Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unplugged Vs. Disconnected: The 7-Day Digital Cleanse

I survived a week without a phone, TV or my computer and I wasn't even on a remote vacation. While a week of going totally screenless may not qualify as an accomplishment, it was a feat for me. When I lost my phone on a trip this summer, it became a first world crisis. When I finally got it fixed, I took it to bed with me and woke up the next morning still clutching it tightly in my hand. It was time to make a change.

I wanted to try a seven-day digital cleanse. A few days didn’t seem long enough to change any habits, though more than a week seemed unrealistic. The cleanse required planning. I literally penciled meetings on a paper calendar. I made my husband the emergency contact at school. My son was worried. Can’t you just check your phone once an hour?” He suggested.  I was nervous as well. We haven’t had a landline in years. As a precaution, I kept my cell in the house but turned it off. In an effort to avoid any temptations, I ordered several new books to keep me busy. To ensure success, I timed the week to begin the day after we brought our new yellow lab puppy (aptly named Happy) home.

As I taught Happy how to walk on her leash, I tried figuring out how exactly to untether myself. Somewhere between keeping up with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, I’d become that mom who never misses a game but misses most of the game staring at a phone. It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed commenting on clever selfies, but when my phone buzzed with an update, there was an undeniable Pavlovian impulse to respond- immediately. A dog trainer recommended we hang bells on our back door to train Happy to associate the sound with going outside. On the first day of the digital cleanse, those jingling bells made up for the unnatural silence of my phone and computer.

On the second day, I opted not to exercise outside because I couldn’t monitor my workout with a fitness app. But there was no escape from the screens at the gym. Every cardio machine had a TV that couldn’t be disabled. Instead, I flipped the channel to snow. The woman on the elliptical next to me, who was reading her Kindle on top of the TV, didn’t notice. When I returned home from the gym, flowers arrived. The card said, “Since I can’t text you that I love you.” My husband needed this digital cleanse to work too. The phrases, “I’m still listening,” or “Just a minute,” or “Almost done,” had become too prevalent in our home. Researchers have found that the mere presence of a phone makes people less trusting and less empathetic. I didn’t need studies to see the impact our devices were having on our intimacy. There were charging stations on both nightstands. I put the bouquet of calla lilies, our wedding flowers, on my side of the bed. As fragrant and lovely as they were, they seemed somehow less real because I wasn’t sharing a picture of them on social media. If no one else knew my husband sent me flowers, did it really happen?

A few days into the cleanse, I began to notice how many other people appeared to be prisoners of their own devices. There was the lady who kept up her phone conversation while using the bathroom in the stall next to me. There was a baby streaming a movie on an iPad, while his family ate in silence in a restaurant. My jaw dropped when a guy on a bike veered straight into traffic. He had both hands on his phone and none on the handlebars. Of course, there were the fellow dog walkers who passed Happy and me on the sidewalk without looking up. I later wasn’t surprise to learn that thousands of people are killed and injured each year due to “distracted walking.”

By the weekend, being screen-free was becoming my new normal. But it wasn’t my family’s idea of normal. On Saturday morning, the sound of cartoons woke me from downstairs. Our seven-year-old didn’t play with Happy (even though the puppy was her birthday present) or even ask for breakfast: She bee-lined for the couch and remote. Meanwhile, before my husband even got up to brush his teeth, he was checking sports scores on his phone. Our son alternated between playing X-Box and Snapchatting. We were alone – together. With a sigh, I tackled that pile of new books, but something was off. I’ve always finished one book before starting another. But over the years, I’d gone from a fast reader to more of a skimmer. On the weekend of the cleanse, I started four new books at once, unable to focus or even remember what I’d just read unless I took notes. I’ve since learned that web surfing is linked to altering attention spans.

