Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Foot-Slogged Journey from Zero to Hero

According to Google, the definition of the word hero is:

A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A warrior, a knight, a lionheart.

Or we could go with Google’s second definition:

Another term for a submarine sandwich.

I am surrounded 24/7 by heroes. Their voices ring in my ears in pitches that reveal their age and dialects that unmask their country of origin. Occasionally, their speech is so foreign to my mind, I find I must consult etymological dictionaries to make sense of what they say.

Most of these heroes I conjure up myself.

It’s a writer’s process that involves a mixed bag of tools: a few shovels and brushes for the archeological dig to uncover the bones, or a hammer and chisel to chip away at “whatever isn’t the angel,” or, my favorite, the ability to sit with a mental stereogram—where you purposefully lose the eye’s traditional and automatic ability to focus—and then suddenly, mind-blowingly, find a new depth of perspective.

Something magical emerges from something quite ordinary.

I’m used to following these heroes through some journey.

We meet the hero. Something happens to him that forces him to change—despite the fact that he is resistant to change. He’s drawn into some crisis. Things go to hell in a handbasket for a brief period of time. Some metamorphosis occurs, impacting our guy and allows him to respond to the call. And then …

BANG!

He saves the day.

Amen.

I am drawn to these people like a needle pointing north and with the same urgency as when anyone cracks open the door of an oven filled with chocolate chip cookies.

My above definition is a super-simplified explanation of a complex, universal storytelling form called …

The Hero’s Journey.

(Please note: In my head, anytime this phrase is said aloud, its audio quality is enhanced by some impressively epic reverb.)

According to many who’ve studied the great stories of mythology and the broad swath of tales that fit beneath the umbrella of the monomyth, there are a few things necessary in each of these sagas:

A situation, a protagonist, an objective, conflict and disaster, and very important—an opponent.

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My list is by no means complete, but just an “around about” example to further my unfolding tale.

But the hero I’m going to tell you about is not one of mythology or conjured up by my writerly imagination. She is a regular Joe. A flesh and blood body. A mortal, a maiden, and amusingly, mine.

Okay, that last part may no longer really be true, as she leapt from the nest two years ago, but the ownership part isn’t the important bit. It’s the journey. It’s one I was given the privilege to watch close up and from all angles.

You know those first words we record as proud parents in the biblical baby books of unprecedented infant achievement? This is found in hers:

Airpane.

Yeah, not a typo.

One tiny fist with one tiny finger extended upward and continuously, unrelentingly, irritatingly pointed toward the sky. One tiny mouth was forever uttering what two tiny eyes could see and two tiny ears could hear.

Airpane.

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Rare was the day when I had the time to track each one of her identifications—and I certainly did not possess the keen eyesight and impressive auditory range that she seemed to have been born with—but I breezily verified each one of her chirps with some form of response like,

“Wow, good for you, Toots. Keep your eye out for more.” Or,

“Clever girl. How many is that this morning? One hundred? One thousand? I’ve lost count.” Or,

“Okay, I get it. You were a pilot in a previous life. I’ve got to fold laundry.”

When my daughter was about five, two common career themes emerged and spilled out into her everyday life. She was heavily into deciding between becoming a ballerina or an astronaut.

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One day, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her. She was going to have a few follow-up booster shots for some prior vaccinations. Knowing her intense hatred and fear of needles, I tried to plan something fun to follow that doctor’s appointment that would keep her mind off of the wretched shots:

We were going to have lunch … WITH AN ASTRONAUT IN TRAINING!

A family friend was delighted to hear of my daughter’s early interest in space and eager to encourage her tiny spurts of enthusiasm. It was exactly what we needed to follow that pediatrician’s appointment—which was …

Awful.

She hid, she screamed, she threw tongue depressors at the man as if she was barricading herself inside an ice cream truck with nothing but popsicles to use as weapons. She told him she was going to hunt him down in the middle of the night.

Yeah, it was appalling.

Anyway, back at lunch, our astronaut friend began to fill my daughter’s head with all the details involved in becoming “an astronaut,” and at one point launched into the myriad medical tests and examinations one must undergo in order to determine if one is even physically fit enough for space.

