Archive for December, 2010


true prosperity

A couple days ago I finally got past my resistance to reading an academic journal that had been sitting on my desk since summer (their political biases were the turn-off—after 35 years I’ve decided to let my subscription lapse), and read a fascinating article about Americans’ need to rediscover the value of friendship.

The author, Daniel Akst, wrote that “Americans have been engaged in wholesale flight from one another, decamping for suburbs and Sunbelt, splintering into ever smaller households, and conducting more and more of their relationships online, where avatars flourish. The churn rate of domestic relations is especially remarkable, and has rendered family life in the United States uniquely unstable,” the most transient of any other comparable nation in the world.

Facebook “friends” notwithstanding—the average Facebook user has 130 of them—friendship appears to be a dying art and a quaint, anachronistic pastime.

Today, he says, we live in a social climate in which friends appear dispensable, and that we have come to demand of ourselves “truly radical levels of self-sufficiency.” He buttresses this observation with research which suggests Americans have a third fewer nonfamily confidants than twenty years ago; an average of only four “close social contacts” (of whom half are spouses and/or children and close relatives); that a quarter of us have no confidants at all; that half of us are unmarried and a quarter of us live alone. Akst observed that greater numbers of us are relying on our pets for companionship and buying our confidants by the hour in the form of professional therapy.

As I read this article it drove home the realization that I am, by normative standards, a very odd duck indeed. I long ago took a fork in the road and made the conscious decision to make significant ongoing investments in friendships that are more-than-casual, nonfleeting and, preferably, intense. As Holly said shortly before she died, friends and family are the only wealth that lasts, the only wealth that matters.

I have been disappointed along the way when some people reveal themselves to be friends of the “fair weather” variety, or are too harried and busy or selfish to reciprocate my attentions, or turn out to be users or takers or unfaithful and disloyal in certain ways. Yet on balance I cannot say that I regret having taken the chance and put myself out there for them. Even when I do get burned, I come away from such encounters more experienced and wiser—and I am thankful at least for that.

The thing I found so valuable about this article is that it has helped remind me that a lot of people do not exercise their friendship muscles, and are out of shape in that respect. Some people simply ‘know not what they do’ and, as my mother used to say, it’s easier and better in the long run to sometimes just play dumb and not take offense at the slights and stumbles and shortcomings of others.

It has reminded me that empathy, patience and kindness are among the greatest virtues in making and keeping friends (and for building up this particular form of equity).

Here’s wishing you a Truly Prosperous 2011. Thank you for our friendship!


Groove of the Day

Listen to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin performing “Auld Lang Syne”


progress report

Here at Estrella Vista—in this season of the solar year and in this season of the economy especially—progress must be measured in small increments:

• The sunrise is just now beginning to inch toward the edge of a mountain plateau we associate with the Winter Solstice from our vantage point.

• I was awarded that small writing project I told you about. The work will buy me the equivalent of four or five tanks of gas.

• And our chickens’ total production is now up to a half-dozen eggs (including the one I gave to Randy), and I haven’t even checked today for more.

These are small gains—tiny gains if you’re looking at how many of our beautiful little blue-green eggs would be needed for a decent-sized omelet—but they’re evidence of progress nevertheless.

As our hens continue to grow, the size and number of eggs will increase. As I’m in the writing marketplace longer, the size and number of writing assignments will increase, too. I’ve been in the freelance writing business for almost thirty years, so I know what to expect; even though I’m new to chicken farming, I’m confident I’ll figure that out too. And I know with absolute certainty that the sun will keep following its northward journey in the sky and the days will grow longer and warmer.

As so many of you in the choir already know, the main challenge is just getting through the near term with what we have in hand. If yesterday is any indication, the coming days promise unforeseen things.

Yesterday one of our hens turned out to be a young rooster. Our two old roosters were cock-a-doodle-do-ing back and forth when I heard an adolescent cock-a-doodle-do chiming in from behind nearby bush. It was exciting in its own way—like having a boy soprano in the choir.

His sisters will probably lay a couple more eggs for me today. With what I’ve already collected, it should be just enough.

I’m thinking of inviting over a friend today for omelets.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Caterwaul performing “Small Things in Heaven”


elzéard bouffier

In a world in which positive role models are so conspicuously rare, sometimes the best you can do is to find your mentors in works of fiction. Real flesh-and-blood people are, after all, only human. They will almost always let you down somehow and somewhere along the way.

But fictional characters provide a distillation of qualities that are set and preserved, unchanging as if in a glowing piece of amber, in the words and images of a book or film. Baldur is always brave. Obi-Wan is always wise. Hera is always loyal.

When I first moved to Minneapolis from Africa in the early ‘70s, I was employed by one of the major art museums there to stage a two-week children’s event where one of its many activities was the exhibition of an animated film masterpiece by Frédéric Back called “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

Based on a short story by Jean Giono, it tells the story of a shepherd’s singlehanded reforestation of a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps near Provence between 1907 and 1947. This shepherd was an old man named Elzéard Bouffier who, having lost his wife and only child to death, retreated to this desolate place to live out his days in solitude. Once there, he came to realize the land was dying for lack of trees, and he began his solitary mission of planting many hundreds of thousands of trees and thereby transformed his corner of the world into a place where thousands of people subsequently were drawn to live rewarding and happy lives.

