Hope Springs a Turtle

It’s called an eggcorn—a substitution of a word in a phrase that changes it in some way, but still seems oddly right. (They’re a lot of fun—NPR has a great short article and accompanying list here.) At it’s core, I suppose an eggcorn is something you don’t expect that makes you look at things a little differently. Hope does not always spring eternal. Sometimes it springs something else. Like this week.

A few days ago, I finished reading this biography on Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t believe it had taken this long for me to pick one up. In addition to his classics, I’d already known about his advertising work and his war cartoons, but when I got to the part where he met his wife Helen at Oxford, I was sort of enthralled—fully and completely hoping a fairy tale for them. She would watch him doodle in class and finally told him he would be wasted as a professor. “That’s a very fine flying cow,” she said. And she became his inspiration and his support and his encouragement and his rock and pretty much organized his/their life. Until forty years later, when, from the one book I’ve read, it sounds like when she got very ill, he eventually distanced himself from her mortality and “adopted” another family—a still-married woman with two daughters of her own. Physically unwell and deeply unhappy, Helen realized she had made her whole life about him and hardly knew who she was herself any more without being his active partner. She committed suicide.

I’d started the above paragraph saying I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read a biography about Dr. Seuss yet because he was one of my heroes. But then I saw the problem. Dr. Seuss books were and are still some of my all-time favorite books—but I never met or knew the real person. And it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t greatly loveable, or amazingly creative, or a completely worthwhile human being.

It just makes him a human being. But I was still feeling really, really low after I read that. You have these ideas about people from the work they create, and it’s not always what you expect.

And then, there was this morning… in which I picked up a magazine I’d almost instantly thrown away (Rolling Stone), with a story I didn’t intend to read (the cover), about a band I have little personal interest in (Rush)—and my hope sprung a turtle.

Evidently, Rush has been together for 40 years at this point with little internal group drama (“We’re never mean to each other,” says [Geddy] Lee, “so if we disagree, we pout.”), stable relationships with each other, and also long-term faithful marriages—Geddy married his wife, Nancy Young, in 1976.

I read about their relentless rehearsing (still practicing by themselves before they start working together, and then playing on their own even after three-hour rehearsals, that last part “… a pure exercise of joy,” according to Alex Lifeson), their insistence on creativity and craft, and how they drive each other and respect each other, even after all this time together.

“If any of us were the slightest bit less stable,” says [Neil] Peart, “the slightest bit less disciplined or less humorous or more mean, or in any way different, it wouldn’t have worked. So there’s a miracle there.”

And this from a famous rock band from which, in any stereotypical situation, you’d expect chaos, rivalry, animosity, possibly less creativity, and a fair bit, after 40 years, of resting on their laurels. (Though evidently there is still a fair amount of responsibly-ventilated drugs and a lot of very, very impressive sports cars.)

But I was impressed and not just a little inspired. You just never know.

You’ve got to be careful with words. After reading just one book and one article, I still know pretty much next to nothing about the real Dr. Seuss or the real Rush. But it reminds me that things aren’t always what I expect them to be, which is what I loved—and still love—about what I learned from Dr. Seuss.

Categories: In the Lexicon, On the Page | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Apples & Oranges

First, here is an apple.
It is smooth and red.
It is heart-shaped.
You can bite right into it.
Its skin crunches, yielding quickly to your teeth.
It is firm. It is crisp.
Good job, apple.

Now, here is an orange.
It is not smooth. It is not red.
It is not heart-shaped.
You cannot bite right into it.
It makes you work to get what you want.
It is not firm. It is not crisp.
Bad job, orange.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Poor orange. I’ve been thinking about him for days and I still feel sorry for him, hoping he will never, ever read this. And I’ve had this constant urge to go out and buy some oranges and just reassure them, tell them, “No, really, you’re all beautiful.” (And then eat them, savoring them joyfully, as is the natural order of things.)