My daughter inquired about inoculations.

“Yep,” he said. “Plenty of needles.”

She then turned to me and asked, “Do ballerinas need shots?”

Well, I thought we were finished with our miniature hero’s journey into space and that life would finally return back to normal. I would no longer have to feign interest in her long conversations about the complex water systems aboard the International Space Station which provided astronauts drinking water made from a filtered mixture of recycled shower water, old astronaut sweat … and pee.

Except I was wrong.

Because every day that space interest grew. Whether she was curious about rocket fuel, or space shuttle tiles, or the physics of learning how to fly.

At one point, she said to me she would happily accept a one-way ticket to Mars if it was available and she qualified, and then gave me permission to give away everything in her bedroom to Goodwill.

“What?” I said. “You’re still interested in space?”

Apparently, this was the equivalent of asking, “What? You’re still interested in breathing air?

She struggled with physics like it was some Minotaur she’d regularly sword fight with each night before bed.

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She spent countless, frustrating hours with her teachers in order to understand—not memorize—the facts in front of her.

One of her teachers—a Japanese physicist, whom I swear was the prototype for Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid—threw countless roadblocks in her way.

“Why waste your time with space?” he’d ask her. “Space is for boys. Dolls are for girls.”

She would march from his classroom and turn to face him just before leaving and flip him the bird.

He, on the other hand, would smile with smug contentment after she left, knowing he’d lit a fire beneath someone’s nettled knickers.

Word had it, that this man had come to America with the impassioned notion that the world needed more girls in math.

But apparently, he didn’t want ones that crumpled when facing adversity.

Walking into her bedroom was a bit like being a detective who opened the door belonging to a guy whose crazed neural network encompassed all four walls of the freakishly alarming one room apartment he lived in. Where equations were sprawled across every square inch of space, and yarn connected one spot to another, making the entire room feel like it was a massive, but not yet completed, macramé pot holder.

Understanding that this was a language I would never have the codes to decipher, I’d offer up encouragement from the safest quarters of my own comfort zones—stories.

Seeing her bleary eyes each morning, and the small, but growing bald spot patches where she would regularly grasp at fistfuls of hair—I first assumed out of frustration, but after taking into account the amount of information she was trying to consume, I came to believe it was in an effort to expand skull space—I would offer up my suggestions. I didn’t want her to give up.

“Why don’t we head to the library and check out some super stories about space adventure? Stories like Aliens Love Underpants, or The Martian Chronicles, or Ender’s Game, or (most important) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

But with each book I brought home and encouraged her to read, they ended up buried beneath printed out specs of some new rocket booster. Or NASA flight mission reports. Or CDs that declared, you can learn how to speak Russian and Chinese in under ten minutes a day!

She didn’t want to read a space story.

She wanted to be a space story.

Countless times in this child’s life, I’ve stepped back and looked at the path she was traveling. It’s been riddled with potholes, roadblocks, detours, and burnt bridges. But it has also been abundantly sprinkled with mentors: sensei sword masters, Yodas, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores. Guides who have handed her a sword, a light saber, a wand.

Repeatedly realizing how out of depth I was, the best I could hope to do was step out of her way. I was not going to be the antagonist in my very own child’s heroic journey. I did not want to be her conflict, her disaster, her apocalyptic Death Star.

But I could keep her sword shiny, her lightsaber full of batteries, and her wand connected to Wi-Fi at night whilst she slept.

I looked for the places I belonged in her story. Many times I found it was on the sidelines taking notes. It’s what we writers do to nudge a story into place. It’s what we cheerleaders do to rally our heroes. It’s what we parents do to encourage our children.

Today, this child of mine studies aerospace engineering at MIT and is in the middle of her first summer internship with NASA.

It is a beautiful thing to realize that Thank God, you did not get in the way of someone else’s dream and hopefully, instead, pruned back the prickly path a tiny bit to make the journey a little bit easier.

I celebrate both of my children’s achievements as they come, and tell them about the importance of embracing each one of their failures along the way as well. There is no rising without falling.

