Tuesday, November 30, 2010


When I was a kid, I loved to play with the Prell shampoo. The clear, emerald-green stuff came in a transparent tube. I adored the depth of that color. More than that, I loved the pocket of air. When I turned the tube upside down it would start rising slowly through the honey-thick goo, taking on the typical globular shape of a bubble—but with one difference: because the medium was so thick, its trailing edge was drawn out into a point, like a water drop just before it breaks free, only inverted. How amazing, I thought, that Prell could make not just the wispy, ephemeral bubbles we expect from soap, but these thick, plodding, ponderable
ones too.

I also remember staring into my dad's beer glass, transfixed by those little strings of bubbles that appeared out of nowhere and danced around through the amber. I'm still fascinated.

www.derekgulden.com - Used with permission

Is there any one of Nature's little wonders more sublime than a bubble? Think of the soapy kind kids blow with those little plastic wands. Like sheer 3-D kaleidoscopes, their colors shimmer and flow. And have you ever made a really big bubble hoop out of rope or a coat hanger? Once you figure out how to get the right amount and rate of air to balloon the soapy film without breaking it, you can produce bubbles so big they undulate as they drift away, writhing to find their roundness.

...you can produce bubbles so big they undulate as they drift away, writhing to find their roundness. 

Not all bubbles are so whimsical; just ask divers. If they ascend too fast, the nitrogen dissolved in their blood can bubble up just like the carbon dioxide in a quickly uncapped bottle of soda.

I'm visited by an uncomfortable little bubble every once in a while. I don't know where it comes from, but it feels like a tiny holdout from a burp, a bubble that finds its way into some little nook in my chest, where it presses on something that doesn't appreciate it. It used to scare me—I thought I was having a heart attack—but now I just wait until it eventually finds its way out the way it was headed in the first place.

Think of all the bubbles we just take for granted. Bread—yes, how do you think it gets that texture? Foam rubber. A wine glass. Rice Crispies. There are even bubbles so small we can't see them. Paints and plastics, as well as lots of other materials, contain millions of microscopic glass bubbles added to extend volume, reduce weight, add strength, resist abrasion and improve flow quality. Bubbles are used in inkjet printing, mining, environmental engineering, medicine, oil production, food science and any number of other industries.

Hombre Viendo al Cielo - Fernando Garrido 2005

My friend, the fine contemporary Mexican painter, Fernando Garrido, uses bubbles as a sort of signature element in his eccentric, magical-realist portrayals of warriors, sages, alchemists, oracles and mystics. The bubbles emerge, in astounding, dripping detail, from the characters’ mouths, through vents in their outlandish headdresses, and sometimes, like those little beer bubbles, from no apparent source. Catching reflections of neon lights or an always-unseen sun, they float through Garrido's scenes, reminding us of the tenuous balance between life's shimmering fullness and its utter impermanence.

How and where do you see bubbles?

"A soap bubble is the most beautiful, most exquisite thing in nature. 
I wonder how much it would cost to buy a soap bubble, if there were only one in the world?"

Thursday, November 25, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #19
Find Your Moon Shadow

Sun shadows fall heavy on the earth—stark, stretched, hard-edged forms 
so common we barely notice their attachment any more. 

Moon, though, lays down her work gently, subtle shades of black on black. 
She knows her time, working best when facing both earth and sun.

Monday, November 22, 2010

UNDER MY OWN SKIN – Story of My Life

There are the two faint blue-black spots—one on the inside of my right forearm; the other, on my right palm just below the junction with my index finger. They reveal the exuberance of youth as much as its vulnerability. An idle child's game of flip-the-pencil and slam-it-between-the-hands. The hope, the dare, was that the pencil's rotation would cooperate. A kind of Russian roulette for the gun-less—and witless. And why two marks? Fool me once…you know how it goes.

   My full weight dropped onto the tail end of his skate blade, 
   driving the cold metal through my breezers and about an inch 
   deep into the soft flesh.

My scars speak of more consequential exploits. My left buttock bears the emblem of my initiation to ice hockey. I'd clumsily executed my first body check. I felt so powerful, so superior, standing over my victim as he lay face down on the ice. As I turned to find my next conquest, my own skates brought me back down to earth—or, I should say, ice.

My full weight dropped onto the tail end of his skate blade, driving the cold metal through my breezers and about an inch deep into the soft flesh. That scar recorded, for all time, the exact shape of a cross-section of that kid's skate blade and the round tube it was welded to.

