Sunday, May 29, 2011


It makes me sad to see how many people seem to approach eating as just one more necessary chore. Do you simply consume your food, or do you experience it?

When I was a kid, no one ever gave me the choice of whether or not to eat my vegetables. Mom knew what was good for us, and, except for the occasional bootlegged candy bar or soda, we ate and drank what she served. Balanced meals and a sense of food adventure were part of our family culture.

Today, though, I have to marvel at the little co-dependencies I see played out in so many American families. Parents start their enabling by asking their kids what they want to eat. Are you kidding me? Their 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 really good for them, and then fulfill their own prophecy. This little scam is then reinforced by the kids’ friends and their parents, and restaurants, which assume the only thing a kid’s ever going to want is a grilled cheese or a hot dog. And we wring our hands about the epidemic of childhood obesity!

Parents just assume their kids won’t eat anything that’s really good for them, and then fulfill their own prophecy.

Just today I saw a TV commercial in which a young mother's standing in her kitchen, pondering a sort of holographic version of the nutritional food groups pyramid. She blithely dismisses every item on the chart that's green, saying something like, "No way my kids are gonna eat these things!" The solution she and the sponsor propose: one of those engineered nutritional drinks originally prescribed for kids temporarily unable to eat solid food. So, if you can't beat 'em, fool 'em!

How sad that kids—with lots of help from all the wrong places—are losing touch with real food! For this wonder seeker, the saddest part of this is seeing them robbed of their natural sense of adventure.

Decide for yourself what your kids should eat ... then leave them with just one choice: eat this or starve.

What can we do to reclaim wonder-full eating for our kids and grandkids? Probably the single best approach: turn off the TV. Decide for yourself what your kids should eat—maybe offering a couple of healthy options—and then leave them with just one choice: eat this or starve.

Short of that draconian measure, my daughter has a smart policy with her headstrong four-year-old: the "no thank you" bite. When the little girl balks at eating something, she must eat at least one bite before she's excused from the table. Then there's always the good old dessert come-on. (I knew there was a logical raison d'etre for dessert!)

"As a child my family's menu consisted of two choices: 
take it or leave it." ~ BUDDY HACKETT

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Memorial Day's about remembering and celebrating!
As we head into the first of America's great patriotic, all-consuming,
over-consuming summer holidays, I thought a few words about  the wonders of food might be fitting.

There's more to appreciating this miraculous world than the arm's-length sort of discovery we so often associate with wonder. Some wonders we eat. The son of a restaurateur, I learned early and well to appreciate good food and to enjoy exploring new tastes.

Before I could even feed myself, my dad had a wonderful little trick for encouraging me to eat. He’d pretend his hand was a mechanical lift and the spoon its bucket. Straight up from the plate it would go. Chug-a-chug-a-chug. At mouth level, it would creak to a stop, shift gears and grind its way toward my mouth. I couldn’t wait to open the hatch and begin processing that load of whatever it was!

By the time I was three, Mom and Dad had convinced me that broccoli was really little leprechaun green trees, and Brussels sprouts, miniature cabbages. For some reason, appealing to my imagination like this was enough to get me to eat them—and I still do. In fact, both broccoli and Brussels sprouts are among my favorite green veggies.

You don’t have to be coerced to enjoy eating. Aside from the obvious (liking the way things taste), there are lots of ways to appreciate food.

Aren't the things we eat beautiful?
First there are the visual delights of food. Most of us appreciate a meal more when it’s presented to us in an attractive way. In fact, a significant part of becoming a good cook involves choosing and arranging food elements that complement each other visually on the plate. On the other hand, I’ve eaten things I couldn’t have stomached if I’d allowed myself to look at them very long: oysters come to mind, as do chapulines (fried grasshoppers).

I love a certain breakfast cafĂ© in our neighborhood because they serve their coffee in clear glass mugs. I can pour in my cream and watch the perfect little “thunderheads” that bloom in the rich brown liquid as the cream billows and then settles, still cool, on the bottom.

Most people think putting butterscotch on their ice cream is about a five-second job. I like to take my time, drizzling it as finely as I can before the stream begins to break. This way, I can draw shapes across the creamy white mounds or hold it perfectly still and watch the delicate amber thread stack up in tiny coils.

How about that first bite through the warm, crackly chocolate surface into the cold creamy center of a Dairy Queen chocolate-dipped cone?
Then there’s the tactile aspect of eating. We’re not supposed to play with our food, but tell that to a one- or two-year-old. As adults, maybe we don’t throw our peas or smear our banana on the wall, but we still appreciate the way our food feels. What can beat the wonderful contrast between the tender inside and crispy surface of well-done hash brown potatoes? Who can say they don’t love the sweet crystalline coolness of a bite of fresh watermelon (not to mention the ageless fun to be had with its seeds). And how about that first bite through the warm, crackly chocolate surface into the cold creamy center of a Dairy Queen chocolate-dipped cone?

