Unplugging from Electronics and Plugging in to Nature

A week ago, I returned from a five-day retreat, held at the Audubon Center for the North Woods. It’s a beautiful environmental education center, situated next to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes and featuring more than 500 acres of forest, wetland, and prairie.

In addition to the natural beauty of the location, there is another notable feature of this wilderness location.  It is so remote that there is no cellular phone coverage. Let me repeat that: There is no cellular phone coverage.

As I feared (see previous blog entry), I went through TWS (technology withdrawal syndrome), a condition which often follows a long bout of NDD (nature deficit disorder).

Here are some examples of the symptoms I experienced:

  • When I wanted to know the current temperature or the forecast for later in the day, I thought immediately of logging on to the National Weather Service’s online site. Then, I realized that I’d have to figure it out on my own, by going outside and studying the sky.
  • When I met new people at the retreat, I wished I had access to Google so I could learn more about their backgrounds, interests, and professions. Instead, I had to decide which questions were really important for our conversation. I eventually realized that most of the information I would have found with a Google search wasn’t really relevant or important to our new friendship.
  • When I found myself wondering about a subject about which I had very limited knowledge (e.g, the lyrics to a song, the definition of a new word, the identification of an unknown plant or bird song), my first response was to reach for my iPhone to surf the net. Instead, I simply had to live with the uncertainties or try to figure it out for myself.
  • Perhaps the biggest problem for me was to be out-of-touch with my children. Even though my four sons are independent, resourceful, and competent young adults, I’ve gotten used to the ability to communicate with them at any time by phone, by texting, or by e-mail. For those five days, I had to trust that they were getting along fine, even when the electronic umbilical cord was cut.

In a future post, I’ll write about some of the things that I discovered, once my addiction to the online world had been tamed.

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  

If Gov. Sandford can escape for five days, I can, too.

Governor Mark Sandford of South Carolina sure attracted attention the past few days when it was reported that he had “disappeared.”  The first story, from his staff, was that he was hiking by himself on the Appalachian Trail. But the second story was that he was in Argentina. I guess those two locations are easy to confuse–both are four-syllable words beginning with “A.” The most recent story, as of a few minutes ago, added even more intrigue, with the Governor confessing to an affair with a woman in Argentina.

I’m bringing up this particular subject right now, because I’m “going off the grid” for five days myself.  I will be unreachable by e-mail, voice mail, or cell phone, and I find the prospect a bit scary. Will I go through electronic withdrawal?

I won’t be hiking the Appalachian Trail or jetting off to Buenos Aires.  I’ll just be at the Audubon Center of the North Woods in northern Minnesota on a five-day men’s retreat.  I expect to return to the online world on Monday–with a few mosquito bites and a big dose of wisdom.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 1:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What Mowing the Lawn Can Teach

Here’s a link to my guest blog article, published today in the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” blog.

I’d write more, but I have to go outside and quickly mow my lawn so that it looks halfway decent.

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Dads can have “empty nests,” too.

With another son graduating from high school last week (that’s my third son, one more high school graduation to go), I’m starting to think more about how my life will change when I’m finally living in an “empty nest.”   So, the title of an article on the cnn.com website caught my eye this morning:  “Sex and other perks of empty nesting”

If you read the article (which was originally published in O, The Oprah Magazine), you’ll see that the editor’s highlighting of  “sex” in the title is slightly gratuitous.  But, hey, it got me to read the article.

The article focuses primarily on the experience of mothers.  (Perhaps that’s because Oprah’s audience and market is predominantly female.)  However, I was intrigued to see a recognition that fathers can also experience “empty nest syndrome.”  I’m not surprised that a research study from Wheaton College found that men are usually less emotionally prepared for this transition and more prone to regrets over lost opportunities.  (Of course, it’s probably the case that we men are usually less emotionally prepared for just about any major life transition.)

My first glimpse into the “empty nest” transition process happened seven years ago when my oldest son went away to college.   My essay on that occasion, “Suddenly, It’s Time To Say Goodbye,” still rings true for me.

I’d write more about graduations and empty nests, but I don’t really have time to examine my feelings right now.  I have to get ready for a college graduation in three days (that’s my second son).   It’s a busy and happy month for my family…

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 10:13 pm  Comments (3)  

“The Daddy Shift” by Jeremy Adam Smith

In a two-part series in last week’s “Motherlode” blog, New York Times blogger Lisa Belkin interviews Jeremy Adam Smith, author of a new book titled The Daddy Shift.  The two blog posts are titled  “The Daddy Identity Crisis” and  “More About the Daddy Shift.”

I highly recommend these posts to anyone who wants to learn more about the male perspective on parenting roles in the 21st-century United States. I was particularly intrigued to see the listing of the numerous blog sites that are popping up to present the Dad perspective.

Perhaps I’ve mellowed in my old age, but I detect a different tone to the perspectives of involved Dads who are just beginning their parenting roles now in 2009 (as compared to those of us who began our parenting roles in the early 1990s).  Today’s Dads are a bit less defensive and a bit more confident.  And that’s good.

