Monday, December 27, 2010

Let Go of Recession Depression & Live a Juicy, Joyful Life

What is the difference between lemons and lemonade? Water and sugar: sweetness. For many Americans, life has been nothing but lemons for a long, long time. The United States has experienced quite a sour decade, and the sting in the back of the throat lingers on and on. The 90s saw a balanced budget, the rise of the Internet, secretaries cashing in multi-million-dollar stock options, and a time of peace. By contrast, the past 10 years were dominated by Bush politics, 9/11, unrelenting wars and a crippling recession that seems never-ending.

Are you looking ahead to the next decade with a bag of lemons in your hands? Millions are out of work, small towns are filled with empty store fronts, most of our retirement accounts are trashed, and our government cannot pass simple legislation without taking it to the Supreme Court. The United States needs to create a new lemonade stand to sell to the world -- and fast. Our nation was able to rise out of the depression by focusing on our ingenuity, inventive gifts, infrastructure and faith.

When life deals you lemons, it is easy to become a "sourpuss" and retreat. Yet, there are those who seem to have bags of sugar in their back pockets, and can whip a batch of lemonade out of a pile or rocks for the world to share. These people are rare gifts. I believe Arianna Huffington is one of these people. I believe our President is one, too.

Linda Joy is another. Feeling depressed? Spend about five minutes with this woman, and she will teach you how to make not only the best lemonade, but inspire the creation of an entire franchise of lemonade stands. Joy is the publisher of Inspired Living Publishing, and author of "A Juicy Joyful Life: Inspiration from Women Who Found the Sweetness in Everyday Life," a collection of stories from everyday folks from Main Street who managed to take adversity and transform it into a gift.

Joy had her share of lemons this year, and had every reason to run under the covers and hide her head. In 2010 her family experienced two tragic deaths, it was no longer feasible to continue her longstanding print magazine, and her husband totaled his truck in a car accident last week before our scheduled interview.

Yet Joy cheerfully tracked me down two days later, said her hubby was OK, and she has to look forward because she is "in the inspiration business." She walks her talk like few I have ever met. This former Entrepreneur of the Year for the state of Massachusetts is no stranger to change. In this same year, Joy reinvented an online magazine called Aspire, started Inspired Living Publishing to offer writers a chance to be published for free, put out her first book, and brought it to bestseller status on Amazon -- in less than nine months, it was the "#1 hot new release" in self-esteem and in spirituality.

"Hey, I'm a former welfare mom who dropped out of high school," said Joy dryly. "Your past does not define you! We can all live a life of joy no matter what comes at you if we release the past, labels and constant negative self talk."

Joy feels passionately that everyone has an important story to tell and is collecting essays for her second book, due out this fall. Stories of overcoming adversity are her specialty - from those who would have never dreamed of seeing their words in print. "We never know how one person's story will impact another," said Joy. "It is what keeps me going."

One of my favorite stories in the book was written by Sue Landis, who had a very successful life as a career business woman in London and decided to take a 180-degree turn in her mid-thirties. Always dreaming of becoming a professional athlete, she explored various options and decided to become a professional polo player -- even though she had never played the game! In one short year, she not only mastered the sport but assembled a top-notch team that won a national championship.

How have you been longing to create a juicy, joyful life? In preparation for the New Year, use this time to open up the cedar trunk of dreams; shake a few out and try them on. Go on -- no one will know! What is your heart's desire? What have you always wanted to create, become, achieve? How does it feel to take a single baby step in the shoes of dreams? Do you still believe in miracles, in magic -- in Santa? When we lose our ability to give ourselves an outrageously tantalizing vision, life becomes dull, stressful and frustrating.

I asked Joy how for recommendations on how to get our cranky, depressed selves into some of this inspirational frame of mind for the coming New Year. Below is her visualization exercise just for the HuffPost community. Come on, let's do this together: make space to talk to your inner wisdom.

First find a quiet place, and light an intention candle. Ask your deepest self, "When I look at 2010 as a successful year, what made is successful?"

After that, follow up with, "When I look at the parts of 2010 that were not as successful, what would I have changed?" Notice your reaction to both questions. The assumption began that 2010 was a successful year -- did it change your retrieval process?

Now, look forward into 2011. Ask yourself the following question: "If I could envision the year I'd like to create, what is the first thing that comes to mind?"

Be sure to pay attention to the very first flicker of an image or voice that arrives in your consciousness, as that is usually a divining rod to the soul, and the answer to follow. Maybe it is an unexpected answer, like more time with the spouse, or learning how to dance.

Once this image has come to mind, thank yourself for the recognition. So often our lives are filled with the "woulds" and "shoulds" of life, so the inner voices of destiny rarely are given the microphone and center stage. Acknowledge whatever vision has come to mind, and let it make you smile!

The final step is about Intention. Ask yourself, "What are two steps that I will commit to take around this thought in the month of January?"

Again, nothing radical; just two simple steps. Close the visualization with words of gratitude for this burgeoning intention, and blow out your candle. That's it!

Everyone needs a lemonade maker in their life. Do you have one? Who inspires you to reach higher, live outrageously and shake you out of your recession depression? Be sure to send them words of gratitude, and make this week a juicy one as we close the decade together. Tell me your dreams for 2011 in comment in the box below.


If you would ilke a notice to find these weekly posts, please click on "Become a Fan" at the top of the page.

I look forward to sharing the launch of my new company, Gather Central, on Jan. 1, and offering my "Virtual Cafe" of engaging community conversations with many authors and experts I have had the privilege to meet over the years. No boring lectures here! Expect to receive gifts, share powerful experiences with others around the world and get involved. Your voice matters, and we want to hear your story!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Splendor and the Struggle of Holiday Gatherings

'Tis the season once again. The menorahs are being lit, the radio stations are running 24/7 Christmas music and the season of parties is just ramping up. Front porches have zoomed from the pumpkins to scarecrows to the holiday wreaths in record time. With the upcoming buzz of office holiday parties, neighborhood cookie swaps and extended family celebrations, how do we juggle the joys of gathering with the struggles?

Humans are not that much different from squirrels, I have come to believe. In my neck of the woods, squirrels at this time of year are truly insane. They scramble around collecting the last acorns and nuts to shove in their nests (far more than they can ever eat), make mad bomber dashes across the street just missing a passing tire, and chatter at each other from tree branches like clucking hens.

Modern humans are not much different during December. Instead of preparing our cellars with food for the winter, we take that "nesting energy" and use it to race from store to store and come home with bags of gifts, bottles of wine, sweet treats and more decorations for the house. We look forward to the excitement of getting together, yet we also feel burned out by the over-stimulation.

Let's explore that collective tension here. We have a longing to gather together in the winter via ancient rituals like the solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas. The people of most cultures share a love of lighting candles, singing songs, spending time with our friends and family, acknowledging our faith and our blessings and gifting one another in various ways.

This desire is fundamental to our internal balance and wellness. Human beings are wired for community and clan-style gatherings. Think of one of your favorite memories in life -- what is it about? Most of our cherished memories are of the times we spent with people we love, and not the things we accomplished or purchased.

Sometimes the struggle of the holidays is balancing our inner picture with reality. Our memories of perfect holidays past may be pretty fuzzy and devoid of the pre-dinner fights, whining over gifts or burned crowned roast that we all know are classic year after year. Despite the stresses of the moment, most people reflect on the season with fondness and often forget the petty stresses that seem so important right now.

The secret to holiday madness is to remember that it is about cherishing and not about charging. It is about sharing and not about giving. Sometimes the silly expectations we set up for having the perfect house, perfect outfit, perfect gift or perfect meal usurp the original intention, and the magic of the moment is lost in anger, tension, frustration or sadness.

This season, adopt a "go with the flow" attitude, and remember that what makes a truly satisfying gathering or memorable gift is your ability to be present. Everyone is happier, and magic can flow out of unplanned moments. The economic fallout has left everyone with less money to spend, but does this have to ruin the holiday? Only if material gifts were all that mattered. We don't have to store our nests with iPads and diamond watches but with love, support and happy memories gathered around a tree a table or a candle flame.

It is known that general anxiety and stress can be remedied by the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is fast becoming the hot shot of neuroscience. Once thought to be relegated to lactating women, oxytocin plays a much larger role in increasing our sense of altruism, connections to other people and even a sense of trusting our government. Think of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when imagining a perfect "Norman Rockwell" moment -- that is oxytocin flowing through your veins, and it is a powerful healer.

It has been found that oxytocin helps to counter-balance the affect of stress in our bodies. However, oxytocin is not released unless we are together, or unless it is triggered by nurturing images and memories. Think of the genius! When we are stressed out, we often turn to our partners, our family or friends to help us by taking a walk, talking it out or doing something fun to take our minds off of it. Instinctively we understand that we need contact with others to keep ourselves sane.

