Working Out Loud

Every so often, if you are lucky, you will see a naked man in the pool area at 24 Hour Fitness. Something about the locker room feel of the aquatic site just beckons to some men, “It’s okay. That co-ed sign is a hoax. Go on – take your pants off.” And so they do.

I spend most mornings at that gym, so not only am I familiar with the occasional misplaced nude man, I am also familiar with the fact that unique environments can lull us into doing things we’d never normally do. Like the seashore tricking us into wearing clothes resembling underwear in public, the gym teases, “Come on, let go. It’ll be our secret.”  

I exercise in the free weight area, lifting alongside muscled men who scream at one another in efforts to bench press more. I used to work out mutely, seeing no need to make a loud fuss over tricep dips; but a recent incident has convinced me to cast aside my silence. It started when an amazingly sweaty man asked, “You wanna work in a set with me?” nodding toward the hack squat machine.

I joked along with him, “Yeah, sure. Ha ha.”

“I need motivation,” he said. “Please.”

Please?  “Um, okay,” I said, “You go first.”  

The perspiring man positioned himself on the machine and grunted out several reps before handing it off to me. I stared at the contraption, which was now drenched with this man’s sweat, willing myself not to cry before clambering on.

I didn’t have long to dwell, because the guy began screaming at me. He yelled, “You a BEAST!”

When I work out with my girlfriends, we quietly reply, “Good job” after the other completes a jumping jack. But, did this dude just call me a beast? Let’s get something straight. Under any other circumstance in my life, if I am screamed at (much less screamed at that I am a beast), I either cry or call the cops. Maybe both.

But, it worked. I squatted more weight that day than I ever had in my life. In that situation, being screamed at empowered me. It also converted me. These days, I scream all the time in the gym and beg folks to scream back at me: All right naked pool men, I’m about to work in some arm curls. Megaphones ready? 

At first, I assumed my newly discovered strategy only worked at the gym (just like bikinis work at the beach, not at dinner parties). But, lately, I’ve been thinking: Could I translate this phenomenon to office life? Could I have discovered the key to ultimate workplace productivity?

I might type 25 words a minute faster if my boss shouted, “You a BEAST” as I fill out his expense report. I just may be onto something.

Most people use their inside voice at work. Not me anymore. I’ll come in with a bang first thing in the morning. I’ll shout out, “HELLO, MY CO-WORKERS! ANSWER THAT PHONE! FASTER!” 

Then, I’ll slam the desk with my laptop bag while stomping my high heels into the hardwood floor. I could write a book, even! I’ll conduct seminars motivating women all over the country: Getting Ahead: How I Shrieked My Way to the Top. I’ll have a slideshow displaying wildly successful female screamers. “On our first slide we have Jillian Michaels, trainer on The Biggest Loser. You think she broke glass ceilings by sitting there quietly?”

I’ll let you all know when I get that book deal. Meanwhile, at least I know the secret to toned quads.

Christina Ledbetter is a free-lance writer in Houston. She was an assistant at a local mortgage bank for three years, until her bosses realized she was better at writing than stuffing envelopes. She blogs about office life, fashion and the mortgage industry at

Surrendering to Grief

On February 4, 2009 I woke up to find that my husband had died in his sleep from an undetected heart condition. He was 49 years old. I was 39. It was the biggest shock of my life. The first two hours were a blur of emotion, pain, fear, shock and denial. The two and a half years since have been a lesson in living life much more openly, deeply and presently.

In the immediate aftermath of Mark’s death, I discovered I had two choices. I could either surrender to what had happened or choose to fight the reality of it all.Initially, I fought the reality, and life was hard. I felt alone, afraid, hurt, angry and even guilty. With Mark gone, I was instantly and solely in charge of our home, cars, finances and children. I thought ‘Til death do us part?’ Well, what if I wasn’t ready? I felt abandoned and could not overcome the thought that Mark was supposed to be there with me to help me take care of everything. Deep down I knew he couldn’t be there, but accepting that meant accepting the fact that he really was gone. And, I wasn’t ready for that, so the battle continued.

A few weeks after Mark died a close friend said something to me that changed my perception. She said, “Jennifer, no matter what happens in the future, you will always have lost your husband. There is nothing you can do about that. For the rest of your life it will be a part of who you are. You don’t have to ever ‘get over it.’”

I realized with those words that I didn’t have to act any certain way. I didn’t have to get rid of my grief. I didn’t have to be anything I wasn’t. I was a widow and nothing would ever change that. Not even my deepest thought that it wasn’t true. This realization gave me the long-term view I needed in order to let go of the pressure I was putting on myself to be “fixed.”