When the film was released on videotape in the late ‘80s, I acquired a copy. I think it may have provided motivating reinforcement for my own early efforts to reclaim the land behind my home as parklands (see my June 20, 2010 post, “Family Secret”). My father-in-law borrowed the videotape and was so taken by it he thereafter insisted it was his. I never did get it back. Last year Henry asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him I wanted a DVD of “The Man Who Planted Trees.” It continues to uplift me here in my own solitary pursuits.

I know this is a busy time for you, but if you will please take the time to view this film, you’ll be thankful you did. It may even be a life-changing experience for you as it was for me.

Elzéard Bouffier is a fictional character who never existed until Giono created him. Yet, he has been incarnated through the work of many others all over the world.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Dave Apollon Orchestra performing “Trees”


hope for the best

Right now a lot of folks are probably saying, “Thank God 2010 is almost over.” But will next year be any better?

I Hope So.

Now before you lapse into the common misunderstanding of “Hope” as a word that’s readily interchangeable with the comparatively spineless word “wish,” please permit me to disabuse you of this common error which guts Hope of all its power.

A lot of people equate Hope with dreaming—but I am saying Hope is a practical and necessary antecedent to dreams coming true or to finding your way out of nightmare situations. As the Irish proverb says, “Hope is the physician of every misery.”

Hope has backbone. Hope kicks ass. You can bank on it. It’s a power concept which in practice is so effective and reliable that you may think it almost magical if you don’t understand how Hope works.

If you look up the dictionary definition of Hope, you will see that the word means to “look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence”—in other words, with expectation based on something solid—that a desired thing may happen. The archaic meaning of the word is to “place trust in and to rely on” something coming true.

The Power of Expectation goes to the heart of why and how Hope works.

If you remember your Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a statue of a woman so beautiful he fell in love with it. Pygmalion so fervently believed that the statue could come to life, it did!

In the 1950s a number of researchers began to realize that when people act on their beliefs, they create a reality to match those beliefs. They act on beliefs and expectations in so many consistent and subtle ways, they modify and distort reality until it conforms to their expectations—and all the while are usually unaware that they’re even doing it. Because human beings are social creatures who place a high value on social conformity, socially adept people can usually get others to go along. This phenomenon is popularly known as “The Pygmalion Effect.”

Dr. Robert Rosenthal, a professor at Harvard, collected the results of over 300 studies showing The Pygmalion Effect in action. In one such example, a group of children was divided into two classes that had no real differences at the outset of an experiment. One class was given to a teacher who was told that the students were high achievers and should do well. The other teacher was told that her class was composed of underachievers who needed special help.

By the end of the school year the class that was labeled “high-achievers” was doing better-than-average work. The other class, the “underachievers,” was doing below-average work. On careful examination of the classroom dynamics, the kids who were labeled “high achievers” were better-liked by their teacher and received more attention and approval. For the kids who were labeled “underachievers,” the situation was just the opposite.

We human beings naturally prefer people who live up to our expectations, and we unconsciously create situations which encourage the behavior we expect. If our expectations are positive, we encourage others to behave positively. If our expectations are negative, others behave negatively.

Clinical psychologist Rick Snyder of the University of Kansas has developed what he calls a “hope theory.” This theory assumes that human behavior is primarily driven by the pursuit of goals and suggests that hope comes out of a synthesis of two components that are vital for meeting our goals successfully. In scientific literature these components are called “pathways” and “agency” thinking.

”Pathways” thinking is the organizational aspect of Hope. It reflects our ability to identify a necessary path for achieving a desired goal. “Agency” thinking drives us along the pathway, and reflects our motivation and beliefs in our abilities to use a particular pathway to achieve our goals. Snyder’s hope theory thus recognizes that the individual is the primary source of the energy and planning that moves us from vision to action to the desired outcome. In other words, you are more powerful than you may think.

Hopefulness is a deeply felt neurochemical state that transforms our perceptions and actions in ways that can optimize our personal functioning and performance. According to clinical psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopefulness is not just a reflection of optimal function—it actually produces it by broadening a person’s mindset so creative responses are more likely and by building the resiliency to overcome obstacles along the way.

In all things it is better to hope than to despair, even though succumbing to fear and despair may be the easy way out. Newspaper columnist and ordained minister Charles L. Allen once wrote, “When you say a situation or person is hopeless, you’re slamming the door in the face of God.” More to my point, when we despair we’re also slamming the door on the God-ness that’s within us and all the potential and possibility that implies. I think this is the kernel of the truth in a French proverb which says, “Hope is the dream of a soul awake.”

But what if you’re having trouble finding hope? It’s a shitty world out there. How do you awaken your soul so you can walk forward without fear?

