Thursday, October 12, 2023


Thank you, leaf.

Thank you for your one thread in the tapestry of a hundred greens that forms the backdrop of my every summer glance;

For being my breath’s inverse, exhaling exactly what I need, inhaling what I don’t;

For your microcosmic demonstration of how watersheds feed rivers...though in reverse;

For helping cleanse the mess we make of air and soil;

For your voice in the whispered chorus stirred by wind…and for dancing to the music;


For laying one tile in a living roof that shelters a community, from bacteria to bugs, to bears, to beings;

For thriving on the very rays that would hurt me, for shade that cools whole forests and neighborhoods;

For nourishing my hungry eyes with works of color, form, texture and pattern;

For your showy translucence that begged me to make lampshades of you;

For your gracious surrender to winter, your spent crisps falling to blanket yards and delight young hearts;

For your elegant testament to the inevitable cycle of life, fed by, then feeding the soil beneath your feet;

For teaching me that this promise of renewal is more real than many folks’ futile hope for permanence;

For all these gifts—and those of your earthly kin—three-hundred quadrillion* thank yous, leaf!

* Three-hundred quadrillion (300,000,000,000,000,000): the approximate number of leaves on all our planet's trees—based on the journal Science's estimate of three trillion trees, and using half of Quora's estimate of 200,000 leaves per mature tree.

Monday, September 11, 2023

WATER MUSIC – The Complex Song of a Cascade

If you follow me here at OMW or on Facebook, you know I’ve been volunteering to visit a delightful 108-year-old woman twice a week at her nursing home. She loves it when we head outdoors to the gardens and sit in front of the largest of three cascading waterfalls there.

She’s often characterized the sound of that tumbling water as musical, as having a voice. And that’s got me thinking.

How would you describe the sound of this kind of rushing water? Not a waterfall, where it does a free-fall and kind of explodes when it hits bottom; not a flume, where it’s fast, but more soft-spoken; but more of a steep, rocky rapids. That, my aquaphile friend and I have observed, is where this quicksilver element’s at its musical best.

       What we heard is not a homogeneous sound,
       not a solo, but a chorus of many voices.

What is it about that sound that we find so calming, so enchanting? So much so that nearly every “white noise machine” on the market features it as one of its tracks.

At this morning’s visit I did with the cascade’s voice what I so often suggest we all do with Nature’s small wonders: I experienced it as if for the very first time.

What we heard this morning is not a homogeneous sound, not a solo, but a chorus of many voices. I tried to separate those parts and appreciate each for its unique contribution to the harmony.

There aren’t even words—not in English anyway—for some of the sounds. But those our language can approximate with single words include:

Rush, gurgle, swish, splash, titter, slap—they’re all there. And when you think about those verbs you realize each connotes a very distinct sound. (In fact, most of these words are onomatopoeic; they sound like what they describe.)

What do you think? Have I missed some intonations of water that you’ve discerned? Do you have a favorite type and scale of water music? We’d love
to hear from you.  



     They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not
     just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of
     perpetual Becoming.

Friday, September 8, 2023

SCARS OF SUMMER – The Perfect Beauty of Decay

We’re so accustomed, aren’t we, to equating beauty with symmetry, with youth…with perfection. I’m as guilty as anyone, I guess. But isn’t autumn the most persuasive invitation to revisit that bias?

Couldn’t we learn to see the fallen petals, the droops, curls, crimps and ragged seed heads not as flaws, but words in a poem about the patina of character?  

I want to see those blemishes as emblems of the joy each bloom has lent the eye, the food and nectar they’ve served up, the progeny borne, the artists inspired.

And, after all, as a lesson offered us older, equally-imperfect human beings on the meaning, the true value, of a life well lived?

"Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." ~ THEODORE ROETHKE

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

MY WORD! – False Cognates and Other Slips of the Second-Language Tongue

Some 20 years ago, back when I was still trying to boost my Spanish from beginner’s level to intermediate, I got a priceless lesson on what are called false cognates—words that sound like they’d mean the same thing in different languages…but, sometimes tragically, don’t.

