Can’t Relax? Turn off Your Phone!

Posted on: Monday, November 3rd, 2014
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DSC_0028Our obsession with smartphones festers on. Go to a social spot like a bar or a rock concert and most everyone is focused on their phone. Students list “no wifi” as a reason they won’t attend U of MN football games. And the chatter about the latest & greatest phones (and the challenges of obtaining one) remains shrill.

And yet, survey sez:

  • 67% of Americans reported they would feel completely relaxed if they were entirely “off the grid” (without any electronics or Internet access).
  • 52% say that having a smartphone makes it harder to relax.

Source: Princess Cruises

You can’t crack a newspaper these days without reading about youth anxiety, depression, and disorders. Could there be a connection here? Are we forgetting how to talk out our problems—and our dreams? Reducing life to texts and emoticons seems so … simple. Yet depending on a “smart” phone is, apparently, stressful.

People still flock to Mindfulness training, a Westernized version of Buddhism lite. In those sessions, you learn to sit. Just sit. Relaxation is the goal; meditation provides the path. And after several weeks of practice and quiet coaching, you discover some equanimity and quiet your mind.

There’s not an app for that (actually there are, but that’s another rant altogether). In fact, the best app for relaxation these days is to turn off and away from the several screens that now run your life.

Rest assured, there is life—and calm—beyond your devices. Rest assured.

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Vacation FUNdamentals for the iPhone Era

Posted on: Wednesday, August 13th, 2014
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I recently returned from my annual two-week retreat to Lake Okoboji, a favorite (and sometimes decadent) hideaway since childhood. This journey included a high-school reunion, a family reunion, and a dreamy wedding on a farm: People, hugs, fresh air!

I return to reality with minor depression and stacks of chores, as is typical after even a modest BreakAway, so must remind myself (and you) that it’s so worthwhile.

People hardly vacation any more, as we’ve ranted about herein 555 times. Folks blame work, commitments, kids’ events, and money. My take? Lame excuses. I wonder if they punt R&R time out of fear, inertia, and screen-life addiction. But who wants to play shrink about all that? Rather, let’s focus on why we “get away” in the first place: Vacation FUNdamentals.


  • Vacation FUNdamental 1: FAMILY!

Today’s parents are way (too?) into their kids—at least those fortunate offspring whose parents got the memo and have the jingle to enroll them year-round…in everything. But my gut says about 99% of these kids know they ain’t gonna go pro, get sick of lessons and practice, and would love some time with loving rellies who take them to the lake, the farm, and the drive-in.

Yet let’s be real: Time with kinfolk can be tricky. Family gatherings can serve up strong emotions alongside gooey cole slaw. But isn’t that a reason to gather anyway? Would you rather leave ill winds to blow or clear the air? And who knows? Auntie’s cookies and Grandmas’ hugs may become treasured memories when grizzled coaches can no longer criticize your defensive stance.


  • Vacation FUNdamental 2: FRIENDS!

For many, friends are the new family. That’s great; you can’t have too many friends or enough support. Yet moving and mobility often means that BFFs now live all over, from San Diego to Buffalo. So reconnecting may mean more logistics, but also more adventure.

Why not fly to that that faraway “family” now in Boston? Who says the kids wouldn’t love a road trip to someone’s cabin Up North? As time goes by, we all realize that the most important things are not things: They’re friends you can count on, extraordinary experiences you create, and memories you make. That’s what friends are for. Take time and take pics.


  • Vacation FUNdamental 3: FUN!

FUN! Maybe it’s become a trite word. Well, so what. It still means something. To this sometimes coach (and too-often sport critic), FUN is #1 for most any team in any sport—if you want to build loyalty and longevity (and wins!). FUN is #1 motivator to get us off our device and into a movie, festival, or boat. FUN is the #1 incentive to leave town.

Oh sure, the packing, schlepping, work- and house- and dog- arranging can be a buzzkill. But once you’re on the road or in the air? Nice! Once you’re landing in Cali or landing a walleye? Sweet. Once you’re on the hiking trail or on a high that does not include your high-rise office or getting rebounds in 99-degree gyms? Bliss.

It’s not that difficult. It’s pretty simple, really, and essential to well-being; that’s why employers give vacation time away. Please don’t deny yourself (or your family and friends!) some free time for some fun.

