Life Lessons

REDUX: What it is about the situation that is enabling this failure?

cautionHere I was wondering what I might write about while I am in the throes of hosting for the holidays, when I gave myself an inadvertent gift.

Alert subscribers will have noticed a remarkably short blog post arrived in their mailboxes on Monday. Subject line only: What is it about the situation that is enabling this failure?

Technically, that wasn’t supposed to happen.

What was supposed to happen was the interesting line I’d come across in a terrific article on the evolving science of scarcity would be saved as a note, fodder for further thought and maybe an eventual blog.

But fate took control and I hit Post instead of Draft.

Here’s my re-frame: this was a gift to all of us — to me, because it gave me a topic for today, and to you because you got something interesting to ponder for a few days before I explained myself.

Also, it reminds me to be more careful about my key strokes.

So: What did you come up with?

For me, two things: first, I revealed a bit about my writing practice (process transparency,  a good thing); second, I think it’s a fascinating question to ask when we’re feeling a tad judgmental about people or things (introspection, also a good thing).

I’ve written on why I write, and where I write, this tells you something about how I write. I have about 20 “drafts” in various stages of development at any given point. I like to capture ideas and inspiration and then come back to them when I have time to ruminate. Usually that all happens behind the green curtain and no one is the wiser.

I post twice a week but write much more often than that — sometimes because I’m refining a single post and sometimes because I’m percolating on some of those other drafts. Come publication days, I’ve usually got at least one post reasonably cooked and ready to go. Sometimes I punt.

This post is pretty much a punt.

I’ll come back to the topic sentence on a more substantive level at some later date. I want more time to think about the question “What is it about the situation that is enabling this failure?” It’s a good one. Ripe, rich.

  • How can I use this query in my own life and interactions?
  • How can asking it help me rethink how I am contributing to a given problem?
  • How does it help any of us distinguish people from their circumstances?

Not a bad place to spend some time in this season of reflection and new year’s resolutions.

Life Lesson #29: Good questions are never wasted.



Back Story

Fresh Ears for Rudolph and Frosty

I’m elbow deep in brown sugar and butter, busily mixing up batches of dough for cookie baking with The Girls. Because I spent November in Southeast Asia and I’m not yet really caught up with the whole it’s-almost-Christmas thing, I have holiday music playing especially loud as I measure and stir, as if volume will translate into readiness. A girl can dream.

My chanteuse of choice is the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. She’s rocking her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas album and I’m kinda starting to feel it.

Towards the end of the album, Ella works her versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Now, any self-respecting fan of Christmas carols knows these are totally fabricated tunes, the by-products of gross commercialization run amok. And… I loved them as a kid. I vividly remember when their stop motion and cel animation movies came to television. Big thrill.

Holiday Mood
One of those years that was actually a white Christmas…Looks a bit like Yoda, don’t you think?

I loved them — and I was also a little embarrassed about them, as if I knew they were somehow something lesser in the greater Christmas panoply. But today, for whatever reason, I am listening with fresh ears and I’m hearing  celebrations of the differently-abled (Rudolph) and carpe diem (Frosty). I’m appreciating them anew.

Did I hear those messages as a kid? I honestly don’t know. But this afternoon I’m celebrating that otherness can save the day and heeding the call to “run and have some fun before I melt away.” 

Yup, definitely feeling the holiday spirit.  Happy Almost-Solstice, friends!

Life Lessons

Of Death and Delectable Moments

stompin 2At an Indian restaurant in an unremarkable strip mall not far from home we danced to Benny Goodman. Bemused but accommodating, a waiter recorded our antics. With three people I just barely know, I celebrated a life none of us had known.

Six hundred miles away, someone pushed the button at a crematorium and a woman, much-loved, took her next journey.


My friend J. lost her father earlier this year and her mother last week. But “lost” is a euphemism that doesn’t capture their passage. Of anyone I have ever met, J. seems most likely to know exactly where her parents are and to have retained a profound sense of connection to them, even now.

Her mother’s impending death was the most joyful life affirmation I’ve ever witnessed. As her mother’s health faltered, J. put out a call for cards and laughter. Through social media, they shared stories and pictures and moments that pulsed with love. They decorated the simple pine box in which her mother was to be cremated. As her mother hoped they would, they danced as the crematorium did its work.  And they invited us, any of us, all of us, to join in.

So I did and I invited my lovely and unsuspecting lunch companions to join me. 

I have never met J.’s mother and I watched their journey from afar, but I felt very close to both of them on Tuesday as my friends and I swayed with Benny. They taught me a lot about life by how they chose to approach death. Lessons about elevating love and finding joy. About the incredible,  incomparable importance of sharing. About intentionality in creating — and living — great moments.


From the buffet, we filled plate after heaping plate with Indian delicacies. Sitting together at the round table, my new friends showed me how to assemble the panipuri.  We filled crisp puffy shells with soft potatoes, sweet tamarind sauce and spicy mint water, popping the succulent packages into our mouths, one after another. Rich, complex flavors vied for attention with the medley of textures and temperature. I thought panipuri is like life – the more you stuff in, the more delicious it becomes.