Over the weekend, we also made plans to go out with three other couples. After setting our plans, it struck me that I knew what these friends had for lunch by their status updates but had no idea what was really going on with their careers or personal lives. It felt so good to catch up in real life. They lived vicariously through my experiment, wanting examples of what was so different. I mentioned that I was interacting with Happy instead of just taking a thousand puppy pictures that would never be printed. “Good for you,” they said, “but I could never make that work.” That sentiment was the general consensus. One friend had an interesting reaction. She said when she went to text me about what to wear and remembered I was unplugged, she experienced a sense of relief. It was one less thing she had to worry about. 

The benefits were enviable, but my friends were certain there had to be a downside. I admitted that I missed the convenience of instant knowledge. Earlier that day I had bought a mushroom-growing kit for our terrarium. It didn’t come with instructions. “Just look it up,” the farmer’s market vendor advised. Instead, I drove to the library, which had a limited mycology section. I had to wait until after the digital cleanse to learn care instructions for pleurotus djamor, a type of coral pink Oyster mushrooms. Although, the inconvenience of not knowing everything instantly had an upside: It was refreshing to not know everything, to leave things open for debate once in a while. After dinner, our group migrated to a bar that was playing MTV classic eighties videos. When someone speculated about the age of the singer Berlin, it would’ve been easy to turn to Wikipedia to settle it. We didn’t.

When the week ended, it was unclear whether I was leaving the real world or returning to it.  My real world is a virtual world. It is impossible to work without being in front of a screen several hours a day. Like a dietary cleanse, one can’t live indefinitely on green juice alone.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day for children over the age of two. Adults are left to figure it out for themselves. For me, that starts with recognizing the difference between being unplugged and disconnected. Because I work from home, I’ve re-established work hours.  If it is after six, I want our family to be together-together. My husband and I were already discussing turning our bedroom into a digital free zone when our TV happened to break. We don’t miss it. I’m also consciously reducing my  “discretionary spending” of screen time. If my monetary spending was out of control, I might cut up my credit cards. In this case, I deleted all the social media apps from my phone. My maintenance program includes having set times to check emails and time limits on Internet surfing.  For every hour of discretionary screen time, I try to balance it with equal time spent the same day in either physical activity or face-to-face interactions. I find a simple walk outside, with or without Happy, is far more effective at clearing my head.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Teaching How to Play

Dr. Bill Michaelis at Fun Fest

Michaelis first recognized the value of play through college sports and general class clown foolishness. He decided early on that fun is FUNdamental. and went on to get his PhD in Education specializing in play and human development from University of California-Berkeley or “berserk-ley” as Michaelis quipped. I tried to imagine, as he downplayed his background, what it would have been like studying the theory of play in Northern California in the 1960’s. Visions of crazy smart, idealistic, counterculture hippies danced in my head to the Grateful Dead song, Golden Road. Michaelis credits the New Games Foundation in San Francisco for having a strong influence on him during the seventies and eighties.

We didn’t talk much about the need for play. We are both biased about the social, emotional, and developmental benefits. I wanted to know what’s changed and what’s new in the field of play.

“It’s more diverse. There are more things being studied and written about it in more circles (anthropology, psychology, education, health and wellness). The circles are wider. But there are still incredible challenges. It’s like we know how important it is, but we still aren’t doing it as much as needed,” Michaelis said.

He pointed to some obvious culprits of why we aren’t playing more: tiger moms, misused technology and a consumer driven society that has blurred the distinction between costly entertainment and free play. We both laughed at the irony when Michaelis said that  the new fads in Silicon Valley are hosting “unplugged parties”  and camp weekends.

While everyone from the United Nations to Kaboom, to The National Wildlife Federation and The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the play deficit crisis facing today’s children, Michaelis caught my attention because his work focuses on getting people of all ages playing again. In addition to helping make the office more fun, many of his trainings are designed for caregivers. There’s a reason adults are told to put their oxygen mask on first during a flight emergency. Who will schedule and supervise the playdates when the helicopter parent suffocates? What is the joyless teacher really teaching when he or she is obviously frazzled?