You love family, friends, and fun more than work, right? RIGHT!?!

You’ll thank yourself later. So will your loved ones. And know what? You’ll probably be a more productive worker, too.

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The Sounds (& Sights) of Silence

Posted on: Friday, April 18th, 2014
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photoThis morning, I woke up too early. The wind had been whistling and whirring for hours. And when I headed down the hallway, the cold breeze that sneaks through lake-facing windows chilled me. Then I saw snow. And when I went outside and walked down to the lake: Ice. Chunks slowly crashed and stacked up like a giant cocktail.

When winter has already dragged on for six months, these are not happy sights. “Sh*t,” I heard myself say out loud. Then the ice started moving, creaking; the wind rustled dead grasses and blew leaves through the air. And the scene struck me as brilliant, if unwelcome. So I sat down and stared.

My cell phone bulged in my pocket, and I thought of pulling it out and pulling up a weather forecast. Then I thought better of it—and had a brief fantasy of chucking the thing onto an ice chunk and watch it shatter and set me free.

My kids? And half the people around us? They’d have their headphones in, thus missing the sounds of nature. They’d also likely pull that phone out and start tapping away at something. Would they even see the bizarre ice blocks? Would they even know that, just yesterday, the ice blew away the other way and gave us a mile-long strip of water—a gift for early kayaking?

In my house, the screens and charging cords keep multiplying like spring rabbits. Indeed, one must hop like a bunny to avoid stepping on them—and constantly move them to find room for a meal or project. The “screen-free zones” idea didn’t work, along with a dozen other guidelines.

So screens go into the bathroom. Keyboards keep clicking alongside roasted chicken. Homework means one minute in the books, then two on the iPhone: book, phone, back, forth. Phones go to bed and become the first touch in the morning. Apps tell you how you slept—because allowing yourself to surmise that (or not) would be Too Little Information (TLI).

Is it any wonder meditation and yoga are booming? Sure, their benefits stand on their own. But maybe the trend also suggests that, on some level, people are realizing they’re frying their senses and longing for simple stillness and silence. (My yoga and meditation teachers would NEVER play music during a session, though many do. Whatever.)

I’m a music junkie; it rarely goes off. So quiet ain’t my normal groove. Still, sometimes when the house is empty, I go a whole day (or however many hours I have) with no music, no TV, and as little screen time as possible. It’s hard to describe the calm and peace that often arises. I’m not that familiar with it, but would like to be.

Who can, though, when everywhere you go, everyone you observe, is absorbed in digitalia and media? You see it all these days: Truck drivers with earplugs; old ladies texting while driving; fine diners with computers next to their fois gras; dog-walkers yapping at invisible people; soccer moms staring at their screen (not their son) while yelling at their phone (not the ref). Heck, I saw a blind man yesterday crossing a downtown intersection while conversing via headphones.

Winters are long here and can make us cantankerous. Some may over-think things. Who knew?

But if given the choice of screen or ice? Give me ice. Give me silence. And above all, give me hope that my family still sees the frozen sheets, hears the howling wind, and doesn’t choke on the MacBook Air.

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2 Hours Plugged-in Is Enough!

Posted on: Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
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DSC_0075I enjoyed lunch with a friend today—the mother of three young children. Their family may be the only one I know that has managed to keep their kids internet-free. Oh sure, there’s some TV. But that’s it. Can you imagine? Could most kids survive?

“Oh, they’re so busy. They wouldn’t have time for all that,” my friend humbly reflected. But isn’t everybody busy any more? Isn’t “I’m so busy!” the mantra of our era? And yet…

The average American kid spends 7+ hours per day on entertainment media.

I’m concerned—about my own family, naturally, but even moreso about the long-term effects of generations of humans evolving this way. Doctors are officially worried too:  A recent article in Pediatrics magazine recommends a max of two hours. The problems associated with media over-consumption include:

  • Violence
  • School difficulties
  • Obesity
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Social dysfunction
  • Cyberbullying (which has now been linked to several suicides)

“It’s their world,” has become my cop-out surrender over the years. After all, my folks didn’t stop me from buying big stereos, playing in a rock-&-roll band, and watching Gilligan’s Island. And many parents resort to,

You know, as long as they’re doing well in school and playing sports and seem well-adjusted…”

But maybe the crisis is not so simple. It’s NOT their world; it’s ours. And it’s our responsbility to keep our progeny from turning into sick and tired cyber-zombies.

