Reasons to experience different destinations


Allow me to flip back to a 2008 post that ruminates on the benefits of travel.

Travel, as we know, is a change of place, an alternative experience, a break from the daily routine.

There are some good reasons for moving around:

1. See things from a different perspective. We humans share one planet. Travel helps us view the world through the eyes of other people. We learn quickly that we're not all that different from one another. Sometimes we find that others have already solved problems we've been pondering with no success for some time.

2. Going someplace new also stimulates the mind. We suspend our routine thought patterns and freshen up the mind. ( We touched on this in How to foster creativity some time ago)

3. Travel is a great way to recharge energy levels. Everyone has different needs. Some of us need quiet time in solitary pursuits, others feel the need to socialize with new people and maybe even speak a new language. Travel gives you the opportunity to re-energize based on your preferences.

The New York Times offers an interesting initiative in its travel section: the paper has a regularly updated photo project appropriately called, "Why we travel" that captures personal reflections and images showing people in many corners of the world as they're experiencing life on the road. It offers great insight into our interactions with one another and with the environment, whether the location be urban or rural. See Why we travel.

If you're looking for more reasons to leave your home for a few days, you can look over Larry Bleiberg's Seven Reasons to Travel published in the Dallas Morning News.

And since this is October, another quick reference to Fall: a friend of mine in Vancouver told me recently she missed autumn in Ontario because in British Columbia many trees are evergreen and you just don't see the variety of colour you do in the central and eastern part of the continent.  As a reminder of the richness of nature, here are some  inspiring photos to celebrate the season.

The photos above are by Duilio Zane. Many thanks.

Making important deposits

While air travel is generally safe, aviation accidents still occur.  When civil airplanes go down, we are jolted by the news. Loss of life is often the result.  We are shocked at the news because over time we have become lulled into a sense of security by the remarkable safety records of an ever-improving industry. By boarding planes that regularly take off and land without incident, we have become somewhat desensitized to the wonder and also the danger of flight. We board planes as we would trains or ships or buses.

The "Miracle on the Hudson" on January 15, 2009, then, was all the more amazing for the fact that a fully-loaded commercial airliner crash-landed in a New York river and all 155 people aboard survived.

Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger is the celebrated pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 who successfully ditched the Airbus A320 into the cold water of the Hudson River after a flock of birds disabled both engines.

Recounting the incident, he said something worth noting:
 
 "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

His series of "deposits" over the years saved 155 lives on that January day. 

This powerful idea of deposits and withdrawals was championed by author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey when he used the metaphor of the "emotional bank account."  It's the concept that if we consciously make regular, purposeful contributions to a relationship, then when a crisis happens,  the size of that accumulated deposit,  measured in earned trust (or in professional skill in this case), makes all the difference to a successful outcome.

Captain Sullenberger's words are a good reminder: may we all make deposits in the things that really matter to us.


Notes: 

1. The photo is courtesy of Wikimedia under creative commons terms. The reference is here.

2. Captain Sullenberger's quote appears in this AARP magazine article referring to a conversation with journalist Katie Couric.

Creative connections

Art Fry had a little problem that vexed him: when he sang in his church choir, the bookmarks in his hymnal kept moving around or falling to the floor.  One Sunday in 1973 he recalled that a colleague at work, Spencer Silver, had developed an adhesive.  The glue wasn’t very marketable, but it did have some unique properties: it did not leave a residue, and was strong enough to stick to things but still weak enough to remove easily. Fry decided to apply some of the adhesive along the edge of a piece of paper.  His bookmark problem was solved.
 
You may have heard the story before. Fry and Spencer worked at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, also known as 3M. From that simple idea the company developed the product that we all know as the colourful Post-it notes, now sold around the world.

This story illustrates a point about ingenuity.  As Apple founder Steve Jobs summarized: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Jobs’ life is an example of how varied experiences can come together to inspire creativity. The idea of calling the company “Apple Computer” came to him from spending time at an apple orchard in Oregon where he attended a spiritual retreat.  Jobs also spent some time at an ashram in India and experimented with calligraphy in a class at Reed College. These were experiences that were quite different from daily life in the suburbs and stoked his creativity. These same memories later shaped his thoughts about simplicity and design, which he so famously applied to the computer business. When Apple built the Macintosh computer, the company hired musicians, artists and poets along with engineers.

Another important innovator, Leonardo da Vinci, also saw the value of those inter-disciplinary connections.  He wrote, “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."  