There are all kinds of little science experiments you can do with your food and drink. For example, I still love to put my thumb over the end of a soda straw, lift out a column of soda and then lift my thumb to deposit it in my mouth.

I “discovered” surface tension by filling a glass to the very brim with milk and finding that, when I added a little more, it would actually go above the rim before it overflowed. I watched in great wonder the magical, dancing strings of carbon dioxide bubbles that materialize out of nowhere in a glass of beer.

I used to hate oatmeal. Since it was often about the only thing served for breakfast at summer camp, I eventually learned to like it, but not without inventing an element of play. I’d dig out the center of the sticky, steamy mass to form a little pond. Then I’d fill it with milk and sprinkle brown sugar “sand” all around the “shore”. This didn't just make eating oatmeal more fun, it also was a great way to make it cool faster.

Stricter parents might have taught me a lesson about waste by making me eat the vile potion.

Maybe it was inspired by the story of Jesus feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. When I really, really liked something on my plate and knew there’d be no seconds, I decided that, at least theoretically, I could make it last forever. All I had to do is keep taking no more than half of whatever amount remained.

Most of these games were constructive in that they eventually led to my eating something I might otherwise have left on my plate. Others were not so practical, like my chemistry experiments combining a sample of every dish, drink and condiment on the table in a revolting gray-green pool on my plate. Stricter parents might have taught me a lesson about waste by making me eat the vile potion. I like to think that the long-suffering my parents showed was not merely tolerance, but perhaps a bit of wisdom.

"No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention."    CHRISTOPHER MORLEY

Monday, May 23, 2011

 TIP #81
Trace the black lace edge of twilight.

Honor the sun's retiring with your full presence. Run the fingertips of your imagination across the lacy filigree of treetops, their leaf and branch etched jet black into the dwindling hearthglow of western sky.

Friday, May 20, 2011


The bold strokes of their branches already applied, trees welcome the pointillist's dappling, for now but a thin veil of vibrant color.

This barely-unfurling, still-becoming green is tender, innocent, as yet unspoiled by the unseemly dust and grime of urban summer. 

And oh, for just this moment, how it glows against still-gray bark and branch of other, envious trees!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


There's a "fill-in-the-blanks" conspiracy out there, a plot to cover every square inch of every possible surface with a mark claiming it as either the property or the advertising medium of some enterprise or another. If it's not already there, we'll soon see advertising tattooed on people's faces!

And, as if this visual scourge weren't bad enough, the offensive has also taken aim on audible open space.

In this era of $10 million-a-minute Super Bowl spots and ever- more- aggressive, ever- more- creative advertising blitzes, air time is money. Those nice quiet spells sitting in a theater, waiting for the feature to begin…gone. Being able to concentrate on your shopping list while negotiating the aisles at the super market…nope. Escaping the blitz on "commercial-free" public media…forget about it.

  Silences are the driving force behind real dialog.

Furthermore, this saturation of every possible medium with some kind of message seems to have spilled over into how we human animals communicate with each other. To be fair, we already seem to have a natural discomfort with silences in our conversation. But have you noticed that, between this aversion and the aggression of sheer, blatant self-promotion, it's often hard for one without an agenda to get in a word edgewise?

In fact, it's gone beyond just losing the silent intervals in conversation; the new norm seems to be for all the tracks of a conversation to run simultaneously. In Minnesota Public Radio's just completed membership drive, for example, it struck me how this multi-tracking banter has become the norm for these fundraising affairs. The same with those inane morning TV talk shows; everyone's talking over each other. Do they know something we don't? Is that really what they think we want to hear?

I've only recently begun to articulate what it is that bothers me so much about this trend. I love silences. Not necessarily silence in general, though I enjoy that too, but intervals of silence, pauses, a little breathing room here and there in a conversation.

Silences are the driving force behind real dialog. Not only do they indicate that the speaker is thinking—a good thing, don't you think?—they also give the listener a chance to enter the conversation. And even when it's just one-way communication—such as a speech or a lecture—those little breaks allow listeners a chance to begin processing what they're hearing, time, if you will, to respond mentally.

   It was as if he'd intentionally allowed those 
   intervals for the thoughts to complete 
   their flow from him, transfer and take root 
   in my consciousness.

I recently heard, for the first time, the voice of the astute author and spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle. I was struck right away by how soft-spoken he is. But what drew me in even more were the lavish periods of silence he welcomes into his delivery—intervals of sometimes ten to fifteen seconds.