After I heard those words I began to surrender to all of my emotions, including grief. In these moments of surrender, there were glimmers of hope, love and life. For lack of a better way to explain it, angels took over and miracles began happening. Almost mysteriously, life began taking care of itself. The right person walked in the room at the right time, needed items appeared without even asking. It was as if the universe was saying, “Yes, this happened, and yes, it will all be OK. Because no matter how hard it seems, there is something right about this.”

Upon surrendering, I was able to acknowledge all of the people who appeared who wanted to help me with my kids, my home, my work — everything. And, more importantly, I learned how to let them help. I’d always thrived on handling everything on my own, but because of my new life I had to let go of that independence. It was impossible for me to handle everything Mark and I had handled together. I had to let people help me. I even had to ask for help. It was an entirely new concept. Like no other time before, I saw there were lots of people in my life who wanted to help, who even felt helpless if I didn’t let them help. So, I started to let them. In the process I became closer to them. I really felt their love and energy in my life.

After my world started to smooth out a bit from the huge turbulent waves of the first few months, I knew there was another step. I had to rely entirely on myself for one thing — taking care of me. Nobody else could do that. So, each day I began to do something for me.

I quickly realized that it didn’t have to be anything big. I could make a cup of tea and breathe in the steam for a few minutes. Or, take a short walk around the block with my dog. Or, listen to music that made me happy. Or, go to a funny movie. These little “me” moments kept my spirit afloat at times — when the alternative was to drown.

Even now, after years have gone by and times still sneak up on me and grip my heart and gut like nothing else can, I breathe and remember to surrender and feel everything I’m feeling.

Sometimes, it’s just a glimpse of something that could have been, which leads to sadness in missing Mark. But I know that the sadness is simply a reminder that I’m human, alive and can love. And that reminder is a blessing that I will always cherish. 

Jennifer Hawkins is a highly successful real estate investor. In 1988, she earned a spot as a swimmer at the Olympic Trials. She married Mark in 2001 and started her family. She lives in Austin, Texas with her sons Connor and Brannon. For more information, visit

Editor’s Note: There are many groups in Houston serving the needs of widows during all the stages of grief. Please use Google to look for local organizations.

Get More Calcium

No doubt, you know getting plenty of calcium is one of the best ways to ward off bone-thinning osteoporosis. But, that’s not all. The latest research shows that there are at least five more reasons to the recommended daily intake of this mighty mineral (or more), which is 1,000 mg for adults up through age 50, including pregnant or nursing women. Read on to find out all this super nutrient can do for you besides help build bone.

Combating colon cancer. Among women in the U.S., colon cancer is one of the three most common. Research shows, however, that a diet rich in calcium may help prevent this invasive disease. A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, for example, which pooled preliminary data from 10 studies in five countries involving 534,536 participants, found those who consumed the most milk had the lowest risk of colon cancer. The theory: Without adequate calcium, bile and fatty acids — natural byproducts of digestion — can irritate the colon, causing a constant state of cell repair that’s an invitation for cells to become cancerous. The more cells regenerate, the more their DNA has the opportunity of being exposed to toxic agents that can cause them to divide too rapidly, explained calcium researcher, Peter R. Holt, M.D., professor of Medicine at Columbia University in New York City. Calcium, however, binds with these pesky colon acids, preventing them from doing their damage.

Downsizing PMS. With more calcium in your diet, you’re apt to suffer less from the mood swings, headaches, smoldering irritability and anxiety associated with that time of the month. A major study recently showed that a daily dose of 1200 to 1500 milligrams of calcium can reduce those classic signs your period is approaching by 50 percent. 

“Premenstrual symptoms indicate that a woman has an underlying calcium deficiency,” said study researcher Susan Thys Jacobs, M.D., director of the Metabolic Bone Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “With plenty of calcium in tow, you’ll feel better at PMS time. You’ll also help prevent osteoporosis since the same hormones instigate both conditions. If you suffer from PMS, you’re also probably losing bone.”