I was attending a big wedding reception in La Trinidad, a tiny village just outside of Puebla, Mexico. Sitting at the dining room table in the home of the bride’s parents, along with other members of the family, I needed a break and asked where to find the baño. Following the directions upstairs, I found myself in a small foyer surrounded by several rooms, each separated from the hall by a thick curtain.

For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. Backing gingerly away, I blurted some form of “Oops!” and waited nervously across the hall.

When she emerged, I clasped both hands to my heart and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious English-to-Spanish false cognates, and exclaimed “I’m so very pregnant!”

You can bet I learned the real word for “embarrassed,” (It’s avergonzado) and it has stayed learned. There are quite a few other potential slip-ups in Spanish; let’s hope I’ve learned them the easy way.


I recently asked my dear friend and one-time Spanish teacher, Silverio, who moved from Mexico City to Minneapolis about 25 years ago speaking very little English, what some of his most memorable gaffes have been. He recalled many, but these two stand out:

Having dinner with some co-workers, Silverio noticed that the guy across from him had a bit of French fry stuck just above his right eyebrow. Since the Spanish word for that part of one’s face—frente—wasn’t going to work with these all-American boys, he wracked his brain for the right term in English.

Let’s see…fore-…something or other. Oh yeah, got it. Pointing at the spot on his own face, Silverio shouted across the table, “Hey Larry, you’ve got something on your foreskin.”

Silverio, like me with my “pregnancy,” learned that vocabulary word the hard way. (And he’s still avergonzado to this day.)

One day at work he was on the phone with an important prospective customer. When the woman asked him how many people would be assigned to her account, Silverio knew he’d have to discuss the matter with his boss. But his nascent grasp of English word order turned his intended promise into a threat:
“I’ll get you back.”

I can’t address false cognates without thinking of their cousins, malapropisms.* Malapropisms are words—in your own, first language—that don’t quite sound the same as the word you’re grasping for, but are close enough to be funny—and might even slip by unnoticed. Unlike false cognates, there’s no translation involved; you just blurt out the wrong word. Like this classic, from Mrs Malaprop herself: “He is the very pineapple of politeness!” Or this one from Aunt Sally in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “I was most putrified with astonishment.”

What are some of your—or others’—funniest or most mortifying slips of the tongue? We’d love to hear from you!

* The term “malapropism” comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals, a 1775 five-act comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop did, in fact, use words incorrectly as a funny quirk of her character. Her name became the default term for misusing a word. Her name, in turn, comes from the French mal à propos, or “inappropriate.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

BENCHED – Taking a Walk Sitting Down

Every summer, it seems, opens Sally’s and my hearts to a few new discoveries, new experiences. This waning summer has been no exception. Some of these new finds are things most folks wouldn’t find the slightest bit stirring. Yet for us they’ve become treasured parts of our daily routine.

A block and a half down East River Parkway one of our neighbors has installed a bench in their front yard, at the edge of the public sidewalk. Quite unlike the occasional bench the city built along the walking/biking path across the street—some of them dilapidated and facing neither passersby nor any view but the thick stands of invasive buckthorn right in front of them—our neighbors' seating is placed very thoughtfully.

             It’s under the leafy umbrella
             of a mature horse chestnut tree.

They could have put it on the ample boulevard, between the sidewalk and the street. That would have set sitters a bit closer to the steep, wooded slope down to the Mississippi flowing below. But it would have given priority to views of soulless sedans and SUVs passing by.

They could have placed the bench ten or twelve yards further west, in more or less the center of their stretch of sidewalk. But that would have put it in full sun during some parts of the day.

No, these thoughtful folks put their gift to pedestrians right next to the sidewalk, where one can interact with neighbors—and their social-lubricant dogs—walking past. And it’s way over in one corner of the yard, under the leafy umbrella of a mature horse chestnut tree. (Amazing, isn’t it, how cozy and sheltered a tree can render the space it overspreads.) The bench is also right next to a flower bed.

