July 8, 2010

The Socrates Dilemma: another thoughtful discourse about wise use of technology

Like lots of people who work in and around the business of books, publishing and information, I’m frequently asked about my predictions for the future of the printed word, specifically the book. In this all-connected-all-the-time world, apparently there are plenty of people (not just librarians) who worry that books may go the way of newspapers.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is the latest book to salve the worries of bibliophiles everywhere. The author is a Washington Post newspaper reporter whose family declares all weekends “digital sabbaths” –two-day breaks from smart phones, e-mail, and computer screens. Powers and his wife instituted this practice after realizing that the more connected they were with the world, the less present and connected they felt with each other, family, and friends.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry makes a case for balancing our use information technology without overwhelming our minds – a problem that has plagued mankind since the time of Socrates and Shakespeare, according to Powers. As it turns out, Socrates was the ancient equivalent of a Twitter addict who would overindulge in live orations that dragged on forever. His friends often dragged him away for long walks to encourage reflection. His pals evidently knew what every well-balanced person comes to understand—that downtime is actually very productive.

The modern version of Socrates’ dilemma is what Powers calls digital maximalism—the notion that being more connected is better. He predicts that our overstimulated, underfocused minds eventually crave downtime, reflection and the private pleasure of reading a book. This can only be good news for the future and the value of books.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry challenges myths without completely bashing the good things we get from today’s information technology. Here were a few myths I enjoyed hearing him bust:

Younger people are somehow more native lovers of information technology.
Powers says the people who most comment on his book are under the age of 35. They totally get the idea that no form of technology trumps human interaction. Many are willing to admit that total immersion in IT has cost their generation something in the way of interpersonal skills. And they are anxious to reclaim those skills. I’ve got a few young friends in the communications profession (and elsewhere) who will vouch for that.

Information technology results in greater productivity.
However useful Google is, knowing things because you Googled them does not always generate retained knowledge. When people are constantly inundated with information, they find it more difficult to do work that requires sustained attention and make thoughtful, analytical choices. There’s a cost to employers when attention is excessively fragmented. People are prone to mistakenly identify time in front of a screen as work. Often it is not.

What a great addition to the ever expanding discourse about the intersection between human connections and information technology! This is a great self-help guide for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the role of technology in their daily life.

P.S. Don't forget to enter the drawing for this month's free book, Straight Down the Middle, by Josh Karp. Visit www.leadingreads.com to learn about the book and enter.

June 7, 2010

Warning: this is your brain on the internet.

My year-long experiment with social media is officially over. I spent all of April and May rethinking the online habits that had just about hijacked my real life. After some honest reflection, I have decided there are only two social networking efforts that matter to me: 1) checking in with friends and 2) writing about personal development and books for anyone who likes that sort of thing. If you want to help me share content/gain readers, that’s great. If not, I’m writing just for you (when you’re interested) and the sheer joy of it. And that’s fine with me.

Oddly, I seemed to have less and less time for these pursuits when my online crusade was at its peak. A disturbing lack of focus was creeping into my work habits, whether I was cleaning the house, writing an article or planning a program. I chalked it up to an excess of divided interests, aided by my online behaviors. As if to underscore the reasons I decided to reclaim my own attention, I have discovered a slug of new books about how our brains can be morphed by internet behaviors.

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains explores the link between our online behaviors and the decline of deep concentration, introspection, contemplative thinking and creativity. Thankfully, the brain is a very plastic organ and Carr argues that it can be adapted away from our online tendency to jump from shiny thing to shiny thing. Carr says this sort of interrupted thinking is actually a more natural state for the human brain and one that has only been circumvented by mankind’s access to (get this) the printed page, which allowed people to become more educated, civilized and capable of sustained concentration. In other words, progress has come at the price of regression. Now there’s food for thought for anyone who has noticed a decline in ability to do sustained reading and thinking.

Decades after Albert Einstein’s death, his genius is still informing us. As a result of some of the research done on his brain over the past 20 years, the field of neuroscience has exploded with new information about brain function. Doug Fields, a researcher at the National Institute of Health, has written The Other Brain, a new book about some of the most recent discoveries in neuroscience. One of the biggest findings concerns the role of the glia, a part of the brain that was previously considered to be nothing more than glue that held the brain together. Einstein’s brain had an abnormally high number of these astrocytes, which are involved in complex thinking and imagery. The glia in our brains transmit conversations between neurons and rebroadcast them to distant areas of the brain. I haven’t read the book yet, but I look forward to seeing how this neuroscientist/author can make this research accessible to the reading public. (For fun background on this research, check out NPR’s story.)