Other scars bear witness to even more painful lessons learned. The one in the soft arch of my right foot recalls my running, carefree and barefoot, through long grass and landing squarely on one of those solid cast iron rakes, its rusty three-inch tines penetrating to the bone. Tetanus shots are no fun either.

The one starting on my lower lip and running down my chin is a celebration of my surviving a serious car crash—a full frontal, 50-mile-an-hour collision with a tree during my college days. My parents had always warned me against hitchhiking.

Nowadays the stories my skin tells are kinder and gentler. Over the years, my veins have seemed to rise out of the protective furrows they once occupied in my flesh. Sitting now on top, they swell up like so many mole tunnels, as if the blood will meet less resistance there. Through the ever-thinner, more translucent veil that covers them, they look so vulnerable, getting bigger and bluer by the day.

PharaohHound via WikiMedia Commons
Time's been pretty good to my face. Sure, parts of it have yielded to the insistent pull of gravity, but, thank goodness, not so much to that of stress. I notice it mostly in that second pair of eyelids that have formed just above my original ones, threatening to envelop them, and a few pleats of extra skin running down my neck.

I'm glad I don't have too many other wrinkles. (My dad used to say about someone with lots of wrinkles, "He has a face like a map.") Maybe I should travel more.

What kind of stories do your skin tell?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Have you ever watched people eat? It’s really fascinating. Next time you’re in a restaurant, find someone at a nearby table you can observe without being too obvious. Count the number of times he or she chews a bite of food before swallowing it. You may be surprised.

You’ll find a few over-achievers like me who chew, try to talk a little without opening their mouths too far, chew some more, maybe take a sip of wine, chew yet again and then swallow. What, maybe 15 or 20 chews? But I think you’ll see many more who look for all the world like eating is absolutely the last thing they want to be doing.

I’ve observed many, many people—both men and women—who chew every mouthful only once or twice before swallowing it. And we’re not just talking soup here. Even inch-thick chunks of steak end up being swallowed nearly whole. One chew, swallow; say a few words; another forkful, chew, chew, swallow. Hell, why not just take your nourishment in a pill?

       Eating without chewing is like standing 
       on the rim of the Grand Canyon with your 
       eyes closed.

Eating without chewing is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon with your eyes closed. Enjoying an unhurried meal appeals to every one of our senses. I’m certainly no connoisseur, so it doesn’t take fancy cooking to please me. But I know good food when I taste it and appreciate the dining experience on many levels. Whether it’s a burger and shake or sake-poached prawns with rutabaga confit, I enjoy every nuance of presentation, taste and texture. Not to mention the good conversation a leisurely meal so often nourishes.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember ever being given the choice of whether or not to eat my vegetables. My brother and I ate what was served. Simple, balanced meals and a sense of food adventure were part of our family culture.

I have to marvel at the little co-dependencies I see played out in so many American families today. Parents start their enabling by asking their kids what they want to eat. Are you kidding me? The kids—having picked up the no-vegetables! mantra from friends and/or media—inevitably make poor choices. Worse yet, some parents don’t even ask; they just assume their kids won’t eat anything that’s good for them, and then fulfill their own prophecy. This little scam is further reinforced by the kids’ friends and their parents, and restaurants, which apparently figure the only thing a kid’s ever going to want is a grilled cheese sandwich or hot dog. And we wring our hands at the epidemic of childhood obesity!

So, next time a server brings your meal and says "Enjoy!" take him at his word!

Friday, November 12, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #50
Ghostly Geese

These late fall nights, keep your ears open for what may sound like a crowd of people chattering in the distance. If you look up, you might see the hundred-strong "V" of migrating geese, two thousand feet up, dimly lit against the blackness by ambient earthlight.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

IS IT JUST ME? – My Boquete Epiphany

I'm in the sweet little mountain town of Boquete, Panama for two weeks, part of my quest to experience more of life and chase my elusive dream of Spanish fluency, whatever that is. Trips like this are always eye-openers for me. I get to see how the vast majority of earthlings live, and, recently, how the roiling confluence of that lifestyle with the relentless current of the new "world culture," so long on aspiration but so short on patience, is affecting their simpler, purer—some would say more sustainable—traditions.

But this trip is already proving to be more than merely instructional. Just this morning I had an epiphany.