A contemporary expert in thinking, Edward de Bono, believes that “creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”  

That’s motivation for all of us to get out there and try different things...


A related stories:  
How to foster creativity, previously in this blog.
How great business innovators are made (not born), from Fortune magazine. The article refers to two recent books.

Note:
The Leonardo da Vinci and Edward de Bono quotations are collected in BrainyQuote, a very useful site.

An award for a pioneer and a salute to children's television programming

I was so pleased to hear that Linda Ellerbee will receive a prestigious award next month for her lifetime of work in broadcasting and journalism.  It's especially nice because it highlights the importance of news programming for children.

She is the pioneering journalist who created Nick News with Linda Ellerbee for Nickelodeon in 1991. Before that, she had a long career at NBC and also at ABC.  A singularly independent-minded person, Ellerbee has won many awards during her career.  You may remember her as the anchor for NBC News Overnight and also as the anchor for the ABC series Our World.  What sets Ellerbee apart is her writing style and her confident delivery.  Always clear and direct, she has the ability to present the essential core of issues. Many in network television considered her irreverent. You may remember her signature sign-off on News Overnight.  She always closed the broadcast with this: "....and so it goes."

In many ways, Ellerbee has maintained a child-like curiosity about the world. This served her well when she started her Lucky Duck Productions company and proposed a news program for children. Always a hands-on manager, she serves as executive producer, writer and anchor of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee. It is the longest running children's news programming in North American television history.

The show has won every major television and journalism award usually associated with adult programs.

In September,  the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) will be handing Ellerbee it's highest award for "a lifetime of hard work and leadership," as the awards chairperson says in a press release.  (The RTDNA is the largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism.)

Nick News is not afraid to present topics that are difficult for children, like the Afghan war, AIDS or gang crime in big cities; but it does so with a sensitivity and understanding of its audience that is very special.

In our rapidly-changing, complex world, it's important that children are not only entertained, but also informed about issues in the news.  As Ellerbee points out, kids "just can't escape the world." Children have questions about what they see and hear in the media.  The challenging topics in the news need to be explained and presented in a way they can understand and also in a way that takes into account their emotions and psychological development.

I applaud Ellerbee's achievements.  Let's not forget that we depend on today's children to provide better solutions for tomorrow.

(2011/08/14)

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Notes:

Nick News is only available on the Nickelodeon network. If you'd like to get a sense of Ellerbee's writing and some of the topics the show covers, take a look at the Nick News web site.

You can see several profiles of Linda Ellerbee on YouTube.  Ellerbee is an outspoken cancer survivor and also an author of several books.  I found this one interesting, even though it precedes her work on children's television. A more recent interview is here.

For those of you who were around in the 1970s and the '80s, you may recall that CBS used to present news information for children on Saturday mornings.  The CBS segments were also outstanding examples of explanatory news writing. Do you remember "In the News" ?

The Big Hole

In the same year that Jesse James robbed his first bank, some younger boys on the other side of the world were playing alongside a river in South Africa. The year was 1866. The place the boys called home was not that different from the American West. They lived near Hopetown, a small community on the northern edge of the Karoo desert, near the Orange River.  It was a day like many others. On that particular day, one of the boys found a pebble with a yellowish tinge on the ground. He liked it and decided to keep it as a toy. Sometime later, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs handed it to a neighbouring farmer, who asked about it because he enjoyed collecting unusual stones. The farmer eventually passed it along to a wandering peddler. The traveller in turn sent the stone in an ordinary envelope to a man who knew something about gems and minerals in another town hundreds of kilometres away. It turned out to be a rather special find.  Dr. William Atherstone of Grahamstown identified the stone as a 21.25 carat diamond.  It was the first diamond found in South Africa...and what a diamond.

Eureka

A large gem was cut from that original crystal and it was given the name of Eureka, for its historical significance.  A year later, it had achieved fame and was shown at the 1867 Paris Exhibition.

Back in Africa, Lady Luck seemed to be wandering around Hopetown in disguise. About three years after Erasmus Jacobs had given the pebble to his neighbour, that very same farmer, a man whose sharp eye for gems evidently had become even sharper, did not misread a second opportunity. He came across a young native shepherd who had found another stone. The farmer liked what he saw because he immediately turned his back on his own livelihood, trading practically all of his animals to the boy in exchange for the gem. In giving up five hundred sheep, ten oxen and a horse, Schalk van Niekerk made his fortune and changed the future of South Africa.

The shepherd had found a large crystal of 83.50 carats.  Van Niekerk sold it for $56,000.  It made its way to Europe and was fashioned into the spectacular 47.69 carat, pear-shaped Star of South Africa jewel.

