Life in the Moment

There I was this morning, in the middle of a downward dog at yoga, and all I could think about was getting to the bank. What was the password to my ATM card? Was it 1234? Or 4321? Or 3241? Did I even have time to go to the bank this morning? Or should I wait until later?

If you’re like me, you often live inside your head. Whether you’re folding laundry, doing the dishes, or walking the dog, there’s a good chance your thoughts are elsewhere, not on the textures and smells of freshly washed clothes, the bubbles in the sink or the steady patter of your dog’s feet. Perhaps you’re thinking about something that happened in the past like, “Why was my boss such a jerk yesterday?” Or maybe your thoughts travel to the future, as in “I need to pick up lettuce at the store today.”

That’s why I’m so grateful to my dear friend Cheryl who recently introduced me to a book called “You are Here.” It’s written by the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose works should be required reading. The phrase reminds me of the maps we see in large shopping malls, where a large red dot tells us exactly where we are, right here, right now.

The book is all about life in the moment, being here and fully alive in the present. It sounds so simple and is yet, so hard because let’s face it, we humans have so much to ponder all the time. We worry about our loved ones, our health, our jobs. We fret about our finances. We mull over problems. We plan big events. We constantly revisit our schedules and giant to-do lists.

So here’s the challenge: Close your eyes, take a breath in and exhale. Silence the inner chatter. Don’t think about anything else. Try that for just a minute. Then come back to this blog.

It wasn’t easy, was it? It’s called meditation, and it’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do. I’ve been trying to meditate for years and have yet to master it. But that’s okay.

The key is to do it every day, if only for a few minutes. Regular practice has helped me realize that a lot of my angst rests in events from my past and worries about the future. It has nothing to do with what’s happening to me right here, right now, in this moment.

When I finally let go of the worries about my password this morning, I was able to soak up the yoga stretches and enjoy what I was doing at each moment, in each pose.

In other words, I found my big red dot. I hope you can do the same.




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What I Have in Common With Charlie Sheen

Exhausted as I was last night, I got suckered into watching the last half hour of the 20/20 special about Charlie Sheen, Hollywood’s bad boy extraordinaire du jour. He rambled on and on about his Adonis-like exploits, raged about his employers at CBS and boasted of his Hugh Hefner-style existence living with two goddesses.

From my modest suburban existence, I certainly can’t relate to Sheen’s hard partying lifestyle. Nor can I understand his bizarre antics. For all his bravado, it’s probable that Sheen suffers from mental illness, someone to be pitied, rather than scorned or ridiculed, though most people were probably apt to do the latter. And in fact, there was a mental health expert on the show who discussed the possibility that Sheen has bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by exhilarating bouts of mania and stifling periods of depression.

But in the midst of his incomprehensible tirades, Sheen said he suffers from chronic insomnia. In fact, he admitted that he doesn’t sleep, that he grabs catnaps on couches, in cars, and wherever he can.  He even blamed some of his bad behavior on Ambien, the sleep drug that’s been linked to everything from night eating to suicidal thoughts.

I certainly can’t understand much of his life, but when he talks about insomnia, I can feel his pain. The long nights spent staring at the ceiling, watching the clock. The anxiety over how I will get through the next day.

Like Sheen, I’ve used Ambien. I hated it. The pill caused strange dreams, and I stopped it immediately — before I got too rowdy at a PTA meeting. I’ve also tried melatonin, diphenhydramine, yoga, meditation and white noise.  Sometimes, they work. Sometimes, they don’t.

Usually, what works best is natural exhaustion, the kind you get from a long day spent working in the yard or hiking up a mountain. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every day works, too, as does a relaxing bedtime routine, a day without caffeine and a comfortable mattress.

One thing I know: staying up too late to watch a human train wreck isn’t conducive to sound sleep. But it sure was good entertainment.

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What We Can Learn from the Chinese Mother

Being Chinese does not mean I’m a Chinese mother, not in the way that Amy Chua has described us. Just this morning, I scolded my daughter for not finishing her extra credit assignment, then checked the schedule and realized she had one week left to finish it.

Guilt set in. Had I been too harsh?

I guess I’m a Western mother, not the Chinese mother that Amy Chua has made famous with her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  In recent weeks, Chua, a Yale University law professor, has become notorious for her militaristic parenting tactics.

For the record, not all Chinese mothers operate the Amy Chua way. We do not all threaten to burn stuffed animals if our children fail to master a piece of music. We do not reject handmade cards that are less than perfect. We do not drill our children for hours on academics and music. We do not deprive our children of play dates, sleepovers and drama club participation.