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Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we may bring back the bandages and antibiotic ointments that come with life’s splashdowns and spills. It is all part of the hero’s journey and there are no shortcuts around facing your dragons.

Today I am so happy for this child I find myself nearly bursting with joy. I seriously just want to take a bite out of her.

I’m guessing she will taste something like a submarine sandwich.

~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

My Simpleminded Smartphone

My smartphone is …well, how do I put this—not terribly smart.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I am hugely amazed at the capability of said smartphone, and believe these miniature, magical machines deserve daily praise and admiration. For Pete’s sake, I punch a button and the world of wireless wealth unfolds before me–coupons, car diagnostics and my hourly cholesteral calculation.

Yeah, I rightly should set up a tiny shrine and go through a nightly ritual of lighting incense and candles to properly worship its cache of riches. Maybe toss in a ceremonial dance or two as well.

But what I’ve come to discover, and sheepishly so, is that smartphones are pretty much a mirror image of their owners.

Meaning, only as intelligent as the Joe Schmo operating it.

I’ve seen plenty of people (read: teenagers) actively attempting to reprogram satellites with their handhelds, and I’ve come across numerous folks (okay, you know who you are) who have found great use for them as doorstops, coasters, and bookmarks.

And as impressive a span of accomplishments one’s phone has been programmed to complete, the world of technology, and those who consume it, are hungry for more.

We are always looking for a smarter phone.

A phone whose IQ is regularly improved upon and impressively upgraded to achieve more than ever before, and more than your below average science fiction writer could ever conjure up.

We want a device that’s more than super smart.

More than slick and sassy.

And more than sharp and shrewd.

We want a new brain.

Thinking is hard. It’s taxing. And oftentimes, we decide to hell with thinking, I’m just gonna fly by the seat of my pants on this one.

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And then if we find ourselves in the middle of giant whoopsi poo, we rely upon a few tired backup systems put in place by millions before us that regularly explain our errors.

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We brush our hands of the dust, and off we go, convincing ourselves that everyone is fully on board with our excuse for the screw-up because:

We’re low a quart of caffeine

We never got the email

Or

The President was apparently flying within one hundred miles of my town and, therefore, all roads were blocked off to allow safe air passage and now I’m running three days behind schedule, plus my child just lost a tooth.

Yep. Heard it all before.

What we need is a scapegoat brain.

What? You mean the report that was due about first quarter financials? Yeah, that was outsourced to my Neural Network Simulator. Not my fault.

Of course I didn’t pick up the kids from your mother’s. My Collective Cognitive Conveyance took that over last week,

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don’t you remember, or is your Recapture App on the fritz again?

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Why didn’t I pick up your weekly pint of Chubby Hubby at the supermarket? Apparently, our AI Grocery Gofer scanned your current waistline, honey, and deemed it an unnecessary purchase.

I think you get my point. Responsibilities, memories, decisions—all this riff raff gets in the way of living a calm and quiet life, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to assign basic thought—or occasionally all thought—to an outside source?

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Hoping to head off on a much needed, hard-earned vacation?

Got the flu and you’re laid up in bed?

Desperate for just one quick, blissful afternoon nap on a rainy Sunday afternoon when there’s still so much to tackle before the new week begins?

Yes, there’s still work to be done, but how about you just hand all that over to some form of artificial intelligence and rest easy knowing your best work—and quite possibly better than your best work—will still be happening without you.

Researchers all around the world in both private industry and well-funded university departments, not to mention a few shabbily decked out basements and garages, are beavering away bringing us ever closer to that reality.

Google, Facebook, NASA, IBM—just a few of the ‘big boys’ making giant strides across the fertile fields of artificial intelligence.

In the past, machines progressed on the scale of intelligence by collecting vast amounts of data on our habits, compiled that info, and then systematically revealed how we as individuals would behave in the future. A boon for marketers, if nothing else.

A little freaky for those of us who believe choosing which color socks to put in the morning is going to be the first monumental struggle of the day.

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But machines had been getting stuck with a tiny little thing called REASONING. Apparently, data analysis was running across a pothole in the road when it came to human inference and interpretation. Ones and zeros had a hard time with rationale.

