16 December 2008

Saludos from Mexico!

What a change from blustery, below-freezing Boston. We flew into Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (via Los Angeles), last night, and the pilot said the weather was about 83F as we were landing. What a change from what I described to my mom as 'colder than a freezer.'

Puerto Vallarta is a touristy, resorty stretch of beautiful beaches, and we tend to fly in and immediately drive away. Last night, we went to Sayulita for an outdoor taco dinner. Sayulita is about half an hour away and a picture-perfect little town, complete with cobblestone streets, tiny storefronts and perfect waves for surfing. I haven't checked Lonely Planet, but I would guess that it's listed as a backpacker haven. We saw signs for 'Revolucion Tacos' as we drove in, probably of backpacker travel guide fame.

Is Sayulita charming? Absolutely. It could easily be a movie backdrop, and there is no bad angle from which to photograph postcards and photos for friends. The thatched roof over us as we ate dinner was exactly as one would dream of it being; the tables were beautiful slices of tree trunk balanced on delicate black wrought iron stands. Everything about the tacos was handmade from scratch-- the tortillas, the toppings, and the meat was grilled right next to us. Yum. What was jarring was that most of the people walking around were American. Young Americans with surfboards, American families with little children and slightly older, American hippies.

After dinner, we drove another half an hour away from Puerto Vallarta to Lo de Marcos, a sleepy little fishing town (population about 1000), where my partner's parents have chosen to retire. Here, there are also a few foreigners, but it feels much more authentically Mexican. This morning, we took a walk on the beach, and we saw a few blowfish, a pelican, and a huge stingray (diameter about 14") that had washed up onto the shore. Black vultures were pecking away at the stingray but hopped away as we approached. (This would never happen near a resort.) We saw one couple as we walked away from the house and two more as we returned, and we greeted all of them with a smile and a 'Buenos dias' as we passed.

I enjoyed how deserted the beach was, and it made me (selfishly) wish no one else would come along. Of course, I don't agree with private beaches and think that Mexico does a good job of keeping its beaches accessible to all (at least in the places I've been), and it's silly to notice that the three couples we passed were foreigners-- because so were we.

I inquired as to how the locals felt about all of these Americans moving down to Mexico, and it sounded familiar: The Americans kept to themselves, the Mexicans kept to themselves, and there was a little mixing at the edges. (Venn diagrams come to mind.) The Mexicans were happy that the Americans brought money down with them, but there wasn't that much blending of cultures. Not yet (on the individual level), anyway.

Posting will probably be on hold through the holiday season, but stay tuned-- I'll be back with stories from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay when I return. Happy December!

13 December 2008

Shopping, packing and traveling

As the hectic season approaches, where everyone scrambles to get everything done, I wish you luck, deep breaths and some happy surprises.

My partner and I will be traveling with limited internet access, so posts may be more sporadic during the rest of the month, but I'll do the best I can.

In the meantime, here is a metta prayer for you (metta = loving kindness, and dukkha = suffering). It is over 2600 years old, but I think it is still quite relevant today.

May you be well and happy.
May you be free from danger.
May you be free from worry.
May you be free from anger.
May you be free from dukkha.
May your mind be free from hatred.
May your heart be filled with love.
May no difficulties come to you.
May no harm come to you.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
May you find peace of mind.

Happy holidays!

12 December 2008

Money for everyone!

It's brilliant. Kiva. It's mindblowing how little money is really needed to make a huge impact in the lives of others. Kiva is a micro-lending website that allows regular people (a.k.a., you and me) to lend as little as $25 to someone trying to start up their own business in the developing world. Apparently, more than 98% of the loans are paid back, and I'm not wealthy by U.S. standards, but I wouldn't be very upset if I lost $25 taking a chance on an entrepreneur trying to better herself and her family/community. Women seem to benefit the most from this project--and not just in wealth, but in empowerment and self-confidence. As if that weren't reason enough to celebrate, here are journals of the women describing how their lives have changed.

I love how internet + great idea (available to everyone) = no more middle man.

11 December 2008

Studying fair trade = heavy stuff

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and this is really going to be a buzzkill. But, as people start to shop for the holidays, this is something to keep in mind. I just had lunch with a new friend, a friend of two of my wonderful, old friends in San Francisco, and she's getting a Ph.D. in political science, focused on fair trade. It sounds great-- oh, awesome, you help farmers and craftspeople, right? Well, it isn't quite that simple, unfortunately.

She told us about her work in India and how she was immensely underwhelmed by the working conditions of so-called 'fair trade' factories. Finally, her colleagues said she wouldn't believe what conditions were really like unless she saw them with her own eyes. So, she posed as a potential buyer and was able to enter five different sweatshops owned by the mafia. I am at a total loss as to how this happened, but she was also able to photograph and talk (through a translator) with the children. She took many photos of the products and then snuck other photos in. This was no small task, as others who had tried to uncover the real working conditions had their rooms broken into-- some even ended up with broken knees.

What she saw in the sweatshops explained the secrecy and brutality: children were literally being chained to their stations, where they worked 12-16 hours per day, seven days per week. Children were breaking mirrors with their bare hands to make mosaic Christmas ornaments, mixing toxic dyes and glues with their bare hands to make other Christmas ornaments and inhaling glass and other unhealthy fumes with no protection whatsoever. She saw five sweatshops, and all of the workers were little boys. And where were the little girls? Not in school or at home, but working as sex slaves on the streets. (Sorry. I did warn you that this would be depressing.)

We were told that unless a carpet said specifically that it wasn't made by children, it probably was. And that this was probably true for most handicrafts. One would like to think that if parents and families knew how their young were being treated, they would be outraged and put an end to it. The truth is that families are making $500 a year with both parents and all of the children working--and just barely scraping by. A six-year-old girl had developed a heavy cough from working in a glass bracelet factory, and when someone gently told the father that she would likely die before she was even old enough to marry (which could be as young as fifteen), he said, 'Let her die.'

What a sad world scarcity and lack creates. I bet most parents in the US could never imagine saying that about their child.

What my friend proposes is that rather than having child labor be illegal, legalize and strictly monitor it. Apparently, there are dozens of NGOs who have the resources to help, but if they step in and clean up the broken glass and vomit in the sweatshops, they are responsible for aiding and abetting child-labor sweatshops.

So, where does this leave us, as consumers with almighty dollars to spend? We can't save every child who is suffering in a sweatshop, and if we stop buying all handicrafts, people who need the income will be out of work. Rather disheartening, isn't it? My new friend felt bad that she'd laid such heavy information on me, but it behooves us to know what causes we're supporting.

So, yes, it may be a little more expensive to buy non-child-labor products, but it does seem to be a good thing to do. Shopping at places like Ten Thousand Villages. Buying work you know was created by an adult. Buying fewer things that last longer. In short, the same old mantra: reduce, reuse, recyle. Right. I know the shopaholics are biting their nails, eyes darting from side to side, wondering, 'What will I do?' Well, the haunting images of those little fingers of children slaving away should help. Yes, it's depressing, but this kind of thing just doesn't look as beautiful as it used to...

10 December 2008

Fighting with loved ones

It really stinks, but it happens to the best of us. Ideally, it happens only very rarely, but many argue that a complete lack of fighting is just as unhealthy as too much fighting. Do you agree?

