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Goodbye, Dear Keys!

I don’t remember if I’ve written about this incident before, and if I have, I apologize. Well, actually, I don’t, as today I was reminded again of its importance.

A few years ago, I was driving back to my home – in Los Osos, California at that time –from Monterey. It is pretty much a 3-hour straight shot down the 101. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that stretch of highway, there isn’t much along it except agricultural fields and an occasional rest stop.

I was making good time on my drive home after facilitating a retreat for the leaders of various California Bar Associations. It was a great program with a phenomenal group of executives – some have become dear friends, many have become valued clients, and several who I know are reading this story right now.

It was just about dusk when I pulled over to the rest stop south of Salinas – in the middle of nowhere. Very few cars were in the lot, aside from a few long haul trucking rigs. I was so happy to be just 90 minutes from my bed that I jumped out of the car with just my keys, locked the car, and then ran into the restroom.

All went well until I turned to flush the toilet with my foot – everyone does that right? Just as the water started swirling around the toilet bowl and down the drain, I saw my keys in slow motion, falling from my hand and into the bowl.

Yes, I admit it. I tried to grab them mid-flush by reaching into the bowl. I did. But I was unsuccessful. And to my amazement, my oversized carabiner keychain, key fob, and about 10 keys went right out of sight! They all went down the pipe to wherever all that waste goes.

In an absolute state of shock, I realized a) I needed to wash my hand ASAP, and b) I had no way to get into my car. I washed my hands – thoroughly – and walked out into the parking area. As I looked around the semi-deserted lot, which was getting darker by the moment, it dawned on me that my phone was locked inside my car. I was stranded.

I knew I had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Now, when my daughters were little, the Stranger Danger movement was all the rage. It was considered vital to warn your small children that strangers were very dangerous and could do horrible things to them if they got ahold of them. I could not abide by that philosophy. Instead, I taught my daughters how to make the best possible decision about who they would ask for help if they were in crisis.

I saw a car or two that looked a tad shady, and then I spotted a man, about 45 years old, standing next to his older model SUV. The SUV was clearly loaded with camping gear. So, a family guy on a family trip.

I walked over and said, “I need help.” He could see I was trying not to panic. I told him my story, and he offered his phone. Great! Except all my phone contacts were in my phone, which was locked inside my car. I stopped memorizing phone numbers in early 2001.

At this point, my adrenaline and cortisol began to win over my desire to stay calm, and I struggled to imagine a solution. Then I suddenly remembered what I’ve been teaching everyone else: If you want the part of your brain that thinks creatively, solves problems, and strategizes to work, you have to flood your body with oxygen and offset the fight-or-flight response that occurs when we feel afraid or threatened.

I stood there frozen while he held his phone ready to dial for me. I just started breathing slowly and deeply, and then I got an idea – visualize my phone. In my mind’s eye, I saw a call from my daughter, Lily, coming in and her number showing up in the display. And I could see it. I called out the numbers to him, fearful I might not be able to do it twice, and he dialed them. I also remembered that Lily was on call for the Operating Room, where she is a technician, and the chances she would be able to answer her phone were slim ­­– but she did.

He passed his phone to me. “Lily!” I yelled. She answered, “Mom! Where are you? Whose phone is this? I almost didn’t answer, except I’m on call and thought it might be a weird work number.”

I explained the situation and was asking her to drive the 90 minutes to pick me up when the man with the phone said, “Wait a minute. You can’t wait here locked out of your car for 90 minutes. It’s not safe.”

I looked around, realizing that whether it was safe or not was debatable but – oh my gosh – it would be lonely and dull and uncomfortable with only a concrete bench or two. I didn’t even have money to buy water from the vending machine.

His wife was coming out of the restroom at this point, and she approached the two of us with curiosity and a bit of concern. Luckily, I still wore my heels, dress pants, and a dress shirt, and, let’s face it, I was a white woman standing next to a Mercedes. I had the privilege of not appearing to be a threat. I imagine if I had been a person of color it could have been a whole different scenario … but that’s another story.

“We are going to Palm Springs and planning to spend the night around Pismo Beach. Just jump in the car and we will drive you to meet your daughter,” said the man.

I looked at his wife and she said, “Yes. We will take you. We won’t leave you here, and we don’t want to wait 90 minutes.”

Lily, still on the line, was saying, “Mom. Wait. Whose car are you getting in? What’s happening? Mom!”

The end of the story is that the people were honorable. Lily was waiting at the rendezvous site with my spare key, she and I did another round trip to get my car, and we were both soon home in bed – not at 10:00 p.m. as anticipated but by 1:00 a.m.

I was reminded of this story today as my dear friend Deb Walter is traveling alone around the West in her Subaru Outback. She is sleeping in hotel parking lots and on cliffside pullouts along the Pacific Coast Highway. She had a crisis moment today when her car keys were stolen from her while in a Starbucks. She was in Santa Cruz without access to her car, while the person who stole her keys had access to every possession she brought with her on her month-long trip, including her laptop, her kayak, her bike, and her cash.

In her account of this event on her blog, Postcards from the Edge, Deb talks about feeling the panic creep in and remembering she must flood her system with oxygen to keep her brain thinking effectively.

You see, Deb, like me, is a neuroscience geek. She is also a trainer, teacher, and speaker. In remembering the importance of calming her brain’s desire to freak out, she was able to recall she had a key hidden deep in her car for just such an emergency, and she was able to reach out to two passing construction workers who offered their AAA membership to get her into her car. She was back on the road in less than an hour.

The other piece of the story, however, is that on Deb’s key ring was a memento from her dear departed dad – his 1,000,000-mile safe driving medallion that took him 30 years as a driver for Walmart to earn. He was so proud of it, and Deb was proud to have it on her key ring as she traveled around the country.

So, if you live in Santa Cruz and you happen to spot this medallion anywhere, please help me get it back to Deb. But even more importantly, when you are faced with adversity or a near-impossible dilemma, remember the strategy used by two brain-science geeks:

  1. Feel your feet on the ground.

  2. Begin inhaling through your nose.

  3. Allow the breath to travel deep into your lungs.

  4. Exhale slowly through you mouth allowing stress and fear to exit with your breath.

  5. Let go of future-tripping or scary thoughts of what may be.

  6. As you feel your mind calm, ask for guidance or the answer you need.

  7. Trust what appears.

  8. Repeat.

And most of all, remember to express gratitude to yourself for taking care of yourself.

Please read Deb’s blog and follow her journey. She is an amazing teacher.

Originally posted on

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