October 31, 2009

A kind word of thanks to those who commented

As I posted to Leading Reads yesterday, I noticed a few comments made this month by readers. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet established my settings to notify me of those remarks, so it was my first awareness of your comments. Since most people had profiles that didn't permit me to communicate with them, I'm sending this blanket thanks to everyone who took the time to write a few lines. How nice of you! Many thanks for your kindnesses. It really gladdened my heart!

October 30, 2009

Five things to love about yoga

It’s amazing how your view of things can change over time. When I was first introduced to yoga in 1996, all I could see was a pud form of exercise. I was attracted to it and  enjoyed it, but I didn’t really appreciate its potential, probably because I  wasn’t completely ready for it. I wish I had been. Life could have been better a lot sooner. This realization has made me feel obligated to share what little I know about yoga with others, in hopes they’ll discover its potential, too. Here’s what I’ve come to love about the yoga practice I’ve developed over the past few years.

1)Yoga makes you taller.
I feel a good two inches taller after practicing yoga. The reality is probably something far less than that, but all the work we do extending the spine and opening the body has a lengthening effect. It’s one of the first things a beginning student will notice after leaving their first class. After rounding the shoulders all day over computers, desks, steering wheels, and meals, it feels wonderful to counteract that.
2) All things are made clear through yoga.
Addictions, bad habits, unhealthy relationships, and imbalances are all laid bare in a faithful yoga practice. We come face to face with reality in a neutral way that somehow makes change more compelling. We are more drawn to studying sacred texts like the Bible and we see the world and ourselves through the lens of this timeless wisdom. Scary events and people have less power over us because we see them for what they are: delusions and distortions. Since we’re dealing more with reality, we’re less subject to lies—ours and other people’s. We don’t invest energy in things that aren’t real and true. That said, we respect the fact that our reality isn’t the only reality. We are less susceptible to work on changing other people, although we find that other people are often changed when we deal with reality. Since our egos are checked more rigorously, we know that we don’t have all the answers and we have no right to judge. That’s very liberating.
3) Yoga helps you connect with the protective power of God. 
I used to meet God with fear and trepidation. No wonder I found it difficult to develop some discipline around prayer and meditation. My yoga practice has encouraged me to spend more time with God. After I pour out my heart, we spend a little time just hanging out together—and I don’t mean that in an irreverent way. Afterwards, I feel cloaked by His love. When I leave those meetings, I feel more prepared to face the trials of life. I’ve come to see them as a necessary part of my development. I resist them less. Less resistance, less stress.
4) Practicing yoga surrounds you with other people who want to be well and whole. 
For the past six months, I’ve spent four hours a week studying yoga in a teachers’ training program with a dozen people. I’ve never felt more comfortable and safe in a group than I have with these people. Because we’re all striving toward similar goals, we’ve grown close, supporting each other through the burdens of life in the same way that my church family does. We pray for each other. Our study is intense so we move to the heart of most matters with clarity, speed and economy. This group has become like a force field in my life which I know will be with me well beyond the end of our class next February. Whether you intend to teach yoga or not, the deep connections you make with others are reason enough to enroll in a teachers’ training program. Yoga attracts people who are interested in being their best and being a positive force for good in the world. I’m not saying we have the market cornered on the pursuit of excellence, but when you join forces with that kind of energy, don’t be surprised at the improvements you can make.

5) Yoga helps you move through life more easily both physically and mentally.
The first and only time I swung a golf club this year, I was amazed at the fullness of my swing. I could move in a complete sphere. After a year of dedicated practice, I’m stronger and more flexible than ever—and not just physically. Noticing what’s going on in your body gives you a greater capacity to notice where you are tight and rigid in your life. As you learn how to turn loose physically, there’s a direct correlation to your ability to become more open and flexible in life. You bounce back from things easier. You greet challenges with more confidence. Conversely, you also know how and when to accept your own boundaries, understanding when you simply can’t go further safely.

I realize that I have been long on claims and short on explanations, but everyone has to discover the transformative power of yoga for themselves. I hope that my story will motivate someone out there to step onto a yoga mat and give it a try.