I think healthy fighting means no slamming doors, calling each other foul names or bringing up things from ancient history, and generally being respectful. It means sticking to the subject at hand and working together to come to an agreement. It all sounds so easy and so obvious when one is level-headed, but it can quickly go out the window when emotions bubble up. Yeah, yeah, we need to take deep breaths and pause a second before responding-- we've all heard those nuggets before. As I get older, though, and I actually try to practice breathing and pausing (and I have by no means perfected this), I see it does work.

Another key I think is important is calling someone on something you aren't crazy about right away. If someone is exhibiting behavior that you think isn't particularly kind, I've learned to say, 'That isn't very nice.' When I was younger and didn't have an easy, standby sentence, I would either retaliate (bad idea) or be stunned into silence (also not very effective).

One of my newer girlfriends has really mastered this: she is incredibly sweet, but she doesn't let anyone steamroll her or disrespect her. I think it is quite a challenge to be nice and equally strong and respected. Many women think they have to be like Hillary Clinton or generally exhibit traditionally 'male' traits in order to be successful, but many argue that a new generation of 'feminine' leaders are what's really needed.

Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen addresses this issue in her classic book, You Just Don't Understand, which discusses the differences between how men and women communicate and argues that men are more competitive and women are more cooperative. She provides illuminating and often comedic examples of how men will try to one-up each other both in telling stories and in life and how women are so determined to be on the same page, they will interrupt each other to agree. (I am still working on that.)

I guess, at the end of the day, as long as we, men and women alike, can get through the arguments still respecting and caring about each other, we should all come out stronger, wiser and better at not repeating the same mistakes again in the future.

09 December 2008

Entertainment industry inspiration: two men

I was asked recently who my real-life male and female role models were, and I was sad to say I didn't really have a real-life female role model. I know a lot of people say their mother or grandmother, and yes, I am impressed by how strong my mother is-- but I don't want to follow in her footsteps or live her life. It isn't that a role model is only someone whose life you want to live, per se, but I do think that is a part of the equation. The two men who come to mind, and maybe this is because I am writing full-time now, are both in entertainment.

The most recent one happens to be the president of music at a major studio now, but it is his journey that inspires me, not the destination. He graduated from college and started a band in New York. He wrote music, performed music and produced music-- he lived music every day and never gave up. He said he wasn't precious about which assignments he took, which was a great lesson for me, and he thought his creative and musical lives were over when he was writing music for animated singing animals. But, as luck would have it, his talents did not go unnoticed, and he won awards and acclaim for his work, and over the years, has built a solid and esteemed reputation for himself. His advice to me was to simply do what I loved, and he is the reason I am a full-time writer now. Had I been thinking about it before I met him? Of course. Had I even written full-time before? Sure, in spurts between other projects. But this time, I said, 'This is it. This is what I'm doing from now on, and that's it-- come what may.'

The other man who inspires me is a successful screenwriter, and again, it is not his destination but his journey that impresses me. He's a gay, Canadian Jew, and he had to marry his partner in Canada to be a legitimate and legal couple (don't get me started). He financially supported two boys in Latin America and put one through medical school and the other through law school and goes to visit them regularly. I find that many young people are very enthusiastic about community service and love to garnish already impressive CVs with their philanthropic contributions, but not that many working professionals continue to be so generous. I am especially impressed with my screenwriting friend because most people have no idea he has done this-- he will never get any award or recognition for it. He does it because he wants to create more opportunity in the world, because he wants to empower young, talented people and because he is generally a wonderful human being.

I hope that when I lay on my deathbed, I will have taken the lessons of these two men with me: push myself to follow my passion and pursue it professionally to the best of my ability, and never forget to give back to the world that has provided so much.

08 December 2008

Dream job or dream location?

I know they're not necessarily mutually exclusive, but if they were, and you had to choose, would you pick your dream job in a so-so location or a so-so job in an amazing place?

For example, would you rather be a painter in industrial Siberia or a paper clip bender in French Polynesia? Just curious. Well, all right, that isn't true. My partner and I are trying to decide where to go next, and it's an exciting time of having full freedom to go anywhere we want. The good news is that we'll be fine wherever we end up, and wherever we don't go, we can always visit, etc. The fear is that by choosing one place, we eliminate other choices.

We don't want to run out of time and have spent the rest of our lives waiting to go to the next place. So, I guess that just made it very clear. Writing is amazing like that. Thanks. (Translation: don't settle-- go to a place we know we'll be happy.)

Like waiting for a life partner, you don't wait for someone who is impossibly perfect to come falling into your arms, but you also don't give up until you find someone who you know will make you happy.

I once heard that you should pick three non-negotiables, and stick to those and let everything else slide. For example, if all you wanted were washboard abs, an amazing hairdo and culinary skills to rock your world (not that compatible with the six-pack abs, I realize), then you can't be that picky about, say, their soccer skills.

So, what are your non-negotiables for a life partner? What about for the place you choose to live? For a life partner, I said nice, intelligent and with compatible humor. For the place I'll live next, my partner says safe, access to metropolitan life and with summer weather at least part of the year. I'd say aesthetically pleasing (preferably near some kind of water), culturally diverse (ideally, international) and with good travel opportunities. You?

07 December 2008

Make mistakes! Lots of them!

"I like them to talk nonsense. That's man's one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." - George Bernard Shaw

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." - Oscar Wilde

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." - Scott Adams

"Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life." - Sophia Loren

05 December 2008

John Wesley quotes

"Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn."

"Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can."

"When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart."

"Think and let think."

"Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge."

04 December 2008

Mr. Smart. Really.

I was traveling yesterday and didn't have internet access. It almost made me wish I had a crackberry or iphone. Almost.

Anyway, I met a man named Professor Smart last night. Smart is a pretty awesome family name, I thought, especially for someone in academia-- and then he told me his mother's last name: Best. Now, I know Freakonomics gives an example of two brothers named Winner and Loser and how Winner turns out to be more of a loser and Loser turns out to be a winner. But, still, being the son of Mr. Smart and Ms. Best must be pretty awesome. (And Professor Smart was funny to boot.)

He also shared a nice story about when he was in DC. It was pouring rain, and he saw a man in a very nice suit. He stopped to emphasize how one could tell when another man wore a nice suit and when someone wore a really nice suit. This man was wearing the latter, and he had an equally impressive umbrella. Ahead of the fancy man was a woman and her child braving the torrential downpour, and the man simply passed his umbrella to the woman without a word and hurried off.

Professor Smart remarked that the fancy man would never see his umbrella again, had ruined his really nice suit and didn't even stop to accept a thank you. Pretty cool.

02 December 2008

Red state, blue state...

My partner and I got to explore a little of the midwest this past Thanksgiving, and it reminded me of domestic stereotypes: east coast, west coast, midwest and so on. Like Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, which argues that, politically, socio-economic status determines more than race. If you're interested in figuring out where you fall, here is a chart that can give you an idea. How important do you think class is? Some students and I were discussing race last week, and one said that race was passé now and that the new hot button issue would be same sex marriage. Do you agree?

