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Grace and the Art of Not Setting Goals

January 6, 2012 1 comment

I used to think there was something wrong with me.

I was, and still am, constitutionally incapable of setting a goal. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

So I felt bad about myself.

A lot.

All the time.

I would get so anxious knowing that even if I did set a goal, I would not achieve it, yet the world kept pushing me to “make a plan!”

As I look around me these days, I’m learning that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. The “plans” that people made for themselves seem to be falling apart. They thought that if they saved enough, invested enough, played by the rules enough, they could earn the grace they prayed for.

But grace doesn’t work that way.

OK, so I don’t know exactly HOW grace works, but I don’t think it’s something you are worthy of or not. It just IS.

Maybe it is grace that kept me healthy when I didn’t have insurance, or sustained me when I needed a job, or allows me to spend a peaceful half hour in the morning therapeutically massaging my aging dog, watching the sun rise on another day in our life together, not knowing if it will be our last but allowing us the peace to just enjoy the moment either way.

In the cacophony of our modern world when everyone wants to tell everyone else how to achieve their wildest dreams, I realize that my wildest dream is the one I wake up to every morning when I open my eyes and catch the jet stream that carries me up and away, like a starling in a murmuration….

No goals, no worries…. just flying….

Becoming…. The Chaos of Taking Flight

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Steve Jobs Was My Spiderman

October 14, 2011 1 comment

“To design something really well you have to get it. You have to really grok [to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity] what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to thoroughly understand something – chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”

-Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple, 1955-2011

Yup, I could have written all this myself because it says what I’ve been trying to articulate since I was young.

I got in trouble a lot for daydreaming in school. It wasn’t that I wasn’t listening; I was simply connecting what I was hearing to something other than what the teacher might have intended. The information was a spider and the activity in my head was the web being spun, shooting itself off in all directions while remaining attached to a solid center.

The way we’ve been trying to educate kids today through standardized testing seems to assume only a solid center floating in empty space, as though making it more dense will somehow make it stronger. But if you’ve ever walked down the street early in the morning and been caught right across the eyes by a single strand of spider silk, you know that can’t possibly be true. A spider knows that to walk the distance a microfilament of webbing can travel in an instant would take forever, so why do it?

If Steve Jobs did anything for humanity, it was to teach us to think like the spider and imagine a whole new universe all in the midst of an intricate, spectacular, ever-expanding web.

Categories: Art, Life, Really?

Open Window Season and The Lonely Bullfrog

March 27, 2011 6 comments

So, you didn’t think we had seasons here in Florida? Bah! Of course we do!

We have “Hot” season and “Not Hot” season (I don’t dare call it Cold for fear of being laughed at) and sometimes we get really lucky and have something wonderful in between. I call it “Open Window Season”, that brief period when the breezes blow cool enough to trigger neither the heat nor the air conditioning.

At night during Open Window season, I lie awake and listen to the sounds of the pond out in back. All manner of creatures are waking up from their hibernation, rehearsing their little songs in preparation for the full-on Hot Season cacophony that can rouse the comatose even through closed windows. I swear there is a conductor out there who starts and stops the chorus as he pleases and only seems to want to perfom “O Fortuna” from Orff’s “Carmina Burana”.

The sounds during Open Window season are shy, as if no one dares be the first to sing a wrong note. They sound croaky and rusty and the prima donna peepers don’t seem to have shown up yet; something is distinctly missing in the treble register. Still, the altos and tenors manage a silly warm-up full of self-conscious giggling.

But there is one big frog out there, a basso profundo whose voice is so deep and robust that everyone else stops singing when he starts. I imagine their little froggy faces, mouths agape, looking at each other with wide eyes whispering “Who’s THAT?” It makes me think of those times in our little New England church when my vocally gifted mezzo-soprano sister would show up and put the rest of us to such shame that we hid our faces behind our hymnals. We didn’t dare let her hear our croaking.