Comparison is useful—but it’s not enough. It’s discernment that brings some wisdom to the picture, showing what’s most true, most important. It’s good to be able to tell things apart. But you need to know what a thing truly is, not just how it’s different from what’s around it. (Like when you’re standing in the bathroom and you want to brush your teeth, it’s important to know which long-handled white plastic stick with the bristles on the end you actually need, because there’s a big difference between a toothbrush and a toilet scrubber.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and it was just a good reminder, if only to myself, to look at everything for what it is—not what it isn’t.

Categories: From the Imagination, In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

The Department of Self-Doubt

For today, a small “What if?” story…

So. Imagine you’re the head of a company called YOU. It’s a pretty complex place, lots of stuff going on, and your job, you’ve always thought, is to make sure everything at YOU runs smoothly. But you’ve always had a hard time making decisions, not sure what’s right, what’s best for YOU, and so you’ve been cautious. But lately there’s been a lot of excitement, a lot of hope, but there’s also been a growing dread, more overwhelming than you’ve ever experienced. And you’re not sure YOU is up to the task of whatever is coming.

You feel out of touch with YOU. Disconnected. You wonder what’s going on down on the ground levels of YOU. You think maybe you should leave the office for a while. Head downstairs. Take a tour. See how things are really going.

You pass all the usual departments—Organization, Coordination, Digestion, Circulation. Breathing. All of that stuff is humming with no problems. Creativity is going strong—you can hear them laughing as you pass by. A little nutty, that crew, but they’re having a lot of fun and you could sense that joy even up in your office. But still, something is jarring…

As you near the end of the ground floor, there’s this horrendous noise growing louder. Getting closer, you see it’s the door marked Self-Doubt. You’d practically forgotten it was there—they’ve been there forever, a small department, behind the scenes. But what the hell are they doing in there now?

You walk inside and floor to ceiling there’s this great contraption cobbled together from miscellaneous ancient parts—office furniture, old computers, adding machines, reel-to-reel tape, light switches, knobs—an old vacuum cleaner? And these two guys are pulling levers and adjusting some array of sensors, completely intense, lost in their work. You remember hiring them mainly to be fact-checkers, desk men, pretty much just to make sure YOU didn’t ever do anything really stupid. What was all this?

“Guys!” you wave and yell over at them. They finally see you, cut the noise down, and come over, grinning. Wiping grease off their hands, they shake yours. “Hi Boss!”

You look around. “Uh, guys? What is all this? I don’t remember all this ever being here.”

They look slightly sheepish and one of them grins and says, “Well, Boss? We were just doing our jobs, you know, but the other departments were running a pretty tight ship—no really weird requests were coming through that anyone thought we needed to look at. We got bored. Really bored. And those guys over in Creativity—they get to make stuff! And they’re having so much fun, so we thought, ‘Hey! We can make stuff too!’ Our job is to keep YOU safe—so we started thinking of all these scenarios and options for things that could be scary or dangerous or pretty much just what could go wrong in any situation in general and then we built a machine that could generate the possibility of all those things based on predictive mathematical formulas! It’s been a huge challenge, but we’ve worked really hard on it, and we think by next year we’ll have figured out everything that could ever possibly go wrong so that YOU will never be disappointed or embarrassed or afraid or hurt ever again. So don’t worry about us, boss. We’ve got YOU covered.”

At this point, you’re rubbing the back of your neck with your hands, massaging the muscles that have gotten so strained over the last few months while you were sitting at your desk worrying, and you finally realize what’s been happening.

But you look back at them. They’re so eager, so earnest. They just wanted to do their jobs. You see their care, their concern, their love, and this crazy contraption they’d built just trying to keep YOU safe. They’d just wanted to help. To make something useful. And you hadn’t been paying attention.

“Uh, guys?” you say, smiling at them. “Would you consider a transfer? You’re both just completely wasted here. Just go on over to Creativity. No paperwork necessary.”

“But what about…?” one trailed off, pointing at the machine.

“Just leave it on low. And maybe just pop over from time to time, just to make sure no one’s doing anything really stupid?”

“Will do, Boss.” they saluted and headed down the hallway. Grinning.

Categories: On the Page | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Asking, Telling, and Making

I’m falling in love with Amanda Palmer a little backwards.