I don't think of 'class' often, but it reminds me of a guy I was friends with in college. When I had decided to go to grad school to get a degree in education, I asked him if he thought we would still be friends if I were a teacher and he were a big-shot biotech gazillionaire. His response was that we could still be friends but that our new friends would be different-- because I would be at home playing Scrabble while he was falconeering in Mongolia. I remember thinking that I might be happier playing board games with loved ones rather than killing birds for sport near Siberia. I guess everyone has different priorities. And we were both from 'blue states,' too.

01 December 2008

Traveler vs. tourist

Who knew that there were so many strong feelings on this subject?

"Tourists don't know where they've been. Travelers don't know where they're going." - Paul Theroux

"The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see." - G. K. Chesterton

"A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving." - Lao-Tzu

"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We want fewer, but higher-paying guests than before. Backpackers spend almost nothing, stay for a long time, and stir up the Tibetans against us. We definitely do not want them." - Senior tourist official in Chengdu as quoted in South China Morning Post

Cheers to being a traveler, open to any adventure that should come along. Here are some great tips.

30 November 2008

Venn diagrams

We all know how awesome Venn diagrams are. What I discovered was how many variations there are on the theme. (They all have links to their original sites, and I am a new fan of Indexed, below.) Enjoy!

29 November 2008

Innovation happens at the seams

My student's father said this, and he is a scientist that lives this success story. This is probably more true today than ever before. His point is that people working in so-called 'different fields' are often working on related projects, but they are so specialized, they can only look at the problem before them through a certain lens.

His belief was that if people at the intersections of different arenas, like chemistry and engineering, for example, were to study a problem together, they would approach it in new (and likely better) ways.

I was just talking with a friend who has experience in computer science, economics, business and government, and she said her colleagues were working on the exact topic that other people in a totally unrelated field were studying. We talked about how much overlap there was in these 'different' disciplines, and it made me wonder how much of this labeling was useful and necessary.

Like the nation-state, which is, in some ways, losing power as the world becomes more global, maybe different academic departments will also become more fluid with time. Different countries can still retain their cultural distinctive elements, and we will love the different nations like we love our different family members, but there will be less emphasis on the borders. Less 'mine' and 'yours,' less 'us' and 'them.'

But the world would erupt in utter chaos! The academic departments wouldn't know where to situate their offices! Social order would degenerate into complete anarchy! Right. I sound like a communist. Or a socialist, at best. I'm living in La La Land. I know. But! What if the idealist got their way? If everyone were on board, and no one took advantage of that openness, wouldn't the world be an interesting place?

28 November 2008

We're taking over the world!

In A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink asserts that right-brained people will take over the world. And who exactly are these right-brained types? According to Pink, they are the artists, creative types, people who can make broad associations and people who are more like Renaissance 'Jack/Jills of all trades' rather than the incredibly specialized professionals.

I skimmed this book in the bookstore, and it seems like the anti-Christ of the Baby Boomers. If what this book says is true, then it's good that many Baby Boomers will be retiring soon. In their day, it was all about specialization, working hard to rise up through the ranks and then enjoying a nice pension. This book says that trajectory is no more.

The example the book gives is how the best chess players in the world can no longer beat a computer. A computer will never falter, will never sweat and make a stupid mistake, will never beat itself up over a bad move. It will just calculate away and win. Similarly, the author argues that all of the logical left-brain tasks can eventually become automated.

What can never become automated, however, is our human creativity. It's great news for us creative types who are a little good at many things but not really amazing at one thing. I've often thought life would be so simple if I were just this Olympic gymnast, reared to be an amazing, spinning, jumping little spring. It would be all gymnastics all the time, I'd be incredible at it, and I'd never have to wonder about my life having a purpose. But then I'd miss out on all the exciting things I got to try and fail at. So, on second thought: no, thanks. I have to go take over the world.

27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

As you pause to remember your blessings, may you enjoy them all again.

"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." - Thornton Wilder

26 November 2008

The best gift

Yesterday at breakfast, a student told me I'd made a difference in her life. It made my day. In the afternoon, I talked with another student who told me I made her feel better. I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I would like to give a dozen thanks:

1. I am a young and healthy human being. I'm no triathlete or even much of an athlete, but I started running this past summer and try to exercise regularly. (If running intimidates you, I promise if I can do it, anyone can. Here's how.)

2. I still have my parents and brother. I know too many people who have lost a member of their immediate family. When you include cousins and other relatives, the number skyrockets. I try to remember how fragile life can be, so that even when my family drives me crazy (all the time), I can appreciate how lucky I am to have them. (My mom, for example, called the other night and left a message about how terrible the economy was. She does this often, so that wasn't a shocker. But, this time, she ended her message with, "But don't worry. You can always move home if things don't work out." It almost made me cry. I love my mom.)

3. I live in a beautiful, comfortable home, surrounded by incredible human beings who are kind, intellectually curious, open-minded and often hilarious.

4. I have friends I respect who love me unconditionally. And while their living all over the globe is sad in some ways, it also means I have lots of very cool places to visit.

5. This amazing world in which we live and how easy it has become to go explore it.

6. Complete security in my freedom. I live in a relatively safe and stable country. I can go pretty much anywhere I want without restriction. I can follow whatever spiritual path I choose or not choose one at all. I can read and look at whatever I want. I can think whatever I want, eat whatever I want, wear whatever I want and talk about whatever I want.

7. I am working on a painting right now. What a luxury. And I get to be a full-time writer. One woman said I was "living the dream," and though I don't see it that way all the time, I have to appreciate that I get to work from home and have the time and freedom to be a creative nut.

8. Homemade ice cream and milkshakes. Thai food, Indian food and Mexican food. Dim sum, noodles, freshly baked bread and broccoli (especially when stir-fried with garlic or some other delicious sauce). Perfectly ripe fruit, especially mango, papaya with fresh lime juice, Rainier cherries and white nectarines. Farmers markets, in general. And eating outside on a beautiful day.

9. I have the kindest life partner, and he makes me happier than I even thought possible. He encourages me, no matter how zany I get, and makes me laugh. I am at peace because of him.

10. Laughter. One of life's greatest pleasures. And it's free.

11. Water in nature. An ocean, a lake, a river, it doesn't matter to me. I love them all. And bridges. Water and bridges.

12. People. Their quirks, their smiles, seeing them think. And that they let me into their worlds and let me contribute in some small way to their story. Nothing makes my life more meaningful.

Thank you, life!

What are you grateful for?

25 November 2008

Serendipity berries work!


Last night, I tried a real serendipity berry for the first time, and the result was amazing. I had a 'miracle fruit' tablet first, and I downed slice after slice of lime, lemon and grapefruit like they were candy. Salt and vinegar chips never tasted so sweet. I drank vinegar and enjoyed it. At our little miracle berry party, some people even said the lime and lemon slices were too sweet.

I tried the real berry later and was, unfortunately, not as impressed. This could, of course, be due to the fact that they were frozen in transit and delivered in dry ice. If I had any special properties, I'd probably have lost them after freezing and thawing, too.

The effect was supposed to last anywhere from half an hour to two hours, but for some people, it seemed to last an even shorter amount of time. And for $1+ a pop, it isn't something one would necessarily do that often. But wow, it is something to be experienced.

As the writer of the serendipity berries blog, I felt I had to share where one could purchase said little miracles. So, no, you won't find any in the international foods aisle of your local grocery store, but you can order them online here. Enjoy!

