Enjoy The Return [on Merely A Thought Monday]

It’s back. Pop Goes The Weasel, in an incessant cycle, playing as background accompaniment to the birdsong. The truck circles the neighborhood, the sonic equivalent of water torture on wheels. I’ve spent too many hours pondering how the driver, the seller of ice cream, sitting in the epicenter of the looping Pop refrain, retains their sanity. I couldn’t do it. It’s low on my list of aspirations. I’m certain my assignment in hell will be the ice cream truck driver.

Of course, the musical assault is accompanied by – no, much more, it inspires – the delighted squeals of children, excited-to-a-frenzy when hearing the tune, begging coins from their parents, and running to the truck to get their treat before it disappears around the corner. The happy squeals bring instant forgiveness to my hardened heart for the Weasel drumming of my brain.

It’s the solstice. The ice cream truck, like the position of the sun in the sky, is a sure sign of summer’s return. On a walk by the lakefront a few days ago, the truck bellowed passed us, looking a bit worn and tired. It stopped. The neighborhood kids scrambled, parents’ pockets were emptied, purses turned upside down, skinny legs and clenched fists raced toward the paint-peeling truck.

Forgive my brain but I was suddenly overwhelmed and duly impressed at the chain of innovation that, although it now appears old and ordinary, went into making this dilapidated truck and the joy it invokes possible. Refrigeration. Pasteurization. The waffle cone. Ice cream on a stick. Recorded sound. Speakers. Not to mention the internal combustion engine.

As the kids swarmed the Weasel, I looked around at all the older faces, those folks with newly emptied pockets, watching their kids and grandkids enjoy the ritual that they once enjoyed when they were the young enthusiastic pick pockets. Every face was smiling. Even mine. Add that to the chain of innovation. It might be the most important of all the innovations in the chain. Bringer of joy. Inciter of happy memory. It certainly should be the point, the aim of all invention. Better life. No one needs to read a business book when an ice cream truck is circling the neighborhood. It’s all right there.

Bird song. Children’s squeals of delight. Pop Goes The Weasel. Hot days. Melting ice cream. Summer.

read Kerri’s blog post about GOOD HUMOR

Don’t Tell 20 [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I do not take for granted that I live a few short blocks from Lake Michigan. It is a powerful presence with wildly changeable moods. Sometimes I lay awake at night and listen to the boom: the sound of the waves pounding the shore. Sometimes I stand on the rock wall marveling that it is glassy, barely moving. Some days, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were staring into the Atlantic Ocean. Lake Michigan is a shape-shifter. A trickster.

We used to walk the shore almost everyday. We’d circle the marina and, sometimes, we’d go further. To the band shell. Once we walked to the college. When the pandemic came, we moved our walks to the woods. Actually, we regularly walked the paths of Des Plains or Bristol Wood but since we encountered less people on the wooded paths, we stopped walking the lake altogether. Everything, even our walk-location-choices, were pressed through the weird calculus necessitated by COVID. They still are.

20 likes to tease Kerri. He knows that the assertion that “It’s cooler by the lake,” will be met by her New York style push back. She’s a detail girl so blanket assertions are always met by contrary statements, “It’s not ALWAYS cooler by the lake!” she counters, her Long Island indignation rising. 20 looks to me and asks, ” How do you live with this?” My standard answer is: “It’s why I drink.” She pinches his arm as if he was responsible for my answer, he feigns ferocious pain. We laugh. They are siblings by choice.

Like much of the country our temperatures have been too-hot-too-soon. After dinner, we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. “Look at the fog!” Kerri exclaimed. It was rolling in, houses a few blocks away were disappearing like Avalon into the mist. We walked toward it, into it, and were immediately cooler. While Kerri took photos I turned to the west, the lake lapping at my back, and watched the sunset color the fog.

The foghorn began to call. The lake literally disappeared from sight. Orange and red fingers reached across the sky. “It’s magic,” I said.

