Monday, December 15, 2014


Sleep, unfortunately, is not something our family is very good at. For myself, after the age of 3 or 4, I didn't really go in for naps. I recall afternoons being told to go nap in my room; I would go to my room and play quietly. My wife and I both grew up hiding flashlights in our rooms so we could read under the covers after we were supposed to be asleep. In college, I had a semester during which I slept between 3 and 4 1/2 hours every weeknight and didn't really do much to "catch up" on the  weekend. It was almost a badge of honor, particularly since it was a semester during which I pulled a 4.0 average while taking an overload of classes. So I flattered myself that I didn't really need sleep.

As I've gotten older, I've learned about the importance of sleep, but knowing and doing are two very different things, especially when your nights are subject to the whims of toddlers.

Typical Nights (Summer 2014)

The truth is, my wife and I are not very committed to establishing consistent and reasonable bedtimes for our daughters, aged 4 and 2. When one of us--usually the me of us--tries to put the younger one to bed, it's usually around 9 pm. Or 10 pm. Or 11:00 at the latest... by which I mean that if it gets to be 11:00, I figure why bother? and let her fall asleep on her own. Lauren swears that our 2-year-old can be put to bed by just laying down with her in a dark room, but I think that reconnaissance is obsolete at best, if not downright naive. If I lay down with her--which I do try sometimes--she tends to just wriggle around in a way calculated to drive me nuts. So usually I put her in my arms so her head can rest on my shoulder and then walk back and forth singing lullaby-like songs until she falls asleep or I get tired.

Meanwhile, there's our older daughter, on whom we've more or less given up the idea of consistent and reasonable bedtimes. She's either running amok or gradually falling asleep by snuggling up to her mother downstairs, where mama is working on grad school homework on her laptop, or not doing grad school work on her laptop, or just watching TV. Our 4-year-old has a tendency to go from wired to out in the blink of an eye. At that point, we've got to carry her upstairs, and we have a decision to make: do we make her go potty or let her sleep. If it's been too long since she pottied, we pretty much have to half-wake her and just hope she goes right back to sleep. Which, to be fair, she usually does, though sometimes she doesn't wake up enough to actually pee. If she doesn't do her business, she's likely to give us the business in a few hours: she'll wake up weeping and wailing with no idea what's wrong with her. Even though this happens almost nightly, she has no idea what's distressing her, so one of her parents has to go to her room and take her to the bathroom. At this point, there's at least a 50-50 chance she'll balk at going back to her room for the rest of the night. And even if she does, or if she doesn't wake up needing to potty, there's a good chance that she'll wake up at some point and infiltrate our bed. If she's really good, we won't wake up until she's firmly entrenched. And once she gets into our bed, it's guaranteed that we won't sleep very well, because she tends to snuggle up to one--or, inexplicably, both of us--compromising our rest.

And although in general our 2-year-old is our good sleeper, every so often--usually when her older sister is in the process of actually sleeping through the night--she'll wake up screaming. Maybe she wants milk, maybe she needs a diaper change, maybe she needs her legs rubbed, or maybe it's just existential angst that can only be answered by one parent or the other holding her. It's almost certainly not the same thing it was the last time.

So yeah: there's not really such a thing as a typical night, except that however much time we try to sleep, it's guaranteed that we won't actually get all of that, and what we get won't be the best sleep of our lives. That's typical.

Let's Go Camping!

In the summer, on our way out to vacation at the Outer Banks, we decided to camp. In part, this was because $18 for a tent site was a lot cheaper than any motel between Indiana and North Carolina, and in part it was because we kind of wanted to go camping. Our daughters have been indoctrinated by cartoons to think that camping is lots of fun, so they were on board, even if they weren't really clear about the details.

We set up the tent, took the girls and the dog on a walk around the campground, then cooked some hot dogs on a skillet on a propane stove. And then we did s'mores on the open flame of the same propane stove (sorry kids, we're not buying firewood and going to the trouble of lighting it up). It actually turned out that neither of our girls liked s'mores, though they love all of the constituent parts. Go figure.

Then Lauren and I read books while the girls ran around our camp site. When the skeeters started sampling us, we retreated to our tent and read until it was too dark outside to continue, maybe 9:30. And then we all went to sleep. Sure, our four-year-old was a little wriggly, our two-year-old was threatened with being thrown out into the night with the bears if she didn't stop being so fussy and restless, and our dog was jostling for position too. But soon enough, everyone settled down and went to sleep.

And, okay, our 4-year-old woke me up, without knowing why, because she needed me to carry her through the woods to the bathroom. And then she fussed and flailed around because pretty much everything hurt. We couldn't reason with her--no, we can't drive somewhere to get children's Tylenol--and no amount of rubbing her legs, her feet, her back, her arms would settle her... but she finally did fall back to sleep.