“We need to be better advocates. We need to keep this conversation going and model play for the next generation. If what we are seeing now becomes the normative, we’re in serious trouble,” Michaelis told me by phone while recovering from knee surgery at his home in San Francisco.

I suspect keeping a man like Michaelis off his feet is like trying to keep a puppy from chewing. Michaelis is laid up until December. Like brushing one’s teeth, play is such a habit for him, he hasn’t let his mobility stop him from maintaining a lively routine.  Until he is able to bike and hike the hills again, he reads political satire or watches a funny movie. He plays board games and uses his wit to describe obscure scenarios with song lyrics. During our conversation, he cracked several jokes. After all, humor goes hand in hand with play, and Michaelis knows from experience its always the best medicine.

For more information about Michaelis and The Leader’s Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun, Games, Play and Positive Interaction, visit his website at or check out a host of other playful products at

Building Breakable Barriers

I noted that our parks and recreation department should take a cue from the Brits. Like so many parks we encountered on our trip, Grovesnor Park had free ping pong tables,, giant chess sets, free yoga classes and a stage where a band was setting up for a free afternoon performance. My son and husband became engrossed in a competitive ping-pong match, while my daughter curiously explored some foam blocks. Before she and I finished building a wall, other children joined in to knock it down. Soon everyone had a different idea of what to build: A fort, a stage, a staircase. They took turns trying different ideas. They helped each other create their visions and than shared in the pay off, total destruction!

Brainstorm,.Build, Breakdown, Repeat. They played for an hour with those foam blocks, just some simple yellow blocks. There were many days this summer when an hour seemed like an eternity to my bored kids and I would have paid big money for an hour to myself. I need these blocks, I thought, already reaching for my phone to Google where I could buy some.

“Excuse me.” A little dark haired girl about my daughter’s age interrupted me. “Is your daughter Muslim?” She asked.

My daughter has white blonde hair and blue eyes. “No, she’s not,” I told her and smiled.

“Oh, she is Christian?” the girl’s brown eyes widened as the wheels visibly turned in her head. She ran back to join the game.  

My immediate reaction was relief that I hadn’t turned into a provincial, paranoid tourist. Even the children knew about the division, and probably sensed the unease. But in this park, playmates simply looked like playmates.  Inside the castle they were building together, their laughter was indistinguishable from one another. They were the same.

When we finally left, the girl joined her mother, who was covered in a veil and burqa. Just past the park gates, guards with machine guns paced. We returned home a week later to find similar “us-versus them” news headlines about racial unrest and police shootings.

Maybe I should buy those blocks. Alot of blocks.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Nothing That Getting Rammed With A Truck Won't Fix

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. 
– Friedrich Nietzsche

I've recently rediscovered the joy of a good, long morning walk. For me, the walk is less about speed or exercise and more about exploring and taking time to stop along the way. Earlier this week, I met a neighbor who recycled more than 100 Easter lilies from her church’s alter. They were headed for the dumpster, but instead, now grace her front yard. Their rebirth celebrated every Spring with an intoxicating fragrance. But what is even more memorable about her yard is a battle-scarred tangerine tree.

The neighbor told me that despite her usual nurturing green thumb, the tree didn’t start producing
fruit until she took a hammer and started beating some sense into it. A commercial citrus grower advised her that when a tree fails to thrive in the groves and the obvious problems like pests or soil depletion are not the issue, it is not uncommon to ram a truck into it. The tree either dies or is shocked into remembering why it is here. To languish in uncertainty? No! To grow, and flourish.

As I walked away, I couldn’t help but think of the times in my life when I felt like I was rammed by a truck. A job loss. A failed relationship. An illness. Although, it was hard to feel anything other than stunned at the time, those experiences were (in retrospect) necessary jolts. They were no more perpetrators of some injustice than my kindly neighbor, who thoughtfully rescues lilies but is also capable of delivering a forceful blow. Recognizing this tends to soften memories. Still, I much prefer to be the lily, not the tree.