My belly and heart full, I paused, overwhelmed by the delectable moments piling up around me, grateful for the reminder to savor them.

Life Lesson #28: Make life delicious.

Back Story

Upholding a Family Tradition

‘Tis the season of Big Tradition. I’d like to pause and reflect on the merits of small traditions. For instance: we all have some way of commemorating the places we visit, some tradition or ritual with which we stamp adventures as our own. Some people collect shot glasses, others buy postcards. In my family, we eat Chinese.

It all started in Ecuador. We were on our honeymoon and I had a touch of tourista, so D. spent the day out and about while I was just down and out. He returned with exciting news – there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that offered potential sustenance that might sit better in my tender tummy than what we’d been eating. Thrilled at this prospect, I got my wobbly self up and off we went.

I was rewarded with a lovely bowl of wanton soup. The best wonton soup ever. Beyond being delicious, the soup was comfortingly familiar. I was feeling better already. We went back the next day and luxuriated in fried rice with eggs. Time and distance folded in on themselves. It was like being home.

And so, there in the South American Andes, a North American family tradition was born: in every country we visit, we eat Chinese.

So far, we’ve made good on the tradition in Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ste. Maarten, France, Italy, and the airport in Germany. And because they seemed at least as exotic as some non-domestic locales, we included Hawaii and South Dakota for consistency’s sake. Last month we added Taiwan, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Japan. (Truth to tell: the thrill is a little muted when you’re already living by chopsticks, but we had a tradition to uphold.)

It’s always something of an adventure. Travel guides don’t always give much attention to Chinese restaurants in, say, Istanbul or Costa Rica, but we find them anyway. And they’re all charmingly similar and decidedly different. Festive red paper decorations are pretty universal, as are unevenly reliable photo-illustrated menus. The clientele, invariably a delightful cross-section of wherever we are. We’re always relieved to encounter actual ethic Chinese, especially if they’re eating.

We like to speculate on what alchemy of native practices, host country culture, current trends, immigration path and the tourism vortex accounts for the dishes before us. Each restaurant seems to reflect its surroundings in ways that are always interesting and often funny. Turns out the wantons in Nicaragua’s soup are fried. We had ginger chicken in Ste. Maarten that was equal parts chicken and ginger – and the ginger chunks way outsized the chicken bits.  Our Hungarian Chinese meal seemed suspiciously Japanese.

In Cambodia, the tuk-tuk driver looked skeptical when we insisted the restaurant we were seeking was down that dirt alley he’d just passed. “You want go here?” he asked, pointing with this chin and clearly unconvinced, as he executed a breath-taking U-turn. We nodded earnestly, none too sure ourselves as we considered the dark lane. But, as always, we were rewarded. At the end of the road the Lucky Star Leisure Restaurant awaited, complete with cavorting kittens to climb on the table, lanterns at our feet to keep the mosquitoes at bay and some amazing fried dumplings.

“chī chī chī” 吃吃吃 (eat, eat, eat!)




Summer, 1985: When D. was preparing for the bar exam, I decided the best place for me was the far side of the planet. With great solemnity, he warned he would be preoccupied all summer. I feared being a distraction, an annoyance, ignored, or all three. So, investing every penny I had, I did what any good girlfriend would do and decamped to China.

Travel to that part of the world at the time was not a simple thing and, without benefit of internet and by means I could not now recount, I somehow managed to locate a tour group going from a small mid-western women’s college, being hosted by a Chinese university, with a focus on the status of women, that was actually delighted to take me in. It was a congenial and diverse group and, perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only one that spoke any (that is: not much, but enough) Chinese. Group members might also remember me as the one that came down with chicken pox upon arrival in country, but that’s another story for another time.

By train, we zigzagged our way across the mainland for nearly six weeks and then visited Hong Kong (which was still a British dependent territory) and made a stop in Taiwan (where, upon discovering our Chinese visas, officials allowed us entry but refused to stamp our passports). We saw countries that no longer exist.Lb China 1985

Much of The People’s Republic was closed to tourists at that time and we couldn’t disembark in many of the cities and villages through which we passed on those long train rides. In the summer’s heat and without air conditioning, we watched the countryside go by through open windows that funneled in the grit and dust of China’s then agricultural economy. When we stopped, I bought snacks from eager ad hoc vendors and chatted, haltingly, out the windows.

It was a remarkable summer – an extraordinary and unprecedented adventure – a profound departure from … everything. Part interlude, part intermission, an absolute disruption in the steady flow of my little American life.

Like China’s Great Wall, the summer formed a snaking boundary, tracing the ragged edge of my known universe, with schooling at its center, and the unfamiliar terrain of the adult working world to which I was to return.

Fall, 2015: Having absented ourselves from that “adult working world” as we had known it for the intervening 30 years, D. and I have spent this year forging new normals. We’ve been busy in novel and rewarding ways, breaking new ground; experimenting, exploring. Even still, a trip to Southeast Asia wasn’t really on our radar.

Then the invitation came: to visit my aunt in Viet Nam, to see the country she has loved and called home for much of her adult life, through her eyes and the eyes of her friends and colleagues.  We know this much: opportunity knocks, you answer.