“It’s also cooler,” Kerri smiled, “But don’t tell 20.”

read Kerri’s blog post about COOLER BY THE LAKE

Love The Pile [on Merely A Thought Monday]

For years I lived with very few possessions. When I moved from California to Seattle, the moving truck was filled with paintings, my easel, and a rocking chair. 15 years later, when I met Kerri and moved to Wisconsin, the moving truck was filled with paintings, my easel, and a rocking chair.

When I visited Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, I felt an immediate kinship with her space. It was open and spare. I imagine the spatial simplicity served as visual-palette-cleanser. Light. So much light. So much air.

There is a curious paradox afoot during these long pandemic months. Things have piled up. We’ve pulled bins from the basement to sort and perhaps clear out, sell, and donate, but the more we attempt to sort and clear, the more stuff appears. The great winter basement flood of 2021 is partially to blame. Things were shuffled rapidly and piled high. Moving my parents from their home of 54 years meant we brought a truck load of stuff back with us. If nature abhors a vacuum then our house of late seems to abhor open space. One box out, three boxes in.

There’s only one thing to do when the boxes are behaving like rabbits. Look the other way. Pretend the piles are intentional.

For giggles and delay-tactic-reinforcement, google the health benefits of procrastination. In a phrase, less stress. As I was reveling in the positive science of dilly-dallying I wondered why intentional stress reduction should carry such a heavy label: avoidance or procrastination. It is impossible to throw away the box before reading the letters from the past or reviewing again the long-ago-art work of our children. Reading the book. Cleaning out might also be called “life-review.” The piles are full of voices from the past that often need one more say.

I am guilty of tossing boxes too soon, my need for space and air overriding my curiosity in what I might find there.

I am also guilty, more recently, of losing entire weeks in the art books I found buried in a pile. I have spent hours looking through DeMarcus’ sketches or reading the notes I wrote 20 years ago. One of the gifts I have received in my new life living in a house: I save the boxes just because I might open them someday and look inside.

“No rush,” Kerri is fond of saying. “It’ll happen when it happens,” the Balinese taught me to say. Remove the judgment and attend to your moment.

Space. Memories. It’s a dance. No stress necessary. Sometimes, I’ve learned, it takes great space to be able to open the box. It’s better to wait. A good memory, like a good soup, needs ample time to taste and simmer.

read Kerri’s blog post about ATTICS

Practice It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“…our brains are prime to notice and remember negativity – things we don’t like or abhor doing – while barely registering the positive. Because of this negativity bias, we have to make a special effort to get our brains to notice, register, and savor the good.” ~ Kristine Klussman, Connection

It is not some special gift nor is it reserved for the select few. Seeing the positive is a practice. It takes practice. It requires cultivation.

I am fortunate. I am surrounded by people who point their cameras at beautiful sights, special moments, a lovely meal…the point is not capturing the photograph. The point is to practice seeing the positive, the gorgeous, the moments of gratitude and appreciation. A camera is a great support in practicing seeing the positive. “This blossom is elegant!” Kerri whispered. Master Miller regularly sends me photos of finger painting discoveries or sunsets over the river. Judy paints the most exquisite flowers; she is a master of seeing the sunshine.

I am fortunate. I am surrounded by people who, in the middle of difficult circumstances, point their minds and hearts at the positive. Mike’s Changing Faces Theater Company is a master-class of making lemonade from a pile of lemons.

Read any poem by Mary Oliver. Each verse a suggestion to see the magic in this mystical world, to place focus on what is too easily missed. The grasses in the breeze. The kind gesture. The geese in formation. “I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by this adventure – your life – what would do for you?” Evidence

It is very easy to focus on the negative, too easy, to latch onto the one critical comment in the midst of an avalanche of praise. To dwell on the single moment of wound in a lifetime of helping hands. It’s too easy to sit in the dark alone and complain about being lonely. It’s too easy to miss the precious moments of this life [they are everywhere] mired in a dedicated misery. It’s a hard step to rise out of the misery-chair and decide to place your focus on what is bright, what is right in the world, to offer a helping hand, to accept one. To practice savoring. It is hard to step from a darkened mind into a gathering of strangers, a new world, by bringing unguarded kindness with intent to see the best in others.