Over the holidays, some people overeat a little. I over-read a little (assuming there is such a thing). But I had a chance to read a lot of books. Good books. And the best of them, hands-down, and a complete surprise to me, was Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and it blew me away.

The reason I say I’m falling in love a little backwards is because Amanda Palmer isn’t primarily a book writer—she’s a song writer. And to be honest, I really hadn’t been a huge fan of her music. But reading her book made her a real person to me, and now I see a bravery and a beauty in her music that I really hadn’t seen before. And even now, some of her music is still pretty hit-and-miss with me, but that’s really okay.

I’d thought the book was going to be about her record-breaking Kickstarter campaign—which it was, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. What it was really about was relationships—the art of connecting with people as an artist, about sharing the excitement of stories and ideas and the interplay between any artist and their audience. It was about intimacy. About being seen. About inviting people into an experience where everyone is a willing participant.

Ever since I finished her book, the nature of asking has been on my mind. When we discover that we want something that involves another person, it’s kind of amazing, really, how vulnerable we make ourselves when we really, truly ask for it. Because there are other ways to get it.

Say you meet someone you like. You want to spend more time with them. Here’s a sampling of your options:

Asking: (Looks like: “Will you hang out with me?”) You’re acknowledging your desire with no guarantee you’ll receive what you want. You’re also making it clear that the decision isn’t yours. The power is theirs—they have the freedom to choose their own response. This makes you vulnerable.

Telling: (Looks like: “You should hang out with me.”) You’re implying you’re the one with the power, influencing their choice. But in any situation, people always have a choice. It can be a hard choice, but there’s always a choice. But in telling, you’re making them think they’re the vulnerable one. This is manipulation.

Making: (Looks like: “You will hang out with me.”) It’s not always so bluntly stated (it would be easier to deal with if it was), but in effect, you’re taking away their option to choose and taking what you want by force. You’re telling them they’re powerless, not just vulnerable. This is control.

Now granted, making is not always wrong. If parents only used the option of asking with their kids, I wonder how many kids would ever eat peas? Or try new things? In my own life, years of forced-march piano lessons (which I loathed passionately and complained about constantly) turned out to be the thing that allowed me to skip a year of music theory in college and let me hang out with more of my musician friends, one of whom had a roommate who turned out to be my husband who is hands-down my favorite person ever. So “making” in some relationships? Not always inappropriate. However, “making” doesn’t always have a silver lining like that, so you have to be really careful with it.

But in truly loving relationships, telling and making are never the best options. Because in the best relationships, asking is the only thing that ever winds up with people willingly spending time with each other, quietly watching a movie together, hiking ridiculously hard mountain trails together, laughing hysterically, hugging fiercely, and losing track of vast quantities of time together because they both want to be exactly there, and nowhere else, right then. Because they both chose. Because one of them asked. And the other said yes.

Now granted, sometimes we didn’t know exactly what we were saying yes to, especially in the case of crazy hard mountain hikes. But we did it anyway. And we’re pretty sure it was worth it.

Categories: On the Page | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peace on Earth: Be Careful What You Wish For

So somewhere back in season seven of The X-Files, there’s an episode called Je Souhaite, which means “I Wish.” A sharp-witted, bored-with-the-world genie is found in a rug by people who make some predictably stupid wishes, made even worse by the genie’s wickedly-literal way of granting them. Idiots, you think. I’d make better wishes. I’d be more careful. So when Mulder inevitably finds himself with three wishes, he tries to do better and starts with “peace on earth”—and discovers that aside from him, the genie’s vanished the rest of the human race. Well, technically…

I’m not actually sure I even believe in the possibility of peace on earth. As people, we don’t seem to ever have been that good at it. And really, even if you did clear all the people out, the food chain of animals and nature would still exist, and they devour each other all the time, so what’s your definition of peace? Where nothing ever dies? Play that one out in your head.