Here is a title that seems destined for my reading list as I approach my 50th birthday: The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch. In the strange brew that is now my brain, I alternate between thinking I’ve lost my mind and that I’m beginning to possess wisdom. (Believe me, the former is more obvious to other people than the latter!) Whether it’s noticeable to anyone else or not, decisions and tasks that were once difficult are much easier. I don’t repeat the same mistakes as often as I once did. Strauch’s book suggests the middle-aged brain is NOT on a steady decline. It actually improves in a number of areas with age. Hurray for experience, life’s greatest teacher! Strauch is a neuroscientist who has done extensive brain research and published a book on the teenage brain, in part because of her fascination with her son’s development. With her own aging, she became increasingly interested in the brain function of grown ups, people she defines as between the ages of 40 and 65.

While no one should dismiss the positive influence information technology has on us, there is a downside and people are beginning to notice, study, and write about it. We may be reaching a saturation point for handling stimuli, according to Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Researchers at the University of California-San Diego say the average American hears, sees, or reads 34 gigabytes worth of information a day, a figure that’s risen 5 percent each year since 1980.

As we exercise the part of the brain that multi-tasks, rushes and partially listens, the part that manages our ability to focus is languishing, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap. Another indication of shrinking memory is a tendency to move from one task to another without finishing anything, says Torkel Klingberg, M.D., author of The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory.

Challenging the brain requires more active participation than watching TV or surfing the internet. When we are tired, we naturally choose the most passive forms of stimulation we can find, even though we may feel unfulfilled by how we spend our time. Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, says we need to push ourselves toward more challenging mental work in order to improve brain function.

Here are a few tips from the experts to help manage online behaviors:

1) Notice your habits and whether you are focusing on the right things.
2) Don’t search for inane things on the internet JUST because you can.
3) Practice your sustained attention skills by reading a book, meditating and praying.
4) Make notes about things you’d like to read later to keep yourself on task.
5) Take breaks to recharge and unplug.

For my part, I’ll be taming my inner social media maven and trusting that a few faithful readers is good enough for this endeavor. If you are one of them, I thank you again for reading.

March 31, 2010

Finding your way to your next great career

Several weeks ago I listened to a radio segment about a guy fresh out of college, but without a lot of direction for his life. His solution to that problem was to try a lot of different jobs for a short while--a week or a month. After a year of working this way, he wrote a book about his experiences. My first thought was, “Ah, you stole my dream.”

I’ll just go out on a limb and admit it. No matter what I have done for a living, I’ve always had a wandering eye. With the exception of a two exceptionally deep love affairs with work, no job (or career) has ever been enough to hold me. My longest run was 12 years in a single profession, divvied up between two employers and a self-employment stint. I fought hard to get into that profession. After working my way in, I achieved a degree of mastery that was enough to merit interesting assignments, professional credentials, and awards from my peers. But I couldn’t imagine an entire lifetime of the same work. I wanted to know more about what was out there. Was there something else I was really intended to do? Was there someone else I had the potential to become? Doesn’t everyone wonder that?

Whether you share my wanderlust or life has dealt you some cards that force you to think about what‘s next, you may be interested in a new book designed to help you figure stuff out. The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great includes access to an electronic assessment tool that allows you to evaluate how close you are to your sweet spot--the overlap between your passions AND your strengths. According to author Rick Smith, most people won’t be truly satisfied until they fine a career that combines both elements.

If you view your prospective career change as a slam-dunk effort where you figure everything out quickly and march through a series of chronological steps, you may be disappointed by Smith’s encouragement to experiment and iterate. Nevertheless, I have to say that this approach worked well for me. I volunteered and part-timed my way into both new careers. That gave me a chance to try before buying and allowed me to get experience in a low-risk way.

Evidently, I share a common denominator with other career changers: we don’t think of our changes as reinventions. With each change, I found I became a little more like myself. After I announced my most recent career change, my husband tried to make me promise that this would be the last one. I wouldn’t do it because I knew part of my life’s work would be allowing things to unfold, discovering how past experiences might fit together in ways I just couldn’t anticipate. For some of us, it’s the journey and not the outcomes that are going to matter most when we are laying on our deathbed. There are tradeoffs and compromises, especially if you choose something more than just what you are good at.

Perhaps the most important tip The Leap offers for fulfillment in work is to set your own standard for success--don’t just follow along. Without that standard, you may wake up one day with a life that someone else wanted--not yours.

March 9, 2010

Strategies for success from our friend and handyman, Dave

When we bought our house 12 years ago, it came with an unusual amenity––a handyman. On the day of the closing, the owners handed us a bundle of information about the house, including the name and telephone number for the handyman who had done virtually every repair and modification during the time they owned the house. We may have purchased our way into to this relationship, but since that time, Dave has become far more than a handyman to us. He is our friend and a source of continual inspiration. I can’t begin to tell you the number of household riddles and problems he has helped us solve because he pays attention when we do not. From leaky faucets to remodeling projects, we’ve come to depend on his talent, wisdom, and keen awareness to solve some of our stickiest problems.