This tug-of-war is far from over. I’m getting back into fighting shape.

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Leisure Studies 3: Playing Music

Posted on: Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
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P1070517A son’s friend asked me the other day, “Do you think I could learn to play guitar?”

I had just tuned up my Yamaha full body from the 70s—and took the opportunity to make a little joyful noise.

“Well sure,” I replied, “anybody can. It’s the singing that’s the hard part!”

  • Practice, practice, practice

Doesn’t really matter what you want to do: If you want to be good at it, you must practice—even if you’re born with a gift. Sometimes, that stinks. In outdoor sports, that can mean playing through mud, storms, and grizzled coaches. In music, it can mean years of lessons, drills, and dedication. “No one enjoys practicing!” a professional musician once told me with a laugh.

  • Play, play, play

But at some point, practice becomes play. And those scales that once made you scream might skate from your fingertips. You become one with the strings and music happens without a thought. (In fact, thinking only gets in the way.) Worries can’t compete. The world melts away and you get lost in good vibrations, as if in meditation.

Happy is the home that keeps messy with musical instruments around.

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Kids at Camp: Just Say Yes!

Posted on: Saturday, August 10th, 2013
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IMG_4375I just picked up my kids (ages 10 and 16), along with seven other Rosevillians, after their week at Camp Foster at Lake Okoboji, Iowa. (Yes, Iowa.) While camp isn’t for every kid and is unfortunately unaffordable for some, this Summer Guy bursts with gusto in support. The reasons stack high as 555 pancakes, but here are a Top 11…

  • No adults, hardly. In this helicopter era, kids need a break from the ever-loving (over-loving?) Units that may take too many pics, ask too many questions, and expect too much.
  • Screams and shouts. The voices you pick up after camp are so hoarse they sound almost sick. But the reason is clearer than the camp’s mess-hall bell: They sing, cheer, shout, and laugh all day (and sometimes, all night). THEY UNPLUG THEIR DIGITALIA and invent their own entertainment. What a joyful noise!
  • Those songs. Just about everything is covered—from today’s hits to camp classics to spontaneous compositions. But a few refreshing themes stand out: No swearing, no dissing, no lewdness. They take a vacation from Ke$ha and rap and come home singing “One Tin Soldier.”
  • Unbroken circles. The power of song manifests in many ways. But perhaps the most touching is on the last night at bonfire, when “graduates” (16-year-olds in their last year) get encircled by the counselors who sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with revamped lyrics that include, “May our friendships last forever, and the memories last a lifetime.”
  • Coming of age. As those lyrics suggest, each year at camp—and the simple patch that may be your only material souvenir—represents a symbolic step from childhood into adulthood. When you drive away from your last camp, you’re riding a rite of passage. And because you know it and feel it, you probably shed a few tears about it.
  • Extraordinary activities. Sure, kids these days get to do all kinds of things we never did, for better (more travel for many) and worse (more screen time for most). At camp, you still learn dying arts like sailing, archery, and arts and crafts.
  • Specialty sessions.  At Camp Foster (like most camps), you can stick with the lighter, looser schedule. Or you can sign up for focused opportunities like watersports, horseback riding, and watercraft safety training via the Spirit of America program.
  • Pranks. Campers play giddy, silly tricks on one another. One cabin will get up in the middle of the night to set up a practical joke on another—all in good fun. Soon comes revenge. And the game goes on and on…
  • Backwardness. Growing up these days seems filled with evermore expectations and rules. At camp, “Backwards Bridge” MUST be crossed walking backwards—or the troll below will steal your flip-flops. Breakfast may be served for dinner. And “Prom” (for the oldest ones) lets you dress in crazy garb from the prop room.
  • Improv. In any era, kids are apt to feel both awkward as baby ponies and yet too cool for school. That stuff gets shed like clothes at the pool once camp gets going—and acting out turns into acting, dancing, making silly skits, and making others laugh (while laughing at yourself). It’s a great antidote to school’s stressful hallways.
  • Summer. Around here, the warmest season seems also the shortest—yet certainly the sweetest. Camp carves out a time to worship the sun. Punctuate the years. And find a warm, relaxed groove—if only for one week—just before the back-to-school ads hit the fan.