Gathering with others has a tension of splendor and struggle. Just know that. We want to go to the office party, and then we come home disenchanted. It happens. The pressures to hit the mall, keep up with the Joneses and complete our to-do list amplifies this time of year, making it harder for that gentle oxytocin to flow. How do we create a season of peace?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Focus on the moments. Let's face it: the holidays are stressful. No doubt about it. Traffic jams, irritated people, lines, pushing and shoving -- the whole shebang. Focus on the sweet old lady bagging your sweater or the soft hand holding yours while you pick out a tree -- keep those safe.
  • Don't do too much. Be realistic with your time, budget and energy. If a holiday fundraiser auction is stressing out the wallet, make a polite excuse and stay home with cozy jammies and old TV reruns.
  • Make time to be with others you love. If all your obligations are for work, create some time to have a gathering with the people who make you happy. Share some wine, food and a few laughs.
  • Make time to be with yourself. As the season darkens, the time for being internal, quiet and reflective begins. Take some time for long bubble baths, journaling, meditation and inspirational reading.

As always, I love to hear from you, my friends here at The Huffington Post. Our online conversations are oxytocin starters for me! I appreciate those of you who stop by week after week and count you as my blessings this year! Feel free to drop a note below and let us know how you are balancing the season. Cheers!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Power of Asking for Help

How good are you at asking for help? How often do you say, "How can I help you?"

The fact is, there are more Americans than ever who need help, but asking for it is considered impolite, a burden, a sign of weakness or simply poor taste. As we move into the winter, many food banks are 100-percent below the stocks required to feed the burgeoning wave of middle-class citizens who cannot put food on the table. One in six is out of work, and a majority of our staple industries are on the list of imminent extinction.

Millions of Americans are being forced to reexamine their career, lifestyle, finances, and goals. Finishing the kitchen with a Viking stove and granite countertop is no longer a priority, because the house is about to go into foreclosure. Stable jobs of 25 years are gone, and the climate of "every man for himself" just will not cut it anymore. The sooner we stop using our fingers to point at one another and instead extend them in a handshake, the faster we can put our innovative brilliance to work to generate new jobs, revamp the bitter climate of our government, and start getting things done.

The fences we have built around our homes and intimate lives are fundamentally counterintuitive, given the community-driven nature we experience naturally as human beings. In fact, new studies suggest that the best way to reduce stress and anxiety is with the secretion of oxytocin, a largely misunderstood little hormone. However, it does not activate when we are alone. Oxytocin is secreted when we recognize images that trigger caring, engage in nurturing activities, or are around other people. We literally need to be with each other to relieve stress.

Remember the days of just popping into a neighbor's house for a cup of sugar without thinking twice? We have to get back to that place. It is impossible to rebuild a new life in an uncertain world alone. We have to learn to ask for help, trust each other, and be willing to stick our necks out to give another a hand. There is so much to do, and we can start by asking for help.

I help run a local organization for women business leaders. It seems that women, in particular, are pretty lame in the asking-for-help category. Yet when an environment is created that is professional, casual and deliberately supportive, mountains move! All a woman has to do is be brave enough to throw out a quiver of a request: "Does anyone know someone who understands Twitter?" We all know what happens next. The six degrees of separation swirl into action, and within three minutes flat, she is all set.

This concept of naturally sharing our skills and bartering for services has developed into a system called "time banking" and is flourishing in Portland, Maine. More than 600 people have exchanged over 20,000 hours of time through the Portland Hour Exchange. Anyone can list various skills or services they can provide, such as a ride to the airport, handyman services, massage, or web design consultations. One hour of time is donated to someone who needs it, and then that hour is "deposited" into the system, which then can be exchanged for another service that you may want or need sometime down the road.

Check out this excerpt from a new PBS special called "Fixing the Future" that aired this past Friday:

Literally everyone has some sort of skill or ability that is valuable to someone else. All it takes is the power of asking to put the wheels of true community back into motion. As one of the exchange members said while giving a sailing lesson, "it is like we are remembering how to be in community instead of creating it."

Most of us share time and services without even realizing it. An acquaintance and I bumped into each other last week, and in the midst of our standard hellos, she said, "Did I ever thank you?" As I blinked at her in complete brain fog, she went on to recap a conversation we had had regarding a challenge she was having with her teenage daughter. She had asked if I had any ideas to help, and I had instantly referred her to a friend of mine who works with adolescents as a therapist.

These types of interactions happen to all of us every single day; they take no time and are second nature. Yet, rarely do we have a chance to glimpse the impact of such a simple act. My friend sent her daughter to this therapist, and she has made a miraculous turnaround. Had she been embarrassed to ask for help, nothing would have changed. How often do you run into someone you know, they ask you how you are, and the answer is always, "Fine." Why do we say this even when we are far from fine? All around us are people who are available to help us in some way. The challenge is being brave enough to ask.

Rebuilding our nation is not going to happen in Washington, D.C. but in our own backyards, and in the faith we can rebuild in one another as resources and support systems for one another. It is time to break the social pressure to be more and have more, and return to the graciousness of our forefathers, who were always quick and willing to lend a hand, build a barn or barter for goods and services.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many who needn't be alone will be. The simple question of "what are you doing for Thanksgiving?" can lead to a revelation. If three or four people you know are doing nothing, why not share a table together? Turkey is optional! Instead of being alone and isolated, create a shared meal. It inspires a community feeling and is a symbolic knitting of our underlying fabric. Grab another table, ignore the dust, and invite the neighbors over: bigger is better.

This week, think about creating your own time bank. Is there something you need help with? Whom can you ask, and what would happen if you did? On the flip side, what can you do to help someone who may not be brave enough to ask? "Ask and you shall receive" is the cornerstone of gratitude, and the foundation of Thanksgiving. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Greatest Hope is to Give Back

The tiny but enthusiastic Women & Girls Fund of Middlesex County, Conn. needed money. They dared to ask Arianna Huffington if she would come to speak, and she said yes. Granted, it gave her a chance to visit her daughters along the way to this sleepy rural area, but saying yes reminded me once again what a true honor and privilege it is to write for The Huffington Post, and what a role model Arianna is for everyone who dares to blend brains and heart into one package.

Literally squeezing in time to speak before a live uplink to Larry King, Arianna spoke of the disconnect between the experience of everyday people and what is happening in Washington. For the first time in generations, two thirds of adults believe their children will be worse off financially than they are. The fundamental belief in upward mobility has shattered, and even the most hopeful are picking up the shards of "yes we can" with a deeply shaken resolve.

Many positive changes have been happening in our economy, but we seem unable to let the fear and finger-pointing go. Arianna posed the question: why do we, as individuals and as communities, continue to focus on our deficits? How does this serve us? Why not focus on our surpluses?

"Where is the abundance? She challenged. "With nearly 27 million people out of work, that means one out of six Americans is suffering. Yet, we have an abundance of time, skills and resources that are not being utilized. This is a moment of choice to take countervailing action."

We have been trained by 24/7 news to put a magnifying glass on what is not working. With the change of power, everyone is preparing themselves for a dirty couple of years of gridlock, mudslinging and righteous "Party of No" speeches that will surround our psyches like cicadas on a hot summer night.

Finger-pointing at Washington is somewhat cathartic, but in reality, most of us have a "party of no" going on inside our heads all day long. In fact, most people have thousands of negative thoughts per day! It takes work to turn those negative voices off and instead place the magnifying glass on what is working. Better yet, how about taking a step further and celebrating what is working?

Give back. Strengthening the lives of individuals in our communities is the way out. Inspiring others to do more opens up a life of collaboration and meaning. Out of work? Yes, it is horrendous, but in between the hours of job-hunting, get out in the community; take your skills and put them into action in some meaningful way. Being unemployed wounds the self-esteem so profoundly, the balm of useful work can build a bridge towards unimagined new opportunities that pull towards the future; instead of wallowing in the past.

Seth Reams was one of those unemployed folks in Portland, Oregon. He was becoming deeply depressed, until his girlfriend cajoled him to get out of his funk, put the job hunt aside, and start volunteering. He realized that there were so many people who needed help, and so many who had skills to give, decided to start an entity called We've Got Time to Help, which helps to place those with time and skills with those who need it. The Huffington Post named him a Game Changer, and now 75 cities across the U.S. and in four other countries want to start similar programs.

Dylan Ratigan introduced him at the Game Changer awards. Addressing the audience, Ratigan said:

Can you take the events that are beyond yourself and your own life and figure out a way to not let those events make you feel less powerful, to not let those events make you feel less able, but to utilize those events to empower not only yourself and making yourself more able, but to shift the entire psychology of the way that you deal with the world, from asking a question which is, 'Why did the world not give me this? What can the world give me? Why has the world not given me what I want?' and change that question to, 'What can I give to the world?' as an internal changing of the game, if you will.

Here is a clip of Ratigan introducing Reams, who is clearly stunned at the incredible chain of events that put him there:

In his most recent blog, Reams asks, "We, you and I, are game changers. Do you have the guts to change the game?"