One day this winter, I called Dave and asked him to come over and help us hang new drapes. He hadn’t been here an hour when he looked across the creek bank about a quarter of a mile away and asked, “Is that a coyote?” I squinted, but I couldn’t see a thing. I ran upstairs and found our binoculars. After a few minutes, we spotted Mr. Coyote under an evergreen tree, taking a nap. “I’ll bet that’s his favorite napping spot,” Dave observed. For the next few days, I watched the spot and discovered that Dave was right. We walk by that window every day but we had never noticed that the coyote arrives about mid-morning and hunkers down for a nap beneath an evergreen on the opposite bank.

This isn’t the first time I have wondered what Dave might know about us because of his acute powers of observation. We asked Dave to help us install some shelving in the basement two summers ago. After evaluating all the choices at Lowe’s and Menards, he was indecisive about what materials we should use. After some deliberation, he finally came back to the house and asked me to ride with him to see what was available. On the way, he rounded the corner at a busy intersection, slowing down and looking intently over my right shoulder. “I’m sorry Crystal, but I’m going to have to stop and figure something out here. I’ve passed this spot three times this morning and I have to know what that big glob of mess is.”

Dave pointed to a golden, abstract object about 20 feet away on my side of the road. In the middle of the street, he turned on his emergency flashers and stopped the truck. He got out and walked downhill toward the object of his curiosity. I saw him tap it gently a few times with the toe of his boot to see if anything about it was alive. Finally, he picked it up and hoisted it up over his head as though it were a hat. He came back to the truck laughing. It was only a can of foam insulation, exploded by the heat of a sunny day, but Dave could not go on with his day until he knew the nature of its origin.

Aside from occasionally wondering how much trouble Dave has gotten into because of his curiosity, I can’t help but marvel at his gift for living in the present moment. Because of that trait, he always seems to have a keen awareness of what’s going on around him and what’s important. When someone in his family has a need, Dave will drop everything to tend that need. Watching how he deals with his family, anyone can see that Dave understands how fleeting life can be. He takes it moment by moment. It seems less as if life is happening to him and more as if he is happening to life. When he is with us, he brings everything he has and everything he knows to that moment. You get the feeling that Dave would die happy if he could just help you resolve your problem. He has nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but help you—unless, of course, one of his kids calls. We’ve grown to admire that trait more with every year that passes.

What a gift! What would happen if all customer service, all business, all jobs or careers, all personal relationships were imbued with this sort of curiosity and awareness? It could be like heaven on earth. Let me share three great titles that could provide similar inspiration for you. I just love all three of these books for the insight they bring to life, business and careers.

How to Achieve A Heaven on Earth: 101 Insightful Essays from the World’s Greatest Thinkers, Leaders, and Writers, edited by John E. Wade

Upstarts: How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from Their Success, by Donna Fenn

The Risk Takers: 16 Women and Men Share Their Entrepreneurial Strategies for Success, by Renee & Don Martin

March 5, 2010

Shall I suffer the agony of defeat in this social media skirmish?

I entered this crazy blog contest sponsored by the Indianapolis Museum of Art a couple of months ago. I didn’t really expect to be a finalist. But once I was, I looked at the competition and thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a chance that I could win.” After all, my entry was certainly as good as the others.

I felt that way until I opened the poll this morning and saw myself outvoted at a rate of 5 to 1! Yes 5 to 1. One thing is very clear to me: this isn’t about substance or style. It’s about social media. Because no one has 500 really close friends. Virtual ones, sure.

So I ask you, dear readers, should a 40-something writer like me (who uses social media as a play room, but hasn’t given it a real go) throw in the towel and let my young blogger friends bag this contest? Or should I unleash my inner warrior and enlist some help in this social media skirmish? (Okay, war.) Voting lasts until March 23. By the way, vote for Crystal. Not that winning matters to me, of course.

March 1, 2010

Learning to be still

Is there anything like sitting down with someone, expecting to receive the death sentence for something you’ve done wrong and having them bless you instead? When you get a blessing like that, you want to understand the anatomy of it. What special trait allows people to offer this kind of heaven-on-earth? I can’t help but believe that such gifts are really suffering transformed into something beautiful. It doesn’t matter who we are or how fortunate we are in life, we’re all bound to suffer from our cravings, our aversions or things we just can’t seem to accept or forgive in ourselves or others. One of the best known but least understood ways of coping is prayer and meditation.

If you, like me, look to books to improve your life, read Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World. Although it is filled with a lot of eastern thought that won’t jibe with a Christian’s perspective on the world, it elaborates on a process that’s biblical in its origin: transformation of the mind through meditation.