Chua operates from the premise that children owe their parents and that repayment involves making them proud — a very Chinese concept that I adopt on a much smaller scale and in a slightly different way. “Hey, I gave you life,” I’ve told my girls. “I think you can go do a load of laundry.” Or give me more than a crumb from your cookie, fetch me a glass of water, take the dog out – you name the task.

My mother was certainly not a Chinese Mother. I can’t recall her ever berating us for bad grades or being anything less than perfect. My father may have tried to be a Chinese Mother by sending us to Chinese school every Saturday morning for several years. When our protests became too loud and unbearable, he gave up and let us do what all our friends were doing: watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Yet my parents managed to send three of us off to Ivy League colleges. I was the exception – I attended Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. Not exactly what I’d call slacking.

Chua does make some enviable points. For one, I like the idea that she starts with the notion that her daughters – she has two, just like me – are fully capable of achieving what she demands of them. A little faith in your children’s potential would probably be a boon to their achievement.

And to be honest, I kind of like the fact she’s less concerned about her child’s self-esteem than us Western parents, who fret over every little thing we say. Taking self-esteem out of the equation would allow for some brutal, but perhaps much needed, honesty.  “Stop eating so much ice cream. You’ll get fat.” “That art work doesn’t look good. Do it again.” “Study harder. You need better grades, or you’ll never get into a college that meets my standards.”

At a time when studies show that many colleges are churning out young adults who lack critical thinking skills – “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” was just published, too — maybe Chua is on to something. Maybe we need to be a little tougher on our kids and not worry so much when we scold them for neglecting their school work. Maybe we need to have stronger faith in their abilities and be less preoccupied with their feelings.

I confess that we once tried to banish sleepovers forever. But burn their stuffed animals? Ban them from drama club?

I don’t think so. And I have a whole closet filled with handmade cards.

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My Daughter’s Special Gift

When I look back on the Christmas of 2010, I want to remember it as the year my daughter Samantha discovered the real joy of the season: the joy of giving. This year, she started to make some money babysitting, and she used a good chunk of her income this fall buying gifts for the people she loves.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly the first time Samantha had given gifts and displayed her incredibly generous spirit. Last year, she decorated jars with ribbons and holiday paper, filled them with hot chocolate and attached a recipe, then gave them to relatives. The year before, she sewed little mittens for everyone. As a small child, she made things for her stuffed animals.

But this year, at 13, she was a real consumer with real money, and she chose to spend it on the people she loves. She bought stuffed animals for her three new cousins, scented hand sanitizers for her aunts and grandmothers, toys for her little sister, and candy for her uncles. She made fudge for her friends at school and her older cousins. She even bought presents for the little girl she babysits.

Then she brought it all home and wrapped the presents with care, knowing that St. Nicholas soon would be here.

What was so refreshing about Samantha’s giving was that she did it without obsessing over all the things that many of us now do. Will the recipient really like my gift? What if my gift is dwarfed by what the other person gives me? What if I spend too little or too much? Samantha didn’t fret about it. She simply gave.

Most parents are proud of good grades, a well-scored home run in a softball game, or a dazzling performance on the stage.  I know I am. But I am positively beaming when I see that my daughter has such a kind and generous spirit.

I will certainly treasure the plastic frame she made for me in school and the custom card that she designed herself. After all, she took a lot of time working on these presents, and I cherish anything my children give me. But the greatest gift she gave me this year was her display of sweet, unbridled generosity.

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Reawakening Your Inner Diva

All moms know how easy it is to let yourself go, to slap on the high-waisted jeans, throw on a sweatshirt and be on your way. But sometimes, it’s fun to awaken the inner diva, the one that lurks inside most women.

She’s the one your husband may have first met. She’s the one who used to come out when you went dancing with your gal pals. She’s the one who went to fabulous parties, night clubs and fancy dinners before life was filled with kid parties, wholesale food clubs and crockpot dinners that you pulled together yourself.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to recall my more glamorous days – trust me, they were short-lived, and frankly, not that glamorous — when I was asked to model in a fundraising fashion show for the Voorheesville Community & School Foundation. For those few hours, it was all about me. My hair. My makeup. My clothes.

A hair and makeup artist who once worked on Cyndi Lauper spent almost an hour twisting my hair into a tight bun with a tube of gel and pinning a spiky hair piece on to the back of my head. Then he decorated my face with more makeup than I wear in a month.

Walking the catwalk is not something I do every day, as you might imagine. But there I was, strutting, pivoting, and posing, with a minute to do a complete outfit change between each of the three outfits I wore. My final and most dramatic outfit was a tight black leather dress (borrowed from a local boutique called SJR Couture) and high boots (borrowed from my friend Diana).