Bryan Nurnberger is another person who took difficult circumstances and reinvented himself through a passion to give back. A professional rock climbing instructor in Colorado, Nurnberger sustained so many injuries that he could hardly close his fist. His career gone, he had no idea what to do next, so he decided to hike the mountains of Mexico. It was there that he stumbled upon an orphanage that captured his heart and changed his life.

He raised funds to help the orphanage, and then was led to a desperate area of the southern Mexican jungle. Over 500,000 people were starving to death, literally living on boiled leaves, as their coffee bean industry had been lost to big name corporations. Nurnberger took the matter to heart, raised more money by bringing people down to the villages with him, and started Simply Smiles. Nine years later, his passion project supplies a full month's provisions of food ($15,000 per month) to over 3,000 people. Some villagers literally walk 16 hours with their family each way to get there. The short-term relief is allowing them to rebuild their coffee crops, and Nurnberger now sells the delicious brew on his website. Need coffee? Check it out and know you are making a difference:

Whether it is converting unemployment depression into a new profession, or just lending a hand, we all can turn our lives around, and those of the people around us. I think the "greatest person of the day" award goes to Allen and Violet Large, a couple in Canada who won $11 million in a lottery and gave away 98 percent of it -- $10.6 million -- mostly to local fire departments, churches, cemeteries and the local Red Cross.

How has giving back helped you through a difficult time in your life? Do you have a passion project? Please drop a comment below and contribute to our weekly conversations. I will be writing more about passion projects in upcoming posts and just may feature your ideas and comments. Follow me by clicking "Become a Fan" at the top of this page.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Create the Space You Deserve

Have you ever stopped to think about your house, and the rooms within it, as a metaphor of your life? What is your relationship with your space -- do you love it, just live in it, or wish it could be different? How do you feel emotionally in the different rooms of your home? According to Jill Butler, author of Create the Space You Deserve, taking the time to explore how we feel in different rooms can become a profound inner journey.

Butler went through a divorce, downsized, and documentd her "Extreme Makeover" process of creating her dream space -- the space she deserved. Transition is often a time that triggers the need or desire for a new living space -- any sort of inner shift, celebration or milestone -- and while for some it is a new house, for others it starts with a single room.

"Take a moment and think about your favorite room in your house," Butler said, "And notice how you feel when you are in there." For me, my favorite room is my dining room, of all places. It was recently painted, has big windows, lots of light, and I love the family gatherings we have there.

Next, Butler advises that you think about the space in your house that you most dislike. How is it not working for you, and how do you feel in this space? For me, it is the joint office I share with my husband. Overloaded with unused software boxes, kid memorabilia, and papers everywhere, the space has a definite feeling of chaos. Often when I am writing, I just avoid it all together and sneak into my dining room with my laptop for my most creative work.

"This question about your relationship to your space is not a problem-solving issue but a naming issue," said Butler. "There is a reason people leave junk in their bedroom for 10 years that is deeper than simply being too lazy to shove them in the basement. It is reflection of something bigger."

Interestingly enough, some of the issues we grapple with in our lives are clearly reflected in these trouble spots within our homes. One woman shared that her basement was the space she struggled with. "Everything else is light and just the way I want it be," she mused, "but the inner world, the deepest inside parts of me, are not so bright and cheery at all." She later shared a revelation she had: her basement was linked to an inablilty to let go of worrying about her children, even though they were grown and gone. She is now considering revamping her basement into an art studio, just for herself.

For some, the challenge with a particular space is not so much the room itself but the stuff in it. "I think the whole country is re-evaluating their relationship with their stuff," said Butler. "We are all realizing we cannot afford so much stuff, and it doesn't make us happy in the end. Clearing crud is one of the hardest parts until we realize it drags down our energy and makes us feel bad about ourselves."

One couple decided that they had to "clear the clutter" in a spare room that doubled as a storage space and an office all at once. The husband had lost his job and was studying for a Master's degree. "I couldn't concentrate there!" he laughed. The coupled decided to have a "dumpster party." They pulled up a huge dumpster to the base of their house, opened up the window screens, and literally threw junk out the window, delighting in the sound of the crash as unwanted items landed in an ever-growing heap of relief. Sure enough, once the room was cleared, the thesis paper was completed in record time, and a job offer immediately followed.

With the foreclosure rate the way it is, many Americans have lost their homes or have had to consciously downsize. But the term "downsize" has such a negative connotation. Rather, how about "right-sizing" our homes? For Butler herself, moving from a 5,000-square-foot home to a 1,400-square-foot home was a celebration. "It is very freeing to let go."

Try out the exercise of identifying a room in your house that you dislike, and imagine what you can do to make friends with this space once again -- how can you "repair the relationship"? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1) Decide: Decide to change the space in some small way to get started, or in a large way like grabbing a dumpster. Making a choice to make a change in your physical space also initiates the inner process of change.

2) Look Around: Step back into that room with a fresh awareness of how it has become a reflection or metaphor for a part of your life that needs changing. Without having to spend a lot of money, what needs to be done first?

3) Rearrange: Sometimes nothing drastic has to be done, just a little rearranging. Maybe a single piece of furniture has to be moved around, removed, recovered or added to change everything entirely. I had a room that no one ever used, and I couldn't figure out why. By accident, we inherited a new leather chair I had no idea what to do with, and shoved it in this room temporarily. To my surprise, it created a harmony that was not there before, and suddenly the kids started reading in there, my husband and I started having after-dinner chats, and the room came to life.

4) Make Friends with What Is: Sometimes you inherit a house or a room that you can't stand, and there is nothing much you can do about it but change your attitude. One woman shared a story about how she sold her dream home to move out of state, hated it, and came back. The only house she could find was not at all her taste, but she had taken it and had silently resented it for years. With a new awareness that it was time to make peace with her house, she bought some sage, smudged the space, painted one room, bought some flowers, and that was enough. She claimed her space.

How about you, HuffPost readers? Is there a space in your house that is a "problem child?" what insights can it offer, and how have you changed your space structurally that led to a change personally? Love to hear your comments below.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Family Meals- the Forgotten Ritual

When's the last time you sat down and had a meal with your family? And what defines a family anymore, anyway? On a cool, crisp New England afternoon at the infamous R.J. Julia's independent bookstore in Connecticut, I had a chance to sit down with Food Network superstar Tyler Florence. We talked about the many versions of family in his life -- from his kids to the staff at his restaurants to his friends and neighbors who gather for sumptuous potlucks, he loves to feed them all. Florence recently released a wonderful "cookbook for the soul" called Family Meal: Bringing People Together Never Tasted Better.

According to Florence, "Today, there is no single way to define a family. In the simplest terms, it's the people you spend a great deal of time with, care for deeply and trust with everything. Now more than ever, families need to stick together."

To make your mouth water, check out this quick video of Florence describing his personal take on the importance of a family meal:

Touché. The fact that I interviewed a famous chef was something of a joke to my family. As my kids will attest, I can't bake even the simplest Pillsbury cookies pre-made in plastic wrap without burning them, and once I tried a recipe for "chocolate bird's nest" cookies that looked exactly like teeny piles of dog poo. I am adequate at cooking, but I can tell you, I love to eat, and I love to have meals with friends and family together. It is the ritual of sitting down together around a table that nourishes more than the morsels on the plate. Besides, the comedy of some of my creations makes for fabulous dinner conversation!

Home-made food calms us down. Sitting down to a share meal releases the left brain's dominance and allows the gastric juices to soften the edges. Casual conversation blossoms, laughter is easier, and our brains begin to think more creatively after having a break from screens, deadlines and crazy schedules. It has been proven that there's a direct relationship between the well-being of your kids and how often you have regularly scheduled family meals. I also believe a neighborhood that eats together sticks together, and co-workers who share meals have stronger and more productive working relationships.

Let's explore each area of family one by one.

Nuclear Family

Having a family meal together couldn't be more vital these days. Many families have delegated the dining room table to store bills, projects and junk and haven't pulled out a roasting pan in years. As kids get older, the teen years are a frantic sprint from one event to another, with lots of meals in the car along the way. Yet studies continue to show that making time to sit down together at a dinner table sets an important foundation for life.

The National Center for Addiction at Columbia University released a decade-long study in 2008 that remains true in showing teens who have dinner with their families fewer than three times per week are twice as likely to use tobacco and marijuana than teens who have more frequent dinners, and that infrequent family dinners raises the risk of depression and eating disorders. "It is a tragedy that family dinners decline as teens get older," said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Even if the meal feels more like bickering than languishing, a foundation of connection, comfort and security is being created when a family sits around the table together on a regular basis. Clear off the dining-room table, grab the cloth napkins, light some candles and dish up the mac 'n' cheese -- who cares? Start the meal by asking everyone to share something for which they are grateful, and watch the atmosphere change for the better.