Is this the same shift and evolution that we saw in the various waves of feminism–a shift from militantism to moderation?

Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 6:02 am  Comments (1)  
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Catching a Baseball

Last weekend, a friend, who was attending a Minnesota Twins baseball game with his son, caught a baseball in the stands.  The next day, as he described the thoughts and feelings that flashed through his mind during those few seconds, it revived a memory of my own experience catching a baseball at a Twins game.

For me, it happened more than a decade ago–before blogs had been invented.  At the time, I wrote a short article for possible publication.  Now, with my own blog, I’m finally getting a chance to “publish” it.  Here it is:


Catching a Dream

It all happens in less than two seconds, without any warning. I’ve waited over thirty years, about one billion seconds, for just this moment. I’ve dreamed about it, prepared for it, and yet I’m still surprised when it happens.

The long wait started in the mid-1960’s, when I attended my first major league baseball game. My Dad and I, along with seven other father-and-son pairs, made the 200-mile trek from central Iowa to Metropolitan Stadium, home of the Minnesota Twins. Our seats were high in the stands, far down the right field line.

Following my Dad’s advice to be prepared, I had brought my baseball glove. I wore it religiously, always ready to catch a foul ball hit my way. Between innings, I slipped it off and quickly ate my hot dog and Frosty Malt. By the time the leadoff batter stepped up to the plate, the glove was back on my hand.

If I could just catch a ball, I would prove to my Dad and everyone else that I was prepared and that I was someone special.

I came home from that first game with a new Twins cap and a Twins victory. It was a great day, but it hadn’t been perfect. I didn’t catch a ball.

The next year, our father-son group made the same trip. This time I came home with a tiny 12-inch souvenir bat signed by Harmon Killebrew—but no ball. A pattern was being established.

Throughout my childhood, I faithfully brought my glove to every game. Eventually, however, my dream of bringing home a baseball faded and slipped away.

Three decades have passed, and I’m back in Minnesota. I’m becoming a Twins fan once again, after years of living on the East Coast and cheering for the Boston Red Sox. Metropolitan Stadium has long ago been torn down, replaced by an enclosed dome. Now there is a huge video screen in left field, where we all watch replays and look for our faces when the cameras sweep across the crowd between innings.

The Red Sox are in town, and my Dad has purchased three good seats—twenty-five rows up, just to the right of home plate. We make it a three-generation event—Dad, me, and Erik, my nine-year-old son. I tell Erik to bring his glove. “You should always be prepared,” I remind him. Just to prove the point, I grab my glove.

As we take our seats, I put on my glove and talk to Erik about the importance of being prepared. This is a major life lesson that I feel compelled to pass on to the next generation.

As I settle into the middle decades of my life, however, I am having doubts about the whole notion of “being prepared.” I used to think I could plan carefully for the future and thereby make my dreams come true. The events of the past few decades—getting married, having four children, zigzagging along several career paths, getting divorced, becoming a single father—have proved how unpredictable and uncontrollable life can be. I’m beginning to wonder why I spend time and energy holding on to dreams when life can take a sudden strange turn at any moment.

I don’t confide these misgivings to my son—or to my father. Instead, I bring my glove to the game and remind them both to be prepared. Between innings, however, I hide my glove in my lap. I don’t want the television camera to catch me, a respectable adult, wearing a baseball glove like a little kid.

It’s the seventh inning and the Twins are up to bat. Suddenly, without warning, it happens.

A fastball is fouled almost straight back. It zooms just to the right side of the protective screen behind the plate. I see it climbing toward me, skimming over the heads of the fans in front. It must be moving 80 miles an hour, a dangerous missile. In the scant two seconds that it takes the ball to travel to me, I have time for only three thoughts—”This could be it. Stand up. Put your glove out.”

The ball comes so quickly. I don’t have a chance to think back to that first Twins game thirty years earlier. I don’t have a chance to consider what lessons about life my son might learn from this moment. I don’t have a chance to contemplate my own mid-life doubts about fate and personal power. I just have time to stick out my glove.

Thwap!! I catch it right in the pocket of my glove. I don’t believe it’s really there until I reach in and pull it out. The fans around me are cheering. I feel flushed, excited. Should I stand up and acknowledge the applause? I glance at the big video screen to see if there will be a replay—the screen is advertising a local tire company. Confused, yet proud, I hold up my glove and wave it.

During the rest of the game, I keep touching the ball, examining it. It says, “Official Baseball, American League.” It’s scuffed and dirtier than I expected, not flawless and unblemished like in my dream.

I show it to my Dad and my son. I smile and relax.

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm  Comments (1)  

The Concussion Discussion

[Note: This article was originally written for a parenting blog.]

My cell phone vibrates, and I look to see who’s calling me. A picture of my 23-year-old son peers at me from the screen. He doesn’t call that often, so my thoughts immediately start scurrying into dark corners of my mind.