24 November 2008

Bubbles and the jinny

My student told me last night about one of his earliest memories. When he was very young, he jumped into a swimming pool to get a ball, and the next thing his father knew, there were just bubbles, and then, the ball popped up on the surface. His father jumped in and saved him from drowning, but I can't get that haunting image out of my head. I'm just glad the story had a happy ending.

It isn't a direct connection, but it somehow reminded me of “The Fisherman and the Jinny” from Arabian Nights, as quoted from The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim (29.5):

According to adult morality, the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him. But this is not how the Jinny describes it: As he sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’

But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him I will open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him I will fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay…’”

This is exactly how a young child feels when he has been “deserted.” First he thinks to himself how happy he will be when his mother comes back; or when sent to his room, how glad he will be when permitted to leave it again, and how he will reward Mother. But as time passes, the child becomes angrier and angrier, and he fantasizes the terrible revenge he will take on those who have deprived him.

The fact that, in reality, he may be very happy when reprieved does not change how his thoughts move from rewarding to punishing those who have inflicted discomfort on him. Thus, the way the Jinny’s thoughts evolve gives the story psychological truth for a child.

I've read that the sanitized fairy tales don't give children the same psychological satisfaction that the original fables did. In the original Snow White, for example, the evil queen dances on hot coals to her death rather than just running into the forest. With the original, the child has no doubt that 'justice has been served,' and that the scary woman won't come running back out of the woods. But then, of course, the child has to think about someone dying by forced dancing on hot coals.

Another example is in the original Cinderella, the stepsisters don't merely 'not fit' into the glass slipper; their toes and heels are literally cut off so they can squeeze their feet in. The prince only discovers that the woman by his side isn't the right one when he sees blood oozing out of the shoe.

What do you think? What would you share with children you care about? The Disney versions or the original, often more violent, versions?

22 November 2008

Embarrassing moments

Unlike me, my partner is one of those good people who carries their cell phone with them everywhere they go. Yesterday, though, he called me from his lab phone to finalize our Thanksgiving travel plans. We got off the phone, and I was about to click Confirm when something caught my eye.

We'd just gotten off the phone, so I called the lab phone back, thinking my partner would be right there, turn around and pick it up again. Sure enough, the phone rang only once before I heard a 'Hello?'

I said, "Hi, again. Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you'd prefer 285 square feet with a king-sized bed or 315 square feet with two queen-sized beds?"

The male voice paused for a moment and then said, "Who would you like to speak to?"

I was speechless. And instead of saying 'Wrong number' and absolving my partner of all future embarrassment, I said his name and then his full name, as if on autopilot.

It wasn't the worst thing in the world. I know. It wasn't like I told some stranger that my genital warts were especially itchy today or something like that, and my partner kindly forgave me. I was still embarrassed, though. Especially because thirty square feet would likely not change anything-- who cared?

The only memory I have that can top this one is when I was an undergrad, my friends and I started a magazine. At our intro meeting, in which we were trying to recruit the coolest and brightest, our editor-in-chief explained that our goal was to be a cross between Rolling Stone and the Atlantic Monthly.

And what did I say? I decided that was the moment to raise my hand and ask how often the Atlantic Monthly came out.

Completely irrelevant. And whoever said there was no such thing as a dumb question obviously hadn't been in that room that evening. So, now I try to be understanding when I hear people say silly things or ask silly questions, because I know I've done worse.

What has humbled you in life? Do you remember any particularly mortifying events, or have you blocked them from your consciousness?

21 November 2008

happy dance around the world

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding

This is my favorite video of all time. When I first discovered it, I cried and emailed it to all seven hundred people in my contacts list. (Who those seven hundred people are, I have no idea, and I will most likely never email them all at once ever again. I just hope it brightened their day.) I could go on and on about why I love it or just let it speak for itself. Right.

So, the question is: do you know where all of those places are? How many countries can you name?

Here is an infuriating, addicting time suck of a geography quiz that you will regret starting. But tempting nonetheless, no? Want to waste more time? Here is a totally ridiculous, outdated and not entirely useful song that was (I think) meant to be instructive. And here is a list of countries and capitals, because I was suddenly struck with the desire to know them all again, too.

Now, the next question is: how many of these countries have you been to? What are some of your favorite countries/cities/places that you've visited? And why? (I used to hate the follow-up 'why' question. But see how useful it is here? If someone said because the _____ hiking trail has this awesome species of tarantula, I'd say thanks and probably avoid that hike.) More importantly, where do you want to go? And what inspired you to want to go there?

My friend, Catherine, has a friend who got a car in India and drove all the way to South Africa so he could have visited 30 countries by age 30. I know, I know-- it isn't just about keeping score. After all, a trip to New York or Los Angeles doesn't at all = 'knowing the U.S.,' even though you've technically visited and can then 'check it off.' But it's a fun challenge nevertheless, and I admit that I look forward to adding more countries to my 'been there' list. And places like these. Ahh, travel.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

"May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view... where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you." - Edward Abbey

20 November 2008

Fire, advertising and dreams

1. The destruction of wildfires in California seems to have no limit, and this article, in particular, made me sad. Why the monks?

2. I attended a great Jean Kilbourne talk entitled "The Naked Truth: Advertising's Images of Women" last night, in which she also discussed the tobacco and alcohol industries. Scary stuff.

3. But I'm much more interested in this idea right now: "It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting." - Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist

18 November 2008

Slippery and elusive truth

Okay, my last post was a little self-righteous. Sorry. It must have been the preachy teacher in me rearing its big old head. (It's not like I'm living this perfectly noble life, either. Embarrassed, I almost deleted the post, but I felt that would be dishonest.) Okay, moving on now.

Tonight, I attended a really interesting talk by Daniel Kohn, the artist-in-residence at the Broad, an MIT-Harvard genomics research institute. (That they have an artist-in-residence in a science lab is pretty remarkable.) He talked of the connection between art and science, how both explain the world in their own language, and how each enriches the other through meaningful dialogue. He passionately defended his belief that our aesthetic taste isn't just some quirky part of our personality but rather a deeply ingrained belief system that traces back to our evolutionary roots and deeper human psyche. Our preference, for example, for 'grounded paintings,' in which the bottom feels 'solid,' derives from our living on a planet with gravitational pull-- something most of us don't think of often (but that makes perfect sense).

While he showed us a slideshow of some of his more recent work, he also shared some of his experiences with us: how he was French and American and born in India, how he was an artist-in-residence at the World Trade Center in the late 90s, how he came to appreciate his family's home in the French countryside.

This was my favorite piece: Changy Table 11, named after his family's home in France. I love how he captures light coming through windows and doors (you can see more in his portfolio).

He showed us his raw watercolors, often with just one or two colors, that he would paint as part of his process of understanding all of the scientific research undertaken at the Broad. I thought it was brave of him to share his raw sketches with a room full of strangers, and it made me see blogging in a new way. Like his watercolors, my blog is my 'sketchbook,' a way for me to hash out ideas and try to grapple with questions I think are important. Similarly, some posts will be better than others. (Thanks for bearing with me as serendipity berries coughs to life in fits and starts.)