An affirmation for your next long, morning walk:

I pray for gentle lessons and forward movement. I welcome growth with ease.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I'm No Expert, But Freud Was A Fraud

While visiting a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit, a museum docent noted that Sigmund Freud identified a vulture hidden in this painting. THEE Sigmund Freud? I looked, and looked, and looked some more, but I didn’t see what was so obvious to the father of psychoanalysis. So I bought a book to learn more about Freud’s findings about the master painter and genius inventor. In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, Freud bases almost the entire biography on Freud’s interpretation of one of DaVinci’s earliest memories. A memory of a “nibbio.” Freud misinterpreted the word nibbio to mean vulture, when it really meant kite. From this one misinterpreted word, Freud not only saw vultures in Davinci’s paintings, he concluded that DaVinci had an oral fixation, homosexual fantasies and likened vultures to motherhood. Huh? What is even more disturbing is that the book was reprinted several times despite linguists recognizing the mistake.

Turns out Freud was a fraud. And that makes me feel better. Not just because I don’t feel quite so dense for not seeing the vulture in the painting. It is a good reminder for me not to get caught up in the “ I’m no expert” complex. How many times have I refrained from sharing an informed opinion or my specialized skillset because I don’t have a title, or the letters M.B.A., M.D., J.D. or P.H.D. after my name? How many times have I bought a book, sought outside counsel, attended a lecture, hired a coach or a therapist or both, got a second opinion, took a wait and see approach…. instead of relying on my intuition? How many times have I played favorites with my doubt and ignored my own beloved truth? Does this sound familiar? Do you use the “I’m no expert” excuse too?

Oedipus Complex. Penis Envy. Death Wish. Phallic symbol. Anal Retentive. The so-called expert who came up with these concepts got most of it wrong. Freud was right about one thing though: our unconscious mind is powerful. That place where our feelings and emotions dwell is a place that requires further exploration. It’s the place that holds the answers and everything you need to know to proceed forward with your divine purpose.

Here are a three ways to immediately tap into your own knowledge/power base.

Play More. Playing relaxes you. It puts you in a timeless energetic space. It distracts your logic side of the brain that is always demanding results just long enough to let the creative side get a word in edgewise. Einstein took frequent breaks when working on an equation to play his violin. If you don’t have a hobby or time for your passions in the middle of the day, simply go for a walk.  Better yet, walk to a park where others are playing. That works too, in a pinch.

Pay attention to your dreams. Sometimes, I only remember the feeling. Fear. Jealousy. Betrayal. Unfortunately, the happy dreams don’t leave as lasting of a memory. Why are these emotions disrupting my rest? It makes me more conscious of what is driving my behavior during waking hours when I write down my dreams as soon as I wake up. Salvador Dali describes the key and spittoon method in his book, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship. The surrealist painter would rest sitting in a chair while holding a key. When he was finally asleep, his hand would relax and drop the key. The key would hit the brass spittoon and wake him up. He would rush over to a nearby canvas and begin painting what he could remember. That may be an unrealistic habit for normal, busy folks. Just by giving yourself a moment of reflection as soon as you wake up is a great start. If you are further evolved on your path, try meditating more consistently.

Objective self-awareness The term that is starting to gain traction in education and corporate training is “emotional intelligence.” Many now believe that your EQ is far more vital to your success than your IQ. The good news, EQ is not limited to what you were born with genetically, it can be developed. Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by authors Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves is a great introduction to this subject with practical steps to practice. For me, EQ means being aware of my emotions and honoring them. Its about compassion and empathy. I find by simply listening to those feelings (and that includes physical feelings, especially my gut) I stay centered and am able to communicate more effectively and think more rationally. Think about what happens when you ignore a screaming child. They scream louder.

When you become an expert at trusting your inner knowing, you longer need other experts or disclaimers about your abilities. You stop looking for the vulture hidden in the painting and start creating your own masterpiece.
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