It started a Southern diamond rush.

Birth of a mine

In a very short time, 800 claims were staked on the little hillock believed to sit atop vast diamond fields. The hill, "Colesberg Copje," stood on land owned by the DeBeers brothers.  Miners arrived in their thousands and, ant-like, started working their way down into the ground. The DeBeers company was founded at this time by Cecil Rhodes, who had arrived at the beginning of the rush and rented water pumps to the miners.

The hill soon vanished and the site became known as the Big Hole. From 1871 until 1914, many thousands of men, using just basic hand tools, picks and shovels and trowels, dug deeper and deeper, eventually removing more than 2,700 kilograms of diamonds.  The town of Kimberley sprang up at its edge.

The Big Hole is still there, 463 metres wide and 240 metres deep. It has since been filled by about 40 metres of water that accumulated over time.  The Hole is one of the largest hand-dug pits anywhere in the world. More sophisticated mining operations continued underground far beneath the hole for some time. Altogether, the mine shafts extended to a depth of over 1,000 metres.

As an immigrant living in South Africa, I visited Kimberley with my family back in the 1960s. Being a child at the time, I could identify with 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs.

My dad snapped the photograph shown above.  The place is impressive. When you see it for the first time, your stomach churns.


Notes:
For other giant wonders, including the Diavik diamond mine in Canada and another one in Russia, see Top 10 Strange Holes in the World

Artists

It's a beautiful summer day in Vancouver. The wonderful thing about a lazy weekend afternoon is that the mind feels free to wander back and forth, from ideas about the future, to things lived in the past, to concepts we rarely consider during the busy work week.  I'm thinking about movies, books and conversations about creativity. Browsing through this blog, I run across something I had posted a few years ago. It seems to fit with the present train of thought:
 

The posting was about a quote from American novelist William Faulkner in an industry newsletter sent to me by e-mail.

I had been wondering how to define art. That's a difficult and subjective thing.  Yet there it was, in Faulkner's words, clear and neat:

"The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by 
artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when 
a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

I don't know if you agree, but I think that's very good indeed.

It's a good reference point for a summer day thinking about movies and stories and illustrations.

Thoughts on the debt limit debate in Washington

It has been difficult to watch how polarized U.S. politics has become in recent years, and especially how acrimonious and partisan the debate on the debt ceiling has been in Washington.  Most of all, it has been painful to observe how President Obama seems to have been unable to lead from the front and forge a path forward. The Republican party has instead found a way to force the President into an unseemly compromise on spending cuts and has at the same time appeased its more conservative members who see the world in very simplistic terms.  While most public opinion polls in the U.S. show that Americans prefer a balanced approach to managing the country's finances, an approach which would include taxing the wealthy and reducing military spending, politicians in Washington have so far been unable to craft a deal that matches public opinion. They have focused instead on winning partisan points.  The country's party leaders appear to have sought ideological, self-interested victories instead of focusing on nation-building (or should I say "nation-saving"?).  It appears the crisis has weakened President, who has found it exceedingly difficult to fix the political mess in Washington he said he wanted to clean up when he was elected.

It will be interesting to see, when we look back, whether this crisis proves the President lost his way or whether it shows him to be an understated but sophisticated leader.

More info:

> Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times that Obama is a "diminished president."

>Across the Atlantic, however, Tim Stanley at The Guardian newspaper sees things differently, arguing that Obama "looks like a winner." He says the President's passive approach has paid off and his centrist stance will help him in the next election.

(Check the monthly archives on the right for more posts.)

Vancouver rain

It certainly rains a lot in North America's Pacific Northwest. From a climatic perspective, starting in Northern California and moving up the coast of British Columbia to Alaska, the prevailing conditions are those of a temperate rainforest.  While the summer months are usually drier, most of the year the rains come steadily.  This results in luscious vegetation and tall tree cover. The forests are full of moss, and new saplings grow easily from the trunks of trees long dead. Things just seem to grow anywhere and everywhere and the earth is in a constant state of renewal.

While these growing conditions are perfect for plants, the constant precipitation can make humans rather gloomy. Regan D'Andrade, a Vancouver writer and teacher, wrote about this a few years ago. Her little essay was inscribed on a rock at Kits Point, overlooking English Bay.  Her words are worth sharing. The inscription reads:

"Vancouver is famous for its rain. It can rain here for weeks on end, but it does not usually bother me. However, several years ago I found myself coming close to being thoroughly disgusted with the rain.