But that's the thing. I think the key for creative types is to simply keep on keeping on-- to not be so precious that you limit yourself or such a perfectionist that you get stuck. And when I write a crappy blog, I'll just more quickly than normal write a new one to immediately push the not-so-good one down, where it may be forgotten. It's all a process. (And hopefully, we get better as we practice.)

And lastly, we talked about truth. Slippery and elusive truth. How all of our interpretations never quite do it justice. Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite writers, says that words always fall short of the mark, and it seems true for everything: music, art, literature... We have these pristine images/sounds/ideas in our heads, but when translated to the canvas/sheet/page, they somehow lose some of their luster in the process.

But we'll keep on trying. And if John Keats is right in saying 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,' then we can at least seek out personal truth in the form of beauty. And that's pretty nice, too.

The big world and the little world

An eye-opening (and sobering) new look at the world: Check out this article and these accompanying 'maps' of the world.

It often seems like news is always bad news, but a good news movement is starting, too. The Good News Network would be awesome, except that you have to pay for it. Then, there's the Good News Daily, which is free but not quite as cool. So, if you're into journalism and want to fill a need, there you go. My ideal would be a Huffington Post with mostly good news and the occasional earth-shattering bit of bad news that I have to know about in order to be a somewhat informed citizen of the world.

Looking at world news can be overwhelming in how much suffering there is out there. Seeing those maps of the globe in terms of malaria deaths, for example, made me feel a bit guilty that I was living so well. So, short of curing malaria once and for all, what can we do?

One idea is simply to lead a good life. We hear that all the time, but what does that really mean? I find so many students about to graduate from college are so focused on what job they will get that the larger picture of why they're taking that job is forgotten.

College students are an incredible demographic with whom to work because they're old enough to be able to carry out their big visions but young enough to still be very idealistic. I realize that it's a luxury to be able to choose a profession based on values and long-term goals rather than the immediate paycheck, but ideally, what I do during the day should also advance my personal goals. I know, I know-- student loans, family obligations and pressure, social pressure and norms... Right.

But what are your priorities? What is your life purpose? For what do you live? About what are you most passionate? People always look at me like I've sprouted an extra head when I ask questions like these, and I get that the dining hall isn't always the best place for personal, deep conversation. On the other hand, though, why not?

Okay, I'll stop my preachy yammering. I'll just conclude this post with a hopeful thought. We can't control the world at large, but we can control our own little worlds. As Anonymous said, "To the world, you may be one person; but to one person, you may be the world."

In case you're interested in declaring why you're here on this earth, here's an article on writing your personal mission statement. If you google 'personal mission statement,' a lot of junk comes up. The gist of it all is basically: What drives you? Who do you want to be in the world? What do you want to accomplish here before your time is up? What are you going to do to make that happen?

I believe we create our own reality, and that gives me hope. So, what reality do you want to create?

17 November 2008

Presidential dreams

One of my students said her parents called her when Obama won and said, "Look, he's the son of immigrants, too. You just need to set a goal and go after it." (No pressure.)

Did you ever dream of being president of the United States (or another country)?

Well, I was shocked when I read (here) that president-elect Barack Obama would not only have to give up his Blackberry, but would likely have to abstain from email, in general. Maybe this was common knowledge, and I was just living peacefully under my rock, but I was surprised that, with all of the technological advances today, they hadn't figured out a way to keep presidential email secure.

I guess the One Laptop per Child movement didn't include the president of the United States, either, as he's pushing just to be the first president to have a laptop in the Oval Office. So much for being the most powerful man in the world.

Seriously, though, add to that the unforgiving scrutiny as he picks his new team, that he has faced more threats after winning the election than any other president-elect, that millions of lives will be affected by his choices, and that every tiny misstep will be televised and analyzed (around the world, of course), and it's no dream job.

On the other hand, if you believe in destiny (or even if you don't), if one is able to do such an important job, and they can improve life for millions of people, then maybe it is their duty to fulfill that obligation. Hopefully, nothing bad will happen (here is another disturbing summary of the recent threats), and Obama will leave office honored and with the U.S. in better shape than when he started (a big undertaking but many feel it couldn't get much worse than now).

On a more positive note, it seems like Obama's message that we all need to tighten our belts and dig our way out of this hole together is actually taking hold. Being flashy is reportedly 'out of style' now.

Coupled with the growing popularity of being environmental, one might worry that consumerism may become obsolete. Keeping up with Joneses will involve comparing solar panels rather than square feet; the person who bikes to work will scoff at the Hummer hybrid pretending to be eco-friendly; and everyone will bake cupcakes rather than buy expensive presents for each other on special occasions.

Well, one can dream, right?

16 November 2008

Snapshot of happiness

As the temperature drops, leaves fall to the ground, and the rain keeps us indoors more often, I like to think back on a trip to paradise.

15 November 2008

The mythology of fairy tales

If you are at all interested in fairy tale mythology, Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is a must-read.

We went to see Sondheim's "Into the Woods" last night, and it was fun to find the mythological archetypes and themes. Connecting to the previous posts on connessione and the fear of being left alone and abandoned in the world (vs. 'And they lived happily ever after'), there was a song entitled, "No one is alone." Without spoiling it for people who haven't seen the play, there were also scenes of 'we have to stick together to make it,' and when people lost loved ones, the surviving few vowed to stay together. Though frequently seen, this theme is still comforting to children and adults alike-- who wants to grow old alone?

Joseph Campbell talks about the cave, the woods and going underwater as entering one's subconscious/unconscious. Fittingly, it is dark and scary at first; people are tempted to do things they wouldn't do ordinarily; and navigating through the dark successfully is a necessary journey of the hero. Odysseus comes to mind, as does "Star Wars." The dark cave is the realm of the id, so the wolf in the woods is a perfect symbol of our animal instincts; there were references to sexuality and temptation in the woods; and the idea that you shouldn't go wandering into the woods by yourself was repeated throughout the play. (In the classic hero's journey, the hero may be aided by unexpected sources, but eventually, s/he must go it alone to be a real hero.)

Another aspect of fairy tale and folklore that I love is the idea of the simpleton hero. In this case, it was Jack, who innocently sells his cow for a handful of beans. Just as "Forrest Gump" starts with a traditional German fairy tale symbol, the floating feather, and then portrays a modern-day simpleton hero who ends up knowing far more than people expect, Jack is a nice example of blissful ignorance and trust in the world. And what harm can befall someone so open and vulnerable? We root for them as the underdogs in a world where cunning and strength seem to be the only sources of power.

The most beautiful scene in the play for me was an exchange between a mother and daughter, where the mother asks the young woman entering adulthood to be a child and stay with her forever. It is the older person becoming the child once again, and it can be heartbreaking. The mother sings 'who can love you more than I do?' and 'what is out there that I cannot supply?' This abundance of parental love morphing into the engulfing desire to protect her child from the world is also seen in "Finding Nemo," where Dory can be seen as the simpleton hero:

MARLIN: We're in a whale! Don't you get it!? … 'Cause you had to ask for help! And now we're stuck here!
DORY: Wow. A whale. You know, I speak whale.
MARLIN: No, you're insane! You can't speak whale! I have to get out! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are! [sobs]
DORY: There, there. It's all right. It'll be okay.
MARLIN: No. No, it won't.
DORY: Sure it will, you'll see.
MARLIN: No. I promised him I'd never let anything happen to him.
DORY: Huh. That's a funny thing to promise.
DORY: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

I love Pixar.