Family of Friends and Neighbors

Vive le potluck! Whether we live in an apartment complex, home or condo, the people who live around us either become a support network or a reminder of isolation. I find it tragic to weave through so many pre-planned neighborhoods filled with neighbors who daily drive into their garages, close the door, and do not know one another. In such challenging times, neighbors can support each other simply by coming together over shared meals.

Many of us get stressed out thinking that in order to invite anyone over, the house has to be immaculate and the meal a Martha Stewart perfection. Forget it! Instead, try the "stone soup" potluck: call a few friends on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and invite them to bring over whatever they were going to have for dinner and share it as a big smorgasbord. Our neighborhood did this last week, and we had a hilarious combination of pork chops, meatballs, chili, salads and chips and salsa. The kids had a blast, the parents unwound with a few beers, everyone pitched in to clean, and all left deeply satiated.

Family at Work

In my work in training and community development, I have seen time and again that food can be used as the magic glue that brings everyone together in a way that is more authentic and satisfying than can often be achieved in traditional professional settings. Let's face it, most of the food we eat at work sucks! Power bars for breakfast, soggy sandwich pinwheels for lunch, Snickers bars for snack and coffee, coffee, coffee to fill the gaps. Instead, choose someone on your staff to prepare a home-made specialty for the next committee or board meeting, and watch the energy change dramatically.

A friend and colleague of mine teaches medical residents at Yale Medical School. Each year, he asks the students to prepare a meal from their historical roots, and hosts a poolside BBQ that has become the event of the year. With such a cultural diversity, the meal is a mouthwatering blend of Asian, Italian, Indian and American treats that push the stresses of the hospital to the side and tightens the bonds between colleagues used to unrelenting stress.

How about you, HuffPost readers? Do you make time to share a meal with your friends and loved ones? Who do you consider to be your family? Pull up a chair at our table, grab a glass, and let's share a few stories in the comments below.

For weekly updates from me, click "Become a Fan" at the top of this page. Feel free to share this post with your cyber families on Twitter and Facebook!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Budgeting Tips- De-Stress and Live with Less

Despite the relatively high closing levels on the stock market, and assurances from Washington the recession is officially over, most Americans are feeling the squeeze more tightly than ever. The days of swinging by Home Depot to spontaneously renovate a bathroom, cruising through the mall on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree, or sampling the latest restaurants every other night is a thing of the past.

Let's face it, living on a budget is hard, saving is stressful and wondering when the tides will turn strains even the staunchest optimist. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of making change in life fun, and living with less is no exception.

Financial strain ranks as one of the highest stressors out there along with divorce and death. Clearly some stressors cannot be helped, but part of the stress of living with less is adjusting habits and expectations. We want to get the new G4 phone -- like, today. We NEED to have an iPad -- really? Many of us remember growing up with less "stuff" than we have now, and doing just fine.

Ratcheting down consumer expectations and mindless habits of spending money as entertainment is a very real issue. The temptations are everywhere. We have far more strip malls than parks, and the temptation to buy something mindlessly is a common way to spend a day. Many children expect to buy something every time they get in the car.

We should take a few tips from the Europeans, who spend their leisure time strolling through the park, or enjoying a single cup of coffee at a local café for hours; entertaining themselves for very little out-of-pocket cash. Americans race here and there to places like Costco and BJ's Warehouse, lug home giant shopping bags of stuff to shove in our houses, and then flop down exhausted in front of the TV to recover.

Penny pinching, however, can be fun -- and current trends in homemade, or do-it-yourself are popping up in almost every industry. Reduce, reuse and recycle is IN, and waste is out -- not because we have become high minded -- but because we can't afford not to.

Everyone is in a similar boat, so why not explore a few fun and creative ways to ease the stress of living with less -- and have a good time to boot. Here are some tips to help curb excess spending, and improve quality of life all at once.

Create a realistic budget. Look at some of the easy "trim" you can take right off the top of your weekly spending. Starbucks lattes, dinners out, or that extra pair of shoes you really don't need. Often it is easy to justify low cost items as inconsequential, but they add up.

Put less cash in your wallet. If it is not in there, you are less likely to spend it. Decide how much cash you need per week, and once that is gone, go home.

Stop buying all bottled beverages. At $2.50 a pop for sugared water, make a vow to prepare all your beverages in a reusable water bottle. Make your iced tea, lemonade or iced coffee at home and take it with you. Saves a bundle in the wallet, and in the landfills.

Start making dinner at home. Even if it is for one or two people, the saving are substantial to make a pot of soup and bread for literally about $10, and have leftovers to freeze, or share at the office.

Grocery shop with a list, and stick to it! I am the worst at this. Do not shop when hungry, as it leads to throwing in extra bags of cookies, snacks and items you don't really need. Figure out a menu and purchase only those things. It is a healthier way to eat, and will save money.

Consignment shopping is hip! Whether you have access to the coolest shops in Greenwich Village or live in the Midwest with boutique strip malls, consignment shopping is a blast. There is something triumphant about finding a favorite label for a fraction of the price. Bring in those skinny jeans and earn some money to buy a new scarf or sweater.

Consolidate errands. Stretch out a tank of gas by consolidating all errands together. Throw the dry cleaning, library books and Good Will items into the trunk and incorporate them into a single trip. Park in one central place, and walk to the various stores within a mile radius instead of driving from one parking spot to another. Don't tell me you don't do this! I know you do!

Trade in the gym membership for a pair of sneakers or a bike. Let's face it, gym owners are not stupid. They know most people pay their monthly dues, and only a fraction of die-hards actually go. If you are not using your local gym more than once a week, ditch the membership and get outside. The stress relief from a daily walk offers mental therapy as well as exercise.

Have a "potluck re-gifting party" with neighbors. Have a potluck evening where everyone brings leftovers to share, and any re-gifting items taking up space in their closets. Put everything in an open living room and have a swap! Grab a new pan, neck tie, band saw or crock pot. A fun theme evening sure to pack in a lot of laughs, and totally free!

Make your own beer or wine. For mere pennies per pint, homemade brew is the new hobby de jour to save on the alcohol bill, and have more fun than a Corona can ever offer. Check out simple recipes and How To's at the Brew Your Own site, and save a bundle on the your beverage budget. Have a blast sampling new recipes as a great way to de-stress from the office. Great for those who do not spend much time in the kitchen -- brewing hops and barley could be quite an adventure!

Trim down the activities for the kids -- they'll thank you for it. All those cute little ballet lessons, soccer uniforms and lacrosse sticks can add up to a bundle. Teach the kids the value of a dollar, and give them some time off with fewer activities. They will discover how to fill their time, and the unscheduled hours can be funneled into something creative if the screens are off limits.

Living with Less can be a great excuse to get out of things you don't want to do. Being on a budget forces not only simplifying life, but also choosing only to invest in those things that have the greatest meaning. There is something very freeing about this, and allows permission to unhook, stay home and restore ourselves with quiet activities our overactive lives are craving.

What do you say, HuffPo readers? How are you trimming your pocketbooks these days? Any fun tips to share? Drop us a comment below and join the conversation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Balance is Overrated- Make Change FUN!

Anyone out there living a "balanced life?" I'd love to meet you. As a matter of fact, what does a balanced life actually look like? Does it mean slow, with little going on? Or perhaps it is a life of enviable success on multiple fronts -- spinning plates with ease and flair? I honestly don't know.

For most people, balance is pretty hard to come by these days. Either the job is too much, or there is no job to be found. The kids are overscheduled or underscheduled. Planning a vacation is stressful, and coming back is a nightmare.

I am always living in this illusion that the next season will give me some "balance." During the hectic spring months, I yearn for the slow days of summer with endless stretches of time to reorganize my office, paint that bedroom and just lounge around reading all those fiction novels winking at my bedside.

Inevitably, summer arrives, and somehow the extra time never comes. The office stacks multiply like dandelions, the books plead under even more dust, and I have a tan -- but no balance. The dog days of summer leads to a new line of fantasy; the fall is coming. Then life will settle into a routine and THEN I can balance out my life and feel ahead of the game.

Well, here it is, the first week of fall. The Autumnal Equinox is a day of perfect balance between light and darkness, so this must be the day. Is everyone feeling hunky dory balanced out there yet? I was too busy to notice. In complaining to a friend about this endless whine of mine, she offered a true Buddha moment of wisdom: "Balance is overrated."

Notice that Mother Nature has exactly two days of balance per year -- one during the Autumn Equinox and one during the Spring Equinox. After that, it is change baby change! Each day brings more light or more darkness. The light can be wonderful for external pursuits in the world, and the darkness for inner reflection and growth. Balance is meant to be a fleeting thing.

Mother Nature is no boring sissy. She knows the name of the game is change, and she also knows how to make it fun! The turning of the Autumn leaves has to be one of the most playful ways to make an exit imaginable. The blazes of orange, red and gold that appear overnight astound, delight and are great fun to jump in once they finally fall to the ground. When the first snow comes, children and adults alike feel a playful surge of joy, and run outside to catch snowflakes on their tongue. About 90 days later, with the warm breezes of spring, the blaze of daffodils delight all over again.

