone kill like this; without conscience? Without remorse, and, for a while at least, without getting caught? I had to know more.

Twenty years later I know a lot more. I know that serial killers kill for one or more of the following reasons; greed, power, need for intimacy, fear of rejection, and perfectionism. Serial killers act with a high amount of control and a lack of morals. I find these individuals (mostly men, but there are a few women) utterly reprehensible. I do not like what they do. But I strive to understand why they do it. And I always want to know more. 

And I do know more. Through the years I've also learned that serial killers wet the bed until a very late age, experiment with killing and torturing animals, hide their victims in secret, keep trophies from the victims and never express remorse. These things only an avid serial killer profiler knows. Just watch an episode of Criminal Minds.

Except that I'm not a real profiler. I'm not even a psychologist. So what am I doing playing amateur detective/therapist? What are millions of people just like me also doing? We're all trying to understand the murderer behind the Fall or the Following. The mystery behind True Detective or the the hundreds of other shows just like it.

Last year I went to a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer. It was real footage taken from inside Dahmer's apartment when it was raided by police. They found no less than 17 skulls of young boys, all with differing holes in them. That's when I learned that Dahmer was trying to make a young boy zombie sex slave. He'd grab a boy and perform his own version of a frontal lobe lobotomy. The boy would be a zombie for a few hours, then die. So Dahmer would repeat the whole process again, the next time slightly altering the location of the brain hole. He knew he would eventually get it right. This is insanity at its very core. And yet it is totally, completely fascinating.

My own copy of a graphic novel created by a former High School classmate of Dahmer's. 
It tells a compelling, if not super graphic, story. It has also become incredibly popular. 

Perhaps I take my interest in killers a bit further than the average American TV watcher. But still I know there are millions of us; sitting at home, watching scary movies and reading true crime books. While serial killers aren't nearly as prolific as TV would lead us to believe, their stories are out there. And they're real. And captivating. And completely entertaining. If you like that sort of thing. Which I most definitely do.

Huffington Post recently recommended ten true crime documentaries currently on Netflix. While I've seen most of these movies, I still prefer reading about true crimes.

A few of my favorite true crime novels include:
Devil in the White City
In Cold Blood
Green River Running Red
The Stranger Beside Me
Death in the City of Light

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I have a lot of stories from my years in the Peace Corps. I have a least a dozen stories that involve all sorts of shenanigans, from the campaign to get Eddy Urbina front teeth to the time my mom hopped on a random stranger's horse and rode away, bareback.

But no other story holds a candle to the one involving two large men, a small cat, my living room, and a Spanish book of yoga poses from 1972. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've gotten more and more into storytelling this past year. Having a blog will do that to you. And just as I'm getting into writing stories, the Northern California Returned Peace Corps Association (NorCal) starts up a storytelling series, the Story Jam. Over the past year, Story Jam has consisted of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers getting up on stage and telling their stories. I'd been meaning to attend a Story Jam for months. Because before I knew it, I was standing on stage telling my tale of lost love. Below is my story.

Or you can listen to the audio version of the story here:
And the video version is available here:

In my home in Gualaco, Olancho, Honduras I had mice. They would pitter-patter every night on the side of my bed, trying to crawl into it with me. So I got a cat. I didn't have mice anymore. 

Instead, I had a best friend. This was a very special cat. "Mi Primer Mascota." My first pet. I named her Bella, bathed her, put a flea collar on her, brushed her fur, let her sleep in the bed with me, potty trained her, and even bought her Gati, special cat food only found in the capital of my department, over two hours away.

The kids loved playing with Bella

Everyone in the village knew my cat; my special gringa cat (pink and white striped "gringa" flea collar and all). I loved this cat with all my heart and soul. When you are the only person living in a small village without your family, you have two choices: you can either miss your family inconsolably. Or you can make your own family. Bella was my family. I named her after my Aunt. I would take pictures of Bella and send them to my mom. I had never had a pet before and Bella was 100% mine.

Meanwhile, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, always looking for something to fill my time. Around the same time I left for my two plus years in Honduras, my best friend decided to quit her job and move to a yoga retreat in Hawaii. Despite my reluctance to accept yoga into my life at the time, she had sent me off with a deck of yoga cards. I couldn't think of a better project to occupy my time than translating the yoga cards into Spanish. Frequently people would see me around town, at the school using the copier machine, or at the internet cafe, translating the instructions into Spanish. It took up a lot of time.