You can read this book in stages, a few pages a night. What you’ll get is a careful dissection of meditation from a wide variety of people, from the famous to the ordinary. It is loaded with short descriptions of how people view meditation and practical advice for making it part of your life. This book is an in-depth study of how inward changes really do change the world around us. If you’re a practicing Christian and you often find yourself rushing through your prayers, you’ll find it a useful tool for learning to be still, which is really the beginning of transforming your suffering into something beautiful.

Bonus Book for Kids: Don't miss this adorable picture book to share with kids on the joys of practicing yoga, Stretch, by Doreen Cronin and Scott Menchin.

February 18, 2010

Understanding WellPoint: why ginormous rate increases are inevitable in our current health care system

Only one thing shocks me about WellPoint’s 38 percent rate hike to health insurance policyholders: I ’m shocked that people are shocked by it. The fact that WellPoint raised premium rates that much all at once? No, that doesn’t shock me at all. That’s just WellPoint acting like a business. That’s what businesses do. They determine how much profit they want to make, what to charge in order to make those margins, and what their terms are for doing business. As long as people are willing and able to pay, everything is dandy.

In WellPoint’s case, they’ve lost a lot of healthy customers who paid premiums but seldom submitted claims. In a lean economy, some of these consumers decided to roll the dice and go without coverage. My husband calls it “riding bareback.” Paying the mortgage or buying groceries became more important, especially if some or all of the income that supported premiums has been lost.

That leaves WellPoint with lots of customers who can’t be without coverage. Lots of unhealthy people, lots of claims, less profit. Meanwhile, the cost of care itself is rising. Without insurance, people pay for health care at rates that are scary enough to wake the dead. Remember, they don’t have the clout of an insurance company to negotiate rates for services, so they pay at the Mercedes Benz rate for all health care. When they go through all of their assets (homes, cars, savings and retirement accounts) they are finished.

That’s where you and I step in. Their health care costs (now and later) are built into the cost of our care. Hospitals and doctors must charge more to help make up the difference. WellPoint must charge more to make its profit margins. Anyway, that’s our free market system at work. Love it or hate it, but don’t be outraged when it works the way it’s designed to work.

Why can’t we see that everyone has a dog in this hunt? Today’s employers have a struggle that’s comparable to the individual consumer in finding affordable health care coverage for employees. That’s especially true for small businesses. As an employee, you usually pay just a fraction of the premium. A generous employer gets the full brunt of it. Believe me, lots of employers are struggling to offer health insurance coverage at rates that both employee and employer can afford. Who can look at the state of the auto industry in our country and not see the demise of employer-sponsored health care?

Most people are just one job loss or health event away from knowing how the health care system does and doesn’t work in our country. As a self-employed couple, my husband and I have been seeing annual increases of 20 to 25 percent for a long time. These increases no longer shock us. We’re just glad to be covered by group insurance where that’s all they can do—pass on increases they feel they need for our group to remain profitable. If we were in the unhappy individual market for insurance, purchasing without the clout of a group, we might find that no one even wanted to cover us. Yeah.

Here’s why: insurance is, by definition, designed to cover unknown risks—not known risks. By the time a person reaches 50, they are bound to have at least a few health issues. When you buy individual coverage, you get to share your entire medical history with the prospective insurer. The insurance provider gets to decide if they’d like to have you as a customer, what to charge and what to cover based on that medical history. Unlike group coverage, the insurer also decides when they no longer deem you a worthwhile customer. They can send you packing. Nifty, huh? Good luck finding coverage after that happens. Personally, we’ve never been brave enough to play ball in this arena, although we're savvy enough to know that we might have to one of these days.

Whether we’re talking about group or individual health care coverage, we must remember one thing: insurance is a for-profit business. When we decide that we don’t want government involved in our health care, then we give ourselves over to a for-profit system. Health care choices get made by people who make or lose money based on their business decisions. It puzzles me that we are unperturbed about for-profit organizations deciding what health care we can have, but we are outraged about pooling our money in a not-for-profit or government-run health care system.

In any system, someone has to make choices about what’s covered. It’s the only way to make the math work because no system can cover the world and everything adjacent to it. Don’t hate WellPoint for doing what businesses do. Just think about whether you are okay with that method of handling health care for you and your neighbor, in sickness and in health.

Here are five books for understanding the very complicated question of what to do about health care.