Why is it balance gets all the glory, and change is kicked to the curb? Somehow the idea of change being playful, silly or delightful never quite made it through the doorway of the cerebral cortex. When a change feels rigid or overwhelming, we automatically put up a hand to resist. Yet, if a change looks like fun, hmmm, that's another story. I think I'm done with balance and instead am going to embrace the tides of change like a surfer hangin' 10. Change rocks. Bring it on.

Every mother knows that the key to getting kids to change their eating habits is to make the food FUN -- decorate the veggies and down they go. Organizing the office is a lot more fun after getting some cute boxes or containers. Ultimately, surrendering to change as a part of life takes away the guilt that spinning plates is anything less than exactly perfect.

Some friends of mine are making lifestyle changes and losing weight with a fun "Game On" diet that inspires the competitive bulldog, and sets up teams for one month. Everyone chooses a bad habit to let go of -- like leaving clothes on the chair or yelling at the middle child -- as well as adopting a good habit and losing a certain amount of weight per week. The game encourages lots of teasing and taunting -- if you don't make your weekly weight goal, no 'alcohol privileges.' Some teams have resorted to the dirty pool of leaving giant chocolate cakes on the other's doorstep. The fun overrides the hard work; people have a blast, and changes happen.

Imagine being in a busy airport or train station that has an option for a moving sidewalk or escalator, as well as a traditional staircase. What does everyone do? Most herd like sheep to stand in line waiting for the escalator, while the stairs sit free and clear. Check out this very short YouTube video from Is is a fantastic example of how easy change can be -- enticing busy travelers to use the stairs with nothing but fun as the lure.

What would the world look like if we adopted the principle that change is vehicle of life, and fun is the fuel? Washington could certainly use a dose of fun these days. So could most office environments, family dinner table conversations and personal goal strategies.

Want to makes changes to go green? Al Gore told us we have to, but we need some fun to really modify our habits. The more fun hybrid cars can be, the more they will sell. Creating art and useful goods out of recycled materials helps us to be motivated to sort the bottles and cans. Here is another example of using fun to encourage people to pick up trash on the street.

How about you? How can you have more fun with change? Love to hear your "fun theories" in the comment box below. If you would like weekly updates of this blog, click on become a fan.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sleep is Not Just For Babies

The pages of the Living Section often discuss the importance of sleep and for good reason -- most of us are not listening! A majority of adults are severely sleep deprived, getting an average of six hours when our bodies need eight. Statistics show that over 90 percent of teenagers are averaging three hours less sleep than they require, and the same 90 percent of parents do not think their children's reduced sleep time is a significant issue. How come everyone thinks sleep is for sissies or for babies?

Parents in the United States are obsessed with sleep -- for their babies that is. There must be hundreds of books about how to get an infant to sleep. I know I tried many of them -- including co-sleeping, the dreaded Ferber method and the Baby Whisperer, to name a few. However, our interest in monitoring their sleep dramatically drops off after that, and sleep is no longer a priority.

Why is that? Once we have finally achieved the milestone of getting our kids to sleep through the night, parents move into cruise control and don't keep track of sleep as a health priority like diet and exercise. Yet the impact of sleep deprivation is much more immediate and long standing than eating a doughnut or avoiding working out. A student who drives to school on less than seven hours of sleep is just as impaired in their reflexes as if they drank a beer and got behind the wheel.

With modern families trucking around until late in the evening with work, sports and activities, kids are often encouraged to stay up later at night to finish homework or unwind. Most parents have no idea that even an hour less of sleep can have a dramatic affect on their children's cognitive abilities the next day -- effectively losing one or two grade levels of performance. Somehow it has become culturally acceptable to be lax around bedtime routines. The permissiveness for younger children sets up a dangerous pattern of sleep deprivation as the norm.

For example, loads of parents allowing their elementary aged kids to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch prime time shows like "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars." At the elementary level, kids still need close to 10 hours of sleep for optimum health. If they are waking up at 6 a.m., they need to be asleep by 8 p.m. Kids start going to bed later than they should at a much younger age, and it naturally seems OK to push the bedtime out further as they grow older. If a six-year-old is going to bed at 9 p.m., by age nine, they feel entitled to go to bed at 10 p.m., and by 14 they want to stay up until midnight.

"I know my kid should get more sleep, but I give up!" A parent lamented to me by telephone. "What am I supposed to do? He has baseball practice three days a week until 8:30 p.m., and can't even think about cracking a book until 9 p.m., and the bus comes every morning at 6:45 a.m. I guess they just have to adjust to the real world early."

This is a common perspective I have found while conducting interviews with parents. Many of us have not had enough education on the health risks of sleep, and naturally feel defensive, or protective of our children. Common responses include, "My kid is fine, and just doesn't seem to need that much sleep," or a sense that learning to function as a sleep deprived individual is part of the rites of passage to make it in the world as an adult. It is pretty insane.

In the last 20 years, life of a teen or young adult has become successively more intense, with no end in sight. Most kids are addicted to their cell phones and constant social networking, pushed academically at school, physically in sports and socially in public service, until all the hours of the day are effectively squeezed into a vice-like schedule. Many kids are also falling apart with caffeine addition, depression and teen suicide on the rise.

Until I started researching the issues of sleep for an upcoming book, I had absolutely no idea what kind of price our kids are paying for the lifestyle we have created. I knew kids had a lot of pressures that affected them, but sleep? Nah, no big deal. Not anymore. I have become a sleep advocate and so can you.

Here are a few tips to get started increasing the Zzzz's in your house:
Understand the risks of sleep deprivation. In a nutshell, losing sleep once in a while is fine, but regularly is absolutely not. Risks include: obesity, depression, a loss of cognitive function, impaired sports performance and increased risk of drowsy driving accidents.

Have a family discussion. Explain to your children that the brain is very busy at night. It is logging the lectures they learned in school to help them retrieve it for tests, managing the stress and emotions of the day, and strengthening muscles to better perform at their sports. Good sleepers always get the best grades!

Set up a bedtime schedule by counting backwards from wake up time. I have a freshman in high school who can easily stay up past midnight every night texting and talking to friends. We agreed that he needs to get at least eight hours of sleep at night, even though the optimum amount is nine and a half hours. Together we counted back from the 6 a.m. wake up time so he understood that he has to be asleep by 10 p.m. This lessens some of the arguments and helps them assume responsibility.

Be a good role model. Hey, most of us adults are just as bad! Help set a good example by slowing down activities an hour before bedtime, turn off the computer and get out a good book to start unwinding. Try to get a solid eight hours yourself. Everyone will feel better and family life may be a whole lot more pleasant!

*Be sure to check out the college pages of Huff Po to see the "Freshman 8" challenge started by Arianna Huffington and Dr. Matthew Edlund for more tips on transforming our relationship with sleep.
How are you managing sleep in your house? Love to hear your stories below and feel free to click on "Become a Fan" for weekly updates.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Possessions Would You Take if You Only Had 15 Minutes?

Mother Nature has blasted her fiery wrath in California and Colorado this week -- leaving a wake of blackness, and heart breaking lessons on the impermanence of our "stuff." A massive fire in San Bruno California burst out of nowhere on Thursday evening, sparked by a broken 24-inch natural gas main. Scores of residents were forced to flee as firefighters battled the ferocious blaze, leaving six fatalities and scores of injuries.

According to the Mercury News, two brothers, Bob and Ed Pellegrini, live near the house at the center of the explosion, and thought an earthquake had rattled the Bay Area. Then they saw the flames outside their window.

"It looked like hell on earth. I have never seen a ball of fire that huge," Bob Pellegrini said.
It was too hot to escape out the front door, so the brothers ran out the back and up the hill, the fire chasing them. It felt like a blowtorch on the back of their necks, they said. Then they saw that their house and four cars were destroyed in the fire.

"The house is gone," Ed said. "I have nothing. Everything is gone. We're homeless."

A few days earlier, the worst fire in Colorado history consumed 169 homes in the mountains west of Boulder. I used to live in that neighborhood, and have been viscerally affected by the image of sacred land being charred as far as the eye can see, and treasured friends literally losing everything they have. Over 7000 acres burned, and the fires are still not fully contained.

Bestselling author Joan Borysenko is one of the lucky ones. Her home lies in the very heart of the blaze, and was spared, while scores of neighbor's homes were burned to the ground. She writes on Facebook,

"Apparently, just as our home did catch fire, the wind, gusting up to 45 mph shifted direction and miraculously the fire fizzled out. (We) found out firefighters saved our house with water and by cutting off burning part of deck, and are grateful to the amazing firefighters and volunteers."

Lydia Gracing shared her experience of waking up on a beautiful Colorado morning to the news no one ever wants to hear. "A sheriff came to our house and told us we had literally 15 minutes to take what we can grab and get out." Imagine. Whether it is the heat of flames or the swirl of flood waters, or wrath of a hurricane -- losing one's home and surrounding land is a shock beyond comprehension.