As a hands-on parent, few experiences are as easy (I get a week break too!) yet so valuable. Yes, your child may cling and cry as you stand in line to leave them behind. But with any luck, when you pick them up, they’re bursting with stories and memories—and begging to come back next year.

Hey, why not a camp for parents, too!?!


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The New DWI: Devicing While Driving

Posted on: Saturday, June 15th, 2013
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IMG_0261As a jumpy dad teaching his teenager to drive, I have a new respect for the complex privilege. As a recent recoverer from a head-on collision, I carry uncomfortable baggage about distracted drivers. The gentleman who crashed into my vintage BMW, you see, had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. And not for the first time.

I saw the swerves, hit my brakes, and tried to get out his way. But there was nowhere to go. Amid rush-hour traffic, it’s miracle the 2-car, head-on mash-up didn’t become a multi-car pile-up.

Get ready to see a lot more accidents, much like this one. Prepare to participate, if you like to stay connected or, worse, others do and there’s no place to hide.

  • Cars (and drivers) about to get super-wired

I heard the news today, oh boy: By 2019, more than half of new cars will be wired with voice-activated computer systems that will allow drivers to text, tweet, post to FB, make dinner rezzies, and Google Lady Gaga lyrics. While exciting on the surface, an exhaustive study by AAA (who’s typically pro-auto-everything) just found that drivers tending to online antics instead of, say, stoplights, will be severely impaired.

The academician behind the research has already found that simply talking on a cell phone distracts operator attention comparable to driving with a .08 blood-alcohol level. That DWI can, of course, land you, in jail, in treatment, and carless for 6 months. Oh yes, and your insurance rates will likely triple. Assuming you live.  But surfing while driving? Knock yourself out.

  • Who’s in charge here?

The federal government has urged  the car companies to proceed with caution; they won’t. The car companies insist they’re building in greater safety (are they liars? or just greedy?). The public, who already has shown precious little courtesy or common sense when it comes to abusing digitalia, will likely covet these toys like coke addicts crave nose-candy.  Never mind that AAA calls this evolution:

a looming public safety crisis.”

The “arms race” has begun.

  • Unplugging: losing the marketing battle

Americans are taking fewer and shorter vacations, working longer hours, staying in touch with the office while on vacation (and everywhere else), getting less rest (and exercise), and staying plugged in most everywhere—including bed. (Have you seen the new mattresses that come wired?)

As new driving machines further rewire our brains, we can only hope that the marketing machine for unplugging and taking BreakAways gets equal time.

Don’t hold your breath. And don’t bother honking when that tweeting driver comes at you, head-on.

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Who’s Here?

Posted on: Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
Posted in: Unplugging, Blog | 2 comments

P1060707In a Zenny mindfulness class I’m taking, a woman explained the mantra she asks herself whenever she senses her brain wandering cluelessly:

“Am I present?”

Most people anymore might prefer to ask themselves,

“Am I connected?”

Whatever happened to watching waves? Or a simple sporting event, for that matter? When did it become virtually de rigueur to be playing with your device(s) while chatting, studying, walking, eating, and (yes) pooping?

Last Sunday, I found myself slapping my forehead in shock and awe as this mass addiction played out. Here are just 5.5 of those scenes.

  • Basketball refs on break. During halftime, two refs strutted to their chairs to rest—and picked up their cell phones and started tapping even before grabbing their Gatorade.
  • Sidetracked driver. I was driving at 40 mph, and a car languidly pulled out of a coffee shop parking lot right in front of me. She didn’t see me, didn’t signal, and motored ahead way too slowly—only to swerve off on a freeway entrance ramp while executing a horrendous merge. When I passed her, there she was, blithely chatting on her cell phone and gesturing away. Dangerously not present.
  • Three at a time. I watched some young girls having a playdate. Teddy bears? American Girl? Barbie?  Sometimes, we hope. But Babs has some pretty tough competition when the girls are watching TV— and simultaneously playing on an iPad and a handheld device.
  • Preoccupied coach. Picture a soccer tournament with 10-year-old girls playing hard on a wet, windy day. Impressive stuff, except for their coach, who got at least six phone calls during the game—and took turns yelling at her team and into her iPhone.
  • Sunday supper. When entering a restaurant, I noticed a family sitting at a table waiting for their food. In the old days, this might have been a chance to catch up, plan summer, or just yuck it up. In these new days, the gathering instead offered a fine chance to … stare solo at mobile phone screens and occasionally click them.
  • Yes, pooping. Back at that basketball tournament, the one men’s bathroom stayed busy. I ducked in to pee. But all the urinals were occupied. So I proceeded to the toilet stalls, opened two doors, and on both sat roundballers texting away while taking care of business. (I don’t know why they left the doors unlocked.)