I listen to that bullfrog out there, belting out his deep brassy tones, and I feel a little sorry for him. Perhaps he was a boy soprano last year and he is simply trying to join in the joyful noises of his old friends. The size of his voice is like the adolescent boy who grew 5 sizes bigger than his friends over the summer and doesn’t know how to adjust his changed voice to match theirs. He feels like a big buffoon. Maybe to hide his righteous shame, he has become a “bully-frog” and uses his voice to drown out the others on purpose.

He sounds so lonely…

But slowly, one after another, the tiny frogs begin to sing again, beeping and squawking and nyuk-nyuk-nyuking until the big bullfrog is invited back into their chorus, his voice again blending into their song and bringing a depth they hadn’t imagined from him before.

I love Open Window rehearsal season. It allows me to get to know the singers and familiarize myself with their repertoire so that I can appreciate their crazy concerts that keep me awake during the hot summer nights.

“This is not okay!”

February 23, 2011 1 comment

The elevator doors parted and the retired schoolteacher stepped out onto the twelfth floor of the office building. Her tour guide led her through the glass doors onto the office floor where a maze of cubicles spread out for hundreds of yards all around.

“This is not okay!” the teacher exclaimed, her voice shrill against the muffled darkness of the workspace on a quiet Saturday morning. A lone head popped up behind a cubicle wall to see who had spoken. It disappeared just as quickly. “This is how people work behind computers all day?”

“I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years,” replied the tour guide, chuckling ironically. “I guess that makes me one of the rats in the race.”

The teacher looked inside one of the tiny cubes at stacks of paper, a computer monitor, various personal trinkets, and shook her head. “This isn’t right. People shouldn’t have to work this way.”

“You get used to it after a while. It’s not so bad if you like the people you work with. And we painted our break room with a fun ocean scene. Come and look.”

The 30-foot long by 10-foot wide break room contained a few tables and a long mural on the opposite wall from the door. There were no windows but the painted scene did open the space up a bit. Still, the teacher was not satisfied.

“Is this what are educational system is preparing you for? To sit at a desk all day and stare at a screen? I always thought we were trying to teach you to dream of creative ideas for changing the world.”

The tour guide thought for a moment. “I guess we do change the world, in our own way. We make it possible for magazines to be shipped all over the world, bringing news and entertainment to people everywhere. Do you subscribe to any magazines? I can pull up the record for you and show you how the magazine finds its way to your door from the publisher.” She sat down at the computer and with a few keys strokes retrieved the teacher’s file and showed her the intricacies of magazine fulfillment. In a moment, the teacher’s face lit up with amazement. In all her years of teaching, she had never visited a corporate office to see what it was some of her students were doing when they grew up.

The tour guide said, “I once thought of being a Recreation Director, working outside and running around all day. But then I went to school and learned that there was much more to the job that I knew I wouldn’t like, so I took some computer classes and realized that this was what I was really suited for. I’m good at my job now so I don’t have to struggle as much to figure things out. I’m actually an expert at the type of programming I do on my team so people usually come to me for help. I enjoy teaching them how to work more efficiently and in a few years I’ll be able to retire with a decent pension. I go out for a couple of walks in the sunshine every day and have lunch with my co-workers sometimes. All in all, it’s not a bad gig.”

The teacher’s face had softened since her initial shock at entering the office. She almost seemed relaxed at the explanation the tour guide had given her. “I guess it’s not something I would have chosen for myself. I really enjoyed the freedom of being a kindergarten teacher. I got to teach kids to sing, to dance, to play and create. I always thought that if I could pass my love for those things onto them that they would grow up to find joy in everything they did. I guess there are lots of ways to define joy. I’m glad I came here today to experience yours.”

The electronic security door clicked closed behind them, and the teacher smiled to herself as she remembered what she’d always told her students: “We never stop learning….”

Categories: Art, Life, Really?

Love is….

February 14, 2011 3 comments

“If they find our bodies, they’ll be able to identify us by our mittens.”