Good resources for beginning yoga students
Yoga Basics: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Yoga for a Lifetime of Health and Fitness, by Mara Carrico; 30 Essential Yoga Poses, by Judith Lasater; and The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation by Robert Butera.

October 21, 2009

Five ways to improve your thinking

Brain researchers say growing old isn’t only a factor of a changed body, but of an unchanged mind. One of the healthiest things we can do for our brains is to liberate ourselves from the prison of traditional thought patterns, however comfortable they may seem. Here are five quick ideas for opening new pathways in your brain, gathered from the most current research on brain function and aging.

1) Whatever you normally do in a given situation, do just the opposite.
When the same irritating event repeats itself in life, resist your first impulse and consider the opposite reaction. We can invite a world of possibilities and solutions to old problems when we depart from habitual, automatic responses. Easier said than done, I know.

2) Change the channel.
If you think Glenn Beck holds a mirror on the world, tune in to National Public Radio for your news at least one day a week. Read the International Herald Tribune or another newspaper with a global perspective. Likewise, if you can’t tolerate Beck’s rhetoric, give yourself at least one weekly dose. A friend of ours was horrified to discover that my husband gets his news from the local newspaper. She saw nothing wrong with the fact that her main news channel was Glenn Beck. He couldn’t imagine how she could think Glenn Beck was a reputable source of news. See what I mean?

3) Change your routines.
If you sleep on the left side of your bed, reverse the pattern. If you have nailed a morning ritual that works for you, dare to change it. Move your furniture around—in your head and in your house, and see what happens.

4) Travel. 
Ever notice how your life sparkles after returning from a vacation? Changing your surroundings has an effect on the brain. Okay, maybe now isn’t the time to schedule that trip to Europe. But you can visit a new neighborhood. Try a new sport. Walk through a new neighborhood. Shop in a different grocery. Try a new recipe. Use your imagination. You’ll come up with something that constitutes traveling without going to the moon.

5) Practice suspending judgment.

All the great spiritual texts of the world address the problem we humans have with attachment. When you find yourself clinging to an opinion too dearly, know one thing: you don’t have to change who you are or what you believe to listen with understanding for a period of time. Try to listen to an opposing position without laying your personal veil on top. Appreciating people for who they truly are is a pleasurable experience. Resisting the reality of the world is a major cause of stress. The moment we judge how a person, a situation, or an issue ought to be, we can’t really appreciate what is. Life is just too short for that.

October 14, 2009

The President's letter: a librarian's plan runs afoul

President Obama wrote my library kids a letter this summer. He was responding to a package I mailed the White House last spring, containing letters and drawings from 10 boys in kindergarten through fifth grade. They had drawn and written to the President as part of a library program I planned called “Dear Mr. President” intended to explore similarities between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. I had another motive for the program: encouraging kids to become part of the democratic process by expressing a point of view. Their letters ranged from the serious to the trivial, covering war, abortion, and a request that the President’s daughters write them back.

This summer I wrote letters to all my state and national representatives to express my views on health care reform. I received only one reply, so I couldn’t imagine that the boys would receive anything for their effort—other than a lesson about living in a free society. When the President’s response to the boys arrived in June, I was beside myself with happiness and surprise. I used to work in the PR field where I frequently performed such ghostwriting tasks for leaders. Please don’t think I am so simple that I believe the letter was written by the President’s own hand, although it is possible.

Knowing that didn’t change my enthusiasm for showing the President’s letter to my colleagues and the kids who had written. Originally, I had hoped to display it in the library to show our kids’ involvement. My enthusiasm was soon dashed by my respected colleagues’ thinly-veiled contempt toward the President. I shared the letter with my kids, but decided not to display it after all, hoping to avoid an affront. I filed it away in a folder. I had never considered the possibility that such a display would be viewed as a political statement. After all, he’s not running for office. He holds the office.