I suppose that, in some kinds of conversation, that sort of void might have made me uncomfortable. But, in this case, I found myself basking in those silences. You might say I found as much of a message in the spaces between his thoughts as in the thoughts themselves. It was as if he'd intentionally allowed those intervals for the thoughts to complete their flow from him, transfer and take root in my consciousness.

I also experience the spiritual richness of silence in church, in my men's group or at any gathering where time is devoted to quiet prayer or reflection. There's something so powerful and moving about a group of people together engaged in that kind of transcendent dialog. In those instances, it's even more clear to me how much we need silence in order for our own souls to both listen and speak to us.

Though we think of Nature—or more particularly, wilderness—as being rich with silence, this is rarely the case. I guess it's just that, unlike the background noise of our workaday worlds, the ambient sounds of nature are something we choose, and therefore welcome. Perhaps the whisper of pines, the gurgling of water, the jabber of birds, seem like silence because something deep inside tells us they belong.

    The next sound to enter that empty space in 
    my soul was the one that woke me the next 
    morning: the electrifying howls of a pack of 
    wolves from across the bay.

I've experienced utter silence just a few times in my life. The most memorable was one night while I was on a solo canoe trip deep in northern Minnesota's vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As I lay in my sleeping bag one still, starry night, I realized I couldn't make out a sound of any kind. Not a breeze, not the smallest wave breaking, not even the ubiquitous, mournful plea of a distant loon. The silence was so profound that I experienced it as a thundering reverberation, perhaps a response my brain devised as its own nervous response to such an unaccustomed lack of stimulation.

I eventually fell back asleep, unaware at the time that the sound vacuum I'd experienced was to serve a higher purpose, to make room in my spirit for an even greater wonder that was to come. In fact, the very next sound to enter that empty space in my soul was the one that woke me the next morning: the electrifying howls of a pack of wolves from across the bay.

 So, what's the balance of noise and silence in your life? How do you experience the silences? Do you find yourself wanting more?

Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music. -- MARCEL MARCEAU

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Our home is just a block from the great Mississippi—“Father of Waters.” I love to take a path that hugs the steep 100-foot bank down into the gorge and to the river. Along the way, the limestone strata lie exposed, sliced by the water over eons as if the river herself were curious to see the secrets they hold.

The golden rock face weeps with a number of small springs, some of which paint the stone bright green with moss. One of these springs caught my eye the other day. The delicate curtain of water below this one shimmered like none of the others.


As I leaned closer, I noticed the surface of the limestone was textured in an elegant scalloped pattern, like hundreds of little half-inch tongues lapping at the water trickling down. And each of the tongues itself was etched in a still-finer texture. Some had raised lips around the edge—as if evolving to better catch and hold the water.

     I’d always thought of such formations 
     as something primordial, something you’d 
     see only in the deepest, darkest cave.

At first, I thought it was some kind of fungus, but it was as hard as the rock itself. I realized what I’d found was an array of tiny calcifications, like stalactites or stalagmites, deposited by the acidic, calcium-infused water, molecule by molecule, over months—perhaps years—of constant dripping.

I’d always thought of such formations as something primordial, something you’d see only in the deepest, darkest cave. And yet here was an exquisite example of the earth’s constant, timeless transmutation, likely passed by unnoticed every day by dozens of people, within the reach of my arm.

In what ways will wonder find you today? Are you leaving the 
door open?

Thursday, May 12, 2011


Say goodbye or hello to a cloud.
Surely you've met all the characters living in the clouds—the faces and forms that inhabit this age-old community of imagination. You know they morph and merge all the time, but did you know they also come and go, magically appearing out of—and disappearing into—thin air?

Some scattered-cumulus day pick a smaller, wispy cloud or a patch of clear blue. Then watch and wait. 

Monday, May 9, 2011


I’d watched barn swallows many times before, mostly around my family’s summer home on the St. Croix River. Each spring they’d build their mud nests under the eaves of our back porch. If we even tried going in that door, they’d fearlessly dive-bomb us, trying, I’m sure, to make us think twice about getting that close to their chicks. All those times, I guess I was too busy ducking and dodging to really appreciate these handsome birds.

Years later I was standing on a dock at St. Paul’s Lake Como unloading my canoe after an afternoon of fishing. People were gathering on shore for a concert in the nearby pavilion. Five or six barn swallows traced broad, interwoven circles just off the end of the dock, occasionally dipping nearly to the water. What elegant creatures, I thought, remembering my previous experiences with swallows and appreciating that, this time, they seemed to be minding their own business.

                    Suddenly, the feathered missile 
            came barreling right at my head.

I stopped and just observed the sleek, blue-black and chestnut-colored birds. How perfectly sculpted for speed and the sudden swerves necessary to catch flying insects. It was fun just watching their acrobatics, but I also was curious. Where do they live? Do they have chicks? Are they consuming their prey on the fly or taking it home to feed the family?