     If it takes being an old man to value such
     languor, I must be aging faster than I thought!

“Our” bench has become kind of a focal point of our daily walk. Even though its location falls far short of what should be the terminus for a healthy, two- or three-mile walk, what it affords our souls outweighs what a longer walk might do for our hearts.

We love stopping there. (Sylvia’s now learned the word “bench,” and automatically stops and lies down next to it.) We sit, she jumps up in Sally’s lap, and we just chill and observe the usually lazy pace of life as it flows past us. And, since we’re both fairly busy most days, it’s also one of the few occasions where we get to enjoy each other’s full attention.

“Benching it” has become another of what seems like an ever-greater number of our activities that stand out for their sheer simplicity. Hey, if it takes being an old man to value such languor, I must be aging faster than I thought!

Nearly as pleasant as the well-placed bench and Sally’s and my conversation is meeting our “hosts,” Lynn and Rahul, who’ve happened out to visit with us a couple of times. They’re very nice, and are among the few people we ever meet these days who actually seem to care who we are as much as they expect us to care who they are.

We’re trying to think of an appropriate gift we could leave for Rahul and Lynn to say thanks for their putting out “our” bench. What do you think? A small coffee table? Maybe a footrest?

Do you have a special place or activity, one that might seem ridiculously simple, where you can pass a little time just quietly observing, allowing Nature and neighbors—and perhaps a dear friend or partner—to nourish your spirit?

Friday, August 25, 2023

HOWLIN’ HARMONY – Sylvia Sings With Coyotes

So Sally and I are just down the block, sitting on our favorite bench along East River Parkway. Our mini-schnauzer, Sylvia, is sitting in Sally’s lap, her keen senses piqued by every movement, sound and smell within a hundred yards. Walkers, bikers, squirrels, a few cars.

Then the relative quiet is pierced by the wail of sirens, and Sylvia’s ears perk up. The emergency vehicles are headed our way, and sure enough we spot a couple of fire trucks tearing down the street right toward us.

Sylvie’s getting agitated now, and when they’re about a block away, she points her nose toward the sky, purses her lips and starts belting out her demure version of a full-throated, primal wolf howl.  

I cover my ears as the trucks scream past and Sylvie keeps howling for another
ten seconds.

As the sirens fade into the distance, Silvia catches her breath, and a new sound emerges from the din. Right across the parkway, somewhere on the steep, wooded slope down to the Mississippi—and no more than 50 yards away—a pack of coyotes is still performing their unique, siren-provoked medley of howls and high-pitched barking. And it’s not just one or two; it sounds like the whole, extended family.

       It is a profound reminder of the timeless
       connection between all creatures.

Coyotes may be the most populous, yet reclusive, wild animal in the U.S. It’s hard to believe how many there are, even right here in the city.* And when you run into one face to face—as I have occasionally—blocking your way on the foot path, or hear them sounding off en masse as we just did, it touches a nerve.

That’s because few people, especially those of us who live in the city, ever come face to face with a wild, free carnivore. The rare privilege of doing so is essential to our understanding that the natural world does not—or at least should not—revolve entirely around homo sapiens.

Our arresting encounter today is a profound reminder of the timeless connection between all creatures— in fact, the oneness of…everything.

One is seldom moved to contemplate the scope of such awareness. But this communing between our little dog and those coyotes, the stirring consonance of their common ancestry, brings it home for me as few experiences have.

* There are significant populations of coyotes (canis latrans) in every U.S. state except Hawaii. The U.S. total has been estimated at between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023


This morning I visited my 108-year-old friend at her nursing home. (To guard her privacy, I’ll call her Fran). I think it’s safe to say that, during each of my twice-weekly visits over the past year—as we’ve chatted, as I’ve read the newspaper to her or played her favorite music—she’s never once remained awake for more than ten minutes at a time.

Today was very different. She likes going outdoors, but between days too cool or hot and those with air quality alerts, we haven’t had many chances to do so. Today’s nearly perfect, so I wheeled her down five floors and out into the residence’s beautiful inner garden courtyard.