When I ran across the folder in my office yesterday, I was filled with remorse. It’s not that I think President Obama is the Messiah. He’s just a man. Call me old-fashioned. I still believe that the President deserves the respect of his office, whether I agree with him on a particular topic or not.

Like many of my brethren who aspire to be better people than we are, I know that the problems I find in the world are frequently problems that I have with myself disguised. The whole affair reminds me of attachment—my human tendency to lock-in on an idea and maintain my individual sense of rightness at all costs. A survey of spiritual texts teaches me that there are many good reasons to resist this impulse.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still function. Realizing something is hopeless yet being determined to make it otherwise is one example. A writer’s world revolves around imagination and the ability to see the world through the eyes of many different characters. Good leaders do that, too. They have to be willing to consider opinions and views that conflict with their own, realizing there is no single reality. There is only perception. For every position, there is an equal and opposite opinion that’s also true. Whatever we believe about ourselves, the world, or others, someone disagrees and may prove us wrong in the future. Think of all the debunked science myths in your lifetime. Opinions change. Facts change.

If you find it irritating when people think they are right and you are wrong, then join me on a personal challenge to open some new pathways in your own brain and build a more nimble mind. The place to begin is with ourselves. Tomorrow, I’ll feature four ideas for opening new pathways in your brain. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts about how to develop a brain (and a heart) that’s more open to others.

October 9, 2009

Reading strategies for time-pressed grownups

One night over dinner, one of our friends confided that he had been reading A Tale of Two Cities since last spring. He is determined to slug his way through this classic and others he believes will be more meaningful to him as an adult. Keep in mind, this man has four young children and a demanding job that keeps him at the office much longer than he would like. I admire his tenacity, but another part of me feels nothing but compassion for him. As much as I like Dickens—how could he do that to himself? He deserves to read such works when he is not so tired. Heaven knows Dickens deserves to be read with a mind that’s ready and alert. Classics aren’t always that ponderous, but there are more nourishing reading options for time-pressed adults who want books to be part of their lives.

Here are four strategies for remaining well-read throughout a busy, responsible life.

1. Snack on non-fiction. Who says you have to read the whole book? You’ve been listening to your Mama too long if you think that’s a must. Here’s a good rule of thumb: fiction needs to be read entirely; non-fiction does not. When I review any book, I always read the whole thing. The rest of the time, I move through non-fiction books like I consume news, picking and choosing what I want from each book. I read the introduction and preface for context, followed by the table of contents and index. From that, I choose chapters to read based on the topics that sound most interesting. The number of books published today (fiction and non-fiction) is staggering. So many books, so little time. How many things can you find to be interested in and learn something about? Find ways to snack at the buffet. An interested person is an interesting person.

2. Read children’s literature. You probably think I am saying this because I’m a children’s librarian. Not so. I say it because children’s literature isn’t just for kids. And because children’s books are shorter. The average juvenile fiction book is roughly 250 pages. The market is broader than ever before, covering topics that are both meaningful and entertaining. Children’s books aren’t what they used to be—in a good way. Of course, not every book is for grownups. But you’ll be surprised how many books will resonate with you. I have been totally blown away by serious children’s books like Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli or Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate. Richard Peck makes me laugh out loud. (My husband, too.) I haven’t even begun to speak of picture books, which are now published as collaborations between the most brilliant artists and authors in the world. They are treats for the eyes, heart, and mind. Go to the new book section in the children’s department of your library. You’ll see what I mean. Once again, I say: it’s okay. No one will think you are a simpleton just because you are reading a children’s book. Besides, who cares what someone else thinks? Picture books and juvenile fiction can be just the right tonic for very weary people who really need what’s inside. I’m very, very serious about this. You just don’t know what you are missing.

3. Read poetry. The very word is an affront to some people. I sincerely hope and pray that some English teacher in your past hasn’t ruined this art form for you. Poetry is made for time-pressed people. A whole book in a few lines. What’s not to like? Don’t approach poetry like you did when you were in school. You don’t have to get every metaphor and simile to appreciate it and have it improve your life. Liberate yourself. What do you think the poem is about? Pick up a poetry collection. If you don’t like your first choice, keep searching. Spend some time with one poem every night. Make it part of an evening ritual when you are slowing down, taking time to reflect on your life. You might even decide to memorize a line or two.