Except now it seems that technology is making it over this hurdle too. Machinery is finding success with the art and skill of human reasoning with nothing more than algebra. Yep, math. Well, in truth, this is an extraordinarily dumbed down explanation for the concept of Deep Learning within machines where data is fed in, spat out, judged and fed in again round after round. There are countless articles explaining it far better than I could with the space I’ll allow for it. Just Google ‘machine learning algorithms.’ We’ll wait.

No, don’t. On second thought, unless you want an instant software freeze within the confines of your own neural network, I suggest you hold off on that. Nobody appreciates the acrid smell of synaptic burning coming from between their ears first thing in the morning.

Nevertheless, a faster, sleeker, smarter digital assistant is on its way to each of us.

But if, like in my original assessment, we are still stuck with a reflection of our individual capabilities, I’m fearful that after opening the protective casing of my newest device I will be greeted with the spine-chilling voice of Barbie giggling and saying,

Math is hard!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Wrote DEAR OPL- Part 3

*Just a heads up to anyone new joining in–this is not my typical blog post. This is part 3 of 3 for a speech I’m preparing and posting here to get valuable feedback from my community. If you’re interested in joining in (and I so hope you are), and you’ve not had a chance to read part 1 or part 2, you might want to take a minute and get up to speed. I look forward to hearing what all of you have to say. It’s been wonderfully worthy and I thank every one of you for participating!

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What’s in it?

My sleuthing skills progressed mainly because food labels showed up. I, therefore, became obsessed in the pursuit of truth.

I suspected that every chemical I read about on the back of a label and couldn’t identify was likely a form of my mother’s mystery ingredients I had to watch out for. The only things I could trust were foods in their whole and original form. And this is something our culture has removed us from in a very real and dangerous way.

Despite the higher intake of calories our western diets have had us adopt, people are hungry. We’re now eating more food than ever before yet we are starving for nutrients. And our bodies are yelling this fact out to us. We’re struggling with these massive and overwhelming cravings for sugar. It’s hugely addictive and, in fact, scientists have discovered rats will work eight times harder to get sugar than they will to get cocaine.

Our average modern diet is not providing the nourishment our bodies require for good health, and because of it, our bodies are suffering more insulin spikes than a tumultuous day on Wall Street.

Basically, we have an abundance of calories, but a shortfall of nutrients.

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I find this to be a shocking and saddening state of affairs, but if you really want to hear something that will make the hair on your arms stand at attention, here’s another one of those eye-popping statistics I alluded to earlier:

The junk food industry spends about 2 billion dollars each year targeting children. One scary study found that elementary school kids in the US see an average of 254 ads from McDonalds each year. That’s just ONE company in the sea of junk food advertisers.

We are bombarded with media that dictates what we want, what we’re hungry for, what gadgets we’re desperate for, what will make us feel better about ourselves or our lives, and what will make us feel included. Kids are targeted even more so. It’s overwhelming and impossible for them to filter these messages or tune them out, and certainly challenging for them to interpret and identify how they are being subtly and not so subtly molded.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now reports that around 12.5 million children aged 2-19 are obese. And this is just in the United States. If you need a mental graphic that’s like nearly the entire population of Ecuador. Or how about this one—two Norways, a Botswana and a Liechtenstein. Worldwide we’re talking about 43 million kids.

Yeah, it’s a lot. Want to elevate that arm fur another notch? The World Health Organization estimates that in ten years time, over 70 million children globally will be obese. And the most alarming surprise? This number is only including children from ages 0 to 5.

Diet-related diseases are the biggest killers of human life. Far bigger than homicides, pneumonia, kidney disease, accidents. The statistics are jaw-dropping.

It makes you want to curl up in a ball and cry, doesn’t it?

Or we can do something about it.

Which brings us to part three: WHAT WE NEED TO DO

  1. No amount of exercise is going to help you run away from a bad diet.

It’s really hard to recognize a problem despite the fact that it’s growing right beneath our noses, mostly because it’s a fairly unremarkable one. It’s not remarkable because it’s become common.