Preventing high blood pressure. Typically called “the silent killer” because it’s often symptomless until it’s too late, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. High blood pressure is also a formidable threat if it develops during pregnancy, a condition called pre-eclampsia. Calcium from dairy products, however, in combination with a balanced, low-fat diet may help keep blood pressure in check. In a major government study called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), “calcium was one of several nutrients that lowered blood pressure,” said Eva Obarzanek, Ph.D., a             researcher with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

In fact, out of the DASH study came DASH-style diets — eating plans that are rich in fruits and vegetables, moderate in low-fat or non-fat dairy foods and low in sodium and sweets. A typical DASH-style diet, which is widely distributed to high blood pressure patients in the U.S., recommends two to three servings of low-fat or nonfat calcium-rich dairy foods a day, such as skim milk, nonfat yogurt and low-fat cheese.

Conquering kidney stones. If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you know those minute collections of minerals that form in the kidneys can cause excruciating pain when they pass through the urinary tract and out of the body. Most kidney stones are made from calcium and oxalate, a salt-like substance found in foods such as beets, spinach, rhubarb and nuts. Your body also makes its own steady oxalate supply. Stones can form when calcium and oxalate become too concentrated in the kidneys, becoming a solid — not unlike sugar settling to the bottom of your coffee cup.

A 12-year Harvard study involving over 90,000 women, however, found those with the highest calcium intake had the lowest risk of kidney stones. The theory? Calcium binds with oxalate during digestion, canceling out the possibility that stones will form down the pike. A caveat: The same study also showed taking calcium supplements without food may actually increase the likelihood kidney stones will form in some people.

Beating breast cancer. And, finally, calcium may also help reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially if you’re a milk drinker.A Finnish study involving over 4,600 women concluded those who drank roughly three 8-ounce glasses of milk a day had the lowest risk of breast cancer compared to those who didn’t. Researchers suspect that calcium, as well as several other components in milk — such as conjugated linoleic acid — may have potent breast cancer-fighting properties.

Sandra Gordon is a journalist specializing in health and nutrition. She is the author of “Consumer Reports Best Baby Products” and write regularly for Parents, AOL Health,              Vitality, Fitness and Prevention.

Blue Ridge Travel

A fellow in our group from Canada agrees that shrimp and grits are an unlikely menu combination for a winery, or any restaurant, even on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the heart of Virginia. He plays it safe with a cheese burger, and I order soup and salad. Then the chef stops by and mentions that the combo is the most popular item on the menu. He volunteers to bring a bowl for the table. 

Spicy Sautee Shrimp circle the heaping mound of rich, yellow grits. Skeptically, we spoon a sample onto the homemade, grilled bread that accompanies the super-sized bowl. One taste and we both dig in for more.

“My friends in Ontario won’t believe this,” the Canadian says. “They laughed when I told them how popular grits were in the South, but they’ve never tasted any as delicious as this.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway winds 469 miles through the most beautiful, and the most rural and isolated, parts of the Appalachian Mountains in the states of Virginia and North Carolina. The parkway preserves the history, and we discover, the tastes, of a centuries-old cultural mix of English, Scots and African Americans. Fuse modern favorites with traditional dishes. and you get surprises like shrimp and grits.

Past and presentFrom our hotel in downtown Roanoke, we have easy access to day trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park. Besides vineyards with award-winning wines and gourmet restaurants, we hike trails that wind through pristine forests and summit mountain peaks, visit restored grist mills and explore small towns that maintain a living legacy that emphasizes music, arts and a friendliness that knows no strangers.

We enter the Parkway near the 100-foot, illuminated star on Mill Mountain that overlooks Roanoke. Colorful flowers fill meadows and orange flame azaleas and snowy mountain laurel bushes color the roadsides. The two-lane road winds lazily around mountainsides with scenic vistas of Roanoke and the river valley below and hazy ridges in the distance.

Today’s loop stops at the Chateau Morrisette Winery with its grits and shrimp, the historic Mabry Grist Mill and the vibrant music and art center of Floyd. Chateau Morrisette Winery lost money for 17 years before introducing its signature series of dog wines, which include Black Dog, Blushing Dog and Our Dog Blue, a semi-sweet white often paired with, you guessed it, shrimp and grits. Portions of sales benefit service dog organizations and canine disease research.

On another loop we visit the Peaks of Otter region with a lodge, trail complex, Peaks of Otter Winery that specializes in unorthodox chili pepper and sweet fruit wines, and nearby Bedford with the nine-acre National D-Day Memorial. With so many Blue Ridge attractions within an hour’s drive, Roanoke makes the ideal hub to explore the area.

“We have 145 miles of hike and bike trails within 15 minutes of downtown Roanoke and 600 miles of trails within an hour’s drive,” Landon Howard of the Roanoke Conventions and Visitors Bureau said. “With outdoor adventure, farm-to-table restaurants, and four-star resorts with golf and spas, we have everything you could want.”