To find the answers, I changed my focus a little. Instead of taking in the whole group’s complex, swirling dance, I decided to follow just one bird and see what it would do. Fortunately, with only a few birds in the area, this wasn't hard to do. As my subject plied the air, veering, climbing, swooping to skim the surface of the water, I wondered how many insects it tried for and missed before catching one.

Suddenly, the feathered missile veered out of its orbit and came barreling right at my head. In the split second before I reflexively ducked, I spotted a large fly—or maybe it was a flying ant—hanging out of its beak. Then, just as I went down, the bird swooped and flew directly under my feet—in fact, under the dock. Wow, that’s a stunt, I thought, wheeling around to see it come out the other side. It didn’t.

Ta-dah! All three questions answered: The swallow’s nest was under the dock, it had chicks and, yes, it brought insects home for them.

            What interesting things have you learned 
            about swallows? Tell us about your experiences!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

MY DARK CLOUD – Clearing My Dread

I had a fairly normal childhood. I went to school. I played with my friends. I fought with my brother. My parents, while far from doting, were always there for me. They expected the best from me and I think, for the most part, I met those expectations.
Illustration: Katy Farina

But sometime during my adolescence, that carefree little boy developed a dark side. Nothing sinister, just some negative thoughts, self doubts, perhaps a tinge of fatalism. Part of the problem was simply being a teenager. I was experiencing feelings typical of this difficult stage: worries about fitting in, embarrassment over everything my parents did, or didn’t do, frustration that I was neither a child any more nor quite yet an adult. But somewhere in the mix there was also something a bit more sinister, an element of dread—of what, I wasn't sure.

               It seemed everyone I knew 
               was perfectly sure of what they 
               wanted and how they felt.

Those vague, menacing thoughts lurked in a corner of my disposition well into my adult life. I was troubled by a sense of not knowing myself and, whenever I felt I might have an inkling, not trusting even that. It seemed everyone I knew was perfectly sure of what they wanted and how they felt. And, because I wasn’t, I often ended up letting others make decisions that deeply affected my life, and then wondered, “Why's this happening to me?” Sometimes I felt imprisoned by my situation, shackled by a gloomy defeatism.

I wasn’t really even conscious of most of these feelings at a level I could have described, much less that I felt anyone else could possibly have noticed. Still, I knew that, somehow, it stood between me and the full happiness I imagined was possible.

In 1979 I and three of my friends formed a men’s group. We met every other week at a different member’s home to share our feelings, brainstorm personal problems, support each other and encourage one another’s personal, professional and spiritual growth.

    I realized that, despite my efforts to minimize 
    it, everyone else could see my affliction.

Over the next few years membership grew to six. We were lucky to have members who not only were unusually sensitive, articulate men, but also had professional experience with group dynamics. A few had gone through personal or relationship counseling. As a result, there was no shortage of activities we could call on to help us better understand and support each other. We even took the iconic Myers Briggs Personality Inventory together.

One exercise we tried was simply called “feedback.” Each of us got a handful of three-by-five cards. We were to write down, for each of the other men, an observation we’d made about him. No judgments, no criticisms, just an observation. We could either sign our cards or remain anonymous.
One of the cards handed to me—signed by Peter, a man I admired very much for his courage and insight—said, “Jeff, why do you always have that dark cloud over your head?”

   I’d managed to keep it stuffed into that uneasy 
   little corner of my psyche, rationalizing 
   that that’s just the way life is.

The consequences of that question have proven life-changing for me. The immediate impact was a sense of relief, perhaps like that felt by a patient finally getting clarity after suffering for years with an undiagnosed illness. Finding out that it has a name, that it’s not all in your head, finally lets you address the problem and begin treating it. The difference here, though, was that I hadn’t even known I was “sick.” All this time, I’d managed to keep it stuffed into that uneasy little corner of my psyche, rationalizing that that’s just the way life is.

Even more significant than my relief was the realization that, despite my efforts to minimize it, everyone else could see my affliction.

Our men’s group continues to this day (now 33 years old). Peter left the group many years ago, but I see him now and then. I always thank him for having been a mirror to me, for that telling reflection of a burden I’d not fully realized I was bearing. Knowing it was real has allowed me to all but vanquish that self-victimization, that heaviness of heart. Every so often, the dark cloud tries to revisit me, but I’m eventually able to clear the skies by summoning and shining the inner light I’ve come to trust as my one true spirit.

"The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity."

Monday, May 2, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #48
Experience life with all your senses.
Can one ever savor enough the wonders of this achingly beautiful world? When you're drawn to one of them by a certain sense, see if you can enlist your other senses too. Let them play with each other: smell colors; feel tastes; see smells. 

What else can you experience with all your senses?

                     Might the storied sixth sense be simply
                     the common sense to use the other five?