Friday, January 30, 2015


 Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the 360-degree reach of our vision, about half of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

"A find is a terrible thing to waste."

Monday, January 26, 2015

THE SPACES BETWEEN – Learning to See Both Everything and Nothing

In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.

Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what make each note so clear, so sweet.

From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius

                                                            —//—         —//—          —//—

Once again, it’s Australian Open time. For me this winter tennis tournament is a welcome escape from the cabin fever that’s so often hanging, cold, damp and gray, around my shoulders this time of year.

Besides watching the greats—Djokovic, Williams, Nadal, The Screamer (Sharapova)—alternately pick and beat each other’s games apart with astounding skill and endurance, there’s another pleasure for me in the Australian Open.

       Most of the impression comes from what
       we read, as it were, between the lines.

For the past several years, one of the event’s main sponsors has been ANZ, a banking conglomerate serving Australia and New Zealand—thus the initials. Its logo appears somewhere in the background of about half the camera angles.

I’m a former marketing communications guy and brand designer, and I think ANZ’s logo is, at least design-wise, among the finest corporate marks I’ve ever seen.

The main reason I love this graphic so much is that it engages the eye in a most effective interplay between positive and negative space. The positive forms—essentially just two light blue circles, one cut in half; the other with a light-bulb-shaped bite taken out of it—are laid onto a dark blue background. The negative space is just that background area flowing between and into the circular elements.

And it’s so simple; that’s what makes it so elegant. With just those three basic forms the designer’s created both an interesting arrangement of the shapes, and, with the spaces between, a unmistakable human form.

More than that, in the way that little being’s arms and torso flare out around the blue circles, it becomes a dynamic, playful expression. It spreads, and reaches, and grows. It seems the arms are reaching out toward you, welcoming you, perhaps blessing you in some way. It’s friendly, exuberant, simultaneously humble and confident.

Just what you want in a bank, right? And most of the impression comes from what we read, as it were, between the lines.

     In western society…we’re taught to see 
     what’s there, and completely miss what’s not.

I’ve written occasionally about this interplay between positive and negative space. As I’ve tried to capture in that quote from my book, Under the Wild Ginger, it can have a profound effect on how we see the world and life.

It’s knowing the whale’s down there without even seeing it. It’s the void, the potential, in the human experience an entrepreneur or inventor sees and then fills. It’s the powerful meaning in someone’s hesitation when you ask them what they think of something you’re just nuts about.

Seeing and appreciating the spaces between is one of the great little secrets of being truly aware and in the moment. And it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. At least in western society, we’re often raised and educated quite literally. We’re taught to see what’s there, and completely miss what’s not.

            To twist an old axiom a bit, 
            you have to believe it to see it.

Allowing existence to something most people would say isn’t there takes a little practice. What’s perhaps most difficult for many folks is the irony that, the harder you try to do this, the less likely you are to succeed.

My best teacher has been Nature, with a dash of faith, instilled by my parents, thrown in. If you can simply BE in Nature—no agenda, no schedule, no expectation, just pure, simple presence—Nature will eventually show you both what is and what exists right next to that, behind it, even in the space it now occupies, but once didn’t.

Sounds a bit metaphysical, a little new-agey, right? That’s where the faith comes in. To twist an old axiom a bit, you have to believe it to see it. And how does one unaccustomed to it come by that faith? It helps if you want to—something which I’m not sure many milennials do, addicted, I fear, to all the pre-digested information and virtual experiences available to them at arm’s length.

The other key to hearing and believing in Nature’s counsel lies in what I like to call seeing generously. It’s the attitude, the belief, that truly seeing—even what may not seem at first to be there—is more like giving than receiving. Far from the competitive, materialistic fervor our culture seems to believe drives our economy and makes us all happy, it is not an act of acquisition. It’s an act of surrender.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

MY BRAIN ON DRUGS – A Little Fun With Pharmanyms

(In a previous life I was a copywriter, brand creator and sloganeer. So this post derives from that persona as much as that of the wondering wanderer I’ve assumed the past few years.)

IMAGE: Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

If you’re one of the few folks still watching original, seen-when-aired TV—as opposed to Tivoed or some on-demand stuff where you can skip the commercials— then you’ve seen these incessant commercials for drugs. You can’t watch for ten minutes without seeing one.

Advertisers of everything from hair growers to testosterone boosters to toenail fungus fighters try to convince you, despite the long, speed-read list of sometimes dire side effects, to demand their potion from your doctor.

For starters, the insidiously oblique tactic of getting you to ask for something your doc may not know much more about than what the culprits themselves have told her seems like it should be illegal.

And, even if you’re not as cynical as I am, you’ve got to agree there’s something else that's just patently ludicrous about many of these ads: the brand names.

