Monday, May 23, 2011

New book by David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisDavid McCullough, one of my favorite writers, has a new book about Americans in Paris in the late 1800's. A brief glimpse of the key characters he addresses reveals much about the French influence on American culture during this period. People like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Blackwell (first American woman doctor), P.T. Barnum, Samuel Morse (telegraph inventor), and James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans) all spent significant time in Paris during these years.

Check out the book website, where you can read a short summary of the book view the book trailer (different from the above video), an interactive time-line, and order the book (due out May 24th).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Do not move the ancient boundaries

My father's office building sits on the edge of the Ohio river in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The Ohio is near its widest here, stretching a mile between Kentucky and Indiana, flowing with more volume than the mighty Mississippi at their confluence. From the rear of his office, one has a panoramic view of the river and it's many sites: the canal & locks, the Colgate clock, the falls. It is a mysterious and majestic section, giving credence to the name "Ohio", which comes from the Iriquoian "oyo" meaning "beautiful." Thomas Jefferson agreed with their assessment and wrote "The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids, a single instance only excepted."

But with the beauty comes the risk of feeling its power all too intimately. My father has a front row window to the battle of the bulging river in these flooding days. He recently sent me this picture of the river's elevated stage:

On the left (out of the picture) is the Muhammed Ali Museum. if  you look carefully in the middle of the picture, you can just see the TOP of a STOP sign. And the water was still rising.

My brother commented the following on this picture: "Even though it's dangerous, it's still really beautiful to see the river temporarily claim territory that's up for grabs."

That has always been true. The power of the river is amazingly seductive, and has always drawn me in with its mystery and strength. The memory of living close to this river inspired the following poem:

The mighty Ohio re-stakes its claim
Pouring over the plains
that man has mistakenly assumed
were always his domain
and now wait
for the mud laced parks to drain

While the Ohio flows on
And will not let us forget
There are boundaries in life that must be respected.
Though the water creeps back down
The slopes that direct it

Memories fade and are lost with time.
But tragedy comes again to those
That disregard the message sent long ago.
Living near a river like this serves as a regular reminder that there are real boundaries in life that must be respected. Want to build your house on the bank of the Ohio? go ahead. It is really beautiful. It also tends to flood, in a big, big way. Yeah, I know it is easy to forget about the flooding, even though it happens almost every year. And every decade or so it gets real messy. And every century or so it comes into the heart of the city.

Why is it that we so quickly forget the power that lies behind the river? Something within us tends to assume that the worst is not really possible, even though we own insurance of all types. Proverbs 22:28 says, "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set." Do not discard the wisdom of those that have gone before you. There is much to learn from the ancients.

There is a reason that all over the coast of Japan there are stone markers, placed hundreds of years before, that read "Do not build below this line." (read the article about them here). No one knows who placed these markers. Who were these ancient people? They were a people that loved their land and cared for the future generations. Yet many ignored the warnings, building below the line, where the water destroyed mercilessly.

We bought flood insurance this year for the first time. The former home owner was very assuring that the little creek trickling along the back edge of the property had never risen to the fence line, not in the entire forty year history of the home. Forty years is a long time for a man, yet a short history for a creek. Let us pray that those forty are a good representation of the last 4,000.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

One simple way to help your kids be nicer and get better grades.

The other night I put my son to bed early. He was being disagreeable. I was at the end of my fuse as well. The great slumber torture chamber seemed like the best way to deal with the problem at the time. But a funny thing happened: he slept later than normal, and we went to bed earlier than normal, and we slept later than normal. We were all severely sleep deprived and didn't realize it. The crankiness was really a symptom of a deeper issue: Sleep deprivation.

Sleep: it's something that no one can do without for very long, it is critical to life. Yet for some strange reason, it is also seen as a sign of fortitude to be able to avoid sleep. Those who sleep the least are praised the most.

Well here's a little secret that will finally give you the freedom to drive those screamin' demons to their cages with no regret: if you want your kids to be nicer, to be more alert, to get better grades, to not be overweight, and to be better athletes, there is one simple thing you can do: make sure they get more sleep.
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
Po Bonson, in his book Nuture Shock makes the case that kids today are getting one hour less sleep a night than kids did 30 years ago. Adults say, "no big deal, they'll get by - I do - they can too. What's one hour?" But the loss of sleep for adults is not nearly as critical as it is for a child.