Here is a clip of a Lydia and others sharing their reactions in the heat of the moment while the fires were just breaking out:

It is so easy to take our lives and our homes for granted. If you only 15 minutes or less to leave your home forever-- what would you grab by first instinct? What would you later miss the most? I posed this question on Facebook and had some great initial responses:

John had a classic "keep it simple" response: "My wife and kids. And my homeowners insurance policy."

Lisa joked on the lighter side: "My purse that has everything in the world and then some in it!! Could live out of it for a while!"

Amy offered a more introspective response: "I have often wondered about this. Obviously my pets and people, but after that I would attempt to gather family treasures -- photos, books, etc. I could care a less about 'Important documents,' you can get a new Social Security card; you can't replace Grandma's recipe box.'"

I think any tragedy that causes loss always makes you grateful for what you were able to salvage, particularly if there are no injuries, and later rue those things that were lost, regardless of what they were. I suppose I would be particularly sad about those things that would be too difficult to take in a hurry: special furniture (my great great grandmother's hall tree), things that are buried in my basement (like my wedding gown) and children's baby things."

Rochelle shared: "Live alone -- no one else to worry about but me -- however there is a picture of my grandmother that hangs in my kitchen taken in the 1920s, she looks like a flapper, and a few other pictures on my walls I would take. And my laptop -- everything else is insured."

Interestingly, many of the comments that came in listed their computer as one of the items to take. It is sort of astounding to notice how our lives and our treasures have evolved. It is as if a small electronic box has become the heart of our lives, the center of our memories, the safe box of our paperwork and an attachment we cannot live without.

When we all take a moment and imagine losing everything in the matter of seconds, life's priorities automatically shift, don't they? The little fight with the kids seems silly, the worries about how to get that project done on time seems less intense, and the temptation to get sucked into political mudslinging downright ridiculous.

What really matters to you in the inventory of your life? What if you could only take a single item -- what would it be? I sat at my desk and really thought about this. Surprisingly the one thing that floated to the top is an antique fountain pen that sits on our piano and holds a treasured family story. My father in law used the cap to hide a special diamond inside when he immigrated to the United States from Poland. The diamond was purchased with all of the money they could scrape together as Holocaust survivors after the war, and represented everything they had, and is an ultimate symbol of love, survival and faith. The diamond sits on my finger now, and will sit on my daughter's one day.

The Buddhists say suffering expands the heart and quickens compassion. If your home is safe and dry, recognize the blessings you have, and allow that gratitude to open your heart. If you are moved to help the victims of these fires, do so. Give money, time, clothing or whatever you can.

For California residents and friends, The Red Cross has a receiving center at the Church of the Highlands 1900 Monterey Dr., San Bruno. And Levi Strauss & Co. announced a clothing donation program for victims to receive a $250 gift card for Levi's(R) brand clothing.

If you live in Colorado, a new store is literally opening up offering anything and everything for fire victims -- bring some of your "stuff" to help another, or contact the American Red Cross at or (303)772-7474.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

School Update- has "No Child Left Behind" Become a Race to Nowhere?

Starting school is an exciting time, and can be stressful for both parents and children. The carefree days of summer are over, and it's time to get back to work. Trouble is, the level of "work" at modern American schools has become rote, overwhelming, stressful and often ineffective in developing the critical thinking skills necessary to compete. For many kids, school feels more like a destination than a discovery, and a race instead of a journey. For many experts and parents, it has become a race -- to nowhere.

Vicki Abeles is the director of the new documentary called, The Race to Nowhere an in-depth exploration of modern family life: including the mounting pressures on kids to perform, unending amounts of homework, little free time - and the drastic toll it is taking on the health and well being of our youth today. The film has enjoyed rave early reviews, and is currently being screened across the country in schools and communities, complete with discussion guides for conversation afterwards. Abeles is starting a movement -- and it is about time.

Abeles saw the stresses and pressures of modern academic life take its toll on her own children, and offers a vulnerable and painful account of her own middle school daughter spiraling downward into suicidal thoughts, and her elementary school aged son agonizing over homework at night when he should be out riding a skateboard. She took action and began to interview parents, teachers and administrators. She was shocked to discover her dilemma is widespread and rampant.

It has been eight years since the "No Child Left Behind Act" was mandated by the Bush administration. For the first time in history, all children were expected to produce equally, a mold we had never put them in before. While some children are academically oriented, others are creative, or more "hands on." What is the end result? Teachers are teaching to the test so they don't lose their bonus, administrators rely on state exam results to receive funding, and kids are the losers. Students learn to spit out information, and forget it 10 minutes later.

Teaching to the test, and overwhelming kids with content, while eliminating recess, field trips or project based learning has created kids who are stressed out, sleep deprived, cheating to get by, not having time to learn how to think. Some call American education "a mile wide and an inch deep."

I have four children in the school system and have seen the changes myself. Teachers seem resigned at the content they have to "cram in" and hate losing the ability to creatively teach a subject they love, or adapt to the varied needs of their students. They are frustrated, fed up, and many are leaving in droves. It takes a special person to teach our youth, and until we value their role as being one of the most coveted in society, we will get what we deserve. In Singapore, the government selects the top 20 percent of graduating seniors, and offers them a full ride, and a stipend to be trained as a teacher, as they consider it the highest valued profession.

One of the primary concerns Abeles addresses in her film is the issue of homework. Sara Bennett wrote the book, The Case Against Homework and said the amount of homework given to kids has skyrocketed in the past several years. Even kindergarteners are given packets of sheet work to complete each week. Kids are asked to sit in school for seven hours at a young age, and then come home and sit for more. As one teacher described, "it is no longer about learning."

Dr. Denise Pope, founder of the Challenge Success program at Stanford University, said that most of the countries that outperforms us academically give significantly less homework. Studies have shown that homework is ineffective and has no correleation to academic performance in the elementary school years. In middle school, one hour is the maximum amount to be effective, and at high school, no more than two hours.

When parents are honest about it, most weeknights are spent fighting over when to get the homework done, and it becomes the dominant family conversation night after night. In fact, in order to keep the peace, many parents often end up editing, correcting or even doing the homework for them -- which is effectively teaching them to cheat. What sort of message does this send? Family time, private time and leisure time have tumbled to the bottom of the priority list.

The Challenge Success website states, "Educators, mental health professionals, and business leaders agree that the pursuit of a narrow vision of success often leaves young people lacking the skills most needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world--adaptability, interpersonal and collaborative skills, and the ingenuity and creativity to solve complex problems."

Dr. Denise Stipek is Dean of Education at Stanford. She has found a dramatic difference in college students in recent years. "Kids today are taught everything in a formulaic manner. If they see a question that was not on their test, they fall apart."

In a review of colleges students entering into the prestigious University of California schools, such as UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, fully 50 percent of incoming freshman with top SAT scores and honor roll grades, have to take remedial courses in math and English in order to simply be prepared for freshman level academics. Kids agree they often have to cheat, cram and put all their effort into their college entrance resume as the holy grail of high school.

Dr. Pope conducted a massive study to determine how many kids cheat these days. They devised a test the checked eight different ways a student can cheat and found that less than 3 percent of the 5,000 students surveyed had never cheated at school. As one student complained, "the point of school is to learn, not to always memorize. We have to learn to live without sleeping, eating or having any time off."

What do we do about a problem so large, complex and yet so dire at the same time?

Allow a child to find their passion. Not every kid is destined for Ivy Leagues.
Be an advocate for children and their unique needs. Negotiate for less homework, carve out more unstructured time for play and private time, and try to create downtime in the evenings to relax.
Define Success on Your Terms. Consider the qualities you want your children to have as adults, and allow them to make mistakes. "If we take the play out of childhood, we take away the tools to learn how to be an adult," said Pope.

On a larger societal level, Dr. Stipek stresses, "The United States needs to rethink how we do schooling, and how much we invest in the next generation. If we don't invest up front, we pay for it at the back end in prisons, welfare, health care and all the ways individuals and society suffers."

For all you parents and grandparents are out there feeling anxious about another year of meltdowns, break downs and overwhelm, check out the website for Race to Nowhere and try to catch a screening in your area. New York will be running the film starting Septermber 10th for a week at the IFC Center, and Los Angeles will do the same at the Laemmel's Sunset 5. Let's join Abeles in her movement to restore balance to our children's lives, and start out own discussion here with any comments and suggestions on how improve the balance of education for our children.

*Want to hear more? Listen to Kari and Vicki Abeles discuss the issues on the Lifestyle Mom Radio Cafe from LA Talk Radio.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reclaiming Spare Time

As summer wanes -- have you been busier than ever, with nary a moment for spare time? As I wrote last week, American's are not so great in the vacation department. To both save money this year, and manage our collective stress madness, I suggested trying out a simple home-grown retreat as a way to recharge the batteries. Part of the magic of a retreat is having spare time.