Her favorite place to stop and sit is right in front of the first of the gardens’ three waterfalls. That spot was in full, early-July sun, so I was concerned she might get too warm, but she said it felt good.

Fran’s hearing relies on one temperamental hearing aid, and she has trouble speaking clearly, but today she could hear both the waterfall and me, and we fell into an easy conversation.

We started talking about water, about seeing it as if for the very first time. Its stunning clarity, the way it feels on one’s skin, and, as Fran put it, the music it makes as it trips and tottles its way over rocks.

         "I’m so glad you brought me out here!”
           Her eyes welled up with tears.

She noticed some purple liatris whose spikes of sunlit color managed to penetrate the veil of her failing eyesight. A monarch butterfly kept circling us, fluttering ever-closer. It declined my invitation to alight on Fran’s hand, but just kept flying back and forth right in front of her…until she saw it.

At one point, after a brief silence. Fran turned to me and said haltingly, “I just love this; I’m so glad you brought me out here!” Her eyes welled up with tears as she said it, and I realized what a gift this little outing must have been for one whose day-in, day-out confinement starves her of Nature’s wonders.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the developed world, childhood brings us as close to Nature as we’ll ever get. Then we grow up, tie ourselves to our education, careers and homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with the natural world.

I’ve always felt that the end of a human being’s life should be more like a mirror image of its beginning. Specifically, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re old as when we were young?

This is one of the reasons I originally signed up for visiting Fran and other old folks in nursing homes. I imagined myself in those well-worn shoes and how diminished mobility and the realities of institutional living can lead to one’s estrangement from Nature. I thought I could change that.

This morning Fran more than affirmed that hope.

         The most important implement I can
         bring is the turning of a door handle.

I always bring with me to my visits with Fran my “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. So, whatever diversion she’s in the mood for, I’ll have what we need.

But the most important activity I can bring, as Fran has reminded me, is the turning of a door handle. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is assured of not just an escape from their four walls with bad art, but a sense of essential belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.

I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me. That when I’ve lost my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle…and see, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors with the animals and plants, the moving air and singing water, and let Nature replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

MY BRAIN ON DRUGS (REDUX) – A Little More Fun With "Pharmanyms"

This is an update of one of my most popular posts, originally published in 2015. Whole new list of drug names, both real and made up.

IMAGE: Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

If you’re one of the few folks still watching original, seen-when-aired TV—as opposed to streamed 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 three columns. I challenge you to tell me which are real brands and which are the impostors. (Answers below)

  1. Delozca
  2. Lybalvi
  3. Steruvia
  4. Qulypta
  5. Ektravos
  6. Vabysmo
  7. Cydirna
  8. Farxiga
  9. Zufuima
10. Verzenio
11. Tarjavic
12. Xyfaxan
13. Quibala
14. Leqvio
15. Semplavid
16. Sotyktu
17. Belsuvu
18. Quviviq
19. Cymtavic
20. Ubrelvy

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

ANSWERS: Starting with number 2, every other brand is real. Starting with number 1, every other brand is fake.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

BRAIN STRAINER – To Push or Pardon My Porous Memory

At a recent meeting of my men’s group I got this rude awakening about my memory.

We’d gone around the circle and each done our “check-in,” where we briefly report on our ups and downs during the last two weeks. I thought everyone had taken his turn to do so, except Dick. So I prompted him. “How ‘bout you, Dick?” I asked. He responded with a look of surprise and everyone reminded me that he’d been the first to check in. 

How embarrassing. Not only had I forgotten the few updates Dick had shared; I forgot that he’d even shared them. I babbled some kind of excuse, but then he added that I’d done this about something else barely a week before.

           My dad had a term for folks like this:
           He has a mind like a steel trap.

I like to think of myself as a good listener. I make a real effort to hear what people say. I follow up with a question or two and remember enough of it to perhaps ask about it the next time we get together.

So what’s going on with me and Dick? Or maybe I should say with me and my memory? Do its lapses mean I don't care?