It’s hard, no doubt, at first, to refocus the eye. But it is much harder not to make the effort. It is so much harder to live a life bound by a practice of seeing only the negative.

There’s a simple truth, a secret, to seeing the positive, found in The Beatles lyric, The End, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Bring it and you will receive it. Practice the positive and you will evoke the positive. No one walks this path alone unless they choose to. The positive, just like the negative, is created in your mind, by where you decide to place your focus, by what you decide to bring to your life.

read Kerri’s blog post about UNPRESCRIBED SINGING

Consider The Intention [on Merely A Thought Monday]

My least favorite character in Romeo and Juliet is Capulet, Juliet’s father. A few years back I thought it would be a good exercise to tell the story from his point of view. In his world of privilege and order, he has an out of control daughter, a teenager no less, ignoring the rules of the house and society, having sex with the son of a sworn enemy. He imagines a better future for her (and himself) and has worked hard to protect her and match her with royalty. Like every parent I know, he just wants his daughter to behave and thrive.

Every story has an agenda. That’s true of the stories we tell of ourselves at parties, it’s true of the stories we shout at each other when we are having fights, it’s true of the stories we tell when we are falling in love, it’s true of the stories we tell when breaking up. Every story has at least two sides and each side has an intention.

Stories are never neutral or passive. It’s precisely why Blind Justice is so important to the health and well being of a society: between two opposing/competing stories there is a point of equilibrium that we call “fact” or “truth.” Blind Justice carries a scale to symbolize that place of story-equilibrium, ideally free of status, privilege, sway…weighing the stories to arrive at fairness and equity.

Health is the capacity to consider the other side of the story.

It is the truly despicable character that steps with intention into the gap between competing narratives solely to create discord. To lie for gain. Iago is just such a character. He creates an illusion with no greater intention than to hurt, to destroy. Desdemona dies. Othello murders because he cannot see through the lie Iago is telling. Othello’s love turns to hate. He cannot or will not hear the other side, the love story, the truth of Desdemona.

Hatred is a territorial flag planted in a one-sided story.

The modern GOP is Iago. Othello is a cautionary tale relevant in our times. What or who will be murdered before the lie is laid bare?

I have always been a lover of myth and parable, stories that reach with intention to deeper truths. It is why I stepped into the theatre in the first place. Art, like Blind Justice, uses story to reach deeper truths, truths that can rarely be captured in words. It’s the paradox of art and truth is always found there.

No story has a single point of view. No truth is singular – that is the hallmark of the truly important challenges that every society faces. It is why successful governments tell their story with truth as their intention. It is why successful relationships sail through stormy seas. The intention is pure. The desire to stand in the shoes of the other-side-of-the-story is genuine and necessary in order for the relationship, the community, the country to thrive.

Capulet is not a bad man. He has good intention. The play ends when he becomes capable of standing in and considering the other side of the story. Hope and equity is the promise rising from the pain.

Iago, on the other hand, is a wholly different story. His play ends in a cage with a nasty celebration of the pain, death and havoc he’s wreaked, gloating about his capacity to snare others in his big lie. All are made fools.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY

Care Enough To Question [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“Have you noticed that people all over the world are divided into groups, calling themselves Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and so on? What divides them? Not the investigations of science, not the knowledge of agriculture, of how to build bridges or fly jet planes. What divides people is tradition, beliefs which condition the mind in a certain way.” ~Krishnamurti, Think On These Things

John helped me carry a treadmill downstairs into the basement. It was a beast, a one-step-at-a-time affair. After the job was done we fell into a conversation about how baffling we find our divided nation. He confided that, of late, he’s completely unplugged from the news. “I’m happier, less anxious,” he said, though somewhat conflicted about his decision.