14 November 2008

Destiny and beauty

This is how I'm feeling recently:

"If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."
- Joseph Campbell

Do you believe in destiny? Do you feel you're riding the wave you want to ride and are 'supposed' to be on? How do you know? In my life, I've had times where everything went wrong and times where everything went right-- almost as if I was just riding the tide to wherever it was headed. The difference between the two has been largely due to how stubborn vs. how open I was. The more pig-headedly I stuck to something, the more likely I was to hit wall after wall. When I was open to possibilities I might not have expected, incredible vistas opened before me. So, I'm trying to be open now, and we'll see where this current wave goes. (This doesn't mean sitting around and hoping dream-come-trues will fall out of the sky; it means you, as one of my writing instructors suggested, plant seeds and see what grows.)

On a lighter note, I got this quote on my google page and thought it was funny:

"I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?"
- Jean Kerr

Have a beautiful day! May unexpected opportunities for bliss come your way.

13 November 2008

Too much connessione?

Last night, some students told me about a pair of twins at Tufts who have the same name. I thought they were girls, and they may be, but here is the only article I came across that mentioned same-named twins. Anyway, this shows that at least one set of parents chose to do this to their children.

The female twins mentioned supposedly live together, are inseparable, applied to college with a 'take us both or we're not coming' ultimatum, and both want to go to dental school. And they share an email account and chat as one person. Now, I've seen twins who live together and spend a lot of time together, but sharing an email account? Wow.

Going back to my research on fairy tales (because I'm interested in writing children's fiction), I once read that a child's biggest fear was being left all alone in the world, and that's why their favorite ending is 'And they lived happily ever after.' Not he or she, but they. So, these twins are born with someone who potentially understands them (no small feat) and who can be their best friend for life. In a way, they are born with 'they lived happily ever after.' Why go out and find new friends if you already have a super awesome best friend right at home? Why go look for a soul mate if you've been born with one whose loyalty you don't have to question?

Which begs the question: if you share email and do everything as one unit, wouldn't dating be a little awkward? (I'm ignoring the salacious smiles.) And of course, why do some twins make a concerted effort to differentiate themselves while others relish in every possibility of twinhood?

We talked last night about how the twins might not learn much from spending time together if they were so similar, that a complementary partner might be more enlightening from a yin-yang perspective. But what if they just want to be comfortable? And understood? I can see the temptation. Many people choose mates who are very similar to themselves, and I can see the argument, 'We're so often misunderstood; you do what you can to find someone who will understand you.'

Some twins are even physical mirror images of each other, I learned last night, where one's heart will be on the left side, and the other's will be on the right side. Here is an LA Times article on this and a mother's blog about her mirror-twin sons.

Being a twin must be incredible in so many ways, but it also affords the luxury of having an incredibly high standard of intimacy. How could a new friend compete? How would a potential dating partner ever stack up? I guess, as with all things, it just takes time.

I used to wish I had a twin for the sole purpose of being able to pull off incredible pranks. As I got older, though, I got over this and valued being an individual. Did you ever wish you were a twin? Would you want to be one now, knowing everything you know?

12 November 2008


I got How to think like Leonardo da Vinci (my birthday twin) on my google page, and it reminded me of my 2004 trip to Thailand:

I decided to try a seven-day fast, and on the sixth day, a woman came, offering a free workshop on the Essence of Being. I had really savored lounging around, reading in a hammock on most afternoons, but this sounded interesting, so I gave it a shot. We went to her home, which was a beautiful open-aired deck of a tree house. It was all made of wood, beautiful golden slightly twisty wood (I am clearly no wood expert), and there was a handmade wooden railing that overlooked a palm tree forest, with the water glistening just beyond. It was amazing. Prior to that moment, I wouldn't even have conceived of living in such an incredible (and totally simple!) home. (There was only electricity during the day, and aside from the simple dwellings, the land and water felt untouched.)

A group of about twenty people gathered on her balcony, and she asked us, 'Who are you?' Some answered with their names or where they hailed from, and there were a few different ways people identified themselves, usually with something external: a country, a career, their role in a family structure, a fan of a sports team, etc. Whatever the answer was, she would tell us to strip that away. Then, she'd ask again, 'Who are you?' And then tell us to strip those next descriptions away also. So, after a few rounds of this, once all those labels fell away, and we were left naked, without an identity to cling to, she started talking about how we are all nothing and everything, no one and everyone, how insulting anyone else was insulting yourself, how putting yourself down was insulting humanity. Everyone was still, and we could hear the leaves blowing in the breeze.

I left feeling floaty and kind. I wanted to dive into the soft cloud that I felt was the world at that moment and throw marshmallows in the air in celebration. Even thinking of it now, I can't push the smile away.

For all of our idiosyncrasies, we are all beautiful vessels of possibility. And we're all part of this nebulous existence together, in for the crazy ride we call life. I love it.

11 November 2008

Personal vs. professional success

Though these don't have to be mutually exclusive victories, it does seem that one tends to dominate (and not necessarily by choice). I guess time forces us to prioritize. It's like time and money, where people tend to have one or the other but not usually both. How much money is enough? How much time does one need in order to enjoy said amount of money? What constitutes personal success? Professional success? What does 'success' mean to you? How will you know you've achieved it?

Curious to see what Professor Internet would say, I googled it. There was a lot of mushy and expensive self-help stuff to wade through, but there were also some interesting pieces. Here is The Hindu's advice. Another article referred to Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, which seems to provide a good starting place.
When you work with college students, this is always a helpful reminder for balance. Exercise and sleep are always the first to go when students get busy, and when you're young, it's easy to not notice the effects of an all-nighter (or two or three) for a while. You may think you've got it all under control, but your friends notice you become unusually cranky. (Cough, cough. Not that I was guilty of this. Cough, cough.)
This chart also reminds me of my correctional facility students. When I proposed community service, their initial reaction was expletive, expletive, when did anyone ever help me out, why should I do anything for anyone else, etc. Given most of their family stories, I could definitely see why they felt bitter. They hadn't had many of their basic needs met; why help others? It's like the oxygen masks on a plane: you're supposed to put yours on first, because if you pass out, you surely won't be of any use to anyone else.
On the other hand, community service could be just the thing many of the incarcerated teens needed to get a little perspective. Many felt, even as seventeen-year-olds, that it was 'too late' for them-- but for the kids, all right. (They were no longer kids, they felt, because of what they'd been through.) We created the Community Peace Project, in which they brainstormed for ideas that would really help their neighborhoods and then sent these letters to the media and government officials. Of the 40+ letters we sent, three wrote back. But I still considered it a success because, for a brief moment, they were all excited, open and hopeful.
I guess my lesson learned today was that even thinking about the difference between personal and professional success is a luxury. And maybe if we give everyone their basic needs, people will want to be altruistic in order for their lives to have meaning. Or at least, if people get to fulfill their potential as a (insert dream vocation), we all benefit.
I was very ambitious when I was younger, and I've mellowed with age. Now, my idea of success is simply raising a good family and enjoying time with them. If I get to be a bestselling author and award-winning screenwriter, terrific. If not, and I become a full-time mom or go back to teaching, I'm okay with that, too. I'm learning to go with the flow more often now-- do your best work, put it out there, hope people like it and let go. I've decided what matters most to me are people, especially the people I love, so if I had to choose, I'd tell my twenty-year-old self yammering on about professional success to stuff it and take personal success, which I define as a loving, productive family.