Bonson points out that Children spend 40% of their sleep in the "slow-wave" stage, while adults spend only 4% in this stage, when the brain converts experiences into long-term memories. Children spend ten times as long in this important stage than adults do, so for every minute of sleep a child misses, they are cutting into a significant portion of their memory making, which will affect their school work, and it will do so in amazing ways. Bonson cites one study showing that the average A student sleeps 15 more minutes a night than a B student, which sleeps 15 minutes more than C students, and so on down the line. The hard part for adults here is that 15 minutes doesn't seem like much time. Kids are so good at dragging out the ritual for just a few more minutes - just one more drink of water, or trip to the bathroom, or body-slam on the couch won't hurt, will it? But when you start to think in terms of a LETTER GRADE, the difference stands out. And if you are well rested, you can do the math here - losing an hour of sleep a night turns an A student into an F student.

He also found that overweight kids had one thing in common - more than video games, inactivity, junk food - the one common denominator was that they got less sleep than the thin kids.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg on the results of losing sleep. Grab Bonson's book and read his short chapter on sleep - you will be astonished.

The NBA is also on to the relationship between sleep and performance. Studies done with players at Stanford show sleep loss affects free-throw percentages, reaction time, turnovers, and many other key parts of a player's game. Some NBA teams have re-structured their practice schedules to allow players to catch naps in the middle of the day, since most of their 'work' days go well into the night. You can listen to an interview with the NBA's sleep doctor here.

Two time MVP Steven Nash, almost 38 years old, credits his extended career in the NBA with discovering the art of napping. The sleep doctors also point out that your body does the most important injury repair work while you sleep, as well as muscle building/recovery.

Sleep also comes in handy when you find yourself irritable. Sometimes a short nap, just 15 minutes, will do wonders for a cranky parent. When I was a youth, I remember a minister at our church telling me he would take a nap whenever he was having an argument with his wife. Aside from the inherent dangers associated with increasing the tension in your marriage, ("Honey, in know you're upset right now and want to figure this out, but I tell you what, I really need to catch a few Z's. I'll be back in a few minutes."), this seems like a wise strategy, reminding me of AA's H.A.L.T. warning system: You are most likely to fall of the wagon when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or TIRED. Something as simple as sleeping can set your emotional balance right again.

Yet the stigma of our culture remains. You can surf the internet on the job for an hour and appear to be working, but if you drop your head down on the desk for 5 minutes of recharging, you risk your job. But the doggone President of the United States takes naps (at least many have been known to do so), so I say, follow our fearless leader.

But back to the issue of your kids. Sure, getting them more sleep is a great idea, but how do you do so? How can you outsmart the little midnight manipulators? Here's some tips to try:
1. Begin by reading more on sleep to help convince you of the importance of it (both for your kids and for you). Once you have your gumption screwed up, look in the mirror and repeat to yourself "I am the adult. My kids DO need sleep. I get to pick the bedtime. I am the adult. My kids DO need sleep. I get to pick the bedtime. I am the adult...." Repeat this as many times as necessary or until your wife calls the white coats.

2. Resist the pull to have your kids in every activity offered in the city. Will it really matter that your child won third-chair-violin for the 4yr old age bracket in the south-west corner county chamber orchestra? I don't think that will land on their college resume. But many have bought into the myth that kids have to be in every activity under the sun to be "well rounded." What did Abe Lincoln's dad do to make him well rounded? Handed him an axe and told him to split rails. Cutting out activities will allow you to be home in time to get everyone ready for bed without making you crazy.

3. Set a realistic bedtime FOR THE KIDS and stick to it.

4. Develop a nightly routine. Start winding them down gradually. We do this by reading at the end of the night. I try to get all their rigorous activities out of the way (wrestling, running, trampoline, wood-cutting, gravel-crushing, etc.) earlier in the evening and then have a gradual decline in activity toward bedtime. We sing and pray together, and I allow a little individual reading time before finally shutting out the lights.

5. Set a realistic bedtime FOR YOURSELF and stick to it. A friend of mine in college was bemoaning his inability to get up early and study his Bible, yet he couldn't get in bed till after midnight. Yes, you can cheat sleep for a little while, but it will eventually catch up to you. It becomes and endless cycle if you are always going to bed late and getting up too early. None of us are superheroes. You need sleep.

6. Make sure everyone is getting quality sleep. Make bedrooms as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains. Turn off all night lights, even dim any bright alarm clock lights. Use sleep masks if possible (this revolutionized my wife's sleep). Don't drink caffeine late at night. Make sure to drink lots of water throughout the day. Don't watch TV or check email late at night, which overstimulates the brain, making it difficult to wind down. Try sleeping without an alarm clock to see how much sleep your body naturally needs.
Sounds so simple doesn't it? Grandma used to call this "common sense." Yet we have so much cultural baggage to overcome these days. If you are not sleeping enough right now, something has to give. You have to make some hard choices about your schedule. That is probably the toughest choice that lies ahead.

Well, I'd say if you made it this far with this post, go reward yourself with a siesta!