That’s how we encouraged ourselves as we contemplated a path through the woods that cut across a nearby neighborhood. Though it looked sunny and safe, we imagined the possibilities for violent mayhem that could be visited on a couple of unsuspecting middle-aged women out for a Saturday morning stroll. We were dressed for the excursion in our jeans and hooded sweatshirts which did a fair job of disguising our gender and age. Sunglasses added to the illusion that perhaps we were the bad guys. The only thing that gave us away were our mittens; the fingerless kind, knitted by my mother for Christmas in bright, happy colors — not the sort a hoodlum would wear in an effort to look tough.

“Should we go for it?” I asked, fully expecting the usual safe answer of “no, let’s walk an extra 2 miles to get around to the bike path at the entrance”. We’d already hiked a couple miles, fortified by a rare breakfast at McDonald’s where we killed time waiting for the oil to be changed in our cars. Carbohydrates, sugar, cheap protein, and a blast of caffeine wrestled with our better judgement, and the winner was….. “Sure, why not?”

Taking a deep breath, we stepped into the woods, leaving the questionable but reasonably safe (during daylight) neighborhood behind. We knew the bike path we sought was ahead of us somewhere and the woodland path seemed to be heading in the right direction.

It wasn’t long before “the path” became a flooded morass that threatened to end our journey. I looked to the sides and saw dry areas that might support our weight, but because I am not entirely familiar with the wild areas of Florida, I considered the possibility of encountering quicksand. Adrenaline shot into my veins, like the drugs that may very well do the same on this path at other times, as we carefully placed one foot in front of the other and felt for solid ground.

When we finally got past the bog, other paths began to branch off from the one we were on and it occurred to me that if we had to turn back, we might have trouble discerning which way we’d come. Never mind, I thought. We can’t get lost in here. I can tell which way we’re going by the amazing cloud stream up in the sky. We marched on.

“What’s that?!” she exclaimed from behind me, pointing her purple and pink fringed mitten at an object ahead. I froze. We stepped forward slowly as we tried to identify the gray object crouching in front of us.

“It’s just a log!” I replied, as though I’d known it all along. “Phew,” she said, “I thought it was a wolf.”

My second hit of adrenaline wore off and a new one surged as we discovered that the trail we were on ended. Crap, I thought to myself, then mustered my previous bravado and said, “No problem. We’ll just backtrack and take the other branch of the trail. The one less traveled.”

My heart pounded faster and the cries of birds waiting to strip the flesh from our bones sounded louder as we searched for the other trail. I checked the sky to make sure we were still headed in the right direction. Finally we found the less obvious path. The woods were wide open at this point, littered here and there with beer bottles and some trash. Civilization! It seemed we should have reached the bike path by now but I didn’t say anything. I have a reputation for leading people in uncertain directions but have thus far not failed in my attempts to eventually get where I’m trying to go. And almost always during daylight…

“Look!” she exclaimed as her flamboyant mitten pointed out a bright object whizzing through the woods a hundred yards ahead. “A biker!”

“HA! I told you we could do it!” I retorted, abandoning the path and tromping excitedly through the crunchy leaves and slick pine needles. In another minute our puffy palms made a “ploof” sound as we high-fived each other on the bike path in celebration of having survived our harrowing half-mile trek through the sinister forest.

When we got back to the garage where our cars were being worked on we told the mechanic all about our excellent adventure, waving our hands in the air for effect. The mechanic’s expression conveyed that somehow the bright orange, fuschia, and teal green of our mittens belied the possibility that our circumstances could have led to us having been violently accosted and left for dead.

But we didn’t care what anyone thought. In our minds we had survived a life-changing experience, one that brought us closer together and introduced a new level of trust into our relationship. And it was all because we knew that if we hadn’t returned, our magic mittens would let the world know who we were and how brave we had tried to be together.

Later, as we warmed ourselves by a roaring outdoor fire, I considered a new definition: Love is adventure, love is trust, love is triumph over circumstances, and in the event that survival of those circumstances results in less than high-fives in fingerless mittens, love is forgiveness.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! May your love grow through the challenges you survive! 😀

Categories: Art, Good Stuff, Life

Ferris Bueller Never Actually Took a Day Off

February 8, 2011 1 comment

Disclaimer: There will be college bashing in this episode….