Since its transformation from a Native American hunting camp named Big Lick to a railroad hub in 1882, Roanoke has been a crossroad that connects people, commerce and cultures. Today, it’s a gateway to Blue Ridge nature, arts and crafts, culinary flavors that blend past and present, and a legacy deeply rooted in the surrounding mountains.

Too Good to Sell
The historic downtown has centered around a regional farmers market since 1882. Vendors sit behind tables with mounds of apples, tomatoes, greens, flowers, baked goods and crafts. The vendors, restaurants, bakeries, boutiques and galleries thrive on business from local patrons, which gives the district a cultural authenticity missing in overdeveloped tourist centers. Kitschy souvenir shops are absent.

A display of peaches, the first of the season, catches my attention. Unlike supermarket fruit from distant hemispheres picked green and devoid of taste, these are tree-ripened.

“How much is one,” I ask Donny Thomas the owner of Thomas Market.

Danny and his son, Tony, have operated the storefront market since 1982. He weighs the peach and charges 25 cents. The first juicy bite brings back memories of pick-your-own orchards and sweet flavors.

I offer another quarter and say, “We still have a deal?”

I pass by later, and he’s eating a peach, too. The next day, his peaches are gone. “They were so good I took them all home,” he says with a chuckle. 

Awesome Views
After a day touring the sites and viewpoints along the Parkway, we turn to the forest trails. Peaks of Otters, a 45-minute drive from Roanoke, offers a series of loop trails through the woods, around a small lake and to the 3,900-foot summit of Sharp Top Mountain with a famous 360-degree vista of the surrounding valley. 

A bus from the trailhead takes non-hikers to within 100 yards of the summit and its around-the-world views, but we choose the more aerobic 1.5-mile, uphill trail. Woodland birds serenade us and blooming azaleas, rhododendron, blueberry bushes and wildflowers line much of the way. 

At the top, stone stairs lead the last few yards to a porch-sized pinnacle that almost reaches the low-hanging clouds. Dark streaks of rain pound the ridges of the long valley but fortunately bypass us. Rain or shine, the awesome view justifies the hike.

From shrimp and grits and peaches too good to sell to tranquil roads and 100-mile views, Roanoke provides a portal to the cultural flavors and natural wonders of the Blue Ridge country.

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.

Jaguar XJ

When I found out I would be test driving the new Jaguar XJ for a week, I couldn’t have been more excited and, at the same time, just a wee bit disappointed. I couldn’t help but think, “If only I had a high school class reunion to go to! What a hit I’d be showing up in a brand new Jag!”

Since no class reunions were scheduled right then, I got busy planning other great places I could go and show off (I mean, be seen).

Top of my list were all the best boutiques in Houston, The Woodlands, Clear Lake, Sugar Land, etc. Needless to say, salespeople tend to pay more attention when they see me drive up in a great car — especially, one they wish they owned! 

Dining out for lunch and dinner while I was driving the Jaguar would also be a must. Valets at all the best restaurants in town would take good care of the car and me. They would park the Jaguar right in front of the door (to provide great curb appeal for the restaurant) and, expecting a big tip from me, “the Jaguar owner,” welcome me with a big and genuine smile! Admittedly, I wanted that! 

I was especially pleased when my drive-for-a-week Jaguar XJ was delivered to my driveway. It was Indigo blue and gosh-darn gorgeous! The original XJ was the last car designed by Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, and the latest car to wear the nameplate is as innovative, beautiful and desirable as its famous forebear.

The interior (cabin) is elegant and contemporary. Clearly, it was designed for comfort and luxury, but the unmistakable sporty style of the Jaguar is here, including a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift. The chrome and black detailing is a great contrast to the rich leather and burl walnut veneer surfaces. And, good to know, the Jaguar XJ comes in both standard and long-wheelbase models. 

Some nice enhancements have been made to the 2012 models. For example, on the long-wheelbase Portfolio derivative a new “Executive Pack” transforms the rear of the XJ into a high-speed mobile office space, with the provision of fold-down laptop trays and an electric rear sunblind for increased privacy. The package also includes upgraded carpeting, combination wood and leather steering wheel, gloss wood veneer choices and chrome mirror housings.

The Jag I drove came equipped with the 385HP, V8 engine. But, a V6 engine is also available.The Jaguar XJ  gets an average 15 MPG in town and an average 22 MPG on the highway. 

Fully loaded, like "my" Jaguar XJ, it is priced at $82,950.

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