We all know what a dog looks like—we’ve seen gobs of them over our lifetimes. Nothing too terribly novel about them from where we stand right now. But if you woke up one morning and looked outside and spotted a flying dog, you’d probably pause and really study the anomaly … until it wasn’t an anomaly anymore. If pretty soon flying dogs were just as common as grass, then no one would really see them any longer—which is what’s happening to our children. Obesity is becoming familiar, universal and ordinary.

We can’t let this happen.

It would be incredibly easy to point our extra pointy fingers at the heart of the problem and scream until we’re blue in the face at the food industry, but if any of you have ever been in a situation where you’ve pointed a finger at someone and assigned blame, I think you’ll also recall that they didn’t offer either an apology or any available energy to help solve the problem.

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More often than not they likely gave you back a pointy finger as well—but facing in a different direction.

A better response might be to ask for partnership in problem-solving. Our food industries can make food education a top priority of their business. Help us shop, teach us how to cook, educate us about nutrition. A win for the public and a win for their public relations. Besides, it does not show savvy business sense to kill off your clientele.

The restaurant and fast food industry, which have gotten us hooked on the drugs of sugar, fat and salt by targeting consumers with their persuasive advertisements, could help wean us off the extremely unhealthful amounts or face selective taxation from the government to cover the skyrocketing cost of healthcare: a price tag we do not have the funds to pay for—no matter how far down into our purses we dig.

We need restrictions on advertising to children who are most vulnerable to these campaigns. We need to protect those who are easy targets, those who are easily preyed upon, and those who will suffer the most.

Also, we need clearer food labeling—something effortless and easy so consumers don’t have to count grams or teaspoons. Something like the proposed traffic light label. Red for high amounts of free sugars, yellow for mid-level amounts, and green for Go for it, buddy.

We need to give our children LIFE SKILLS. We can get in the kitchen with them, teach them the basics of nutrition, educate them about what they’re eating and illuminate how it will affect the quality and longevity of their lives. It’s going to be a mess, but maybe architects can start making kitchens with a large drain in the middle of the floor which allow you to just hose down the walls after a family cooking session.

We can take the necessary steps to overhaul our school lunch programs. And currently there are a handful of people pioneering over this treacherous landscape who are battling to illustrate that pizza should not be considered a vegetable because it has tomato sauce in it. Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, Michelle Obama and Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio are a few familiar names who have been leading the campaigns of international food revolutions. These folks are shaking up government nutritional guidelines, instituting school garden programs, and proposing ways to lower the cost of healthy foods so that everyone can have access to them. But there are many, many more who are working in the trenches and mostly without a spotlight. We need to support their endeavors.

The three points I’ve highlighted—what we eat, what we know, and what we need to do—are part of a task we need to knuckle down and get busy with—a cause we need to champion. Creating and implementing solutions to our epidemic is a global obligation we owe ourselves, our children and our children’s children.

We need a new killer slogan for our planet. Not a slogan that will kill us.

I propose something like this:

Planet Earth: come for the food, stay for the fun, die when you’re old.

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~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Why I Wrote DEAR OPL

Who Writes a Prologue to a Blog Post? … Umm, Me.

A heads up to this beautiful community I have come to know and embrace. The next three posts are not ‘blog posts’—they are a polished rough draft of a speech.

I’m crowdsourcing and asking for your valuable input.

The speech isn’t about the book I’ve written for children, it’s about the messages within the book that I’m trying to highlight by spreading awareness. Years ago, these topics grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me until my teeth rattled and demanded I do something about them.

The book is a vehicle to address these topics with children. The speech is my outreach campaign to engage parents, educators, and activists who care about how food politics are aggressively influencing our health.

So, I’m asking you to read and comment. Help me make an impact. Tell me what works for you, what doesn’t, what you’d like to see more of, or what you feel detracts. Your opinions matter to me.

This is not a plea to purchase my book. This is an appeal to help me make a difference. If this isn’t your shtick, I promise your names will still be rattled off in my nightly prayers of Please let these folks win some lottery in life. The point is to take advantage of eager, willing voices and collective brain power.

Your thoughts mean a great deal to me. I want to carry them with me as I carry this message to others.