There is something nostalgic about spare time. Like an old friend you knew once and with whom you somehow lost touch. Spare time sits on the side of a broken fence, wheat stalk between its teeth -- daring us to watch puffy clouds. Or it's floating around the pool instead of hen-pecking at the keyboard. Spare time beckons, yet few can hear the whispers over the whir of cpu's and blare of CNN. How do we rope, lasso and reclaim Spare Time?

For many of us, having a moment or two to spare has been replaced by the unending bleeps of text messages, incoming email, unending tasks and hectic schedules of work and family. Most of us cannot make it through a single hour during the day without checking email. Scientists warn these constant interruptions affect the brain's ability for concentration and deep thought, and we truly cannot multi-task as well as we think we can.

When I was growing up, the TV shows on air included Andy Griffith -- the ultimate in spare time. Remember the theme song whistle during the opening shots; Andy heading out fishing with little Opie? Everyone stood around a lot, talked to each other and managed minor small town incidents. We certainly couldn't have a cop show like that now, with a lot of hanging out, instead of busting up drug rings. Does anyone have time to whistle anymore?

My other favorite childhood show was the Brady Bunch, (which I heard was Michelle Obama's favorite too). They had a LOT of spare time -- even housekeeper Alice. All those kids hung out together after school, went on vacation, sang in a band with matching costumes; and those of us watching had enough spare time to memorize every single episode within the first five bars of the opening scene.

What if the Brady Bunch was set today? Imagine Carol running with her super size Starbucks in her super size mini van, conducting a meeting on her cell while in route to take Bobby and Cindy to soccer practice, Jan to her violin lesson, Greg to football and Marsha to cheerleading. While Mom is multi-tasking, the kids are plugged into iPhones, cell phones, texting and checking emails. No one is talking to each other, unless it is to pick a fight, and they certainly are not singing, "We're Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Dancin' All Through the Night."

The temptations that prey upon our time are in a different stratosphere as they were a generation ago -- hence spare time is relegated to the back pasture of our lives. However, I suspect a lot of the activities that consume all hours of the day and night are not as important as we think they are, and learning to step back and evaluate priorities could help generate some vital time... to do nothing. Maybe Dr. Laura could use some spare time from her radio show to chill out a bit.

Here are a few tips to reclaim Spare Time:

Email Self-Control -- Declutter your inbox by unsubscribing to anything you don't need or read regularly, and try not to continue long email conversations that aren't necessary. One of Therese Borchard's tricks is to take weekend breaks from her computer. Imagine! This is a great way to scrounge up a ton of free time -- think of it as email Sabbath, (Reading this column, however, is an acceptable exception).

Social Networking is junk food, plain and simple. Let's face it -- Facebook is the Doritos of friendships and Twitter is a super size box of Fries. Both are tempting, and both are ultimately not all that healthy. Take the time for some "slow food" -- home-cooked friendships that require face-to-face time. If you are IM'ing someone in your office, get up and try walking over for a change. Facebooking your best friend? Pick up the phone or stop by; imagine how you look from space, hunched over terminals sharing the daily chatter.

Find the "in-between" moments of the day to embrace as spare time. Driving is a great opportunity to do some deep breathing, turn off the noise in your head, and notice the scenery around you, rather than listening to talk radio, eating, or talking on the cell phone. Find the moments in the shower, doing dishes or walking the dog to flatten out as buffer zones of nothingness.

Force yourself to be bored. Remember being bored? It is the MacDaddy of spare time. Kids today think five or six seconds of spare time equals being bored, and many adults' tolerance for unfilled moments is not much better. Set aside several hours once a month with nothing particular to do and see how it affects you.

Sometimes Spare Time saunteres into our lives when we least expect it. Spare Time roped me in by force recently and it was not comfortable. To rebel, I chose to fill the time with all sorts of backlogged projects like putting together good will donations, painting peeling trim, and clearing up the yard. At long last, I surrendered (the key) and just hung out. It became rejuvenating and felt great.

We are not wired to go 24/7 with mental chatter. Sometimes just listening to the wind blow is enough to keep you from going over the brink. How does good ole' Spare Time show up in your life these days? Love to hear your comments, and please click on Become a Fan to receive weekly notices, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Can't Take a Vacation? Make Your Own Retreat

Americans are hardly in a tropical vacation getaway mood this summer. Many do not have vacation benefits, scores are out of work on a 'never-ending' vacation, and others are too afraid to take time off for fear of job security. As I wrote in an earlier post, American's are the worst vacationers, and the United States is the only developed nation that does not offer paid vacation as a required benefit. Millions do not have paid leave, and have not taken a vacation in years.

Despite the obvious benefits of getting out of the office, evidence continues to prove that when an employer offers paid vacation time to employees, it can dramatically improve performance, increase productivity and reduces stress. Funny thing is, while it is easy to point the fingers at the "big bosses" out there who are withholding paid vacation, many workers who have such benefits don't take a vacation at all -- and accrue weeks of unused time.

What if your employer offered unlimited paid vacation, with no strings attached -- too good to be true? Rosemary O'Neill and her husband, Ted, own a small business called Social Strata, and decided to do just that -- for all 10 of their employees. Initially, they wanted to help one employee who needed time to care for her injured husband, and decided everyone deserved the same option. Did their staff take off to Mexico for a month and abuse the privilege? Hardly.
"The staff were all surprised at first, because it really came out of the blue." said O'Neill, "But then there was a really warm feeling as everyone digested what it meant in reality. Everyone has expressed that they feel trusted and respected, and that was a big part of our goal."

Social Strata requires everyone to take two weeks off each year - removing any pressure not to take a vacation. Their flexible policies represent a small but growing segment of companies throwing traditional work hours out the window, with great success. Netflix has offered unlimited paid vacation for nearly a decade.

The genius of this concept is giving responsibility for renewal and self care back to individuals. Some employees with unlimited paid vacation elect not to take time off for three years, and then take a 90-day dream trip. Others use the time for paternity leave. Ultimately, a vacation is a state of mind. The purpose of a vacation is to leave your routine and slow life down a few notches. Some choose a fishing trip, others go antiquing in quaint towns and many rejuvenate with physical sports in the surf and turf.

Why is it so many American's don't take vacations anymore? Maybe because typical vacations have become as complicated as the rest of our lives. The reality for many is that a vacation requires planning, organizing, packing, buying crap, arguing with the spouse, fighting with the kids and coming home more exhausted than before. With life so frenetic these days, our tolerance for stress is maxed out.

Jon Kabat-Zinn argues that in an age of 24/7 connectedness, we're hardly ever connected to ourselves. Maybe we aren't taking vacations because what we really want is a retreat -- simple, quiet time to leave everything battery operated and screen flicking behind, to be alone, be quiet and recharge the batteries within. Aahhhh.

But wait! Taking a retreat can be scarier than a vacation. What? No phones, computers or checking in? What will happen? Our addiction to email and 'checking in' has become a near obsession. I have asked audiences recently how many times per day they check their emails. Five years ago it was a couple times per day. Now, even the older population confesses to checking emails nearly hourly at this point, and feels anxious if several hours go by without a quick peek, let alone days.

Even though we resist, "getting away from it all," it is vital to our health. The brain needs time to rest in order to channel deep thinking, get creative, imagine new projects and be inspired for daily tasks. With the "dog days of summer" officially over, there are just a couple of weeks left. Haven't taken a vacation and feeling a little stressed, or depressed? Consider creating a retreat just for you. Start with just a few hours, and then build up to a full day, or even an entire weekend.

First: a question. If you had four hours of uninterrupted time all to yourself, with no chores to finish, tasks to accomplish or people to see -- what would you do? Think carefully. Often the answers are exactly what you need to do for your retreat. Some common answers include: take a bath, read a book, go for a hike, or walk in the garden. I am consistently amazed that most of the answers people come up with are absolutely free!

Now that you have an idea or two, here are a few tips to plan your retreat:
  • Determine how much time you want to take. Be realistic. Sometimes it may be only 30 minutes! Even a little bit goes a long way.
  • If you plan to be unavailable for longer than a few hours, program your email with an automatic vacation reply. Sort of sneaky, but it helps your brain unhook and relax.
  • Prepare your space. If you are going away, leave computers and PDA's behind. If staying at home, cover all TV's and computers with lovely fabric and pull the batteries out of the cell.
Ok. Retreat time has arrived, what to do now?
  • Indulge in silence. Silence is a lost art. Try to take time to simply be still. Notice the sensations or urges that come up to be occupied. Just let them go and BE.
  • Choose one or two of the ideas that are deeply relaxing to you, and spoil yourself. Take a bath with candles, a cup of tea and bath salts. Going for a hike? Bring along some paper and stop along the way to contemplate, jot a poem or draw a picture. Let the right brain take over for a while.
  • Do something indulgent, like watching TV in bed with a bowl of ice cream in the middle of the afternoon, or create a homemade altar space to meditate.