And despite that, unlike a usual night, we woke up with the dawn and felt great. Seriously: didn't feel a need for coffee, felt totally refreshed and awesome. It's amazing what sleeping and waking with natural cycles will do.

Lesson Learned?

Like I said, I already know that sleep is important. When we're sleep-deprived, especially chronically sleep-deprived, our brain function is lowered. And since it's lowered, we're not really well aware of our own level of impairment. We also age faster. We don't recover as well from exercise. We have a harder time losing weight or maintaining a healthy body weight. Seriously: all kinds of things go wrong when we don't sleep enough. It would be fantastic if every day we went to bed with the sun and woke up with the sun.

But the reality is that we won't. The days are so packed that our only "me time" seems to be in the evenings, so we resist going to sleep, we resist putting our children to bed, and next thing we know, we're all tired and cranky. Every so often, we do manage to go to bed a bit earlier, and maybe some day we'll really get it down.

It's nice to think so, anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fantasy Football

I've been playing fantasy football for 15 years now, and as any of you who play fantasy football know, this is the first week of playoffs. I'm in three leagues this year, one was a total disaster (I blame the fact that my internet went out in a storm right as the draft started). In the other two, I've had very good seasons. In one league--the league I've been playing in for 15 years, the league I've never won the championship of--I finished the regular season in first place, with the most total points 2049, more than 100 more than the next highest. And thanks to 0 TD days from Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, I appear destined to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

In the other league, thanks to the fact that it has two divisions, I didn't get a bye in the first round of the playoffs despite having the highest point total--2746, almost 200 more than the next highest--and the 2nd best record. I crushed the league's commissioner last week, and then we play each other again this week and it looks I'm going to lose in that league too. I'll have to blame Aaron Rodgers yet again.

It's unbelievable bad luck, though, that on paper I should have such good teams and then they both crap out in the first round of the playoffs. I guess I should just be glad that there's no money riding on any of these leagues. And the pro team that I root for did win today, in pretty convincing fashion, so that's something too.

Don't Let Go, Do Lego

 Originally, we planned to go to Ohio this weekend, where I had a ticket to the Browns-Bengals game awaiting me (I'm a Bengals fan, my father-in-law has season tickets to the Browns--thanks Pop-pop!). But late in the week, I realized belatedly that I couldn't possibly go to Cleveland this weekend, because of a performance at school. How I didn't put two and two together sooner, I can't explain. Wishful thinking combined with chronic fatigue, I'll posit.

Our second idea was to go up to Chicago and see all the Christmasy stuff downtown. But then Lauren had a better idea: Legoland, out in Schaumburg, plus do a little shopping at Ikea and Trader Joe's, which are a big deal to those of us living in the hinterlands.

The first room at Legoland was a Chicago cityscape, which as you can see, had my girls fascinated and excited. The level of detail was great--really beautiful work. The cityscape also included the lights gradually dimming and brightening to show us night and day in Chicago. I was hoping for icy winds whipping through the Lego city, with mingled scents of exhaust and pizza wafting about.

From the steel jungle of Chicago, we went to a literal jungle, where we got to see a Bengal tiger, the closest I will get to the game I originally planned to attend this weekend, since local TV is broadcasting Green Bay vs. Buffalo. We had a safari guide and Indiana Jones to lead us through.

This was followed by a great Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope room--there was a detailed Tatooine thing with various scenes from the movie, which had buttons that allowed you to animate the scene or hear some of the accompanying dialog. There were life-sized R2D2 and Darth Vader figures, a dueling Vader and Obi-Wan, a Death Star with a stupid  game that didn't seem to work and a bunch more scenes. It was particularly cool for the adults who have seen the films. Our kids were a little less wowed by the whole thing, but what are you going to do?

Not to worry, there were plenty more activities for the kids, including an indoor playground, a couple different rides, and a lot of opportunities to build with Legos. There was a track with a challenge to build a vehicle that could jump off the ramp and hit a target. I spent a lot of time, made many test runs, and did not, ultimately, solve the design challenge. A seven-year-old may have just walked up, dropped a giant wheel, and hit the target on the first try.

Lauren, the physicist, gave up on the car challenge before I did with similar success rates, but she went on to put her time to better use:
At the end of the day, as the picture below shows, I was left with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Dream Gift

Today's Prompt: Many of the December holidays are marked with gifting. What is the one thing you really wish you could get as a gift this year (doesn't have to be a physical item)? 