I told John about my dear friend whose strategy for navigating the division and the noise was to read only The Wall Street Journal. It aligns with his conservative values and provides the business and financial news that he enjoys. For his mental health and well being, he’s eschewed all other sources.

On our drive from Wisconsin to Colorado and back again, Kerri and I were amazed by the rabid roadside proclamations of belief. A bumper sticker trumpeting Extreme Right Wing, a pick up truck, weaving through traffic, flying a Confederate flag. We stopped to get gas and went into the convenience store to use the restroom. We were wearing masks which apparently was an affront to the other patrons; I literally locked myself in a stall to avoid being assaulted.

I thought all night about my conversation with John. What are our strategies for surviving the toxic noise? Note the word, “survive.” John suggested (and I agree) that the division is intentional, a strategy. “They’ve learned to monetize hate,” he said, “Both sides.” Our strategies of survival are indications of the problem. Like my dear friend, we seek a source of information – a single source – based on our belief, what we align and are comfortable with, and not based on any measure or expectation of truth.

This is not a new revelation. We’ve been talking about the problem with info-bubbles for years. John’s question, “Why don’t people care enough to ask questions of what they are being told?” is, I think, exposes the root of the challenge. People have to want the truth, expect the truth, before they care enough seek it.

Questioning is the basis of education. Curiosity is what drives progress. Belief asks adherents to stop questioning. We are, apparently – at least 50% – a nation of believers. Not a question in sight. Witness the circus in Arizona, the implosion of the GOP, the restrictive voting laws sweeping our nation, the undying support of a lie that undermines the pillars of our democracy. Belief without question is a toxic soup.

It’s become a metaphor that is easy to grasp: the Kansas billboard read, “Don’t Let Pigweed Creep Back.” A warning to vigilant farmers, pigweed strangles crops. It is toxic to farm animals. To keep the fields and the farm prosperous, a farmer must wage a consistent and conscious battle to keep the invasive weed from overrunning their fields. Our nation is no different than the farmer’s field. We are overrun with pigweed. It seems our information sorting mechanisms are out of whack. We no longer know – or care – to sort out what is edible and what is toxic.

We eat the weed and ignore the vegetable. John’s question is more and more relevant, “Why don’t people care enough to ask questions about what they are being fed?”

Belief without question. Conditioned minds. Mental farms overrun by pigweed.

read Kerri’s blog post about PIGWEED

Reveal Otherwise [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“The TuringTest, originally called the imitation game by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” ~ Wikipedia

I’m not sure that behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from a human is something to be desired. For instance, as a gay man in 1952, Alan Turing, a brilliant scientist, was convicted of “gross indecency” and was chemically castrated for the high crime of loving another human being.  He committed suicide in 1954.

Too often in human history, the grossly indecent claim moral superiority and enact horrors on other people in the name of decency. I do not desire my technology to emulate that trait. We’ve seen too many examples of this human behavior of late.

I’m not sure that we want our machines to think like we do. I doubt we want our computers to be as gullible and easily led as are we. Truly, I don’t want anything with artificial intelligence to operate out of fear or notions of supremacy or any of the other ugly agendas washing over our nation. I want my technology to open new worlds and point to infinite possibilities and not to close minds or revel in ethnocentric fantasies.

So, it came as some comfort to me when, the other day, the computerized female voice on our voice mail rejected us because we did not reveal ourselves to be human. I thought, with perhaps too much satisfaction, maybe I am making some progress as I journey through this life.

read Kerri’s blog post about BEING HUMAN

Walk With Dorothy [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I am fond of falling into rabbit holes. For instance, I just wrote the phrase, “racking my brain” and then doubted my spelling and wrote, “wracking my brain.” Was I wracking my brain or racking my brain as I tried to figure out who Lily Tomlin reminded me of? We’ve been binge watching episodes of Grace & Frankie.

This is what the oracle in the temple of google revealed to me: To rack one’s brain is to torture it or to stretch it by thinking very hard. To wrack one’s brain would be to wreck it. This might sort of make sense in some figurative uses, but rack is the standard spelling where the phrase means to think very hard.