I raised the question at our next men’s group meeting, where I at least got the consolation of hearing that a couple of the other guys share the problem.

That discussion also supported my assertion that my leaky memory is not—as are many of the maladies we share now that we’re all in our seventies—simply a factor of age. I was this way even in my twenties.

(I should note that, of all the people I’ve ever called friends, Dick stands out as the one with the best memory. You can tell him several things you’re doing, how your relatives are and even a couple of happenings you just read about, and the next time you speak with him he asks you about every one of them.)

My dad had a term for folks like this: His mind’s like a steel trap. That’s Dick. So my memory shortcomings seem all the worse by comparison.

                My memory, I now realize, is
                a rather large-holed colander.

I’ve always had trouble with things most people seem to remember, like the plot elements—or even the title—of the movie I just watched last week. Or what my wife’s plans are for the day…oh, and don’t get me going on people’s names.

What does stick with me, it seems, are far more subtle, often sensory, details—like how much Dick's wife loves waterfalls; the way another friend wrings his hands while he talks; or the sense that great pain lurks just beneath one acquaintance's cheery façade.

IMAGE: New York Times


So, is my brain just wired differently? And if that’s the case, should I just accept it? Maybe rationalize that memory’s a zero-sum game and my brain's simply decided to excel at some other task?

I wonder if there isn't a better metaphor for memory than a steel trap. Maybe a strainer. A very few people—like my friend Dick—have filters, which grab and hold the smallest details. Others have sieves. They miss a few details, but latch
onto most.

My memory, I now realize, is a rather large-holed colander. I remember the important stuff, like “How’s your recovery from that heart attack coming?” “When do you get back from Uzbekistan?” Or “How’s prison life treating you.” I forget the stuff like the skinned knee, the day trip to Zumbrota or a friend of a friend’s divorce.

I suppose I could fight it. I could drive myself to listen to those I love as if there’ll be a pop quiz. I could take notes. (Actually, I’ve been trying this with some success.)

But I’ve also listened to the advice of another men’s group friend, Ken, who told me I’m being too hard on myself. We’re all different. Lighten up.

What do you think? Should I keep twisting my memory’s arm? Is remembering details essential for a real friendship? If so, do you have any tips on how to do so?

Or should I just forgive myself and move on? What would you do?

Saturday, June 3, 2023

MIXED BLESSING – The Fortunate Yin and Yang of My Upbringing

This luxuriant, unfurling season between Mothers Day and Fathers Day seems
a perfect time to reflect on the honorees of both.

                                             ~     •.      ~    •.     ~     
The more time that's passed since my parents died, the better I understand them. The more I appreciate the many gifts they’ve bestowed on me. Their respective influences, though often seeming polar opposites, have actually turned out to complement each other. And that, I believe, is a good thing.

My father, like most men of his generation—or, for that matter, any generation—was a problem solver. He relished a challenge, whether that meant fixing a leaking this or a squeaky that, reglazing a window or mastering some mental exercise. He’d apply every milligram of his engineer alter ego to analyzing the problem, planning a solution, and then methodically executing it. (He desperately wanted the process to be a point of connection with me and my brother—an invitation we too often spurned.)

I’m sure Dad was just emulating the role models who’d guided him in his growing up—his father, his friends, perhaps a couple of teachers, a boss or a Scoutmaster. These were competencies reinforced by cultural norms; cleverness, resourceful-
ness, focus, all were essential both to his successful career as a restaurateur and to his role as a homeowner.

              Mom’s response was not to fix it.
              It was to outlast it.

To Dad’s yang, my mother was definitely the yin.

When Mom would face a challenge, her response was not to fix it; it was to outlast it. She never said it in so many words, but she evidently embraced that old saw, This too shall pass. You have a lump or a pain somewhere, you keep an eye on it and chances are it will eventually disappear all by itself.