"I walked home one evening in the pouring rain, mumbling under my breath the whole way that this weather was only suited for ducks. The building I lived in was large and square, and it surrounded a brick courtyard. I came around the corner into the courtyard and there, to my amazement, was a beautiful Peking duck, in a huge puddle in the middle of the courtyard, quacking and splashing with obvious delight. I had to smile, glad that such joy could be found in the grey wetness of such a day.

"I have often thought that we do not have nearly enough words for rain, especially as this was once a rainforest. There is booming rain, whispery rain, rain that lulls you to sleep, and rain on the leaves which sings you awake; there is soft rain, hard rain, sideways rain, rain that makes you instantly wet, and rain that leaves soft kisses on your cheek, like the kiss of a butterfly.

"Rain brings us all the shades of gray, but it also brings us the wonderful greenery that surrounds us and blesses us."

Related posts:

Venice in the rain
Ottawa rain and a storyteller from the past (Hemingway)
Toronto evening

Military drones

At the outbreak of the First World War,  Italian General Giulio Douhet wrote that when a force gains command of the air it has the ability to render an enemy harmless.  It became one of the pillars of aerial strategy. Through many conflicts past and present, that concept has continued to evolve.

We've all read accounts of the military use of drone aircraft in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Currently, the United States has approximately 300 of these unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in operation. They have been so successful that they represent the fastest growing fleet of aircraft in the arsenal.

The Air Force is now testing a bigger, more advanced aircraft with the aim of establishing another first:  building an unmanned attack vehicle capable of landing and taking off from the crowded, pitching decks of aircraft carriers.

The Northrop Grumman X-47B is the sleek plane in question, and it has already flown from desert bases. It is now being prepared for testing on carriers.  You can see photos of the aircraft in this Smithsonian Air and Space magazine article.  Some pilots are not happy about this development, but others see the advantages.

Meanwhile the Predator and Reaper drones used by the military continue to record hours of covert video images. The material collected so far is so voluminous that the armed services cannot keep up with all the information.  The New York Times explained the situation last year in an article entitled Military Is Awash In Data From Drones.  With so much information, no one in the intelligence field is likely to be questioning the benefits of these flying robots anytime soon.

The desire to control the skies continues to push us into new territory.

Related post:
Two new planes on the frontiers of civil aviation

Innovative journalism in a digital world

One of the wonders of digital media is its potential to change the way we share information.  For journalists and educators, it's opening up a whole range of interesting possibilities.

A good example is The Guardian newspaper's interactive timeline of the Arab Spring uprisings. The Guardian's detailed graphic tracks events in seventeen North African and Middle Eastern countries, from Algeria to Yemen, along a timeline that began on January 9, 2011, with the first protests in Tunisia. Each country is listed on the bottom of the graph, with a a path moving forward toward the horizon. The "map" has roll-over icons of different colours representing different types of events: protests,  political moves, regime change, and international or external responses.  A  slider device allows you to move forward and backward in time by clicking on it and moving your mouse up or down. Links are supplied to newspaper articles. It's an ingenious, comprehensive tool that has attracted the attention of web surfers.  You can see it here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline


Another innovative site is the online home of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan group that uses the internet to push for government transparency. It does so by bringing together some impressive data-management tools.  One example is "Poligraft," which scours an article or a web site for information related to points of influence connecting key people featured in a story.  The article is presented on the left side of the page, while the data filter presents a report in a companion column to the right. It shows, for example, aggregated financial contributions by associations to a particular cause or their support for particular politicians.  I tested it by pasting the web address of a Globe and Mail newspaper article about two Toyota plants in Canada. In seconds the right hand column produced a report that highlighted references to General Motors and Chrysler and outlined their relative contributions to the American Democratic and Republican parties in pie chart form.

The Sunlight Foundation shows you how the tool works here:

http://poligraft.com/vyJf

Another innovator is Common Craft, a company founded by a Seattle-area couple.  Common Craft presents complex ideas in easy-to-understand cartoon videos.  Here's an example that explains how the U.S. presidential elections work:

http://www.commoncraft.com/election

Designer Jonathan Jarvis shows another fine use of internet video in explaining the U.S. credit crisis. It was part of his thesis for the Media Design Program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

http://vimeo.com/3261363

These innovators show us the great possibilities for digital media and global networks to provide a better understanding of complex issues and the easy dissemination of public information. What a wonderful time it is to be journalist or an educator...