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, by Matt Miller http://www.mattmilleronline.com/tyranny.php

Health Care Reform Now!: A Prescription for Change
, by George Halvorson and John J. Nance

How Reform Went Wrong: Health Care Reform in the U.S., Past and Present, by Michael E. Porter and Elizabeth Olmsted Teisberg

Health Care Reform that Makes Sense: A Detailed Plan to Improve the Health Care System by America's Leading Health Care CEO, by Alan B. Miller

When the Good Pensions Go Away: Why Americans Need a New Deal for Pension and Health Care Reform, by Thomas Mackel

February 9, 2010

This Valentine's Day, take a lesson in self-care from your heart

Sacred scriptures tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But how can we do a good job of loving our neighbors, when we really don’t love ourselves very well? Taking care of our minds, our bodies and our spirits isn’t vain or selfish. The reality is that we can’t serve others from an empty cart. When we truly love ourselves, we find it more difficult to hurt other people, and easier to help others. Love for self is ultimately love for all.

In Nischala Joy Devi’s book, The Secret Power of Yoga, Devi says the best lesson on self-care is taken directly from the body and its heart. The heart pumps and distributes oxygenated blood faithfully, day in, day out, all through the body. Part of the body’s built-in wisdom is that the heart is always the first beneficiary of the newest, freshest oxygenated blood. That’s because the heart knows that it must care for itself first in order to fulfill its purpose to the body. It is sort of like the safety instructions we get from airlines when we fly: in an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help children or other dependents.

When we don’t care for ourselves lovingly, sometimes our bodies, minds and spirits send us an urgent memo. Yoga encourages better care of all our essential parts because it allows us to develop the habit of noticing what is going on long before our bodies, minds or spirits declare a state of emergency. When we feel tension, anxiety, physical pain, confusion, or lack of clarity, we can combine our faith with a regular yoga practice to meet these symptoms at their source and bring whatever ails us into better balance.

Here are a few great affirmations to encourage more love in your life.

I build my life on a foundation of love.

Love sets my priorities and helps order my steps.

When in doubt, I always choose the path that leads to love.

The tide of my love is unstoppable. It flows in and out without fail.

February 6, 2010

The Preface: appetizer or entrée?

I hesitate to suggest this, but have you ever considered reading the preface in lieu of the whole book? Once upon a time, I viewed a preface as nothing more than a dull obstacle that kept me from diving into a book right away. I knew in my heart that they were supposed to be like an appetizer to a great meal, whetting the appetite for more. But with limited time to read, who had time for it? Just take me straight to the meat and potatoes.

Today, I think just the opposite. With limited time to read and a very broad appetite for books, a well-written preface or foreword may serve as a gourmet meal unto itself. As proof, this week I polished off three prefaces for books I have no intention of reading—at least not entirely.

The first is Otto Penzler’s witty set-up for The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. In it, Penzler offers the complete story on the concept for this book, originally conceived as a tourniquet for his hemorrhaging New York City bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop. As the title implies, each novelist gives readers an account of what makes a character tick. It should come as no surprise that the world’s greatest crime novelists approach this task in their own distinct ways.

I have absolutely no interest in crime novels, but this book was a fascination to my husband, who thrives on the likes of Robert Parker and Michael Connelly. To his credit, my darling spouse has a keen eye on the sort of writing that does interest me. If it weren’t for his recommendation, I might have missed this treat. What makes Penzler’s preface main-course reading is his apt and humorous analysis of the current condition of reading and the publishing industry in the United States. Read it and weep. Read it and laugh. Pathetic and funny all at the same time.

The second and third (yes, a book that required not one, but TWO forewords) were written for Elena Kostioukovitch’s tomb, Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. Foreword writers Carol Field and Umberto Eco each explain how Italian food, culture, and history intersect in ways that are esoteric to most Americans. They introduce the author as our ideal guide to Italian culture—one who is up to the task of explaining the unusual connection between Italians and their food due to her rare blend of objectivity and immersion.

I’m not sure I will be up for fully digesting Kostioukovitch’s complete journey, but the ruminations of these two writers have given me more appreciation than I had. While it’s not as much as I’d get from the whole book, it’s probably more than I would have had if I’d never picked up the book and snacked on it. So, read those forewords and prefaces. Let them serve as whatever course you most enjoy, appetizer, entrée or dessert.

February 3, 2010

January 30, 2010

A divine lunar lesson unfolds

Without the dense clouds that hovered over Indianapolis, I would have seen a full moon on my way home from dinner last night. Never mind the overcast skies. I still felt its brilliance. As sure as the moon needs the sun’s light in order to shine, last night the Creator of all that’s good gave me a not-so-subtle reminder that life is one continuous strand of unmerited blessings and favors, most of which we can’t fully appreciate until much later. I took it as a nudge to acknowledge my dependence on divine gifts, to remember that I am always right where I should be, and to know with certainty that the Almighty is in charge of everything. Here’s evidence to wit.