May you live in techy times, my friends, and find much productivity, creativity, and connectivity with your tools and toys.

May you also remember to set them down now and than and ask yourself, “Am I present?”

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Post-Valentine’s Post

Posted on: Sunday, February 24th, 2013
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A recent article from McClatchy describes our lust for technology—smart phones, SM, TV, games—and the fact that we are not alone. That is, our life partners likely share this myopic desire. And that’s wreaking havoc on relationships.

Having trouble connecting with your S.O.? It’s probably because they’re instead connecting with other people virtually nonstop. Who hasn’t seen the couple on a date giving googly eyes not to each other, but to their phones? Who hasn’t heard about break-ups (and hook-ups) done entirely via text messages?

Consider the habits of 18 to 34 year-old women, the most heavy users of SM:

  • 39% refer to themselves as “Facebook addicts”
  • 34% get on Facebook first thing in the morning (before going to the bathroom or brushing their teeth)
  • 21% check Facebook in the middle of the night.

The psycho community has taken note. Psychologist David Greenfield, who founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, notes that checking digitalia hundreds of times a day generates dopamine, that feel-good chemical associated with addiction.

In some countries, boys are routinely sent away to rehab camps to try to break their gaming habit.

Then there’s multitasking. Though some researchers dispute whether the human brain can truly “do” more than one thing at a time, many folks sure do try. One practice that keeps growing in popularity is, of course, watching TV while surfing your computer. That habit grew by 34.5% in 2009.

So what’s a partner to do? Perhaps just “being together,” which is to say in the same room and in the flesh, is going to be about as good as it gets. Oh well, if the relationship feels distant and reticent, you can always text each other.

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Keeping up with our Tech Joneses

Posted on: Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
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NOT in MY house!” So goes an old saying. And in MY house, those NOTS include a short but do-able list of guidelines for Sundays:
> No working.
> No obsessing on tech toys.
> No sports practice or games.
> No focusing on stuff that’s just stressful.
  • In my dreams!

Naturally, that vision of “keeping the Sabbath” has worked about as well as a dead battery. Sundays now may feature not one but two sports practices—even for my nine-year old! We all work if we need to. The kids study. And the dream has become to simply sit for Sunday Supper. But that often morphs into Subway Supper, while my kids still can’t competently chop a carrot.

  • Enter anxiety and depression

In his new book, “24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life,” one Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes a compelling plea for people to slow down. One day a week. Like our forbears did for 2,000 years—until we got so dang busy during the last 30 years. We weren’t meant to work this hard—or to be so wired, literally and metaphorically.

In this CNN interview, he calls America “the most depressed country in the world,” while observing that “I don’t have enough time” has become the mantra of our era. It’s making us sick, he asserts. And he ought to know; he’s a physician with much emergency-room experience. Yet he notes that doctors rarely ask about your work, stress, or rest.

  • “You get more done…”

Dr. Sleeth maintains that, for those who somehow swing it,

you actually get more things done on the six days that you are working,” and “keeping one day of rest a week has been the single best thing they’ve done for their marriage, their family and their spiritual relationship.”

Imagine that! Greater productivity, less stress, more zen.

The career-break movement lobbies for the right to take grand, faraway getaways. Yet in a world of workaholism, prescribing taking Sundays off or keeping your hand off your devices is akin to fighting to take bottles away from a party of addicted drunks.

Still, it’s worth a shot (so to speak). The accelerated lifestyle that we’ve bought into is careening out of control. And at the end of the day, or should we say week?, wouldn’t we all, deep down, love to lighten our load and unwind a little?

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