Well, I've got quite a list of books on my Wishlist on Amazon, not to mention books I've flagged on Goodreads as things I'd like to read some day, and books are the things that spring most quickly to mind.

However, that's not really what I want, because as it stands, I can look over at my bookcase and quickly see several dozen books that I already own that I would like to read. I don't lack books. What I lack is the time and energy to read them. So what I really want, since the prompt did say, after all, that it didn't have to be a physical item, is the time and energy to read the books I want to read (and, for that matter, to write the things I want to write).

So I need my children to sleep through the night. In their own darned beds, not crawling in with us in the middle of the night. Then, I might have the energy for sustained attention, assuming we could also get them to go to bed at a decent our. And assuming I could discipline myself to go to bed at a decent hour.

Then I would actually need the time that wasn't constrained by work or family obligations or anything else, just free time.

So yeah, there's no Santa Claus on earth who could give me all that any of that, but I guess that's life.  And even if it's a life that doesn't have all those things--at this moment in time--it's still an awfully good life, filled with joys of its own. That's not to say I wouldn't appreciate having a break from work that was like the break from college junior year when I read Moby Dick 8 hours each day until it was finished, but you can't go back, can you?

No, I'm pretty sure you can't, so I'm prepared to live within the constraints of, you know, reality. And really, at Christmas--and any other time of year--it's best to appreciate what you've got. Like right now, as I try to bang out this blog post, I've got the cutest little 32-month-old all over my lap, getting in my way, sticking her fingers in my ears and eyes, and pulling me back and forth between annoyance and laughter, telling me what all the numbers and letters on my keyboard are, hunting and pecking them to extinction even while I try to type. And she's a total sweetheart, and if I didn't get a single present for Christmas this year, that would be okay too, because life is pretty darned good. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Holiday Songs

Holidailies prompts us today to consider our favorite holiday song. I would have a hard time narrowing it down, in particular because it's a question of listening to music on the one hand and performing music on the other.

I'm sure I probably sang it in church before then, but I feel like I "discovered" the hymn "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" my freshman year of college. One of my fellow freshmen invited me to sing in a barbershop quartet, which I did, and as Christmas approached, he had us preparing a number of Christmas carols arranged in a barbershop style (well, sort of--not nearly as many dominant seventh chords as barbershop is usually known for), and going around to all the dorms caroling in four-part harmony. "Lo, How a Rose..." quickly became my favorite for its beautiful simplicity combined with the rhythmic complexity of the cadences that end three of the four phrases. Even though our barbershop quartet did not survive all four years, we did get together a group of male voices every year to go around caroling. And every year, I would get this carol in as many of our stops as I could. (For what it's worth, the barbershop arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard On High" was a close second, and I can remember loving that all the back to elementary school.

At my first high school teaching job, where one of my duties was directing the choirs, I started a tradition with the "double quartet" group of going around campus before Christmas break and caroling with the same carols I did in college. And, yes, "Lo How a Rose" was still my favorite over the six years that I taught at that school. I hope the boys I worked with remember that experience as fondly as I do.

And now, at my current school, I work with a student-led a cappella group, and this year for the first time we will be performing at the school's annual Vespers service, which is basically a whole lot of musical performance, readings of the relevant Biblical passages, and congregational carol singing. So what are we singing? I'm sure you've guessed. Tonight, we had a run-through of the program to handle logistics, and afterward my group had probably it's only chance to rehearse in the chapel.

And it was gorgeous. I'm not claiming any special powers as a music teacher--this is really just a song that, as long as you get it in tune, pretty much sells itself. Beautiful, as always. And I suppose that's part of why it's my favorite carol to perform.

Now, when it comes to listening, well, that's a different story. It's hard for me to pick just one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Bing Crosby, because when I was growing up we always listened to records of White Christmas and some other Crosby Christmas stuff. But I think I'm going to go in a different direction entirely: Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun."

I really like Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


As Goodreads likes to remind me every time they send me an update, I am currently reading four different books. That's... probably not a good idea, all in all. And I expect that I'll soon be starting a fifth book, still without finishing the other four, because at this point, why not?

So, what am I "currently reading"?

In early November, I started reading Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson because it's been on my shelf for a while and I thought it might be some inspiration for my own novel writing. Of course, time spent reading is not time spent writing, so that wasn't really sustainable.

In mid-to-late November, I realized that one of the book clubs on Goodreads was reading To Ride Hell's Chasm by Janny Wurts, and besides the usual discussion, they had Janny involved, answering questions. I really like her Wars of Light and Shadow series and like her as an author, so I wanted to join in the discussion. But, of course, November was devoted to writing, not reading. I listened to the first three chapters, which were available on a podcast, and I like it so far... but then the discussion and author Q&A was over. And, as you'll see, other books elbowed their way in.