I ventured out in an arctic blast last night to attend a yoga class that will count as a requirement toward my eventual certification as a yoga instructor. When I arrived for class, I discovered that the instructor I hoped to observe was detained by work. Swallowing my disappointment, I spread my mat and met his substitute, a lovely woman who welcomed me and asked if I’m a regular in the class. I introduced myself, sat down, and waited for class to start.

The woman next to me overheard our conversation and quietly asked, “What did you say your name is?”

“Crystal,” I answered.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

She looked familiar. But I’ve moved around a lot and I'm always meeting people who remind me of someone I once knew. I began sorting through a mental database of friends and co-workers. There was a flash of recognition, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the possibility of it. “I’m Brenda,” she said. In just a heartbeat, I felt as if the doors of my life were flung wide open and I could see down a long corridor that led right back to the start.

Who is Brenda and why does she matter to me? Let me count the ways: 1) I might be a college dropout today if it weren't for Brenda. 2) She loaned me a bed from her guest room when I moved into my first apartment with nothing more than clothes and a few pieces of silverware. 3) She opened a window on a world so vast that I began to trust life might hold more possibility than my 19-year-old imagination could fathom.

Brenda was responsible for guiding me toward a major when I had no idea what to do with my life. As a confused college sophomore, I had briefly considered dropping out of school. At the time, all I could see was the money my parents were wasting while I muddled through, trying to figure out who I was and what I could be. She was just a few years older than I, but Brenda was legions wiser and she used that wisdom to mentor me, convincing me that I could write. She showed me how I could make a living at that.

Brenda was responsible for helping me get a job as an undergraduate assistant when I had no qualifications or skills. How could she see any potential in someone who was so incompetent and naïve? Where did she find the patience to train me? The money I earned provided pocket change when tuition, books, and room and board were semester by semester miracles for my middle-class family.

During my sophomore year, she used her influence as a graduate assistant to send me and another student to a speech contest in Laguna Beach, California. Accompanied by Brenda, Dennis and I saw the Pacific Ocean, tasted really good coffee and dined on fine cuisine, all for the first time. Before that trip, neither Dennis nor I had ever ventured beyond our small-town, mid-western existence. He was demonstrably unimpressed by California. To me, the trip was far more than a speech competition. It was a breathtaking window on a world full of promise.

After last night’s class, Brenda invited me to join her and a group of her yoga buddies for dinner. It’s been almost three decades since I lost track of her, but I have never forgotten her wit, sense of humor, wisdom, and kindness, all of which are still very much in tact.

She was there last night only because her friend was the class substitute teacher. I was there only because my husband was out of town and I thought it was a good opportunity to catch a class. The gift of our reunion last night was no fluke. It was an affirmation that we can never know how much our life may matter to another person.

Here was the divine lunar lesson delivered for my edification and yours:
  • When someone in your life is confused, share your wisdom.
  • When someone in your life has lost faith in self, believe in them.
  • When someone in your life will benefit from it, use your influence.
  • When someone in your life has need, share your resources and material possessions. 
  • And finally, when you have the chance, be totally grateful for all the people in your life who have bestowed those things on you.
Thank you, Brenda, for making a huge difference in my life.

January 20, 2010

Choose the next blogger for the Indianapolis Museum of Art! Maybe Moi!

Today the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced five finalists in its blog contest. For the next five Wednesdays, they’ll be posting an entry from one finalist. Readers get a chance to choose the IMA blogger of choice by voting on March 3.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this post is truly shameless self-promotion because I am one of the five finalists. (I hope that didn’t surprise you too much!) If you’d like to participate in the voting, check out the IMA blog for the next five Wednesdays and be sure to vote on March 3. Without a doubt, you'll see some great posts. Of course, one of those posts could ace me out of the crown promised to the winner. With all sincerity, I say, "May the best blogger win!" ––despite the fact that I've never had a crown. (Unless you count the one I got to wear when I was the Eldorado Springs, Missouri Walnut Festival Queen in 1977. No hard feelings, but they made me return that crown when I didn't win a regional competition.)

Okay, friends, family, fellow bloggers and subscribers, this part of my post is for you: I know this makes me look like a pathetic, middle-aged woman whose life is so dull that even small things seem significant. That said, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this overjoyed and I need your help to make my joy complete.

The big call to action is March 3, when I need all my friends, colleagues, relatives to visit the IMA blog and vote for my entry. I don’t expect to become rich or famous if I win. In fact, you can see the sum total of the perks when you read the IMA announcement. Nevertheless, winning will make me a happy camper, which will automatically improve Jim’s quality of life. (Really just being a finalist is pretty nice.) So, even if you care nothing for the entry, please help Jim out by voting for my entry on March 3.

I apologize in advance for this post, but this is the era of shameless self-promotion!