Habla Ya, the fine Spanish school I'm attending, arranged for me to stay with a local family. SeƱor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer, working the land atop the steep cerro just behind his home. He and his extended family couldn't be nicer or more generous with their home, their time and their help with my Spanish. Nonetheless, I had just two requirements for my lodging: a bed at least six feet long, and WiFi (so I can keep up with my commitment to regular posting here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. (http://elviajerocontento.blogspot.com) With classes taking up most of the day, and the prospect of a few excursions into the gorgeous area surrounding Boquete in the mornings, I was counting on being able to connect with the Internet every evening, in the privacy of my room.

I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable. 

The bed is long enough. But the Internet connection, a sluggish, intermittent, dial-up service, requires  17-year-old Antonio's shoving a well-used CD onto my laptop and installing a huge program.

My reaction to all of this—well within reason, I thought—was to let Lorena, la directora of the school, know that we'd have to find some other arrangement that would accommodate my needs. After all, who's the customer here? Wouldn't anyone in his right mind hold a supplier more or less to the terms of a contract? I assured Lorena that the last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the Bell Miranda family, but work is work.

Just then, another staff member in the office, overhearing our conversation, came over to explain, in what I took as a paternalistic tone, that I couldn't blame the Bell Mirandas nor any average Panamanian family for not knowing all the ins and outs of Internet connections.

My Spanish always collapses to the level of rank beginner when shaken by any degree of emotion. Explaining that to the young man, I let him know, in English and in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't blaming the family at all. And I didn't need to be told that the school's inability to meet my very few requirements was my fault. At this, Lorena jumped in to suggest that they might, indeed, be able to locate another family with WiFi. I reiterated my concern with hurting the feelings of Guillermo and his family with my decision, but she assured me they could explain the situation to the family with minimal offense. So I agreed to that solution and thanked her.

I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

I retired to the student lounge (where WiFi is available), and started writing about my first couple of days here. I couldn't think straight. Too many feelings plucking at the edges of my concentration. I tried to imagine two weeks at my adoptive family's home with nothing "productive" to do in the evening, especially considering that they all retire by 9:00 or 9:30.

I recalled, from all my experiences in Mexico, how enigmatic Latin American values can seem to a Norteamericano, but how, at some level I've only occasionally been able to embrace, they made sense. Then I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable.

That's what did it. In that split second of clarity, everything resorted itself in my mind. I released my hold on my frustration, disappointment and self-righteousness, and let acceptance and flexibility gently nudge them aside. And, after all that consternation, the answer seemed so beautifully simple. I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

So now I'll spend my evenings patiently and happily with this kind, generous family. I'll write what I can without access to information and photos. I'll read my book—very slowly, so it'll last the two weeks. Then I'll use my free mornings to get online at school. Self: see how easy that is?

The cosmos wasted no time in rewarding me for my little awakening. For the rest of the morning, as it turns out, in the busy student lounge, I had the chance to meet many of the staff and my fellow students I'd never have met otherwise. And tonight, arriving home after classes, everything seemed different with Guillermo and the family. Was it just me, or can they see the change in my attitude?

Funny, you can read about how to behave gracefully in other cultures. You can learn some of the language and customs. You can try doing in Rome as the Romans do. I know these things, and have wrestled with culture shock before. But, at least for me, it's taken that little extra jolt, that little injection of emotion followed by reflection, for me to actually get it. Now if I can only remember it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LANGUAGE QUIRKS – When a Few Words Are a Scream

For one who appreciates nuance, language is a storehouse of little quirks and wonders unto itself. Here are just a few that, since I first noticed them, have continued to fascinate—and occasionally irk—me.

Sometime in the last couple of decades—I'm not sure exactly when, but it seemed to have happened in a matter of just a year or two—the customary greeting one received from a counter person (at a bank or a fast food restaurant, for example) morphed from "Hi, may/can I help you?" or the somewhat more curt "Who's next?" to a lazy hybrid of the two: "Can I help who's next?"

It's not so much that the expression changed that fascinates me, but how it changed. Now I'm no etymologist, but I'm guessing it went viral within a few days of its use by a character on a sitcom. It caught on, and its curious appeal has continued to spread—even to people who should know better.

Here's another quirk that, once you first notice it, you'll seldom make it through a day without hearing. I suspect this one owes its existence to more than just the rapid spread of popular culture; it's just too subtle. It must be something about how our minds work. Consider these two sentences:

       "The problem is that she never got the information in the first place."

       "The problem is is that she never got the information in the first place."

What's the difference? You will almost never hear the first sentence. For some odd reason most people—and I mean almost everyone—will say "is" twice in any sentence of that construction. See if you can train your ear to catch it.