While driving to Thanksgiving, Lauren and I started listening to an audiobook, Ken Follett's Fall of Giants. We both enjoyed his Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, and as a bonus I've been listening to an awesome podcast called Hardcore History, specifically I've been listening to the series on World War I. Fall of Giants, then, has been a very good fit. So when it comes to listening to something, it's been this one. Reading without reading.

Another Goodreads book club, it turns out, is reading Steven Erikson's Forge of Darkness this month. So, in a way, it comes full circle, reading what's sort of Erikson's equivalent to Tolkien's Silmarillion, rather than my initial selection of stories contemporaneous to Erikson's landmark Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

But it turns out that I'm kind of a bad person, at least if you look down on things like buying a book for someone as a Christmas present and reading it before giving it away. Somewhere in the mail, I have headed to me a book for a friend that I also want to read, so I'll probably blitz through that so I can get it in the mail in time for Christmas. It is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris. As detailed in this post I have a longstanding interest in meditation and yoga, but both of those practices can have a tendency toward woo-woo mushy thinking. I'm interested, then, in "spirituality" or "spiritual practice" that's grounded in science and a certain skepticism.

But I'm really going to have to read it quickly. And then I can get to the other four books.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Daily Movement Practices

Yesterday I blogged about meditation, a practice that I recognize would benefit me greatly if I did it more often than sporadically. Today, I would like to add a few more things that I do do, and wish I did even more often.

You've probably heard by now that, as a society, our health is basically screwed because of all the routine practices we have. Spend most of your life commuting in a car? You're going to die young. Sit at a desk all day long? You're going to die young and fat. Probably with diabetes and cancer. Yeah, yeah, I'm exaggerating, but I'm sure you've heard all about it too. Even if you get yourself some kind of awesome standing desk (like I have), it turns out you're still up a creek, because it's not just sitting that's bad for you, it's not moving around. And the research is pointing toward it being the case that just going and exercising isn't enough to make up for all the movement you're not doing throughout any given day.

Anyway, I've been trying to incorporate more movement and mobility work into my everyday activities at work. What I'm going for here is not to add another workout to my week; the point is to have some little things that I can add, that just take a minute or two here and there, but that add up to big improvements in flexibility, strength, what have you.

One of the most basic things I've added is the deep squat. I just hang out there for a while. Not surprisingly, this is easier to do on Sundays--the day before my workout that includes back squats--than it is on Monday (or Tuesday).

I started doing deep squats even before I saw this article, and since it recommended squats along with three other movements, I was pretty sure it was legit. So to squats I added glute contraction, a hamstring stretch, and something called the crucifix stretch, which is almost as much fun as it sounds (good for the chest, shoulders, and back, anyway).

For a while, I was really into Kelly Starrett's Mobility WOD (Workout of the Day). I started with episode 1 and for a while there I was doing every stretch in the first four or five daily, but in retrospect that probably wasn't sustainable. I did feel pretty good when I was doing it, though.

The real magic that I've found, though, is something called shoulder dislocates. Which sounds almost as good as a crucifix stretch, I know, but it's done great things for me. Specifically, the last couple years, I've had elbow pain when I play tennis. So you might think it's some kind of repetitive stress thing, like, you know, "tennis elbow," but it turned out, as I tracked this problem to its source, the source was my shoulder. You see, a couple years ago I injured my right shoulder in the weight room. What stupid thing I was attempting to do isn't important, but between the injury and the time off to recover, I lost a good deal of mobility in my shoulder without realizing it. Then when I played tennis, to compensate for poor shoulder mobility, I would--unknowingly--put my elbow in a compromised position. I started doing shoulder dislocates regularly, improved shoulder mobility, and the elbow pain disappeared. Cue the choirs of angels.

I really liked the idea of hanging as being a good thing. For that matter, I like the idea of doing chin-ups or pull-ups or what-have-you more or less every day. Outside of the gym, however, my options are limited. Living in an old farmhouse, we literally have no doors that will fit a standard pull-up bar. My office door at work is perfect for a pull-up bar, but... I feel kind of awkward doing chin-ups in my jacket and tie any time anyone walks into the building. And it's pretty much a guaranteed thing that as soon as I hang up the bar and start to hang or do chin-ups, someone's coming into the building, even if it's been dead quiet for the previous hour.

But then, all of these are things that I feel like I could/should/would do more of, otherwise they wouldn't have made this blog post, so in that regard there's nothing special about hanging or chin-ups.

What do you think, gentle readers? Do any of these things appeal to you? Are there little things that you'd like to put into practice in your own life?