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.