     "Everyone was grabbing for the 
       best deals. It was a real land mine!"

Then there are those hilarious, unintended manglings of common expressions. For years I've been fascinated with malapropisms, the inadvertent, usually humorous, substitution of words which sound like other words—like "He loves to dance the flamingo." (for flamenco).  I've taken a slightly different tack, fixating on how often speakers manage to blend two or more common descriptive phrases. I call them Mixed Monikers. Here are just a few of the many I've heard and jotted down over the years:

In trying to describe how little he trusted something one of his co-workers had said, I think this guy came up with an effective marriage of "flew in the face of reality" and "face the facts":

      "When I heard that, it just flew in the facts of what everyone else knows."

A radio talk show caller, trying to express the urgency of the need to pass a piece of legislation, unwittingly combined "like nobody's business" with "like there's no tomorrow" to produce:

      "They ought to be working like nobody's tomorrow!"

Supermodel and Bravo's Project Runway host, Heidi Klum, describing an occasion in which she was at a frantic loss for words, may have unwittingly merged "gasping for air" with "grasping at straws" when she said:

      "...I was gasping for the right word."

NPR reporter Jack Speer, in describing an especially critical ruling of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court (in the Delphi case), entertained me with this spontaneous intersection between "landmark" and "watershed":

      "It was a watermark decision."

And finally, one of my very favorites:

My mother-in-law, excited to tell us about the deals she'd found at one of those bargain basement sales in which shoppers push and shove their way to bins of discounted items, apparently grafted "Land Rush" to "Gold Mine":

      "Everyone was grabbing for the best deals. It was a real land mine!"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

THE HARDER YOU TRY – Some Things You Can't Make Happen

Life's design is often so much more elegant than our own.

I’ve lived long enough to have had a few misty, fleeting glimpses of ideas that felt like they had something to do with the true meaning of life. While most have proven pretty elusive, one I’m quite sure of is that, no matter how hard you may try, you can’t always make things happen. Some things happen only when you learn how to let them happen.

This concept was captured well in an Esquire magazine illustration I saw and clipped many years ago. It was in two frames. In the first, a man’s head is tightly wrapped in chains. The coarse links seem to bite into his forehead. Gritting his teeth, sweat pouring down his puffy, red face, he strains to break free of his torment.

In the second image, the man’s expression has unclenched. He’s relaxed, serene. The veins in his neck no longer stick out. He’s completely surrendered himself to his situation. And the chain is disintegrating, flying off in jagged pieces.

           Some things happen only when 
           you learn how to let them happen.

The idea was also articulated well in the best-selling The Inner Game of Tennis and its sequels about other sports by Tim Gallwey in the 1970s and 80s. Gallwey said that athletes are born with the capacity for the perfect natural swing, delivery, or whatever the key movement of his or her sport. All you have to do is watch someone who's really good at it, and your brain will capture and subconsciously program those mechanics into its interface with your body.

According to this model, the aspiring athlete's traditional mantras of "Okay, now, keep your eye on the ball; step into your swing; keep the racket head up; and a dozen others can only corrupt that program, that perfect channeling of perfect motion. Trying: no; making: no; letting: yes.

The murky depths of memory

This is certainly the case with memory. How often have you delved, in vain, the murky depths of your brain for some factoid only to have it pop to the surface just after you've given up looking for it? It happens to me all the time, suggesting that the unconscious mind is better able to navigate memory's nooks and crannies than the conscious one.

            Not only is such control overrated; 
            it is an utter illusion.

With each day of this grand adventure of being, I'm learning that this "inner game" of consciousness  serves me pretty well in most aspects of my life—who I am, what I do and how I interact with myself, other people and Nature. Every time I catch myself expecting to be in control, some muse deep within counsels me that not only is such control overrated; it is an utter illusion.

Can you think of times when the harder you’ve tried to make something happen, the less likely it would?

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

(Once a week or so, I post one of the little devices I use to turn down the noise of my busy life and get in touch with what's real and timeless.)

 TIP #69
Study a Map

Did you know there's a part of Virginia that's further west than Detroit? That Hawaii's not the U.S.'s westernmost state? That, almost exactly opposite each other on the globe, lie St. Paul, Minnesota and the French island of St. Paul? That France is shaped like a star? These are just a few of the fascinating little geography quirks you can discover—not to mention reminding yourself where Burkina Faso is.

"Without geography you're nowhere."