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The ancients were on to something

IN anticipation of a few days off after a whirlwind week, I found myself wishing for the dog days of summer.

I was thinking of a slow, sultry respite. I would lie on my screened porch with a good book and a cold drink. The book would fall from my hands and the condensation would bead on the glass as I slipped into a blissful nap.  

The thought was appealing, but I decided to fact-check my notion of "dog days."

Wikipedia burst the peaceful illusion.   

The phrase dates to ancient times, when people believed the hottest days of summer were caused by Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation known as Canis Major, or "large dog."

They believed late July to late August to be an evil time when "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies," according to Brady's Clavis Calendaria, 1813.

You could laugh off the beliefs of those ignorant Romans and Greeks, but just consider some of the events of this week.

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants, apparently shaken by threats made during the investigation of the 2003 sniper killings, urged potential witnesses to arm themselves with guns or ball bats.

Hordes of people stirred by controversy over gay marriage formed long lines and waited in the hot sun for chicken sandwiches.

The mayor of the biggest city in the country called on hospitals to lock up their supplies of baby formula so new mothers would be forced to breast feed.

Korean badminton players threw a game so they could draw a weaker opponent later in the Olympics.

Could these be "phrensies?"

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If I can overcome my newfound fear of Sirius, I already have my good book loaded and ready to go on my Kindle. I'm well into "The Power of Habit" by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg, and I hope to wake from the nap and finish it.

After that I may dive back into "Nudge," a book with a similar theme by professors from the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School.

Both books explore the idea of using small motivations to spark big change.

Habits have the power to make things go very well or very badly. I learned this early in life.

When I was a child, my parents worried about my thumb sucking. They appealed to my vanity, telling me I would end up with crooked teeth. They tried smearing a hot-tasting substance on my thumb.

I remember reciting a little prayer as my mother would tuck me in at night. It was actually grace, because that's all I could think of — "God is good, God is great, and we thank him for our food . . ." I would end by tacking on this: "And please help me to stop sucking my thumb."

Either that or humiliation did the trick. My first-grade teacher loudly told me to cut it out in front of the whole class.

But it was only the first in a long line of bad habits, not that mine are any worse than average. I eat a little too much, exercise way too little, and so on.

Duhigg discusses how individuals and companies have achieved remarkable turnarounds by tackling habits bit by bit.

An alcoholic turns to an AA meeting rather than a drink for stress relief. Starbucks trains its baristas to harness their willpower in dealing with adversity in the form of unhappy customers.

The wino stays sober. Starbucks regains its immensely profitable momentum.

I'm oversimplifying the author's very good discussion of a growing body of science. It's a fascinating subject, and it's going to be one of those books I think about for a while.

It gives me hope that despite the "phrensies" that can make it seem like Sirius is in charge, a counterforce of small, strategic changes may cure some of our ills.

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When it comes to breastfeeding, I don't agree that locking up the formula is the way to go.

What new moms need is confidence. Breastfeeding may be natural, but it's often not easy, especially when the mom's supporting cast lacks experience.

So hospitals and pediatricians don't need more locked cabinets. They need lactation consultants, who give the mom a series of small but extremely helpful tips.

I've seen my daughter and her new-mom friends benefit from this.

Perhaps old ways bolstered by new ways are the answer.

Friend is editor and publisher of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-5124 or nanyaf@dailymail.com.


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