“What did you think?” I asked my daughters when the show ended.

“That was not you,” Annie said.

And then it was all over. I gave back the hair piece, the leather dress, the boots. I slipped back into my jeans and headed home, where I heated up some Thanksgiving leftovers and washed some dishes.

Cinderella was home, and the ball was over. But she sure made some fabulous memories.

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Seduced by the Screen

These days, every time I turn around, my kids are looking at a screen. Whether they’re watching a movie on TV, playing a game on a DS or sending a text to a friend on their iTouch, it seems they just can’t escape the lure of the screen.

They’re hardly alone. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this year found that kids aged 8 to 18 are spending more than 53 hours a week absorbed in entertainment media. That’s more than a typical workweek.

Too much time on a screen concerns me for many reasons. For starters, it takes time away from other activities. They could be reading a good book, riding their bikes, or hanging out with their friends. They could be practicing their instruments, walking the dog, or engaged in a hobby like sewing, which my daughters both enjoy.

Too much screen time puts them at risk for weight gain. After all, they’re not moving when they’re on these devices. Many kids – and adults — like to claim they don’t have time to exercise. But if kids can spend an average of 7 hours a day on entertainment media, then they can certainly eke out a measly hour of exercise. That’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for kids aged 6 to 17.

Too much screen time also affects sleep, both in terms of quantity and quality. Kids who fall asleep to the drone of the TV never learn to put themselves to sleep naturally. Tweens and teens who send  texts late into the night arrive at school exhausted.

And that leads to the academic impact. Kids who spend too much on these devices get lower grades. The Kaiser study found that 47 percent of the kids described as heavy users (they reported using 16 hours of media a day) said they got mostly C’s or lower, compared with 23 percent of kids who were light users (those who use 3 hours or less). At a time when children in other nations continue to do better on math and science, this bodes poorly for our future.

My daughters don’t spend even close to 16 hours a day on entertainment media, but on days when they watch movies and play games and text, they certainly bump up the amount of time they spend in front of a screen. Even as I write this, I hear the bling of my daughter’s game in the distance.

What are parents supposed to do? I know what we do. We lecture. We cajole. We chase them off their screens. We urge them to see friends, get outside, and play sports. In response, they gripe and complain. “But I just got on,” they always say.

So here’s what I want to say to the screen-addicted kids of this generation: Create your own drama; don’t just watch the ones on TV. Talk to your friends; don’t send a text. Play a board game; not a video game. Stay plugged in to the real world, the one that’s happening in front of you, not the artificial ones embedded in technology.

You’ll be healthier and happier for it.

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Inspiring Our Kids to Lead Healthy Lives

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article about childhood obesity and discovered an easy way to remember what we need to do to get our kids to live a healthy lifestyle.

In case you haven’t heard or noticed, childhood obesity is becoming a serious health problem in the U.S. More than 23 million kids in the U.S. are overweight or obese, enough for public health officials to call it an epidemic. The topic warrants attention because September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Being obese in childhood puts you at significant risk for other health problems down the road. These kids are greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, and all the complications that come with these conditions such as neuropathy, blindness and kidney failure.

To inspire a healthy lifestyle among kids, a group of health, business and community organizations in Maine launched 5-2-1-0 Let’s Go. The goal was simple but challenging: to increase physical activity and healthy eating for children and youth – from the time they’re born until the time they turn 18.

The formula was simple. Every day, you should urge your children to follow these rules:

* Eat 5 fruits and vegetables.

* Limit screen time to no more than 2 hours.

* Exercise for at least 1 hour.

* Drink 0 (or near 0) sugar-sweetened beverages.

Some of you may these ideas are crazy. After all, some kids may get their only fruit for the day from fruit juice. Anything more strenuous than a round of Guitar Hero might be too taxing, and cutting back on electronics may feel like social suicide for the text-happy teen.

As parents, we all know how hard it is to encourage our kids to eat healthy when they’ve got so many tastier, less healthy options to choose from. We know how hard it can be to pry them away from their electronic toys to send them outdoors to play. And trying to squeeze an hour of exercise into already busy schedules? There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in our days.

But we’ve gotten to the point where we have to do something. Maybe it’s setting a bowl of fruit on your kitchen table or taking the TV out of your child’s bedroom. Maybe it’s getting up a half hour earlier on weekends to take a morning walk with your child. Maybe it’s limiting soda to once a week instead of drinking it every day.

One thing is for certain: we all have to do something toward creating healthier habits in our children. Their futures depend on it.

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