Without any cheerful greeting or preamble, he says, “I thought I should call someone so you’d know where I am. I’m on my way to the Emergency Room. I had another bike accident, but I’m not hurt as bad this time.”

It has been about ten months since I had received a similar phone call from him, also on the way to the Emergency Room, also following a bicycle accident. In that previous accident, he had broken his jaw.

This is getting to be a habit I don’t particularly like. Sure, I’m glad he stays in touch, but I much prefer the kind of phone calls where he has a question for me about cooking or needs help with his resume.

“Were you wearing your helmet?”

He hadn’t been wearing one last year. And though it might not have protected him in that particular accident, he had learned his lesson about wearing a helmet—I hoped.

“Yes. And it was a good thing, too. My head left a big dent in the car’s window, and my helmet is cracked. But I think my head is fine.”

Feeling relief, I close my eyes and let out the breath I had been holding.

I’ve been thinking about helmets, safety and parenting a lot recently.

In early January, when I went downhill skiing for the first time in a decade, I didn’t even consider wearing a helmet. However, after I took a hard fall in the morning (my fault) and was sideswiped from behind in the afternoon (a reckless teenager’s fault), I realized how foolish I was not to protect myself. Next time (if there is a next time), I’ll wear a helmet.

In February, my local newspaper reported that the brother of Minnesota icon Garrison Keillor had died from head injuries suffered in a fall while ice-skating. I remember thinking, with a combination of worry and frustration, “Do we have to wear helmets while skating now? What next?”

And then, in mid-March, there was the Natasha Richardson accident. The award-winning actress fell during a ski lesson on the beginner’s slope—on the beginner’s slope!!—hitting her head. She seemed fine for several hours, but soon she was in the hospital, and she died a day later from severe head trauma.

As a parent, and as a sports participant myself, these stories scare me. How can I even consider letting my children participate in potentially dangerous sports? How much should I insist on protective wear? What are the standards these days? When is protection not enough—or too much? As a father, do I err on the side of allowing too much adventuresome behavior?

When my children were young, I always insisted that they sit in their child car seats. As they got older, I required that they always wear seat belts. It was a simple rule, and no amount of fussing, arguing or crying on their part could sway me. It’s still a rule in my car. And now they’ve made it a rule in their cars, too.

When it came to helmets for bike-riding or skateboarding, however, I wasn’t so strict. I insisted they wore helmets when they were younger, but, as they entered adolescence, I wavered. I’d remind them to wear their helmets, but I wasn’t adamant. And I didn’t impose consequences if I learned later that they went without helmets. I regret now that I hadn’t been more resolute.

Wondering about my teenagers’ current perspectives, I discussed the issue with them this week. They told me that they’d wear a helmet if they expected to be doing tricks on a bike, skateboard or snowboard (i.e., “grinds,” “grabs” and “360s” using half-pipes, rails and ramps). However, for routine occasions, they found helmets to be “uncomfortable” and “awkward.”

“If you board to McDonald’s with your friends, it’s not cool to have a helmet,” said my 15-year-old son.

How can we make it “cool” to wear helmets? Should we pass laws requiring helmets? For all children? For all adults? (Different states currently have a variety of laws when it comes to requiring helmets for bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards and skates. No state currently requires a helmet for skiing or snowboarding.)

What are our responsibilities as parents to protect our children as they get older? At what age do we start to turn the responsibility over to them? What did you (or will you) say when you talk to your child about safety, helmets and head injuries?

Have you had the concussion discussion with your child?

Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Diversity in the Scientific Work Force: Why?

Our recent U.S. Presidential campaign and election have been proclaimed “historic” because of the gender and ethnic diversity of the candidates. In the world of chemistry, we’ve also seen historic demographic changes in recent years, especially in the presence of women in the workforce. Half of today’s undergraduates majoring in chemistry are women.

The percentage of chemists (and other scientists and engineers) who are members of under-represented minorities, however, is still woefully low. Scientific societies and professional associations are devoting considerable resources to advance the cause of diversity.

So, diversity is a good thing and it’s necessary. Right?

I must confess that I have been skeptical in the past. As a scientist, I want to see research results before I’m willing to give new ideas my full blessing. Show me the data!

Click here to see the rest of my article, published this week on the Careers Blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 8:15 am  Comments (1)  
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Great website about scientific process

I’ve been looking over some of the nominees for this year’s Webby Awards, and I came across an excellent site that illustrates how science works.  Developed by the Exploratorium, Evidence:  How Do We Know What We Know? was nominated for a Webby People’s Voice Award in both the “education” and “science” categories.  I especially liked the sections on “How Science Works” and “Can You Believe It?”

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking

A blog article that I wrote for the American Chemical Society’s Careers Blog was posted earlier today.  The subject, “Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking,” is described for an audience of chemists, but the subject really applies to anyone and everyone.

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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