10 November 2008


So much for 'The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.' Here are three stories of women and their families.

1. My girlfriend is a teacher and one of the most conscientious people I know. Her family is über successful, and though they are warm and kind people, they inadvertently squash her ideas and dreams and make her feel 'less than.' As a result, she often doesn't see how much good she is doing by educating our youth and how much she has to offer the world, in general. In spite of her well-intentioned but ego-crushing family, she sings to her students, laughs a lot, and loves nature, art and being creative.

2. A student who could easily be described as a hippie (from Berkeley, no less) who I've known for over two years just happened to mention during dinner the other night that all four of her grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. My student is as grounded and solid a young woman as I know, and despite her legacy of surviving genocide, she loves traveling, is completely open-minded and wants to work in a non-profit when she graduates from college.

3. A woman I work with describes her very conservative Catholic parents as sullen (her father) and foul-tempered (her mother). Her parents don't approve of her boyfriend because he married very young and then got divorced, and her parents don't approve of her sister for being a lesbian. In order to keep the peace, both sisters simply keep their personal lives to themselves. Her sister has gone so far as to rent a separate apartment so that when her parents come to visit, she can say she lives there (and not with her partner). This ruse has gone on for years and years (I think it's nearing a decade now), and it blows my mind. Again, in spite of this family dynamic, the woman I work with is funny, generally cheerful and shrugs off just about anything someone might find shocking. For example, she described this all very matter-of-factly, as if she were talking about the toaster not working again.

Since I don't have children yet, I can't speak authoritatively on being a parent, but I can only imagine that all of these parents do the best they can. ('If you lived their life, you'd do what they did,' like #2 in this post.) As I grow older, I have more and more sympathy for parents. It must be one of life's greatest challenges. And we expect perfection from our parents, so who wouldn't eventually fall short in some way?

What I gleaned from these stories is just how resilient people are and how everything is a choice ('life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it,' as in this post). I know there have been psychology studies that have found that people can bounce back from just about anything, be it the death of a loved one, divorce or any other (insert awful seemingly insurmountable event), and eventually return to their former state of happiness. It is still inspiring to see it in practice, though. These three women are intelligent, successful and generally positive, and it makes me want to pull those old-sticks-in-the-mud (we've all met some) up and say, "Look! You, too, can be empowered and in charge of your own life!"

08 November 2008

How to live in the moment

This wikihow appeared on my google page, and I thought it was actually quite good. Instead of 'How to live in the moment,' I think it could simply be titled, 'How to be happy.'

07 November 2008

I got on the wrong ship

Being new to blogs and a selective perfectionist, I tried to learn how blogs were 'supposed' to be. I was told that people don't want to read too much text, want pretty pictures, etc. What I realize now is that a blog is simply a reflection of the person who writes it, so I should have stuck to my guns. What I wanted to write was a daily serendipity berry report: having a public blog made me accountable, and if I said I was going to be a serendipity berry, trying to sweeten someone's sorrow in some small way each day, then I would really have to make that happen. So, out with the fluffy stuff and in with the challenge.

I once tried to count how many people I was happy I'd met in life. I came up with the number two hundred. I said then that I would try to have at least one positive interaction per day, and it could be as small as exchanging smiles with a passing stranger. And not some flimsy, polite smile, but a real Duchenne smile. I figured I wanted to live to be a hundred years old, and if I could be happy about meeting at least one human being per day, I would die feeling I'd encountered tens of thousands of nice human beings. (I know: quantity vs. quality, but they aren't mutually exclusive, so in this case, you can have it all.)

So, after veering away from what I felt was my natural path, I'm returning to it now, and my goal is to offer little 'serendipity berry' anecdotes of sharing sweetness (usually a rewarding two-way street). I've decided what I find most beautiful in this world is when someone shares their vulnerability with me. That is the ultimate gift: to share of yourself. So, here are three little stories:

1. One of my students seemed like the 'quiet one' among his friends, who were all varsity athletes. I was surprised to discover that this economics concentrator (Harvard speak for major) was really into fantasy fiction, and when I showed an interest in learning what made great fantasy for the purpose of potentially writing a fantasy novel myself, he lit up. It was almost like seeing a mummy throw off his wrappings and come to colorful, animated life. He shared some of his thoughts, gave me a list of what to look for and even lent me two of his favorite books. I knew I had to take good care of them because there was not one crease in the spine, not one wrinkle on the cover or pages, and I felt like I had been admitted into a special club by his sharing what must be a prized possession with me. I've read that 'great conversation' often means simply listening, and what a gift it was to hear someone talk about what they were passionate about. Educational, too.

2. I have a girlfriend from my days in Los Angeles who became very successful. I don't watch television, so I didn't even know she had become a celebrity. I had a brief encounter with fame, and I hated it. People who never acknowledged my existence were my suddenly new best friends, and I was lonelier than I had ever been. It was a wake-up call to how dear my real friends were, and I hope that my now superstar friend has real strong love and support in her life. We had been classmates, and we always liked each other, but we were by no means best friends or anything, so I felt a little silly reaching out to her again. It was my own insecurity that made me feel she might wonder if I wanted something, if I, too, was just trying to be a 'suddenly new best friend.' I looked within myself and did an honest assessment, and yes, she did look a little cooler now that she was this big public figure, BUT I loved her more because of who she had been as a classmate. Supportive, hilarious, talented, and most of all, kind. Had I not already appreciated her personality, I would not have wanted to contact her. My own ego appeased, I emailed her and congratulated her on her success, and I'm guessing I was three or four years behind when she really became successful. She wrote back, remembered I had been working on a novel (I'm embarrassed that I let her read that early draft of it -- eek! screams the ego, who believes I am a much better writer now and wants to go on and on about how those early drafts were just practice, blah blah blah, but then I remember to shut my noisy little ego up and return to her) and was the same woman I remembered loving back when we were all struggling together. So, I probably don't have much to offer her, but I will try to be a true friend who likes her for who she is without the bright lights and fancy makeup and wardrobe, and I'm guessing that will be nice and refreshing.

3. I spent an afternoon having tea, carrot cake and a long chat with a new girlfriend whose father had passed away a few months ago. I am well-versed in sticking my foot in my mouth, and somehow, her father kept coming up. We were in a little cafe, so I knew it wasn't the place for her to let it all out, but I wanted to make things better, take that sorrow away from her and absorb some of the shock. It was clear that there was so much pain and heartache, and I wanted to wrestle it away from her, but I also thought it wouldn't be very respectful to do that if she wasn't ready. But are we ever ready? How does one best help and support a friend who has sustained a huge, seemingly insurmountable loss? Again, her vulnerability and openness made it hard-- no, impossible-- not to love her, to want to make everything better for her and hug her sorrows away. So, I think it would be trite to send something like this and hope it fixes everything-- but I want to help! I want this beautifully kind human being to stop suffering, and while she looks especially lovely when she tears up, I don't ever want to see her this heartbroken again. I guess it will simply take time, and all I can do now is try to make more tea dates with her, letting her take conversation where she is comfortable and hugging her and loving her and supporting her as well as I can.