After sufficiently stretching my brain on the rack, somewhere in the early episodes of season 2, I realized that Lily Tomlin’s character reminded me of my great aunt Dorothy. Not so much in specific action – but in orientation to life and in appearance. I admired her greatly.

Dorothy lived on the side of a mountain in a small house that may or may not have ever been level. It was a down hill stroll when walking from the kitchen to the living area. She cooked on a cast iron wood burning stove. Her tiny yard, also clinging to the side of the mountain, was a miracle of blue bottles glittering in the sun and brilliant red hummingbird feeders. Poncho, a dog older than god herself, sat in the yard and watched the day go by. My great uncle Del rolled cigarettes and kept his world war 2 army jeep in usable shape.

Dorothy and Del were more interested in living life simply rather than gathering possessions or stacking achievements. The promise of a week with them was a promise of adventure. Catching pollywogs in old coffee cans, building rafts so we could Huck Finn our way across high mountain lakes, bumping in the jeep over ancient gold mining trails, discovering cabins and shelters slowly being reclaimed by the land. There were old graveyards and the hillside that the mountain town considered its dump. Dorothy was famous (to me) for finding treasure there. She had the eyes to see possibilities and potential in the community’s discards.

I often wonder if my love of walking was a gift from Dorothy. I adored walking with her. She was, at the same time, a free spirit and completely grounded. She was dedicated to the appreciation of the moment. No frills. No illusions. The sun on her face was cause for celebration. She never traded simple present joy for some imagined future gain.

When I think of her, I smile. When I think of the many people who have influenced me, Quinn and Tom, Doug, MM, Mark, Judy…they all have a bit of Dorothy in their characters. Outliers. See-ers. Lots of laughter and ideas. The ability to find treasure – or make treasure – in the people and the possessions that society routinely throws away. Appreciators of the moment. Sharers of the riches they find there. Walkers-through-life that pay attention. Each and every one evokes a smile when they wander through my thoughts.

Ask me what makes a good life, what it is I hope to emulate, and leave behind, I will not need to rack or wrack my brain. I will point you to the long river of inspiration and smiles whose headwaters come from a tiny scrappy woman who lived in a tippy house on the side of a mountain surrounded by hummingbirds, colored glass, bacon and wood smoke.

read Kerri’s blog post about SMILE

Draw A Chalk Circle [on Merely A Thought Monday]

There are charts for everything. Definitions and distinctions of value meant to clarify but, in the end, make life seem more and more farcical. For instance, we recently were directed to a worker’s compensation website and learned that losing your hand in an accident is worth 400 weeks of [minimal] compensation. The dominant hand is worth more than the non-dominant hand. Fingers have less value-in-weeks than a thumb. Just imagine the guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around a conference table discussing the value of a human hand as expressed in weeks. Sometimes I’m certain that we live inside the mind of Gary Larson.

Is it no wonder that we are confused about the value of a human life? We have actuaries calculating human-life-value and making smart looking tables with support graphs to answer this most fundamental question. I’m certain that those guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around the conference table would come up with a different answer if it was their hand or fingers or toes or life on the chopping block. If it was their child’s eye or foot. Charts, like all data points, are not personal.

We awoke this morning to the news that the latest mass shooting (if 4 or more people are shot it is, according to the FBI, considered “mass”) was in our town. We are number 47 since March 16. March 16 is the date of the mass shooting in Atlanta; 8 people were killed. Here are some nifty and comprehensive charts on gun violence in America.

When I was in elementary school we did safety drills, crawling under our desks, in the event of an atomic bomb drop. Although I was certain that my desk was not going to protect me in the event of an atomic explosion, I was comforted by the knowledge that the enemy was far away, external. Now, our children in elementary school do active shooter drills and they, too, know that their desks offer little protection. But their predicament is dire: the enemy they face is right here. It is everywhere, internal. Sitting under my desk I knew there was an entire military machine between me and the potential dropper of atom bombs. Sitting under their desks, our children know with certainty that there is nothing, not even legislative will, standing between them and the ubiquitous shooter.