January 14, 2010

A book blogger's reason for being

Anyone who doubts the future of reading should digest what author John Green has to say on the subject in the January issue of School Library Journal. Although this periodical is written for public and school librarians, book bloggers might want to take note. Green says librarians (and I say book bloggers) have a wonderfully important role in the future of reading, especially for children’s books. 

For starters, the very definition of book has changed now that video and three-dimensional rendering can be woven through an electronic book. In fact, some very fine authors have stopped working with major publishing houses because they can work with print-on-demand outlets and sell their works online, Green says. Not a fan of electronic books and reading devices? Okay, let’s just deal with print for the remainder of this discussion. 

In the amazing new landscape of publishing, we have a world of opposites: big box stores like WalMart that stock lots and lots of a few blockbusters versus Amazon which offers the world and everything adjacent to it. This covers the vast and sometimes confusing sphere of works that originate from small niche and self-publishers: the good, the bad, and the ugly. A few books get millions of readers. Millions of books get a few readers.

No one has to figure out what a blockbuster is. Kids and adults can easily find their way to these books without our help. But in the rich/diverse/all-things-are-equal realm, librarians and book bloggers will have a growing role to play. We (not the great publishing giants) become the great sifters. Book bloggers and librarians become the authorities who help people find their way through what Green calls “the sea of crap.” We’ll be needed more than ever because there are LOTS of stories to read. When people get confused by choices, they turn to authorities. That, my book blogging friends, is us. That, my fellow readers, is why you might want to latch on and subscribe to a blogger who covers your taste in books.

January 9, 2010

The gift of your physical afflictions

A wave of understanding washes over you when you realize for the first time that something in your body is broken and probably can’t be fixed. Repaired, remodeled, or medicated maybe, but not fixed. At least not in a way that puts it back as it once was.

Over the past few months, I’ve been fully bathed in this realization. I go to bed at night, hoping that the catch in my knee will be better in the morning after a night’s rest, wondering whether the boots I’ve been wearing are causing the problem. Or regretting my decision to clean the fireplace mantle by moving the mirror that hangs there, resting its flat part on top of my head. The method and urgency of a clean mantle seem sort of stupid, especially now that my neck is ouchy. I’m starting to see that it could stay that way. Like permanently. Maybe it won’t be like the afflictions of my youth: I spend a few days in bed or resting and I'm all better.

Having near perfect health for almost half a century, it took me a while to catch on to the notion that, blessed as I am, body parts will wear out, no matter how fortunate and careful I am. It’s a shame I didn’t come to this realization sooner because what follows is a better place for anyone to be.

How can this be considered progress? Let me answer this three ways:
  1. Physical afflictions build gratitude and awareness. When you realize things are not perfect but they could/eventually may be so much worse, you start to understand what living in the moment really means. The way your body is all designed to work together today? It’s nothing short of miraculous. The many days of your life that you have operated totally free from physical pain? It’s worth more than money in the bank. The way you can use your body as is, afflictions and all? A way to redeem yourself for not fully-appreciating all that good health. You’ll probably take better care of it, notice it, and make better choices now that you see what a blessing it has been. 
  2. Physical afflictions build spiritual tenacity. When you realize the temporary nature of your own body, you will naturally incline your ear more toward the spirit. When my body was strong in every way, I couldn’t really grasp my mortality. I owned health. And I had no real need for a newly minted body to house my spirit. More and more, I see how all the good stuff I get while living in my physical body has been a complete gift. And I feel a debt to my Creator for giving me all that good stuff. Shoot, even the afflictions I have are gifts because they’ve helped me grow to this realization. In this life, we get mountains and valleys, ups and downs, one right after the other. In the next, all joy inside a brand new body that doesn’t wear out. It’s not all that hard to see that a life leading to this kind of permanence is all that really matters. Every day and every possibility is more precious. Less about me and more about using my gifts.
  3. Physical afflictions build compassion for others. (Especially for those who are older or more afflicted than you are.) You start to understand the grumpy old lady who is always ready to bite your head off for no reason at all. One day of achy knees isn’t quite like a whole future filled with achy (or excruciating) knees, or the secondary afflictions that set in when you can’t walk properly. Once again, you see how connected the body is, how difficult it is to adjust, find and do things that will make you feel better. You realize that you can’t judge a person by what you see or hear from them. You might even make a quiet resolution about the sort of person you want to be if your body, despite all good care, should lose the portion of strength and health that you have always had.

Of course, it would be so much better if we could be abundantly grateful, aware, compassionate, and spiritually tenacious without affliction. As you read this, I hope you’re blessed with all these traits and a life free from all unnecessary suffering.

Later this week: Two great books for kids who may benefit from seeing another kid triumph over adversity, plus two books for adults—one on marriage, the other on meditation.