And now … Why I Wrote DEAR OPL.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m usually not one for eavesdropping—okay, who am I kidding? I’m a writer. I’m always listening in on conversations all around me. It’s a fountain-like source of creativity I regularly tap into. And it’s addictive. But it’s part of my job.

On this particular occasion—while I was working—I just happened to overhear a conversation that made me cringe. We were in Australia, and my then seven-year-old son was chatting with an Australian lad who was just a little bit older than him. The boy asked my son where he was from. I heard my son answer, “America.” The other boy’s response was, “Oh. Where the fat people live.”

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I sat back and thought about that unflattering national slogan. It did not have a sexy ring to it.

I thought about a few other places that had slogans to capture the essence and beauty of what they had to offer.

Egypt: Where it all began.

Bahli: The islands of gods.

Disneyland: The happiest place on Earth.

And now …

America: Where the fat people live.

The more I thought about it, the more a few other slogans repeatedly popped into my head. Like this one:

McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.

It gave me a lot to chew on—excuse the pun—but it really had me thinking about how big ideas could be distilled down to a few simple words. And sometimes those words could leave a bad taste in your mouth.

But I like slogans. I am all about slogans—or catchphrases or mottos—whatever you want to call them. I surround myself with them because throughout my whole life I’ve found them to be effective.

In fact, here’s an example of just how powerful one became:

As I was growing up, studying classical music was a precise and strictly defined practice. There were rules and not much wiggle room for interpretation of any of them.

I remember as a teenager sitting at the piano with a friend of mine who had not studied classical, but was rather raised playing jazz and improv. We were very different musicians. One afternoon we tried to find a song that both of us could play together on the piano. It ended up being something I could read off sheet music and he improvised alongside.

When we’d finished the piece, he turned to me and said, “Okay, now don’t do it regular.” I didn’t know any other way but regular, and when I found out that’s what I was, I aimed to change it.

In fact, that became the slogan with which I raised my children. My children weren’t particularly thrilled with my ‘swim against the current’ motherly advice as it made them stick out in ways that would make most kids’ toes curl. Their complaining fell on deaf ears and was usually followed with that old parental pearl of It’ll build you some character!

When years ago I heard the highly acclaimed entrepreneur, Seth Godin, say, “Ordinary is boring,” I nearly leaped out of my skin. I wanted to rush to my children and point out that I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t trying to ruin their fun, I was simply trying to enrich their lives.

That phrase of Just Don’t Do It Regular became a theme song I was determined to sing when coaching my kids through countless situations as if I were some first draft version of Maria Von Trapp or a slightly more colorfully dressed adaptation of Mary Poppins. The last thing I wanted for them was a ‘go with the flow’ predictable experience. I wanted them to counteract the narrative of their generation. If they had something to say to the world, it would take words noteworthy and uncommon in order to be heard above the fray.

And people pay attention to noteworthy and uncommon. After that trip to Australia, it seemed like I repeatedly stumbled upon the same message directed at a growing swath of our planet’s population.

We are in trouble, people. We have a big fat problem on our hands … and hips and thighs and bellies.

I couldn’t ignore the message.

After slogging through a forest full of research articles and data authored and collected by the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and a compilation of all of Dave Letterman’s Top Ten lists, I realized that some of my sources were—although meticulously detailed and scientific—extremely dry and nearly impossible to swallow.

It’s as if the WHO and CDC embraced both Seth and McDonald’s mottos and made an unlikely lovechild tagline for themselves: We’re boring, and lovin’ it.

My guess is that neither of the big research and data collection agencies thought their articles could use any spicing up—with something like a massive neon lit memo—in order to hail the attention of the folks who were most desperately in need of reading it.

Extracting the main point message was easy though:

A shocking number of people are eating themselves to an early death. In particular, children.

I spent a lot of time looking around and asking the silent question, Does everyone know this? And then I spent a lot of time thinking it really shouldn’t be a silent question. And lastly I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could take the message about our world’s growing epidemic of obesity and spread the word in a way that wouldn’t make people fall asleep with their eyes open.

To reach children, I wrote a book.