And so we decamped. Not only to Viet Nam, but to Laos and Cambodia as well. Why go all that way and not see Angkor Wat?

For nearly a month we visited towns whose names were familiar to me only from the horrific news coverage of my youth; traveled through countryside beautiful in its natural state, rich and fertile, yet in places already clearly overwhelmed by recent decades’ warp-speed development; muddled through transactions in languages that confound the Western ear, whose scripts are, to me, beautiful, mysterious and still impenetrable; felt the enormity of America’s imprint on the arc of lives lived half a world away.

In ways I did not fully anticipate, it was also a profound interruption. Not just because we hadn’t really planned for such a trip at this point in our lives, but because it discombobulated just about everything I thought I had figured out for myself. Not knowing if we’d have access to internet, I drafted and scheduled four weeks’ worth of blog posts – then wrote nothing for a month. On the road, part of a group, and inhabiting a long string of hotel rooms, my meditation and exercise routines fell apart.  Some days were spent on our feet, but others only in transit  – so much for walking 5 1/2 miles every day.

Months in cultivation, my routines are proving slippery things to reassemble, testing muscle memory and mettle alike. I’m having to reassert my commitment to and faith in each of them; they are testing my conviction in ways that simple momentum had not.

I’d begun to enjoy my growing writing muscle as this trip took form. And yet, while many travelers journal, I didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. With the exception of the sketchiest of itineraries, I wrote not a word. There was just so much incoming, so much stimulation – visual, auditory, emotional –  it was all I could do to receive and absorb. Processing would have to come later.

So the processing comes now. I am beginning to sift through the photographs and stories, trying to curate a cogent tale to share with friends. I marvel at the images I now call my own. It was all so different, such a break from all that is familiar. Some lovely, some disquieting, some simply, disarmingly mundane. All of it thought-provoking. What lessons can I extract from people whose tenacity and desire just to be —  just left to their own devices — is so achingly strong, has been so historically, awfully, repeatedly violated?

Another extraordinary and unprecedented adventure.

Interruption, interlude, intermission. I like to think the trip will prove to be a point of inflection as well – a discrete instance in my life’s trajectory that proves influential, even important. The question is: how?


Pictures will come, I promise. Still sorting through all those images.


Life Lessons, UnComfort Zone

Thinking About Frequencies

phont poleThe truth is, I spend most of my time among women – a function and artifact of American motherhood, I suppose. So it was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to be in the distinct minority at a recent community information meeting.

All those ponytails? Sprouting from thinning male pates, not perky female ones. I had to laugh: I hadn’t thought about it, but of course that’s who would be there.

Still a tad giddy from the success of my LEAD Talk and wanting to hear more about the low frequency radio station soon to open in our community, I’d turned out for the information session with a vague fantasy about eventually putting together a radio program built around curiosity.

I was clearly the newbie in the room.

These guys were serious. They’d been DJs in college. They had recording equipment in their basements, maybe even their living rooms. They had opinions about FCC rulings, recent and historic.

They had their prepared program proposals at the ready.

And, yet, they were so gracious. They were delighted to have new people show up, thrilled to share what they knew, eager to encourage interest and involvement. I give them real props for this mark of true enthusiasts, that newcomers were welcomed and embraced, rather than regarded as just more competition to be crushed.

I never really thought about radio before, but now I’m checking my calendar to book basic studio training, and supplemental audio recording skills after that. It’s fun to be contemplating yet another learning curve on the winding river of this new life.

Life Lesson #28: You never know where life will take you – especially if you let it.


Resisting “Retirement”

How is retirement going?

The question comes with some frequency and, I assume, generally good intentions. But it makes me bristle. Every time. I chafe at what it seems to suggest. I want to reply, “Reboot. It’s a reboot!”

What is it that is so unsettling about a simple word? Anything that gets to me like that is certainly worth understanding better. So: what is it?

I’ve always been fascinated by language. English is rich with complicated words of incongruous, multiple meanings. We’re fortunate to operate in a tongue that offers such depth and nuance. Even when it’s messy. Maybe especially when it’s messy.

To retire is to retreat, to withdraw from action or danger, to remove oneself to a place of privacy, to move back, to go to bed.

It also means to stop working — with a musty aura of Old Age about it.

For me, the other meanings cast long shadows and discolor the workplace version. They suggest narrowing, slowing, a kind of defeat. Death.

Lets do thisAnd that’s not been my experience at all. My experience has been all about an infinitely expanding universe, all about moving toward action and danger, going forward. Getting out there. Life.

S. is going through a similar transition. He thinks if we’re going to live to 90, we need some new ways to think about the back thirty. I’m with him. I submit: we should retire “retire”. What we need is a new moniker for a new paradigm.

“Retire” comes from the Middle French retirer, re- + tirer to draw. Now that makes some sense — what we’re doing here is redrawing the landscape — but if such a connotation ever existed, it’s now long-gone.

I like “reboot” – it feels right, has that techno-current thing going on. But what do you think? What would you call it?