My yoga deck of poses

One of the very best things about living in my village was the Sierra de Agalta National Park that surrounded us. A group of Gualacans (my people) were "guides" who knew the park like the back of their hands. They would lead me to the Caves of Susmay any time I wanted. They helped me climb La Picucha, the tallest mountain in our department. These guys had day jobs, but being guides was the thing they were most proud of. I spent countless days with these guys; they became my closest friends.

So it wasn't too surprising when I got a knock on my door at 9pm one night. I was almost in bed. But Moncho (real name Ramon) and Eddy were at my door and they were super excited; they had just found a book, in Spanish, of yoga from 1972. And they couldn't wait share this information with me. What the hell, I thought, yoga hasn't changed in a few thousands years, what's another 20? Their poses should be the same as mine.

Moncho asked me if he could show me what he'd been working on. I didn't see why not. It was late, but they were already here and they were so excited. So Moncho quickly swept my living room floor clean and started one of the most difficult poses in all of yoga; he would attempt to do a tripod, leading into a head stand. 

Here's the thing about Moncho Belis: Moncho is a great guy, heart of gold, but also a former alcoholic always one step away from falling back off the wagon. His years of drinking had begun to catch up with him and he was what Hondurans refer to as "panzon." He had a literal beer gut. This guy weighed at least 200 pounds.

Moncho & Eddy

So to watch Moncho attempt the headstand was nothing short of miraculous.  But, along he went: elbows on the ground, legs on his arms, legs heading straight up in the air, and then legs coming down faster than you could imagine. But that's when I saw it. I gasped in horror as Moncho sat up. I was the first person to see the blood that completely covered his back. Then I saw my cat. Bella then started running around in little circles, blood shooting out the side of her head. Finally she dropped down dead and I just took off running, screaming and crying. I woke up the entire town. "What's the crazy gringa going on about now?" they started asking each other.

Where I went wasn't all that much of a mystery. I went to the home of my then Honduran boyfriend. I banged on the door, screaming for him. He was the only other person in the town who could even fathom how much I loved this cat. I woke him up. I also woke up his entire family. I screamed, "Moncho la mato, Moncho la mato!" - "Moncho killed her". And that's when things went from bad to worse. See, my boyfriend's brother's name is also Moncho. So his mom and dad thought either a. someone had killed their son Moncho or b. their son Moncho had killed a girl. Either way, it was looking bad. Everyone was upset.

And then my boyfriend had to explain a completely foreign concept to his parents; Karen was inconsolably upset because Moncho Belis had just killed her cat. Relieved their own son Moncho was okay, they started to stare confusingly right at me. At that point they knew I was crazy; how could I get so upset about an animal? Animals were meant to be kept outside, literally at arm's length all the time. It's not like a family member was gone.

Once I had mostly calmed down, I knew I had to go back home, to confront the scene of the crime. I headed home. Moncho was gone, but Eddy was there waiting for me. The floor was mostly cleaned up, but it still looked like the scene of a very bloody crime. And it was beginning to smell like one.

Eddy told me that Moncho had gone home. That's when I realized what my running away had done; it had told Moncho that I couldn't look at him ever again. But that wasn't true.  It was a freak yoga accident that killed my beloved cat. It was absolutely an accident.

I knew I had to talk to Moncho right away, so I went right over to his house. He was so sad, I just couldn't be mad at him. He very apologetically told me, "Karen, I am a lover of all animals. I could and would never hurt your cat. My children can attest to this fact. I have never harmed another living creature in my life!" 

Remember I mentioned these guys all had day jobs? Well, Moncho was a fumigator. The emotional side of me knew it was just an accident; the logical side of me knew we'd have to some day revisit just what it meant to be a fumigator by profession.

Back at home we put Bella in a box. I apologized to everyone around me for my crazy outburst that night, but my period of mourning had already begun. I put a sign on the door. "Hubo un accidente, no hay clases hoy." There was an accident, there are no classes today. I wasn't about to start telling everyone what Moncho had done. 

But I lived in a small town; everyone already knew. By noon the next day, Moncho already had the nickname "Matagato." Cat-killer. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone knew Moncho Belis had killed my cat.

We ended up burying Bella in my backyard. Eventually I accepted what had happened to her. And what about me and Moncho? I really did forgive him and we ended up becoming great friends. Even if he is a matagato.