I once listened to an author speak about the difficulty of writing a farce about the USA. He said, “Before you can a publish the book, the fictional farce that you’d written will have actually happened.” Our scary farce: the only answer we can muster to daily mass killing in schools, grocery stores, work places, concerts, houses of worship…the only idea that the markets will support in an out-of-control gun culture, is more guns. Sales charts and political donation data drive policy to dedicated inaction. [For some lightheartedness in the midst of this dark-and-dismal post, go here. I laughed aloud when I heard comic Steve Hofstetter riff on gun control.]

What is the value of a human life?

We had a lovely conversation in the grocery store. An accidental path crossing with friends. Sue remarked, as we compared life experiences, that our personal challenges are meant to remind us that we are still here.

What is the value of a human life as determined by those of us who are still here?

Bertold Brecht wrote a play called The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Two women claim to be the mother of a small child. A judge has to settle the case. He has a small circle drawn on the ground. The child is placed in the circle. The judge instructs the women to stand on opposite sides of the circle, each taking one of the child’s hands. The woman that successfully pulls the child from the circle will be declared the mother. One woman quickly yanks the child from the circle. The other will not pull. She refuses. She cannot do harm to her child. She proves herself to be the true mother.

I wonder what we might value if we could put down our charts and data points and amendments-as-seen-in-isolation-from-all-the-other-amendments, step beyond our abstractions, and draw a simple circle in the dirt. What might we discuss if we placed a small child in the circle, and considered the value of that one precious life? My bet is that none of us would yank that child out of the circle of life. We’d do everything imaginable to protect the child from harm. To keep it safe. Sales graphs and actuary tables and every other dehumanizing analytic would drop away. We would, in considering the beating heart of our public dangers, make the safety of the child, of every child, our personal challenge. It would slap us awake and remind us that we are still here. Alive. And, as custodians of the circle of each and every actual life, we are responsible to and for each other.

read Kerri’s blog post about STILL HERE

Turn To See [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Joseph Campbell said, “None of us lives the life that he/she imagined.” We have an idea, perhaps a plan, a good map, and then, well, life happens. As anyone who’s ever done home repair knows, things rarely go according to the plan. A good life, a life well lived, allows for both the well-laid-plan and the home-repair-rule. Things happen. Plans change. Visions grow. Pipes burst. Pieces don’t fit. Good angels arrive.

Dreams are fluid things. Despite expectations, very few life paths are straight lines.

One of the tenets we taught in The Circle Project was to plan for surprise. Expect the unexpected. There is nothing worse than an inflexible plan. There’s nothing better than a happy accident that alters the course of an idea, the direction of a life.

That we have penicillin in our world is the result of a famous happy accident. Intention met mishap met serendipity. A surprise discovery in a Petri dish in 1928 took years, many more Petri dishes, publications and happy discovery by other scientists who held a similar intention, followed by additional happy accidents to at last become a useful antibiotic available to the public in 1942.

Though I rarely include it in my list of gratitude, I would not be alive today were it not for that accidental mold in the dish and the subsequent scientists who included in their plan time to read journals and follow up on the research they found there. I’ve never come across a life plan that included a bout with life-threatening infection but I’ve heard countless tales of relief when the antibiotic – no longer a surprise – arrived. Surprise meets plan. Plan meets surprise. They are dance partners, not adversaries.

A team can practice, practice, practice, but they cannot know or predict the outcome of the game. It must first be played. And, as any athlete will tell you, the game is only worth playing – or watching – because the outcome is unknown.

Plan for the unknown. Welcome the surprise.

The long view is what we desire before life is lived. Pick a point on the horizon and walk that way.

The long view is something we can only truly see after the fact, when we arrive at a point, and turn to see the surprising path we have traveled.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE LONG VIEW