4. Know when to put a book down. I belong to a book discussion group. What I love about reading with a group is exposure to unlikely or difficult books. I like learning from the insight other people bring. Being part of the group also pushes me to finish one way or another. Even so, I don’t hesitate to lay one down after I’ve given it a good effort. If it doesn’t grab me in the first 100 pages, it is a goner. Sometimes I decide that a book’s negative messages aren’t good for me. That’s my prerogative. It’s yours, too. On the other hand, some authors make it worthwhile to press beyond your threshold to the end. The journey is worth it. Set your limit and don’t let some arbitrary need to finish make reading a chore. Nothing good can come from that.

5. Include audio books. I don’t care who you are, if you’ve got a job, you’ve only got so much time to sit and read. Think of all the time you spend in traffic or running errands, frustrated and captive. You can recapture some of that time with audio books. My 45-minute commute to work two days a week is like a ride on a magic carpet when I’m listening to an audio book. If you’ve ever felt wistful about all the books you are missing because you are too busy to read, audio books can help you live more and read more.

For a beautiful little treatise on the pleasures and benefits of reading, try The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to Get More Books in Your Life and More Life from Your Books, by Steve Leveen, co-founder of Levenger, a catalog of gadgets for serious readers. This gem of a book is definitely not an infomercial. I keep several copies to give recent graduates as an inspiring reminder that learning isn’t over when school ends.

October 7, 2009

Kids and computers: pondering the ways technology is changing our kids

As a Sunday school teacher in search of ways to make Bible stories engaging for first and second graders, I was thrilled when I discovered a flashy PowerPoint presentation that tells the story of Joshua to kids. Without another thought, I carried my laptop to class and introduced Joshua by inviting each child to read aloud from one of seven slides. Their eyes sparkled with anticipation. Even the shiest readers were eager to interact with a computer. Attention? Mission accomplished. Afterwards I spent some time second guessing my attention-getting strategy for the class. How could I have accomplished the same thing with a book?

The verdict is still out on how computer use impacts brain development in kids. There isn’t much research to weigh the long-term pros and cons of a technology-driven world. Anecdotally, we already see the potential impact in young adults joining the workforce. One of my friends is a change-management consultant who works with leaders and managers in technology-driven companies. Most of her clients are in their 20s and 30s. She recently described giving a 90-minute training session for managers on techniques to help employees cope with the rapid pace of change in the workplace. “At the end of the session, the feedback I got was that the training was way too long.” Get the paradox? Her example may reflect a concern neurologists and educators are still studying:  how does early computer use influence the ability to stay focused for long periods?

Here's what's already known about brain development. Children practice age-appropriate attention skills in stages and then move on to higher levels of concentration.  Until the age of seven, kids are acquiring basic attention skills. Too much input at this stage can cause children to either ignore sensory input or become jittery in unjustified ways. When the senses are teased all at once (as many computer programs and games do) it can impede the ability to focus on one thing at a time. The latest counter-argument in brain research says kids may gain better abilities to multi-task.

The question is: can we overtax the multi-tasking skill? The need to sustain attention on things that aren’t necessarily interesting or immediately gratifying hasn’t declined. Could this same struggle be reflected in our propensity to disobey traffic signals when we can get away with it? Stop for a traffic light? Who’s got the time? Boring. We are in such a hurry to be in the next place that we don’t quite have time to be where we are now.

Consider two more potential hazards of early computer use identified by researchers:

1)    Decreased ability to organize responses in a planned way. Some scientists warn that computer programs tend to lead kids through these steps, so they don’t learn as much as they should about taking steps toward a goal.
2)    Unnatural chemical response from computer stimulation. Many games stimulate hormones and chemicals in the brain. Responses to fear and excitement influence heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle changes. These responses become a habit that happens disproportionately to the situation, causing long-term health implications. Development of the part of the brain that governs emotion and complex thought may also be stunted.