But for all of you, I’ve broken the message into three bite-sized portions of important information that I’ve gathered from myriad experts—aka folks far more clever than me—whom I’ve hunted down from all corners of this great round ball we live on. Those three points—the meat and marrow of this talk—are thus:

  1. WHAT WE EAT
  2. WHAT WE KNOW
  3. WHAT WE NEED TO DO

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*I hope you’ll come back next week for part 2 of 3. And I hope you may consider offering your thoughts thus far.

Cheers everyone!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Memory Lane; How Science is Planning to Make a Few More

I love learning about the brain.

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I’m continually unearthing new research revealing fresh discoveries that must make the neuroscientists who discovered them leap up and down like seven-year-olds when you tell them you’re taking them to the local ice cream parlor for a double scoop.

Some of the studies are astonishing.

Most of the studies are encouraging.

All of the studies are in a version that is appropriate for a twelve-year-old to interpret. That’s pretty much the only way I will be able to absorb all of the astonishing and encouraging data. A neuroscientist I am not. But I do have a brain. And that’s about as much as we share in common—apart from the fact that I will leap up and down for a double scoop when offered as well.

The latest brain study I stumbled upon was all about memory creation. I can’t remember who authored the paper, or which university the research took place at—but that likely points toward exactly why I was out hunting for memory studies in the first place.

The study discussed two particular regions of the brain that need to speak with one another in order to create successful learning:

the hippocampus,

and the prefrontal cortex.

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Apparently, if we are working on a task of learning to connect two objects to one anotherlike shoe and foot, or chair and tableour brain’s neurons are busily firing off. And, as a result, generate brain waves.

And also apparently, these two chunks of gray matter—the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex—use two different frequencies to communicate whether or not we guessed correctly, in which case we’ll get a blue ribbon to sport, or whether we guessed wrongly, and are then seated in the corner of the room with a pointy shaped hat on our heads.

It all comes down to the oscillation of the waves.

Answering correctly—a thumbs up—makes the waves oscillate at a high rate referred to as the beta frequency (9-16 hertz), and a thumbs down results in a lower oscillation called theta frequency (2-6 hertz).

I’m pretty sure we should add a two thumbs down result in here for the general faction of teenage boys which typically operate at the lowest frequency setting of thunka (-3-0 hertz) just to be on the safe side of science.

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If I can remember where I placed the study, I will petition the authors to include my data into their research.

The scientists documented brainwave frequencies while studying test subject animals. These critters were tasked to learn which two images should be connected to one another and which two images should not be coupled. This was done through trial and error. A reward was given to indicate a correct choice. It’s like when you try to teach your cat how to drive. The only way they will receive the reward of finally making it to their favorite acupuncturist on time is if they learn that they must insert a key into the car’s ignition and not a spatula.

Simple, right?

Choosing the “right” answers showed that the pathways between neurons were strengthening. And choosing the “wrong” answers weakened pathways. It was as if the brain was trying to communicate through the oscillation of waves which neural pathway should have a giant WELCOME sign at its entrance, and which should be choking with weeds, overrun with poison ivy and displaying a placard with a skull and crossbones.

And the hope is that now scientists will be able to utilize low voltage electrical stimulation to the brain to “speed up” the process of learning. And who wouldn’t go for that, right?

Soon we’ll all be able to put on a special hat, attach ourselves to the nearest electrical outlet, and begin the once arduous process of learning a language, conquering physics, or watching something like Seth MacFarlane’s film, A Million Ways to Die in the West. With a few tweaks of current control, you’ll be conversing in Chinese, building the next Mars rover, and hacking into production facilities with the intent to destroy wretched films in the nick of time just before they’re widely released for public consumption.

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If nothing more, I’m incredibly encouraged by the research taking place and wholly support any studies that will not only retain the vital neurological pathways I’ve worked so hard to establish already, but potentially make it possible for me to go on learning new information that can only enrich and deepen my intellectual experience.

As a reward to myself for having made it through reading this particularly challenging study on cognitive function and its future, I’m heading out to the nearest, local ice cream parlor for a double scoop.

Now if I could only find where I put my spatula …

~Shelley

 

*BONUS ROBIN GOTT CARTOON!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Who Do You Think YOU Are?