It’s possible that, having grown up as the only girl among four brothers, that stoicism was a coping mechanism, perhaps one way to distinguish herself. And, just as Dad’s fix-it disposition proved an asset in his career, Mom’s let-it-percolate makeup must have equipped her well for her career as an artist. (She was a commercial fashion illustrator.)

Both Mom and Dad radiated definite, and quite different, vibes. He, while often serious and businesslike at home, also had a much lighter side. Once in a long while, I’d overhear him laughing and joking with friends. I’ll never forget the good-natured bonhomie he showed at work, an air of competence and warmth that surrounded him as he walked around his cafeteria chatting with customers.

Mom’s temperament was more homogeneous; she was a total introvert. Quiet, shy, slow to speak, reluctant to act, but much of her reticence was simply shyness. I’m sure some people thought she was a snob. More chari- table folks described it as a sort of regal aura.

The older we both got, the more I felt there was a philosophical or spiritual angle to my mother’s demure disposition. I started seeing it as kind of Zen-like.

     Sometimes it suited one better to simply relax   
     and let things happen.

I inherited parts of both of these distinct MOs. Like my mother I was the gardener, the artist. I too was quite reserved and a bit of an introvert.

But I also had to be a businessman. So, in some aspects of my life I, like Dad, had to plan, anticipate challenges if possible and be methodical in taking them on. I had to meet deadlines. I also learned that, when it came to courting new clients, I had to at least act like I enjoyed schmoozing.

As for ambition, though, I definitely came down toward Mom’s end of the spectrum, adopting much of her long-suffering patience and her faith that every-
thing eventually turns out okay. I managed to eschew stress and striving, opting for
a sort of subsistence career, never leveraging my one-man free-lance marketing communications practice into anything grander.

I was gradually learning what Mom always seemed to know instinctively: that in Western culture folks expend an awful lot of energy struggling to make things happen, and that sometimes it suited one better to simply relax and let things happen.

My spiritual life—most of it involving experiences in Nature—has been more like my mother’s. I’m ravenously curious, very much in the moment, comfortable just sitting and being. And, like Mom, I long to commune, if not with people, certainly with animals, plants and places.

I know I got some of my love of Nature from Dad too, more specifically his sense of adventure. As a boy he was quite involved in the Boy Scouts, and in his teens and early twenties went on several extended wilderness canoe trips with a friend in the Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico National Park.

In that way, I did follow in Dad’s wake, paddling nearly half of all the canoe routes crisscrossing the Boundary Waters—until my responsibilities as father, husband and breadwinner made the Nature Boy get down to business. I’m so happy that my career path allowed me to continue both exploring and writing about it.

So here I stand, straddling that graceful S-curve boundary that separates the black yin from the white yang in the celebrated symbol. Since there is no gray, perhaps it’s the infinity of that line—its continual return to itself—that’s the aptest metaphor for blending of influences, the fortunate abundance and integrity of my life. My parents—both of them in their wildly different ways—made this possible. I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

THREADS OF INTIMACY – How Our Clothes Reveal... and Conceal Us

Like many postwar, middle-class kids with older siblings, I seldom had any clothes of my own. What I got were my brother’s hand-me-downs. I never questioned the practice; it made perfect sense. But as I reflect on it now, I realize I was robbed.

The problem—a first-world problem to be sure—was that my clothes didn’t serve, as those of most older or only children did, as a way to express myself. I wore what my brother had picked out to express him-self.

I don’t think that’s had any lasting effect on me, but it’s got me thinking about clothes and becoming more aware of my own and others’ relationship with them.

           We live in them. We sleep in them.
           We’re buried in them.

This theme has been tentatively poking its head into my consciousness for years, but because it resides at the blurry nexus of the pedestrian and the sublime I’ve never gotten a good look at it.

The pedestrian part: it’s about clothing, stuff most of us totally take for granted. That we put on every day of our lives; that gets wrinkled and dirty; that shrinks and fades and ends up in the garage sale.

The sublime part: the fact that these garments are our most personal of possessions, the items closest to us for more of our lives than anything else we have or even anyone we love. We’re swaddled in them at birth. We live in them. We sleep in them. We’re buried in them.

