Tuesday, November 3, 2020

FRESH AIR – Soaring with Gershwin Above Election Day Stress

This morning, Election Day 2020, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic about the pending outcome.

I'm nestled in my recliner, pecking out what just might be my last post for Pop This Boil!, my Trump-resistance blog. (It's about the psychology of bystander inaction in the face of cruelty, and how that syndrome might help explain our soon-to-be-former president's base's failure to stand up to the man's oft-repeated assaults on their fellow citizens and on democratic institutions—not to mention on their own interests.)

And then, on Minnesota Public Radio, they play Gershwin's majestic Fanfare for the Common Man. I put down my laptop, turn the volume way up and just listen. I let those sounds, the soaring and the sublime, transport me. For these four glorious minutes, my spirit has taken wing.

From this lofty vantage point things are so clear. I see all those tens of millions of my countrymen boldly asserting their voices, refusing intimidation and inconvenience. I breathe easier knowing the wheels of democracy are turning, my country busy reclaiming the hope, the aspiration, the decency that's been sucked out of the room for the past four years by a petty tyrant with an insatiable ego.

And I feel a soaring sense of pride and faith in the beacon of freedom and opportunity I know this country can—and will—continue to shine.

Yes, it was a good day. The first, I trust, of many, many such days to come.

Sunday, November 1, 2020


I’m sitting out on our sunny deck, martini in one hand, a novel in the other. When I’m outdoors, though, I find it hard to concentrate on a book. My senses get continually plucked at by more immediate wonders— the bees flitting from one blossom to the next in our window boxes; a few early chimney swifts darting and twittering overhead; the three-legged mutt sniffing the lawn across the drive.

And then it comes to me, the perfect reconciliation of the purely escapist act of reading with the curse of my nagging, here-and-now awareness: a momentary indulgence not of the novel, but of the wonder of reading it.


       Each of hundreds of thousands of
       letter assortments nearly instantaneously
       elicits meaning.

I don’t mean just the miracle of an author’s ability to make up a very long story that manages to elicit another person’s knowing and feeling. I mean the whole idea of looking at a bunch of odd little shapes strung out in various sequences, and effortlessly decoding them all at a glance.

There are roughly 6,500 languages and 3900 alphabets or writing systems in the world. With the numbers of characters in each of them ranging from Rotakas (Papua New Guinea) with only 12, to Chinese, with at least 8,000, that makes for a staggering number of those little shapes and symbols literate human beings routinely memorize.

But let’s say one speaks only English. There are just 26 letters in the English alphabet (a few of them elucidated with accents). The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use. And let’s say one knows only a third of those words. That’s about 57,000 words, 57,000 unique combinations of those 26 tiny, cryptic shapes.

And that’s just the present-tense, infinitive forms of the verbs, the absolute forms of modifiers and the singular form of nouns. Not to mention various compound forms and other variations. Well, you get the idea: each of hundreds of thousands of letter assortments nearly instantaneously elicits meaning. This mastery of reading many of us so take for granted is nothing short of phenomenal.

       Isn’t reading outdoors simply a choice
       between a real, immediate perfection and
       an imaginary scene borne in black marks
       on white paper?

So, I’m reading this novel. I don’t really think about each word, much less each letter.

As one who’s learned a second language as an adult, I know there’s this incredible moment when an intermediate-level learner’s multi-step reading process rather suddenly distills down to one step. One moment you’re seeing the word, perhaps tacitly pronouncing it, translating it and finally seeing the meaning in your mind’s eye.

The next moment, no sooner do you see the word than that image appears. You’re no longer translating; your brain has made a direct connection from word to image—perhaps even to emotion.

There are words…and then there are compositions. Like notes of music that combine into rhythms and harmonies, words, when well-chosen and creatively sequenced, far transcend their individual values to make magic.

While even a pedestrian writer might accurately describe, say, a bar scene set in the old West, a gifted one will do so in a way that captures not just who and what can be seen, but evokes the ambient sounds, the quality of the air, perhaps even how the crusty cowboys smell.


Like everything else in my wondering world, reading, now that I’ve picked it up and examined it from a few different angles, has transformed from a curious trifle to a treasure. Seeing it that way, I might never again open a book or log into a blog—or read a billboard for that matter—with the same nonchalance.

Does this mean I’ve finally found a way around my lifelong dismissal of reading outdoors as simply a choice between a real, immediate perfection and an imaginary scene borne in black marks on white paper? We’ll see…

Saturday, September 12, 2020

COPING WITH COVID – No Better Time for Seeing Generously

 At first glance, vision may seem like a simple one-way transaction. We open our eyes. An image goes in and gets processed by the mind. If it's something important, it may move us to feel or do something, or it gets stored somewhere for future reference.