Vancouver moment

We talked recently about some San Francisco impressions. Now that I've lived in Vancouver for a while, I've done a lot of walking around and, naturally, have accumulated impressions about this city as well. Yes, it rains a lot. But the air off the Pacific Ocean is always clean and the summers are never muggy.

There is a little parkette above West 8th Avenue, where you can sit under the shade of trees and look northward across the city centre to the mountains. It's a nice patch of landscaping with grass, patio stones and benches with planters, tucked in behind an office tower on Broadway Avenue. This little oasis is elevated on the Fairview slope, and like so many properties in town, is bordered by an evergreen hedge. What's unique about it, however, is the view it offers of this fortunate city.

When you stand near the hedge, you can see over the neighbourhood rooftops, over the water of False Creek, to the tall city buildings and the North Shore mountains beyond. You also get a glimpse to the west of English Bay and the waters of the Georgia Strait.

It's a tranquil place, especially after office hours. It's nice to be there when the sky clears after a stretch of cloudy weather. Twilight can be special.

On certain quiet windless evenings, wispy layers of white cloud hang motionless just below the coastal peaks, hugging the trees on the mountainside, leaving the tops clear.

Looking between the buildings over to the west, you can see the cargo ships on the glassy water of English Bay turn on their lights as the sun disappears behind the silhouette of Vancouver Island beyond. The lighthouse at Point Atkinson blinks on and off, signalling the arrival of nightfall.

It's a place and time that soothes in so many ways...


Photo credit:
Thanks to Jason Antony, who made his shot available at sxc.hu

Additional Links:
False Creek
Point Atkinson pictures
English Bay
Vancouver Island
Georgia Strait

Previously in this blog:
A seal and a ferry in the Strait
False Creek at night
English Bay view

Challenges

Sometimes we think we have challenges, but honestly we don't have any idea of what we are capable of doing.

Here's an example. As I walked into a Starbucks coffee shop the other day, I was surprised to see a dwarf hunched over in the corner. He seemed to be wrestling with a backpack on the ground. Not only was he very short, but he had no arms; only small stumps extended a few inches from his shoulders. He was tugging at the straps of the backpack with his teeth, trying to lift it up and turn it around. He looked like he was maybe twenty or twenty-five-years-old.

I watched for a moment as he fought with the backpack and its contents, trying without success to arrange things with his teeth, pulling and lifting. I wasn't sure what to do. No one seemed to be paying any attention. I don't know if he was hoping someone would step forward to assist, but I decided to ask.

I said, " Would you like some help, or would you rather do that yourself?," wondering if this way of posing the question would do, not wanting to sound condescending. He said "Yeah," with a puff and a smile of resignation, and I felt relieved.

Even with the use of my hands and arms, the task was not easy. A computer laptop had fallen out of the backpack and was pushing a black rain jacket onto the floor. The backpack kept flopping open. I finally got it arranged and then found that zipping it closed was not easy either.

When I was done, he asked me to sling it over his shoulder, leaning forward and extending his right stump towards me. The pack was heavy. Once we got it on his back, he thanked me, grabbed a donut he had placed nearby with his teeth, and walked over to a counter. I picked up my coffee order, turned and saw him walking out the door to stand at a bus stop, where he juggled the donut in his mouth, angling his face to the sky to prevent morsels falling to the ground.

I don't think he was the type of person to worry about how he was going to get things done; he just somehow did them.

As I walked away I thought: what an obvious reminder that was, out of the blue, to be thankful and count my blessings. And what a reminder from a stranger that "not trying" should never really be an option...

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(For more posts, click on some of the blog archive links in the box on the right)

San Francisco

So much has been said about San Francisco. From the Golden Gate bridge to Fisherman's Wharf, and from Lombard Street to Nob Hill, the city offers memorable experiences. They connect intrinsically with Hollywood images, tales from history and unforgettable melodies (just three examples among dozens: Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding, San Francisco [Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair] by Scott McKenzie and the unforgettable I Left My Heart in San Francisco by Tony Bennett); on a trip to the Bay area these personal experiences link to so much popular culture in your psyche that unless you're writing a tourist guide made up of simple lists of things to see and do, words just seem inadequate to describe the sensations of a visit there.

My wife, son and I spent four days in San Francisco and were lucky to visit during a four-day stretch of clear weather. The overriding impression I will keep with me is the general brightness of the city and, naturally, the steepness the downtown hills, which are even more inclined than one might have imagined. Many buildings are white or off-white in colour and in the sunshine it feels like you are enveloped in luminosity; walking around in that kind of brightness requires the use of shades, as light comes at you from many directions, reflected and direct. It's a wonderful feeling on a spring day when you crave the warmth. Waiting for my family outside a corner grocery store near Telegraph Hill, I leaned back against a sun-washed wall, felt the heat, and closed my eyes and melted in all that brightness.