I don’t know. For me, the only peace I can even begin to wrap my head around starts small, in the only place I have any control over. In me. Being comfortable with whoever it is I am right now, but choosing to stay open, trying to do better. And being honest that I can barely keep that going, let alone influence what other people choose. To not get dragged around by insisting that things should be different than how we want them, which is the instant where we’re actually deciding to be unhappy, to not be at peace. I think maybe peace starts when you’re just able to sit in a room, quiet, all by yourself, and be truly content. To not wish for something else. I think that’s where peace starts, at least for me.

Sure, I think peace on earth is a good idea—but even if I controlled the script and all the characters in it, I don’t exactly know what that would look like. So it isn’t a New Year’s Resolution. It isn’t even a wish. And given human nature, it’s pretty much completely impossible. But it’s still a good idea.

Categories: On the Screen | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

You Are Who You Meet

I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.

With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.

I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.

if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)

Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?

Categories: On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Happy New Year: And Now for Some Thoughts on Death

In what’s usually a time swept up in thinking about beginnings, I’ve been thinking about that other thing. You know, the part where you stop breathing before you start doing whatever comes after that. (We’re not really going to get into that “after” part.) But yes, that thing: death.

Over the holidays, I read a couple of really interesting life stories that involved their endings. One was the biography of Jim Henson (creator of all things Muppet and then some), and the other was Going the Distance, written by George Sheehan (doctor, writer, marathon runner, fitness believer) as he was dying of cancer. Both accounts, though about men with very different career venues, served large dishes of food for thought about the quality of life on a day-to-day basis. I won’t go into too much detail about their stories here, but they’re both good books about great-yet-greatly-flawed men that are well worth reading.

We know, at least intellectually, that we all have a limited shelf life. Sheehan, knowing very acutely that he was actively dying, offered a lot of interesting thoughts on what, if anything, he would/should have done differently (or not), and on what he felt was really important. He noted that:

“Obituaries are filled with achievements that mark those we think of as successful. But obituaries tend to conceal biographies, and those biographies tell us the deficiencies and defeats of even the great and near great… Each one of us is an experiment-of-one. Each is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event.”

Sheehan talked a lot about getting up every day and starting fresh, living days with the goal of “eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours of being happy and productive.” And both his story and Henson’s include a deep belief that a person does the most good when they pursue what they love and are becoming fully themselves. After all, it was Henson, through Kermit the Frog, who said that he just, “wanted to make millions of people happy,” and both men went to great lengths to share joy and a fullness of life with the people around them by doing what they each loved—pursuing what brought them the most true joy in their own lives and letting it ripple out from there.

I like that a lot. There’s a lot of room for growth and joy in living like that, even while knowing we’ve got flaws and will make mistakes. Every day fresh. An experiment to explore with curiosity and joy.

Oh look, this turned out to be about beginnings after all.

Categories: On the Page | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Appropriate Response: Thoughts on a Boring World

The great master Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What was the Buddha teaching his entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.” – from Reb Anderson’s Being Upright

When I came across this story, I wondered, “What would a world actually look like where everyone actually responded appropriately?” And before I even managed to go look up “appropriate” anywhere, my imagination quickly pulled up this drab, gray picture of a world where everyone was extremely well-behaved and emotionless—boring, unadventurous, unimaginative, and devoid of excitement or joy. It was a world filled with well-dressed people at afternoon tea served with all the “appropriate” silverware. Forever. (No offense to tea-drinkers. I really like tea.)

But oh, what a dull world that would be. Who would read stories about Appropriate Response World? And would anything interesting ever happen there? But I did go look the word up, just to check: appropriate: adj. suitable or proper in the circumstances. I did note the absence of the words “drab, dull, and lifeless,” though, and so I thought about it a little more.

Back to the beginning: what constitutes an appropriate response? In every situation, it’s different. As I shuffled through a deck of examples that came to mind, an idea generally started to emerge that any appropriate response would be made up of actions and/or words that are helpful to each particular situation and are given out of agenda-less caring. Someone’s excited? Be excited with them. Someone’s bruised? Hugs and band-aids. Someone’s hurt you? Don’t hurt back (not helpful)—but be patient, wait out your anger, and figure out what’s really going on. (So sometimes the appropriate response might even just be not responding.)