In fact, it's easy to think of all our senses like that—merely taking in sensations. But it doesn't have to be that way. Consider touch. I mean we generally see, hear, taste or smell anonymously—without any involvement of the thing we're sensing. But when we touch something, it always, automatically, touches us back

Until recently, I thought touch was the only one of our conventional senses that could do that. But with COVID-19 trying to suck the life out of our touching, it seems a good time to reconsider the reach and intention of our other senses.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if seeing were more like touch? If one could actually impart something akin to the warmth and gentle pressure of a hug or holding hands without violating social distancing guidelines?

        You purposely, preemptively, dismiss the
        distractions and open your soul to wonder
        before you even know it’s there.

It's hard to imagine, because we've gotten complacent in our seeing. We expect to find our images delivered effortlessly to us on screens, often while sitting alone or at least in our own little worlds. With virtually no contact with the actual things depicted on the screen, it's kind of a sad exercise in anonymity.

This consumption mentality of seeing affects even the way we perceive real stuff. For example, we seem to prefer looking at things we already know. Like so many TV re-runs, their familiarity soothes us, keeps us company, actually turns off our minds. Nothing's really new. We give nothing, we invest nothing and, one could argue, we get nothing.

So what is seeing generously? What does it look like?

Is our seeing all it can be?

It may happen unconsciously. Let's say you're looking at something—an animal, a sunset, another person. If, at that moment, your mind has its foot on your spirit, you won't be especially moved. But as soon as you begin to let go of objectives and schedules, turn of the cell phone and truly notice, something begins to change. 

You start seeing more proactively. That is, instead of waiting for small wonders to strike your visual fancy, you actually go looking for them. Instead of expecting them to somehow crack through your inattention, your distraction, you, at least now and then, purposely, preemptively, dismiss the distractions and open your soul to wonder before you even know it’s there.

            When we see things in this way, we grow,
       our consciousness grows and the world
       becomes a more mindful, loving place.

At first, it may be just small increments of investment, feelings like appreciation or satisfaction. That's okay; it's a start. But then, if you can allow yourself to be curious, the way you were naturally when you were a child, the transaction starts to truly transform.
Now your seeing's become a gift, not just to yourself, but to the person or thing you're curious about. When we see things in this way—not just with our eyes, or even our mind, but with our heart and our spirit—we grow, our consciousness grows and the world becomes a more mindful, loving place.

Have you ever noticed the way a person lights up when the conversation turns from the typical self-promoting, cocktail party chatter to genuine interest in something that really matters to that person? You know, when "Me, me, me…well, enough about me. What do you think about me?" turns to "What about you? What are you interested in?"  When we see someone that way—or when we wonder at one of Nature's miracles—that's a blessing we give to that person, that creature or that thing.

This is even more important during this historic confluence of pandemic with what may well be the most frightening political collapse we've ever experienced in the U.S. It's a time when those with the emotional maturity to do so must recognize other folks' pain and loneliness. If we're ever able to reconcile our differences, we must learn to view even our most bitter political enemies with compassion. 

That is how seeing generously looks and sounds...and has to be.

Do you see generously? Does your ability to do so hinge on what's going on in your life and in the world? Think you'd still be able to if Donald Trump' reign of error continues for another term? We'd love to hear about your ideas and experiences!

Friday, August 28, 2020

CREATIVE GENUS – My Career Path From Crayons to Kerning

My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Berg, taught me that I was an artist.

Okay, sure, teachers—at least the good ones—do that all the time; every kid should feel special. But with Miss Berg it was different. When I produced one of my little masterpieces—usually rather dense compositions of geometric shapes and patterns using those luscious, off-color crayons like blue-green, mahogany and Indian red—she would not just encourage me, she’d point to my work as an example for other kids whose design muse evidently wasn’t speaking to them.


I guess that’s all it takes to plant the seeds of a human being’s self-actualization. Sure enough, even though I’d done nothing consciously to hone that dull blade of creativity, by the time I got to college, it just seemed obvious that I’d major in Art. (For some odd reason, my boys military high school had offered no art program. The powers that be must have considered art unmanly—so we had mandatory football instead. Seriously.)

As college graduation—and the Vietnam War—loomed, I had to figure out a way to continue my education and thus earn a deferment from the draft. It had to be a field that would not only put to use my nascent artistic talents, but lead to an honorable, paying career. So I headed to architecture school.

The creative aspects of architecture tapped into that designer mentality first encouraged by Miss Berg. It seemed a perfectly logical branching out from just two-dimensional shape and crayon-rendered color to three dimensions. Turns out I was pretty good at visualizing space, stacking it, dividing it and making those divisions flow one to the next.

I also loved the creative process: analyzing the requirements of a project, sketching concepts, giving and getting feedback from classmates and faculty “crits,” drafting, modeling… I even enjoyed the bleary-eyed rigor of all-nighters spent in the studio, exchanging ideas and encouragement with my fellow designers.

Unfortunately, along with the third dimension, architecture demanded that I not only design buildings, but make sure they’d stand up when built. And for that, the barely-passing physics and calculus grades I’d eked out in college proved lacking. So I had to take both courses all over again and be ready to apply that knowledge to the second-year architecture class that came closest to engineering: Building Technology.