As a librarian, I can’t help but wonder whether increased computer use is blurring the lines between information and knowledge. The teachers and college professors I know confirm that easy access to information has caused a loss of context for real knowledge. The only proven ways to accumulate knowledge is from deep study, experimentation, observation and reading—not the media snacking most of us do daily. Those skills will become increasingly difficult for kids and adults without appropriate development of attention. Parents and educators need to remain cautious about computer use for kids. For now, the recommended daily allowance may be comparable to meat in a healthy diet. It should be treated as a side dish—not the main entree.

Three great resources on kids and computers

The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well, by Martha Sears, Elizabeth Pantley

Brain Development in a Hyper-Tech World, The Dana Foundation

Who Needs Books When We Have Computers, by Jim Trelease

October 2, 2009

How to love a Kindle reader

My Kindle was a birthday present I gave myself last year after Oprah plugged it on her show. I don’t watch Oprah, but Amazon was giving a $50 discount to anyone who used the Oprah coupon code. The discount was enough to reel me in.

As it approaches its first birthday in my personal library, the Kindle is road-tested and I feel ready to tell all: it’s been like an adulterous affair—exhilarating perhaps, but lacking the deep and abiding love of a lifelong marriage. Books clutter my house and ruin my budget, but we are joined for life, for better or for worse. That said, I lack the willpower to end my relationship with this exciting version of a book. Here’s why:

1) The Kindle is oh-so-portable. If you travel and like having reading choices along, the Kindle is a joy. You may still carry an extra library book or magazine, but you’ll quit packing an entire suitcase or tote bag full of books to accommodate your roving eye.
2) Books are cheap. I’ve always got my eye on the next book I want to read. But we all know that the latest thing costs more. Not with a Kindle. You’ll seldom pay more than $9.99 for a book, even when the new hardback is $24.99. Classics in the public domain are only 99 cents.
3) The Kindle is the perfect companion for the gym. While other people are staring at CNN and Fox, filling their minds with what passes for news today, you can download one of dozens of newspapers or magazines, sampling a different newspaper everyday for a mere 99 cents. This includes international newspapers that provide a larger take on current events. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust the folks that report the news on television anymore. They are in the entertainment business. I still get my news from people who write it or give it to me by ear. They are only half as inclined as their television brethren to spin it.) If the news is depressing, you can choose inspiration, fiction, or non-fiction. Either way, 30 minutes of cardio work on a treadmill passes in a heartbeat. With a Kindle, there’s no wrestling the pages of a book or straining to see. Turning the page or increasing the point size is only a touch. The Kindle is a productivity tool that allows you to read at times you wouldn’t otherwise be reading.
4) You can highlight points and make notes about things you want to remember. Most avid readers mark ideas that hold meaning or contribute to a presentation or article. You can do all this with a Kindle, too.
5) Downloading is easy. Turn on the built in wireless device. Unless you’re out in the boondocks, connecting to the Amazon store is a breeze.

That’s where it ends for me. The reality is this: I can’t bring myself to read fiction on my toy. I suppose it’s because most of the online reading I do is non-fiction. That makes non-fiction on the Kindle seem okay. I’ve tried curling up in bed with an electronic novel, but decades of romantic connection to pages are embedded in my brain as surely as ink is on paper. You can read the pages just fine, but it’s like—well, it’s like committing adultery. You just know it’s wrong. How can that be enjoyable?

There’s another hazard for the true bibliophile. Remember the cheap books I mentioned earlier? That all sounds wonderful until you come to the realization that you must also own a hard copy. Oh, yes. You need it. It must be sitting comfortably on your bookcase where you can reach for it like a spouse. What can I say? Bibliophiles remember things by where they are on a page or within a book. We know the anatomy of a book. Go ahead and buy a Kindle for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. It’ll light your fire, but don’t expect it to be a permanent relationship. The market keeps producing wonderful tools to lure us away. If you’re a hardened addict, it won’t matter. You’re already married.