Watch out for the cat-killer!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

charcot marie foot

"Symptoms, then are in reality nothing but the cry from suffering organs"
-Dr. Jean Martin Charcot

Ever since I can remember I've suffered from mid-sleep charlie horses. If you're not familiar with the term, I get cramps in my calves while I'm asleep. Yes, I said while I'm asleep. In complete and total pain is a very jarring way to wake up.

So you can imagine my surprise when, halfway through my very first marathon, both my calves started actively cramping. Calf and foot cramps, until that point, had been reserved for laying down and/or sleeping. But instead I found myself running (for over two hours) through the active cramping in my lower legs. When I finally finished the race, medics put ice bags on my calves. While that helped relieve the pain a bit, removing the ice resulted in two of the worst cramps of my life; charlie horses so painful I dropped to the ground, screaming and swearing uncontrollably and scaring the medics who had circled around me and my family. All I could think was, "I haven't had a calf cramp this bad since I was fifteen years old." And I probably hadn't.

Running a marathon (and smiling) while my legs are actively cramping

If you've never suffered from a calf cramp (or in my case, many many calf cramps), you are lucky. They are painful. I'm never sure when they'll start, I do not know how best to ease them, and I absolutely do not know how to prevent them.

I wasn't the only person in my household with this mysterious midnight pain. My brother also suffered from mid-sleep calf cramps (and was the one who first used the term "Charley horse" and taught me its meaning). Most of my memories of Dave's calf cramps were during his high school years. Despite being two and a half years younger than Dave, we would both suffer leg pain at the same time, often during the same night. While I would always choose to instantly grab my leg (or legs) and try to massage out the cramp, Dave chose another treatment; he'd try to stomp them out. Dave would suddenly jump out of bed and start stomping down on his leg. Once he was satisfied he'd gotten the cramp out, he'd fall right back onto his bed and into sleep. The number of times I woke up to the sound of Dave stomping his leg are too numerous to count. It was a typical occurrence in our home.

And clearly I still continue to get these cramps. What's interesting to me it that there is very little known about WHY I get searing pain in my calf muscles that wake me up. I have been told about any number of possible causes of my distress, but none of them make any sense. Everyone seems to offer up an unsolicited solutions to this problem. First up, lack of potassium. Sorry friends, but I am absolutely 100% not potassium deficient. It's not the culprit. Trust me; I have my potassium level checked every six months (an unrelated concern). More potassium will not eliminate my cramps; I could eat all the bananas in the world and not get better.

The suggestion that dehydration is to blame for my charlie horses is much more believable. I don't drink enough. I try, especially with all the running I do. But I am always thirsty, most especially in the middle of the night. So I drink a lot. And I pee a lot. And I drink a lot more. But I never feel hydrated.

During my post-marathon calf cramp fit, my mom offered up some life changing information; calf and foot cramping is a symptom of Charcot Marie Tooth disease. Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) comprises a group of disorders passed down through families that affect the nerves outside the brain and spine; aka the peripheral nerves. I know, it's an odd name for a foot disease (actually it's foot and hand). But it's named after the three doctors (Charcot, Marie, and Tooth) who discovered it. Several members of my family suffer from CMTX, the x-linked form of the disease.

After the marathon I had truly reached my breaking point. My feet had been hurting so bad for so long I had to finally see a podiatrist. Four days later I had the official diagnosis; I have Charcot Marie Tooth. I wish I could say I'm not devastated. But I am. Why else would I have avoided the podiatrist for twenty years? Up until last week I had still hoped I'd hear, "new shoes will fix your chronic foot pain." But they won't. Foot pain is a part of me. Most of the people close to me know my feet hurt every single day. Some days I run with the pain. Other days I run through the pain. But most of the time, I run despite the pain.

Packing for a marathon includes lots of 2nd skin bandages

So what does this mean for a (now official) marathoner? Of course I had to ask my doctor about the running. Would I have to give it up? The short answer is no. With lots of orthotics. And maybe surgery. But first orthotics, lots and lots of orthotics. And new shoes. And stretches. And special exercises. And the frozen water bottle under the foot trick that I promise alleviates plantar fasciitis.

Many people prefer to keep their CMT on the down low. In their defense, the symptoms can become very dehabilitating, especially for men. But I'm putting it out there; I am a marathon runner with CMT. Because I want you to know. And to understand. If we're out walking together, I'd like you to slow down. And when we're out on a hike, the pain might become so unbearable for me we have to either stop for a while or immediately turn back. But the pain won't stop me. I will continue to go out and run. And maybe even hike once and a while. And maybe, just maybe, someday I'll run another marathon. After all, "few things in life match the thrill of a marathon." (Fred Lebow, runner and founder of the NYC Marathon). Mr. Lebow, I completely agree.