Taking a retreat is not always easy -- just being with ourselves? Scary. Jennifer Louden, best selling author of the "Women Comfort Book" series, recognized she had to escape the rat race to THINK, and decided to take a month-long retreat from the world this summer: no emails, texting, Facebook or checking in. She felt she had to step away from daily obligations in order to access the deeper contemplative tools needed to move from one project to the next. She captures the fear of letting go beautifully in this post from afar, called "A Pile of You."

How about you, HuffPo readers? Have you escaped the world to be alone with yourself this summer? How did it go? Love to hear stories of what happened, how to truly unwind on a vacation or retreat and ideas to share. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Can You Change Your Mind by Changing Your Sensations?

Does the body affect the mind, or the mind affect the body? Tony Robbins has been featured on the Living section recently with his "Breakthrough" series, and one of his favorite sayings is if you don't like something in your life, simply "change your mind."

Yet, Dr. John A. Bargh of Yale may disagree, and has shown our mind is constantly being shaped by the things we encounter in the physical world, right down to the hardness of our chair. "The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all," Bargh said. "Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies."

Bargh is a professor of psychology and cognitive science, and coauthor of several studies exploring the powerful influences of our senses in a decision making process. In 2008 he conducted a study with Yale Ph.D. student Lawrence Williams, now of the University of Colorado, which found that people judge other people to be more generous and caring after they had briefly held a warm cup of coffee, rather than a cold drink.

People were asked to hold a cup of either hot or cold coffee for a moment before answering questions, and had no idea it was part of the experiment. They were then asked a few questions and offered cash for themselves, or a gift certificate for a friend as a thank you gift. Those who held hot coffee were more generous, and chose a gift certificate for a friend, and those who held the cold cup chose to keep the cash. Remarkable such a quick and simple change of sensation affects an impulse like generosity at a primal level.

Imagine the power of such knowledge. Want to get a really nice gift from your spouse? Give them a hot java right before going into the store -- so calculating. Need to be a tough negotiator for a critical meeting? Hold on to an iced tea and then get in there ready to rumble. Is it that simple?

Bargh has just released a new study that expands this concept of our physical sensations affecting our decisions with a new series of experiments. They discovered if interviewers held a heavy clipboard, compared to a light one, they thought job applicants took their work more seriously, and subjects who read a passage about an interaction between two people were more likely to characterize it as adversarial if they had first handled rough jigsaw puzzle pieces, compared to smooth ones. Think of the terms "hard-hearted" or an "old softy."

Price negotiations were part of the experiments, and those sitting on hard chairs were not as open to negotiation as those on comfy chairs. "We have a basic idea of hardness being resistant to change -- that is what hardness means. We also have an idea that softness has a greater ability to give," said Bargh.

Maybe the hot summer is making me a bit cheeky, but perhaps we can take this information to Congress. Can you imagine if all senators on the floor be required to sit in soft, cushy chairs to be more amenable to negotiation, handle soft puzzle pieces while reading a particular bill to lessen the venom of debate, and drink only hot coffee before pontificating on the floor to think kind thoughts of their colleagues. Maybe THEN we could actually see some compromise, resolution and movement in getting things done!

And maybe I will arm myself with this knowledge as a parent. When the kids are in trouble, I get the hard chair, and they get the soft couch for extra emphasis. When it is time to discuss why one child made the other cry, they first have to hold a hot drink before we begin our instructive chat to encourage a peace treaty. Get the idea? Manipulating the subtle aspects of our environment impacts our thinking, so why not make it conscious?

According to Bargh in an interview on NPR, the yogis had it right that the only way to experience true thought is to have a level of sensory deprivation like going into a dark cave with no stimulation. Otherwise, we are constantly being affected by the world around us, and the physical environment we interact.

As we grow, toddlers explore their world strictly through their physical experiences which form the basis for more abstract concepts like a "warm smile" or a "hard negotiator"-- abstract terms to describe the connections from body to mind. If you touch something warm, the idea of warmth is activated and translates to people being warm. You behave more warmly, generously and pro-socially than if you had touched something cold.

Making breakthroughs is never easy. Learning to overcome our fearful thoughts, negative emotions and inner judgements is incredibly powerful when training the mind with meditation, therapy or empowerment techniques - but maybe some of the answers are to be found right under the seat of our pants.

What say you, Huff Po readers? Let's explore some of the connections between our bodies and our mind, and all the common phrases that demonstrates the ongoing link between sense and reality. (Just grab a hot cup before you comment please!)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Benefits of Fathers as Primary Caretakers

How often do we equate the word "father" with "caretaker?" Until fairly recently, most men were expected to garner power, fame and fortune outside of the house, and serve a more ancillary role in raising kids. Not anymore. The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at a rate almost twice that of single mothers, and now numbers over 2 million.

With the ongoing impact of the recession, 80 percent of people being laid off are men, and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Whether the role of full time Dad comes as a conscious decision to spend more time with the family, or due to circumstance - fatherhood is evolving.

Women have dedicated the past 40 years establishing an equal footing in the professional world, and have now achieved a 50 percent presence in the workplace. Now, a quiet but powerful revolution is beginning to happen on the other side. More men are staying home and not only liking it, but discovering how powerful and important their presence is for child development.

When guys are home parenting, you can bet there are a lot more games of Superman crashing through the house, soccer outside and creative meals made in one pot, but studies show kids benefit equally from a house run by a single mom or dad. As many modern parents know, the old adage that men 'aren't as good at parenting' reflects more a fact of lack of practice or opportunity, than aptitude.

Jeremy Adams Smith, is author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Fathers, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family, now available in paperback. He is holding the primary parent role in his family, and has done extensive research into parental roles. He writes:

Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are discovering that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life choices, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, we have discovered that father involvement is essential to a child's well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.

In so many ways, raising a family remains slanted in our collective psyche towards the more feminine interests and styles. Full time Dad's often feel awkward at the library "play groups" and feel like an outcast on the playground. Yet, when men become involved with their children, it helps bolster their self-esteem, improve performance at school and keeps them from high risk behaviors. While women have demonstrated different, but equally effective methods of leadership in the boardroom, men are standing up to redefine how to run a household.

One of the most creative and effective ways to explore the complexities of changing social systems is through storytelling. So, for all you Dad's who are out there manning the stove, changing diapers, driving the teenagers and taking primary responsibility for watching the kids, have I got a wonderful summer reading book for you. After all, I highly doubt the "Twilight series" is on the top of any macho reading list.

Home, Away is a new fiction book about a Major League Baseball player who quits the big leagues in his prime -- and gives up a $42 million contract -- to care for the son he lost in a custody battle years before. Written by Jeff Gillenkirk, freelance writer and former speechwriter for New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the story evolves from his own experience as the divorced father of a teenage son.

"This is a story about someone struggling with the conflict between work and family that so many people face: how can I have a career and raise a kid?" said Gillenkirk as we chatted by phone this week. Part of this story is inspired by divorced Arizona star Matt Williams, a major league baseball player who decided to leave the sport to spend more time with his family -- a brave move in a very masculine sport.

Whether or not you like baseball, have been in a divorce or raised a child single-handedly, this is a fun and quick read that reflects the complexities of relationships, the up's and downs of life, and the necessary sacrifices that are often required of both men and women in the long journey of parenthood.

Publicist David Jacobsen of Chin Music Press commented, "A stay-at-home dad myself, I can attest to the fact that there are really no novels that grapple with the conflict between a man's ambition and the love of parenting. Home, Away is about that conflict, set against the dramatic backdrop of professional baseball."

Gillenkirk is an advocate for educating men about the importance of early involvement in their children's lives. He plans to use his fiction novel as a tool to help men talk about the importance of being involved with their kids, as they are going through mandatory parenting classes before formal divorce. He meets with prison inmates to explore the generational toll of absent fathers, and high risk behavior.

"If Dad's get involved at the beginning, they become bonded and so involved, it stays for the rest of their life," said Gillenkirk. "It often boils down to men not taking the opportunity to parent, and always default to work taking precedence."

If books are not your cup of tea, there is a great new documentary out called The Evolution of Dad, written and directed by New Jersey-based stay-at-home dad Dana Glazer, who sees the shifting landscape of fathers, and recognizes this is a time unlike the generation before, or the generations to come. According to The New York Times, "Dads like Glazer are redefining the role, rejecting old expectations while still answering to them, knowing they don't want the earlier model but not yet certain what the new model should be."

Check out this emotion-filled YouTube clip of the film that this is sure to awaken the special place Fatherhood holds in our collective hearts.


Evolution of Dad - Introduction from Evolution of Dad on Vimeo.

As Ed and Deb Shapiro often cite here on HuffPo, "Be the Change." How are men redefining the role of caretaker in your experience? Love to hear your comments and stories below. Feel free to click on "Become a Fan" to receive weekly updates.