I began to realize I’d been confusing “appropriate” in Yunmen’s context with my idea of the word “proper.” So now this world is already seeming better. Helpful, supportive. Kind of a nice place. But what about passion, excitement, or adventure? And would anything be funny in Appropriate Response World?

And then I remembered a story about another very wise man…

“What my father figured out was if you can’t get out [of a joke], you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air.” – Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, Muppet God)

And there it was—the “Eureka” moment where Appropriate Response World really came into view, and there were all these beautiful colors! I’d been selling it short, having a failure of imagination. Appropriate Response World is filled with options. Proper had been left on the side of the road, miles back where things had to follow conventional rules or fit in to status quo. Appropriate is different, hilarious and exciting. Find a beautiful mountain? Learn how to climb it, explore it, reach its summit. That can be one appropriate response of many. Love the wind in your face? Run a marathon. Try skydiving! (Not inappropriate if it works in your life.) Meet someone completely amazing? Choose to love! That’s definitely not boring and lifeless–and probably even more breathtaking than skydiving! Doing anything when it’s rooted in appropriate response just means that it’s coming from a place of helpfulness and courage a good chunk of wisdom. It has more than enough room to hold intensity, connection, and joy. Big and loud. Small and quiet. A caveat, though—Appropriate Response World isn’t free from pain or surprise or things not turning out as you expected. But in that world you would have learned how to deal with those things (that’s just life anywhere) in ways that were helpful, not destructive. Appropriate Response World would be full of wonder, whatever it involved. And, happily, sometimes it might even involve throwing penguins.

*(Note: While it is not entirely impossible that throwing real penguins would never be an appropriate response, it is more likely to be appropriate if using Muppet penguins.)

Categories: In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four Letter Words: Time

Last week at work, I went through some timed creative-thinking exercises. Some were fun, intriguing and even a little helpful. One, however, involved designing something which would keep track of time. No budget, no boundaries. Just take 15 minutes to think up some new device that would be useful in keeping time. After I completed it, I read in the instructor’s end notes that this was supposed to help you learn to think outside the box, to not limit yourself to ideas based on things that already existed. That exercise did not teach me anything close to that.

What it taught me was that I really hate keeping time.

I have suspected this for a while, but the exercise only confirmed this in a visceral, deep-seated loathing that surfaced while trying to accomplish the task. I don’t want another way to track time, I thought. In fact, that’s the last thing I want. What I actually want is a way to move within it differently. To be looser with time, less strict. I want moving through time to be more like a rubber band. Stretchy. Adjustable.

There are a lot of “life values” quizzes that contain some form of this question: “What would you do differently if you knew you only had a short while to live?” My answer has become this: to the best of my ability (with some exceptions), I would never, ever look at a clock again. 

I think what the exercise produced was the acknowledgement (and resentment) that I let clocks make far too many of my decisions for me, and when it boils down to the bottom of it, those reasons are largely based on tradition, efficiency, productivity and economics. If I could afford to swing outside of the system even a little, I would make my decisions based on other things. I would let my body tell me when it needed sleep. I would let it tell me when it was rested—waking up, not to a loudly-beeping machine, but maybe to the sunlight or the birds. I wouldn’t quit my job, but I wouldn’t worry so much about being 5 or 10 minutes late. Then I would get lost in my projects, working on them until I was deeply satisfied, not when it was just the scheduled time to go home or to move on to the next task. I would let my body tell me when it was hungry, instead of the clock telling me it was time for scheduled food intake. Why let a machine tell me when I’m hungry? It has no connection to my stomach.

I would like to experience time with a little more generosity, a little more give and take. Schedules can be useful, and even helpful—if I’d like to meet a friend at the gym or the movies or dinner, it does help if we show up roughly in the same time frame. But when everything gets too scheduled, I can feel myself start to shrink, in a bad dream where the clock hands loom larger and larger overhead, and I feel myself get smaller and smaller. Never mind small closets. I get claustrophobic in those small spaces between the notches on a clock. 

Those hands on the clock will keep going around and around, but to be able to move more freely in and around those little notches? That would be something. After all, in the grand scheme of things, we really do have only a short while to live.

Categories: In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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