I know, I know…. you think that just because I didn’t finish college I have an axe to grind, since that’s all some feel I am qualified to do. Well, maybe, that’s part of it, but this is more than just a rant, even though I’ve lost out on corporate promotions to peers eminently less qualified simply because I didn’t have credentials equal to their Physical Education degrees. This is actually an appeal to the gods of creativity to come out of hiding and speak up!

I learned two new things today  (despite the fact that I didn’t finish college and learning is more challenging for me :D):

1. The mystery about which Chicago Cubs game Ferris Bueller and his friends went to in the movie has finally been solved. I must admit I’m relieved to have that crossed off my list of things to wonder about.

and:

2. James Altucher compiled a list called “8 Things Your Kids Should Do Instead of Going To College“. Having had this very conversation at lunch today, I checked it out. Here are the 8 magical things:

1. Start a business

2. Travel the world

3. Create art

4. Make people laugh

5. Write a book

6. Work in a charity

7. Master a game

8. Master a sport

Dang! I could have told you all that and made millions myself instead of him! I don’t even know the guy but I’m intrigued by his postulation. (See, even some of us drop-outs know big words too)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ” made a modern-day hero out of a brilliant goofball kid who showed us the value of being on the ball and thinking creatively to get where we want to go. It also illustrated the profound boredom engendered by the school curricula mandated by state and federal governments. Though the movie doesn’t reveal to us his life beyond that day, we can pretty much assume that his wealthy family was able to send him to one of the best colleges in the country, which likely did little to prepare him for life any more than he was already prepared by the time he was 12.

Mr. Altucher’s list isn’t meant to discourage people from going to college at all (he’s a college grad himself), but rather, it suggests that many kids, most of them, would benefit from “trying out the world” first. At a time when their financial liabilities are at the lowest point they’ll probably ever be, he advocates experimenting with ideas that they’ve never tried or considered. When they have a better sense of who they are and what drives them, THEN they should go to college.

I couldn’t agree more.

College has become insanely expensive and these days there is little, if any, payoff for the graduate. A degree used to be assurance of a place in the job market but not anymore. Today, if you don’t have the creative wherewithal of a Ferris Bueller, you’re likely sitting “with your thumb in your bum and your brain in neutral” (as my college-educated daddy used to say) while you wait for the job market to open up and offer you a place in the system of life. If the next step isn’t flashing right in front of you and there isn’t someone giving you permission to take it, you’re likely blinded by the light. For those who have followed the aligned steps into adulthood already, worked hard, and ended up losing everything anyway, it’s even harder to reconcile that slap in the face.

With these realities in mind, why do we encourage young people to get themselves into a financial hole so early on? Why is it necessary for an 18-year-old to know what direction they’re going to take for the rest of their lives the minute they step out of their high school cap & gown? Would that $20,000 first semester tuition payment be any less fruitfully spent taking a year or two to try out those ideas they’ve had? At a point in their lives when success or failure has far fewer consequences, wouldn’t this be the time to attempt them and learn the realities so that college will afford them the direction they seek?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for knowledge, and in the age of the Internet it’s at my fingertips any time I want. Heck, I don’t even have to go to the library anymore! So why am I required to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to squander four years of my youth being filled up with largely useless (to me) knowledge in order to be considered valuable to society? Wouldn’t it be better if I understood who I am and what I have to offer before trying to stick me in a spot where I clearly don’t fit?

Today, I looked at art that I waited my lifetime to create and had the incomparable payoff of hearing people praise it.  I’d probably be laughed right out of a gallery, but someone actually paid me money to paint something that is bringing people pleasure. No college diploma would ever have offered me that sense of satisfaction.

I have yet to travel the world, write a book, or master a game. I’ll get right on that.

Or maybe I’ll just call up Ferris and James and see if they want to take in a ball game.