I'm already thinking about my next marathon...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Five days after signing up to officially run my first marathon, I had a rude awakening. Simply put, I had a bad run. It does happen, albeit rarely. But it hadn't happened to me in a very long time. So long so that I had forgotten how frustrating a bad run can make me feel.

This particular run started the same as all the others. I left work a few hours early to be able to get in a mid-length mid-week run before the sun went down. The weather had been cold for months and the sun still set before 5pm. If I was going to run nine miles (for approximately 90 minutes), I'd have to set out no later than 3:30pm to beat the sunset. It was definitely doable.

A late afternoon run around the lake

I prepared to run the same as always; I taped up my toes (covering my blisters), set up my iPod, and drank a good amount of water. I had just hit the ground running, when boom, the problems started exploding from every direction. First, my running capris were too loose. And I really had to pee. Then my prescription sunglasses wouldn't stay on. And my headband wasn't tight enough. And then my knee brace wasn't tight enough either. And one of my running earbuds broke off. What was going on?

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my asthma flared up. I had used my inhaler before the run, as I always do. Yet there I was, less than 10 minutes into a 90 minute run and I couldn't breathe. If you have ever felt short of breath, it's awful. Imaging trying to run through the shooting side pain that then ensues. In case you're trying to imagine this scenario, let me just tell you that you can't run through this pain. You have to walk until the pain subsides (usually helped along for me with copious amounts of cold water and more use of the inhaler).

Things were going terribly. I kept thinking about the shortest distance to my car, where I could hop in, drive home, and wash away the horrible terrible run. After first finding the nearest bathroom, of course. But instead of running away (literally), I took the time to ask myself the following: Was it really worth just giving up completely? Or could I possibly find a silver lining somewhere in this crappy, painful Wednesday afternoon run? 

Immediately, I knew there were several lessons to be learned. So I first focused on the physical issues, the things right in front of me that I could control. I focused on breathing until the asthma was under control. Then, as quickly as possible, I ran to the nearest restroom, only one mile away. I wedged the broken ear-bud into my ear, and rolled over my pants so they became tighter. I pulled up my knee brace. Now I was getting somewhere.

Then I decided to focus on the things a little more out of my control. I started to think about what I could accomplish that afternoon, using the opportunity to test myself; to see how fast I could run one mile. Because the need to complete all nine miles was clearly a thing of the past. I also took the time to look around; it was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon on the lake.

Having a bad run wasn't fun. I wouldn't call it a positive experience. Instead, it was humiliating, tough, and, most importantly, humbling. It put me in my place. For the past six months I had been slowly moving forward. What started as 8 miles soon turned into 13, then 16, then 18 and finally 20. It led me to believe I could and would run a complete marathon. 

But this bad run didn't deter me. A bad run can't stop me and doesn't set me back. A bad run grounds me; it reminds me that am human and I am allowed to have a bad day. I am allowed to take a rest and yet still be prepared. And the problems I encounter on a bad run only further prepare me for race day. 

This mid-week no pressure run was not an integral part of my training plan. It wasn't one of my precious weekly long runs. I've never had a bad long run (except that one way too hot morning in Mexico). In fact, I've enjoyed every single long run. There have been over 16 of them. And they've been nothing short of awesome; even the ones where all I could think about for miles was just putting one foot in front of the other and heaving myself to cover a new, longer distance.

Long runs have gotten me to the point where I could say it out loud: that I'm training for a marathon. They have been the crux of my training. But I can't forget about all the little runs in between. All the sprints on the treadmill. All the jogs through the snow in 30 degree winter. All the evening runs with only a flashlight. And every day at the gym in between. Because running is nothing, if not fun. 

Except on a bad day; a day that running has kicked my ass. But a bad day doesn't defeat me. It never will. Because I have already won. I have already run for longer than I ever thought possible. I have not only run 20 miles, but I have loved (almost) every mile of it. To a runner, this is a definite win.

Not too easy to find a running path in a city that's only 7x7

As a follow up, I'd like to mention that two days after this particularly bad run, I went out and ran the nine miles I had originally planned to complete. It went well. Then two days after that run, I went out and ran 22 miles. My longest run ever and my last marathon training long run. The pressure was on and all I can say is the run just felt awesome.