    I challenge you to tell me which are real 
    brands and which are the impostors.

PHOTO: NY Zoological Society
Does anyone else think, as I do, that you could sit a chimp down in front of a two- or three-column list of random syllables, train it to pick one from each column, and come up with a better name for an arthritis drug than Xeljanz?* C’mon!

Now, lest you think I’m just ranting—perhaps resentful that some branding hot shots out there are making a small fortune dreaming up these absurd monikers—here’s a little test.

Below is a list of 20 drug brands. (I’ve left out ones so pervasive, like Cialis or Prednisone, that they’ve muscled their way into the vernacular, and I've spared those which at least try to suggest what they do—like Flonase. )

Ten of the names are real—the result, one would assume, of exhaustive research, brainstorming and focus group testing.

The other ten are pure gibberish; I created them in about five minutes using the chimp method—randomly combining nonsense syllables from two or three columns. I challenge you to tell me which are real brands and which are the impostors.

  1. Abradex
  2. Latuda
  3. Cynerol
  4. Osphena
  5. Curina
  6. Stekara
  7. Midaflex
  8. Myrbetriq
  9. Xufera
10. Treximet
11. Infuragel
12. Kaletra
13. Doloram
14. Ertaczo
15. Arterian
16. Fosrenol
17. Jyntala
18. Dacogen
19. Somnéz
20. Xarelto

Absolutely insane, right? But then what would you expect from folks who think you’re dumb enough to want something called Revatio?** How about Dumrite? Ufelferit?

 * Xeljanz is a JAK inhibitor, claimed to disrupt the nerve pathways that lead to the inflammation associated with RA.
** Revatio, from Pfizer, is the same drug as Viagra, but marketed to treat hypertension (high blood pressure).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

OFF COLOR - Dirty Words About a Gray Minnesota Winter

I’ve been trying to be more appreciative. Too often, I find my view of the here-and-now obscured by inconsequential thoughts and concerns, or just the mindlessness of rote behavior. So, instead of that mental to-do list held up in front of my mind’s eye, instead of that subconscious autopilot that so often steers my motions, I’m changing the script.

I seize on something that catches my eye—or ear…or nose—and, while holding off competing thoughts, very deliberately think about its wondrous qualities. It’s a little like focusing on one’s breathing while settling into a meditation.

 This building has a nice patch of red, which this 
 morning, against a precious robin’s-egg-blue sky, 
 I decided to take as a gift.

This morning it was a building, just an ordinary building, one of the scores of new luxury apartment and condo buildings popping up here around the University of Minnesota East Bank campus over the past few years.

Most of these structures—in fact, most of the buildings in our part of the country—are quite obviously designed for gain over grace, doing little, esthetically, but take up space. But this one has a couple of nice patches of red, which this morning, against a precious robin’s-egg-blue sky, I decided to take as a gift.

PHOTO: Metro Park East Apartments

I treasuring the gift for a few seconds, imagining I’d just experienced color for the first time. For that brief interval, I’d managed to clear away the fog of busy-ness and appreciate that color—that clear, intense cardinal red—as the miracle it is.

What a wonder that color exists at all, its raison d'être solely the fact that most of us creatures with eyes can see it, perhaps draw some meaning from it and, if we’re lucky enough to be human, describe it.

Contrary to popular myth, nearly every species of animal can distinguish some degree of color variation. Even most nocturnal creatures (including dogs and cats—categorized as such for their original waking/sleeping cycles) can make out some colors, though far fewer than we humans and other diurnal animals.

But there do exist a very few animals, including some nocturnal rodents, most sharks and a related fish called a skate, which most marine biologists believe see only in shades of gray. (These animals might just love Minnesota’s more typical ashen winter days!)

There are some human beings who can’t see colors. I guess you could say it’s fortunate that the vast majority of these monochromats are born with the condition. Imagine being robbed of color after you’ve already experienced it.

Anyway, just knowing this—that not everyone enjoys the wonder of color—makes me notice and appreciate it even more. I’ve touched on this often in my writings, sometimes analogizing color to a kind of rich, savory food that nourishes my eyes, my heart and my spirit.

      By 4:30 we just hunker down and live 
      with the pangs of our deprivation.

Here in east central Minnesota, my wife and I feel the hunger building each year by late November. Trees denuded, shriveled to gray stick figures; grass sapped of green, then smothered in white. And it just gets worse. By mid-December any thin wash of color that does remain gets swallowed in darkness by 4:30. We just hunker down and live with the pangs of our deprivation.

(Yes, I’ve been known to preach here about how much color there is to be found in our winter landscapes if one really looks. (The Colors We Bring) But, truth be told, we just get weary of having to try so hard.) 