06 November 2008

Things that inspire me

1. My favorite quotes:

"Be the change you want to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." - Marianne Williamson

"Success and excellence are competing ideals. Being successful does not necessarily mean you will be excellent, and being excellent does not necessarily mean you will be successful. Success is attaining or achieving cultural goals, which elevates one's importance in the society in which he lives. Excellence is the pursuit of quality in one's work and effort, whether the culture recognizes it or not. Success seeks status, power, prestige, wealth, and privilege. Excellence is internal—seeking satisfaction in having done your best. Success is external—how much you have done in comparison with others. Excellence is how you have done in relation to your own potential. For me, success seeks to please man, but excellence seeks to please God. Success grants rewards to a few, but is the dream of the multitudes. Excellence is available to all, but is accepted only by a few. Success engenders a fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Excellence brings us down to reality with a deep gratitude for the promise of joy when we do our best. Excellence cultivates principles, character, and integrity. Success may be cheap, and you can take shortcuts to get there. You will pay the full price for excellence; it is never discounted. Excellence will always cost you everything, but it is the most lasting and rewarding ideal. What drives you—success or excellence?"
- Christopher Parkening, "one of the world's most accomplished classical guitarists," known for practicing at least three hours per day, even after he was celebrated as one of the greatest guitarists

"And if Grandma were a bus, she'd have wheels." - Chuck Weiss, my friends' dad. I think this is a good antidote to the coulda woulda shoulda disease.

2. My favorite ideas:

My wise friend, Neal, says that all of the world's problems are caused by insecurity, and I can see how this would apply to both big-picture conflicts (religion, land, resources...) and small disputes (jealousy, trying too hard, being selfish...). When I am about to lash back at what I perceive to be obnoxious behavior, I can sometimes stop myself and remember that they are probably just as insecure and silly as I am and trying to get attention, feel liked, etc. It makes me more forgiving when I remember that we are all trying our best to navigate through this fast-paced, unforgivingly interconnected world, and I remember another nugget: "If we lived their life, we'd do exactly what they did" (not sure who said that).

Related to the first idea is the idea that it's important to take into account where people come from. One could say that people operate out of either love or fear (or ignorance, which usually leads them to act out of fear of the unknown), and if people are being mean or offensive, it is likely that they are operating out of fear. So, it follows that rather than retaliate with anger (the loud version of fear), the real antidote is love. And if one acts only out of love or fear, then to be truly fearless means to always operate from a place of love. A little hokey-sounding, perhaps, but pretty powerful, I thought. And an excellent challenge.

3. Our new president. :-)

This is my favorite speech so far. Set to music, it makes me cry. Most of you have probably seen it already, but it's nice to revisit. A good serendipity berry to elevate the spirits. Enjoy.

04 November 2008

Jumping for joy (and the right to vote)

Lest people think this blog is all depressing stories, all the time, here is another photo essay. A 100% happy one. Seeing people jumping makes me happy, and I hope it brightens your day a little, too. Enjoy!

Yay for Election Day! Here's more silliness:

Republicans are red,
Democrats are blue,
Even though I'm 100% OBAMA,
No matter how you vote, I'll still love you.

Serendipity berries for everyone! Now, go out and VOTE!

"Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don't vote."
- William E. Simon

31 October 2008

Reactions to Halloween and birthdays

Two old brothers live together, and one loves Halloween. He wants to buy out the candy store and greet all the neighborhood kids as they come by in their costumes. The other brother wants to turn the lights off, so no one will think they're home and ring their doorbell. The latter overrules the former, and the first brother has to be 'the creepy old man' walking by the elementary school yard just to get a glimpse of the festivities-- a far cry from interacting face-to-face and giving out candy to happy kids. Maybe these old men that some consider 'creepy' aren't actually creepy at all-- just lonely, wanting to share in some holiday fun and potentially living with a grumpy brother who wants to shut out the world.

This is a true story. The man who wanted to play for an evening was my father, who lives with my uncle in my grandparents' old house in a little cul-de-sac, and my heart cracks a bit just thinking about this again.

It makes me think of this quote by Charles R. Swindoll: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." Or, as my generally happy friend, Faisal, says, "Even the crappy experiences are good, because they make for good stories."

So, it all comes full circle: I started this blog about death and now get to tie it all together with people's reactions to life and celebrating birth. Not a new birth this time, but the Halloween birthday of someone I love. :-)

I find people's reactions to birthdays fascinating. Some people don't tell anyone their birthday, and other people throw themselves a huge bash and invite everyone they know. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. To me, celebrating a birthday is saying we're glad that person is alive. So, those who hide their birthdays make me sad: are they not happy to be alive? Do they not think others are happy they're alive? (Or is it just that fixation with youth, which is a-whole-nother post? Maybe next time.)

What's your ideal birthday? Mine is really simple: hang out with my best friend, eat good food, laugh a lot, say cheers and eat some noodles to symbolize a long life. Maybe do something fun (go for a hike or a snorkel, walk around and explore some new city/country/part of town, or sit for hours enjoying afternoon tea...). Or not. And if the hanging out happens to occur in, say, a motu in Bora Bora, well, even better. Serendipity berries for myself on my big day. ;-)

28 October 2008

A View from a Room (a story in photos)

I was recently told that blogs shouldn't be all text (oops) or too long (oops) and should include photos (oops). (And probably should not be solely about death.) So, here are some photos I took from my window that seem appropriate right now.

Even in the stillest, whitest, coldest part of winter, when it feels like life will never return, it does eventually stop snowing.

And if we stop for a moment, we see it actually looks beautiful out.

The snow starts to melt.

We get a glimmer of what's to come.

The sun finally returns.

The river begins to thaw.

And one day, we wake up, and the snow is gone.

People come out of their caves, and the trees show signs of life again.

The crew teams start rowing on the river again.

And without any warning, summer arrives. Temperatures shoot up from 40F to 70F overnight, and people complain about how hot it is.

But everyone is outside, life is in full swing, and people slow down and smile more.

And then, just as we get used to summer, autumn sneaks up on us again. And the cycle begins all over again.

So, what have I learned from Peter's death? We've all heard that we should live each day as if it were our last, carpe diem, etc., and I've tried to be as fearless and as open to risk as possible. What I realize now is that I also have to take good care of my body, my only vessel that will allow me to embark on adventures, backpack to countries people haven't heard of, and connect to my loved ones. It means treating it well and appreciating how good it's been to me over the years, and hoping that if I feed it and exercise it and nurture it correctly, it won't just give out on me one day.

How boring. In our 20s, we abuse our bodies, staying out late, eating whatever we want, exercising only when it's a fun hike to Halfdome or the White Mountains (okay, maybe that's just me), but I now think I won't even have a chance to go after all of my dreams if my body won't cooperate. I start to envision my 30s being filled with meals of steamed, unsalted organic brussel sprouts and no ice cream for dessert. Waking up and running/walking for twenty minutes each morning.

Instead of being bummed by this, I imagine if I start being nice to my body now, while I'm young and healthy, maybe I'll live to be 100. That should give me plenty of time to make all of my current dreams come true (and plenty of time to come up with lots of new ones), and with all of that extra time, heck, I could help make other people's dreams come true, too. Serendipity berries for everyone.