Clothes are not just close to us physically; there’s this emotional intimacy we share with them. Often making up about 90 percent of the countenance we present to the world, they’re one of the most telling ways we express ourselves.

Another way our clothes emanate who we are is our infusing them with our own unique scent. It’s why bloodhounds can track down fugitives and missing children; it’s why grieving survivors treasure a garment worn by a departed loved one.

But clothing doesn’t just express who we are; it can disguise who we are. Sometimes we dress outside our comfort zone to please someone else. We might don a costume to play a role or fulfill a fantasy. Some days we just don’t want anyone to recognize us.


What happens when you see someone in an outfit you find really unflattering or just plain ugly? Are you aware of what’s going through your mind? 

I notice such things all the time. After all, I’m a designer; it affects me when colors clash, when patterns get too busy, when things are out of proportion. But I know there are other factors prompting such criticism. Prejudice, stereotyping, class-consciousness…

      Whether they’re wearing Gucci or Goodwill,
      everyone’s simply doing the best they can.

Part of my effort to be a kinder human being is to put aside the judgements and see my fellow human beings in light not of my point of view, but theirs. Of their own life stories, their own dreams, the utter innocence of their efforts to be who they are. And to realize deep down that, whether they’re wearing Goodwill or Gucci, everyone’s just doing the best they can.

It takes an extra measure of what I call seeing generously, but I know I can do better. I can look at folks whose clothing choices might at first elicit a shudder, and coax that response into a nod of understanding and compassion. Here are a few examples from my own experience.


I’m always moved by those local-interest news stories we see now and then about high school girls from low-income families choosing from racks of donated prom dresses. It’s just so sweet to see one young lady’s expression when she holds up a dress she’d never allowed herself to even dream of.

While I might not understand her tastes, here’s a way for her to show off what she considers her best self for a very special night. Maybe it’s a favorite color, a cut that makes the most of her figure, a pattern, perhaps, that reminds her of her abuela. She just wants to look pretty.

Then there’s the aging widower who’s lost or given up on—or perhaps never had—what you could call a wardrobe, but still keeps the one Sunday-best outfit he’s ever owned. Trousers, jacket, tie and maybe even a spiffy hat. And always a pair of well worn but nicely polished shoes.

It doesn’t have to be a marry-‘em or bury-‘em occasion; he dresses up even if he’s just walking down the street to the park. Whether that reflects some life lesson or just basic self-respect, the practice always touches me.

Or the thirty-something dude I keep seeing at the coffee shop, whose ruddy, pock-marked face belies the meticulous, bright-colored suit he’s always sporting. He’s got several: royal blue, marigold, cherry red. All of them double-breasted, with wide lapels, a style that reminds me of the kind of depression-era zoot suits sported by Jim Carrey in The Mask.

I know I could never get away with that look, but for him…well, it seems to animate him. Standin' tall; lookin' good.

  Hundreds of in the kind of poverty
  that renders obscene the luxury of changing one’s
  clothes to suit one’s mood.


I guess the point is this: Every one of these people got up that morning and pulled from their closet the duds, however modest or flamboyant, they thought would look and feel best.

And, while these characters had some sartorial choice, there are hundreds of millions * of our fellow human beings who don’t. Who live in the kind of poverty that renders obscene the luxury of changing one’s clothes to suit one’s mood. And yet they don what they have with dignity.

I want to remember that everyone, whether prince or pauper, whether or not their look suits my taste, ultimately wears the fabric of their own unique, deeply intimate life story.

Some of you say, “It is the north wind who has woven the clothes we wear.” And I say, Ay, it was the north wind, But shame was his loom, and the soften- ing of the sinews was his thread. And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.


Some of you say, “It is the north wind
who has woven the clothes we wear.”
And I say, Ay, it was the north wind,
but shame was his loom, and the soften-
ing of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done he laughed
in the forest.


* According to World Vision 9.2% of the world's population—approximately 719 million people—live on a daily income
     of less than $2.15.