PHOTO: WSAW News, Wasau WI
We know there are nutritionists who'd prescribe a diet of southern California or Florida for what ails us, but we don’t trust them. Not enough quality control in the kitchens that fix this fare; too often it loses its potency to some tropical depression or continental-scale polar vortex.

No, we’ve found the best, most reliable color diet in Mexico—specifically, in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, on the Pacific coast just north of Acapulco. There, the color is fresh off the tree, still warm from the sunny vineyard. Leaves stay green and flowers bloom all the time.

Folks in Mexico aren’t content with a little dab of red on a building. They paint their houses colors that would be, you know, frowned on in Minnesota. When you think of it, all they're doing is mirroring Nature. The sea, the critters, the plants, the arts and crafts, people's skin…oh, and yes, the food, all feed us, sustain us with their colors.

Every precious day we’re there in Zihuatanejo we watch it, walk through it, bathe in it, just sit there in awe of it. We eat it up...and then keep going back for seconds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

INS AND OUTS – Breathing and Other Cyclical Wonders

(This is the latest in my series of reflections, As If For the First Time, 
describing the most commonplace of experiences through a fresh lens, 
one of innocence and wonder.)

If you meditate, I shouldn’t presume to tell you anything new about breathing. But for those who are open to seeing the familiar through someone else’s eyes—and those who’ve never given breathing a second thought—I offer these observations.

You know how a ball bounces off a wall with that definite pop as it reverses direction? How your teeth collide when you’re chewing?

There are lots of such backs-and-forths in life and in Nature. In some, the change of direction involves an abrupt turning point—a collision of sorts. Two bighorn rams butting heads; your eyes blinking or your heart beating; some cars’ clunky windshield wipers.

There’s another kind of to-and-fro, one with softer yet still distinct reversals. Swinging on a swing; a wave’s ebb and flow upon a sandy beach; that little bead that rebounds straight up just after a falling drop hits the surface of a liquid.

Like nearly every other motion cycle in Nature, these events include three distinct aspects: moving, stopping (even if it’s only for an instant) and then moving in the opposite direction.

     A breath is one of the few things in life that 
     changes direction without ever stopping.

This morning, while meditating, I noticed how different my breathing seems from all those other backs-and-forths, ups-and-downs and to-and-fros. In fact, the transition between an inhalation and an exhalation, or vice versa, is so seamless that it’s absolutely imperceptible. Indeed, it seems a breath is one of the very few things in Nature that changes direction without ever stopping.

Other natural examples of this are exceedingly rare. Perhaps the flow of a stream taking a hairpin turn. An eagle's swoop as it snatches a fish from a lake. The slingshot effect on an asteroid from the gravitational pull of a planet or large moon. Can you think of others?


As elegant as those examples are, I contend that Nature’s cheating. They involve motion that’s not truly back and forth—not in a linear sense at least. They all employ a curving element at each end of the object’s path, so it’s not as much back and forth as it is round and round.

Human beings have found ways of borrowing this approximation of back-and-forth from Nature. The cable on a ski lift, conveyer belts, bicycle chains, anything driven by a cam or crank. All seem to go back and forth, but the motion is really circular—albeit with the circle flattened considerably.

 When I think about it this way, the notion of how 
 many breaths I’ve taken in my lifetime—or how 
 many I might have left—starts to lose its meaning.

How fascinating that the respiration of any creature that breathes—that is, the straight in-and-out path of the air through its nostrils—is so clearly linear, while the deeper sense of breathing is so circular. Perhaps it’s something like that cam or crank...but tell me how the mechanics of one’s lungs even remotely resemble a circular motion.

Whatever the cause, can you name any other motion in Nature that’s so straight-line reciprocal and yet feels so seamlessly round as your breathing?

Okay, this all may seem pretty arcane, pretty immaterial, but it’s the kind of thing an amateur mystic like me can’t help but ponder. I do this not just with the very adult notion of seeking higher consciousness, but also from an incurable, child-like sense of curiosity and wonder.


And seeing my breaths—a function I’ve performed without stop about 580,000,000* times now—in this new way is helping me immeasurably in my meditation. It's so much easier getting centered now that I can visualize my breathing not as something that keeps coming back and forth right at me, into me, but as a force, a miracle, that revolves both in me and around me.

When I think about it this way, that notion of how many breaths I’ve taken in my lifetime—or how many I might have left—starts to lose its meaning. Because it’s all one breath.

* According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, a person at rest takes, on average, about 16 breaths per minute. 
This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. Unless we get a lot 
of exercise, the person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


Find color in a white-gray winter's day.


Summer's colors are a feast; winter's, a tasting.
Savory shades of tenacious-oak-leaf brown. Sharp notes of dogwood-stem burgundy and chartreuse. These and a thousand 
other hues brave the cold, tempt the discerning palate.