Christa McAuliffe’s Death Reminds Me of What It Means To Live

January 28, 2011 2 comments

The temperature was 90 degrees in the bright pink hotel room I was living in outside of Keene, New Hampshire that winter. Something had gone wrong with the thermostat and I couldn’t shut off the heat. Outside, the temperature was well below freezing and dark sky was ablaze with stars.

The images on the TV screen were many of the same ones I’d been clipping out of newspapers and magazines for months leading up to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The seven astronauts had become bigger than life because for the first time one of them was a civilian.

Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen as the first representative of the Teacher in Space Program, was the instructor everyone would have wanted. She reminded me of my 4th grade teacher who knew how to keep me on track but was the first to appreciate all that I was, not just what I could do academically. Like me, Christa was also from New Hampshire, so I felt extra pride in her designation as the first teacher in space. As I struggled to regain my footing after dropping out of college where I was studying to become a teacher myself, she made me want to reconsider my decision to quit.

I had never paid much attention to the shuttle launches before this one. For the first time, I was really engaged in the space program. I’d read everything I could find out about it. It seemed the whole nation was captivated just as they’d been when man first landed on the moon.

Finally, the day of the launch came — January 28, 1986. Sitting at my desk at the Brattleboro (VT) Area Chamber of Commerce, where I was working for just enough money to cover my commute back and forth from the motel I lived in for $90.00 a week in Keene, this was my first real job. My co-worker and I listened to live coverage on the tiny radio behind my head, and Larry Smith, the local DJ covering the event, sounded as excited as we were. He rattled off the play by play and I looked forward to being able to watch it all on TV later that night.

Larry began echoing the countdown of the announcer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and my co-worker and I joined in. “10 – 9 – 8…..”

LIFT-OFF!!!!

We clapped and cheered and threw all our little bottles of white-out in the air.

But before we could finish retrieving the bottles, something went terribly wrong with the launch. Just over a minute into the shuttle’s flight, Larry reported that an explosion had sent smoke and gases and parts of the booster rockets in different directions far up in the sky.

My blood froze. It was too soon for the rockets to disengage! For hours, commentators speculated about what had happened and held out hope that the capsule containing the astronauts had somehow escaped undamaged though we knew there was no way. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to admit they had all perished so we prayed for a miracle.

That night as I viewed the coverage in my motel room, I felt like my guts would explode out of my body as I watched over and over again the inner workings of the shuttle assembly shatter violently when a later-identified frozen O-ring in one of the booster rockets allowed gases to escape and blow up the rocket engine. The images of the explosion showed trails of exhaust veering off and close-up photos strained to see if any of the falling pieces could be the fuselage of the shuttle itself, or, God forbid, any of the astronauts, flung from the orbiter at some 50,000 feet above the ocean.

There I stood, alone in the icy draft of the wide open window, sobbing my brains out. Nothing had ever crushed my spirit like this. For days afterward I watched the coverage as the scientists exhaustively pored over what went wrong. When it was agreed that none of the astronauts could have survived the event, President Reagan delivered a moving eulogy whose last line remains with me to this day:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

In an age when our “heroes” tend to be people who get paid lots of money to exploit a certain innate ability, I think back to that time when a TEACHER was our hero. Somewhere over these 25 years, we seem to have forgotten that our best teachers aren’t the ones that urge the highest test scores out of us. They aren’t the ones concerned about what facts we can regurgitate for the sake of a rating. They are the people among us whose greatest mission in life is to help us build the kind of character that makes us heroic in the eyes of our communities, even if our greatest accomplishments are unknown beyond the walls of our own homes.

If the explosion of the Challenger taught us anything, perhaps it is that catastrophic failure is not a reason to stop trying. I believe that if Christa McAuliffe had survived that tragedy, she would have returned to her classroom and with the help of her students, figured out what could be done differently next time to make the mission successful.

And if the memories of how she made me feel at that low point in my life have any meaning, maybe it is the realization that we are all teachers…



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