The first thing is to identify your heart’s desire and constantly keep this in mind as your goal. Keep your eyes on the prize.

The next thing is to work slowly but steadily toward your objectives. Find gratification and encouragement from intermediate “baby steps” along the way. Do not be discouraged by the distance between you and your goals. Remember: “Inch by inch it’s a cinch.”

The third thing is to surround yourself with hopeful people, preferably folks you may see as better or stronger than you. Share your dreams and fears and ask for their advice and help. Look for ways to help them achieve their goals. You will be lifted up by the good company you keep.

And finally, love yourself and others. Have faith and expect the best from yourself and the people around you. Treat yourself well and take care of others and your journey will just feel better along the way.

Hoping—not wishing—will make it so.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Dixie Chicks performing “I Hope”


le jardin suspendu

When I was a young man I left school for a year—a risky thing to have done during the Viet Nam War—and moved to Washington DC to work and experience life and hopefully get my head together. I lived for a time near the Washington Cathedral, which I visited on an almost daily basis for Vespers.

One day the organist played a selection called “Le Jardin Suspendu” (The Hanging Gardens) by Jehan Alain. It made a very powerful and long-abiding impression on me; however, in the forty-two years since then I had forgotten its name and that of the composer.

But I never forgot the emotional impact hearing the piece created in me.

When Henry and I talked on Christmas Eve, he asked me to send him some examples of the song “Ave Maria” from my music collection. Henry was mainly interested in the well-known version by Schubert, but as I was searching I found a composition by Alain and it was enough to jog my memory.

Jehan Alain was a gifted organist and composer who joined the French army when war was declared in 1939. He was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider. On June 20, 1940, Alain was assigned to reconnoiter the German advance on the eastern side of Saumer, and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his rifle, killing sixteen of them before being killed himself. He was buried by the Germans with full military honors and was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery.

Alain was only twenty-nine years old and left behind a wife and three small children, as well as a catalog of more than 140 works which is viewed by many to have been among the most original of the 20th century.

Alain had been born into a distinguished musical family, and I was able to find this performance of “Le Jardin Suspendu” by his sister. I hope you will enjoy it.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Marie-Claire Alain performing Jehan Alain’s “Le Jardin Suspendu”


almost nothing

I’m taking a break from one of my infrequent marathon phone calls with Paco—he’s taking a lunch break and I’m pushing one of my cats (Tony) away from the keyboard and trying to get in a few words before the phone rings again.

I slept in this morning and there’s nothing much to report except that the possibility of a small writing project came in this morning (a lot of writing and very little money), as well as some suggestions from readers of other writing possibilities. Something is obviously in the air, but nothing concrete so far.

Yesterday I had Christmas supper with Val and his parents and had the best turkey I have ever tasted in my life. Val’s family always makes fun of me because I am, by German standards, too polite; so when I told them this was the best-turkey-ever, they naturally dismissed my compliment as nothing to put much stock in. But it wasn’t mere courtesy. Theirs really was the best-ever.

The secret: Mayonnaise.

Sigrid slathered the bird with a whole jar of mayonnaise and covered it with bacon before roasting it covered in foil, and it was the most flavorful and moist turkey I have ever tasted. Try it sometime. You will be amazed.

So this cooking tip is, at least, something.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Billy Preston performing “Nothing From Nothing”


small gifts

I must have been an unthankful and demanding child because one of the expressions I most remember my mother using is, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

As I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I have endeavored to feel thanks for gifts received, even if they’re in some ways less than what’s desired.

For example, yesterday I learned that oral arguments have been scheduled for Jordan Brown’s appeal to the Superior Court asking that his trial be remanded to the juvenile courts where it rightfully belongs by any civilized standard. Arguments will be presented in Pittsburg on January 25, 2011. While I am anxious for Jordan’s freedom to be secured (yesterday if not sooner!), a timetable for the resolution of his case is beginning to emerge as if from a fog, and I am thankful for that at least.

Last night Henry and I spent Christmas Eve together via a two-hour phone conversation. While I would have preferred we were face-to-face, I am thankful for the closeness we experienced despite the physical distance. We spoke at length about past Christmas memories and of the shared void in our Christmas today.

While our bereavement separated us in the early years after Holly died, I am thankful that it is now a shared thing which binds Henry and me close. No other living persons knew Holly as we did, and no one but Henry and I can console one another in the same knowing ways. I’m thankful Henry is there for me, and I for him. This is no small thing, but compared to the aching depths of our loss it is a small consolation. Yet I am grateful nevertheless.

Yesterday as I made the rounds to friends by phone, I heard stories of money lost, health compromised, friendships and relationships strained in this world of woe. And yet in all those stories I found evidence of the persistence of the human spirit and of the spiritual connections between us providing mutual support, hope, and solace in so many ways large and small. Thankful.

Whatever may be happening in your life, it’s my sincere Christmas wish that you receive your heart’s desire, whether in large portion or small—as much as is possible under present circumstances.

Merry Christmas!


Groove of the Day

Listen to Alanis Morissette performing “Thank You”