Now that we’ve all gotten through that first (and some might say unbearable) month of the year, it’s a grand (and some might say painful) time to take a quick looksee backward to collect a few points of data.

I call this month the time of RECALIBRATION because with all the frenzied excitement of December’s last week, which is stuffed full of well-meaning (some might say drunken) promises we nearly tattooed to our skin with the bulldozer determination of rebranding ourselves into the new shinier 2015 version, it can get overwhelming.

Some might say paralyzing.

I see no need for any of us to shrink away from our former selves, or the vows we made to our former selves. Like campaign promises, circumstances change: real life slaps us upside the head, supporters who swore they’d have our back are getting crabby because the timeline is too slow, we’ve finally had a moment to sit down and read the fine print, and in some cases, we discover that Lincoln’s historic and exclusive bedroom smells like Lincoln’s socks are still stuffed beneath the bed. All the hype ain’t quite what it was cracked up to be.

So now is a good time to take a deep breath and practice this phrase:

I used to be …

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NO GUILT!

‘I used to be’ can be just as cleansing as it is clarifying. For example, I used to be determined to rid myself of the seasonal Jack Frost Flab until Polly Polar Vortex burst through the door and hollered hello.

I have changed my mind. I am now simply always on the ball with early winter prep.

Another illustration might be, I used to be resolute in my goal to sing a duet with Frank Sinatra, but then he died.

I never gave up on this goal, I just came to realize it is doubly difficult to sing two part harmony with a corpse.

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There are myriad examples that may be just as revealing, but a little less disheartening like:  I used to be young, but now I am … not as young.

But each day that has passed has brought something my younger self did not have:

EXPERIENCE.

Hard won, effortful, exhausting, mind-numbing, hair-curling, wouldn’t-trade-most-of-it-for-the-world experience. (Some of it I would trade. Some of it I would pay people to erase from my memory and the memory of all the others involved, and then I would be at the mercy of those folks for as long as they would allow me to serve them.)

Or how about: I used to be a student—and go figure—I still am.

I used to be a student in a small classroom, then a large classroom, then on a massive campus. Now I am a student, but one without walls. My math assignments are the bills, the budgets and the taxes. English reports are my books and my blog. History is learned from the library. Science is a rich alchemy occurring all around me—from the stove top to the utility room, from the distilleries I study to the labels in my medicine cabinet. School is ever present, and I will always be a student.

At this point in my life, it’s almost as if behind every door I open, someone is flipping on a light bulb, and a small, but vocal collection of brain cells all join together and belt out a beautiful chorus of an aha moment.

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I pray their efforts don’t diminish. I hope that one day there will be an ongoing work of symphonic status performing up there.

And I implore science to hurry up and double their labors at successfully creating that special pill/implant/gene therapy that will ultimately improve my concentration, increase my memory, and boost my intelligence. I promise to do great things with it. I promise not to hack the financial industry, or mess about in the tech corridors, or commandeer the world’s defense divisions.

I promise. I can assuredly say that I used to be honest is not a phrase I will ever utter.

I really just want the extra brain juice for a few household experiments like figuring out a cost analysis for the most efficacious and least expensive wrinkle creams, or for what speed my make and model of car would consume gas most efficiently, or whether cryonics will be a sound decision for my hound at some point because I cannot imagine finding another animal as perfect for me as he is. And I will wait for whatever cure veterinary medicine doesn’t have available just yet for some ailment he may nearly succumb to in the future.

That’s what I’d use it for.

I promise.

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And how ‘bout this one to leave you with? I used to be afraid to try new things.

I still am. But I never let it stop me. Except when fear equals wisdom. Best not to ignore that little pearl.

Now you look at your life. How many ‘used to bes’ is it filled with?

It takes a significant element of courage and energy to commit to become something. That something that was important to us for a minute, a month, or a lifetime. Identifying your used to be is not a list of your failures.

It is a record of your efforts and accomplishments. It is a sign of movement and momentum. It is a mark of evolution.

~Shelley

(This post was inspired by one of my favorite authors and thinkers: Seth Godin.)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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