January 2, 2010

Yoga Medicine for Your New Year’s Resolution Hangover

Are you suffering from a New Year’s resolution hangover? After binge-writing a list of the many and assorted improvements and experiences I want in 2010, I do feel your pain. For self-improvement junkies like me, the prospect of mapping out a life that will be perfect at some future point in time is like cocaine to a crack-head. I realize this, yet I still engage in the insanity.

Here’s how we think: After I give up sugar, grow my own vegetables, purge and organize every closet in my house, make slipcovers for my office furniture, limit the amount of time I spend online, quit judging other people, make cases for my yoga mats, make eye pillows for my students and classmates, read several books each week, play golf this summer, commit 30 minutes a day to prayer and meditation, make a purse out of some old neckties, clean the laundry room and garage, make roman shades for my patio doors, e-mail at least one friend a day and see at least two lifeline friends each month, make 15 minutes a day to pick up the house, make 10 minutes a day to file incoming paperwork, do at least one thing each day in service to others, deepen my knowledge of online marketing, take a class on teaching yoga for kids, finish the taxes by February 15, organize all my loose recipes into notebooks, purge and label all the files in our file cabinets, do a little housework at least two evening a week, continue my fitness schedule of four workouts each week—AFTER I do all this (while holding down two—no wait a minute—three part-time jobs) my life will, of course be perfect, worthwhile, satisfying. I’ll be 95-years-old. But I’ll be—well—satisfied. You get the drift.

Stephen Cope’s book, The Wisdom of Yoga, sheds yogic light on this crazy cycle. It involves three afflictions of the human mind that are the source of nearly all suffering.

  1. Cravings. Our tendency to lean forward into the next fantasized moment in the future is called rãga (clinging, attachment, attraction, hunger, ambition).
  2. Aversions. Some resolutions are about stopping things we know are bad for us. Yoga masters might have classified this as dvesha —aversion to the experience. This is what tells us to stop, leave, or look backward to a previous state of comfort.
  3. Delusions. Finally, we may completely disappear from the moment by creating a delusion, a mind state known as moha. We do this by creating a false picture of reality based on how life should be (which is always different than the way it actually is) or through complete avoidance. (e.g. Don’t make me look!)

Cope’s book is drawn from the Yoga Sutras, a brilliant piece of writing that explores man’s spiritual and psychological nature. He says we crave accomplishments and experiences (rãga), run away from things (dvesha), or create delusions for ourselves (moha) because we don’t fully experience our lives as they already are (avidyã).

Is all longing afflicted? All aversion afflicted? All delusion afflicted? Of course not! There are times that these things serve us well. Cope’s book maps the territory between the healthy and the afflicted state of mind. What makes a mindset afflictive?

  1. Afflicted mindsets are disturbing. We feel uncomfortable and unbalanced in our very being.
  2. Afflicted mindsets are obscuring.  This state makes things worse or better than they really are. Either way, our perceptions aren’t true or accurate. We overrate some things. Or we fail to notice the bad effects of others.
  3. Afflicted mindsets are separative. Something is separating us from our happiness—love, material things, success, achievements. Once we have those things, we’ll feel complete. This is reflected in the life of King Solomon who pursued pleasure, success, love, purity, peace, wisdom--everything known to man. In the end, he said the whole purpose of man was to keep God’s commandments—to commune with God.

Yogis believe that we penetrate these layers of afflicted mindsets through meditation. In meditation, we access a more luminous part of our mind that is already acquainted with happiness as a natural state. Having freed ourselves from these afflictions, we make truly conscious choices—not patterned ones that are made less out of choice than conditioning.

Although this blog does not usually cover matters of religion, as a practicing Christian, I feel duty bound to say this much: If you want a book that teaches you how to live a more peaceful life on earth, study the Yoga Sutras. If you want a book that teaches you how to live a more peaceful life on earth and for all eternity, study the Bible.

In my opinion, the Yoga Sutras echo God’s wisdom in many ways, but you might find a few errors and omissions when it comes to peace that leads to heaven. To the Christian, happiness on earth is far less important than eternal peace with God. Christians believe that meditation, prayer, and godly actions give everyone a shot at the real prize--eternal peace.

If there’s a comparison to be made between the two books, here’s my best (but oversimplified) shot at it: the Bible tells us exactly what God wants us to do to be truly at peace with Him—not just at peace with ourselves. (We’ve already acknowledged that the latter isn’t quite enough because we sometimes lie to ourselves.) The Yoga Sutras reveal some manmade techniques we can use to work our way through some of the more difficult aspects of living to that standard.

If you binged on making resolutions for 2010, Cope’s book might encourage you to look more realistically at your aspirations as insight about yourself. The real value of New Year’s resolutions may be what they reveal about our motivations and our state of mind. The Wisdom of Yoga provides an accessible way to see the Sutras applied in everyday life.