San Francisco also appears to be the most Mediterranean-like of the cities that I've visited in North America. While Southern California and the American Southwest generally exhibit strong Mexican and Spanish influences, San Francisco reminds me of some of the cities of the northern Mediterranean: places like Genoa and Nice, for example. The steep slopes and the tight homes built on them use similar building methods, a European aesthetic, the same use of space -- garage ramps graded at challenging angles to the slope of the hill, or external stairs connecting homes on different levels or linking pedestrians with roads on separate parts of a hill...

Balconies with flowers; the constant breezes blowing in off the ocean or the waters of the bay; large urban trees providing welcome shade, but also colouring the streetscapes with splashes of green; the aroma of espresso at the outdoor tables in the North Beach neighbourhood, the church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi rising nearby, it's facade painted - what else? - a bright white.

Impressions that will linger for a very long time...

Links:

>Bay City Guide
>A list of top ten things to do in San Francisco can be found here.
>San Francisco Lonely Planet Guide

Mindfulness

I've been giving a little thought to this concept of "mindfulness," the idea that we should live in the moment and clear our minds, keeping free of distractions.

It's an age-old concept that has been practiced by followers of various philosophies and religions. It's a form of meditation that helps many cope with the accelerating pace of life in modern times.

Zen practitioners talk about concentrating on simple things, like tooth brushing, or just sitting alone in a room, and focusing entirely on the present: the atmosphere in the room, the sensations we feel, our breathing. The mind must be clear and still. It should not wander outside the room. It should not recall past events or bring up thoughts of the future.

One thing about this has stimulated a little internal debate. I raise a question: if we could master this type of mindfulness, wouldn't we be just like the animals? I'm sure they live mainly in the moment. But isn't thinking like a human being what makes our species unique? The ability to consider abstract concepts is an advanced mental skill. Most animals don't seem capable of that. Without imagination, we would not have built our civilization. Without planning, we would not have created cities, advanced medicine or developed agriculture.

So in the end we can't devote ourselves completely to the practice of mindfulness. It's really about using meditation as an antidote to our increasingly schizophrenic existence. It's about restoring a balance.

Re-training ourselves to focus on the present is a useful tool that we can employ when our humanity, stimulated by the rush of moving forward, conditioned by splintered thoughts and multiple distractions, is at risk of falling into a state of unhealthy mind-body imbalance. Finding ways to still our thoughts and just "be" -- here and now-- , is a positive way to reduce stress. Then we can return to work on next week's agenda or discovering the next renewable energy source.

A shoemaker's tale

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde


In David McCullough's popular and detailed biography of John Adams, the second U.S. president, the writer includes a little anecdote that highlights the value of taking a positive approach to life, no matter what one's circumstances.

During a particularly difficult time in his life, after he lost the presidency, Adams, writing to a friend, said he wished he had become a shoemaker. Adams's father, a man he deeply respected, had been a shoemaker. Another close friend had also been a shoemaker. McCullough tells the story of how Adams remembered walking around Boston on his rounds as a young lawyer. He often heard a man singing behind the door of an obscure house. The man apparently had a wonderful voice. Adams decided to find out more.

"One day, curious to know who 'this cheerful mortal' might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. 'Sometimes,' the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. 'I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,' Adams remembered. 'Which was the greatest philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?' he would ask when telling this story."

"Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, 'It is difficulties that show what men are.' "


(From McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster (paperback), New York, N.Y., 2001. Pages 570-571.)


Notes:

If you'd like to read a review of the book John Adams, here's one from the New York Times: "Plain Speaking."

David McCullough has won two Pulitzer prizes for biography. You can learn more about him here.

Photo courtesy of Miguel Ugalde, through www.sxc.hu.

(Check out the blog archive for other posts)

Pew faux-pas




A paper clipping, found in an old cookbook lying around the house, reads thus:



Church Bulletin Bloopers


1. Don't let worry kill you. Let the Church help.


2. Thursday night Potluck Supper. Prayer and medication to follow.


3. Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.


4. For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.


5. Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.


Jack Lalanne: "Igniting change"

The death of fitness promoter Jack Lalanne after a lifetime of healthy living was a reminder that a life well-lived is worth pursuing. Well into his 90s, Lalanne was exercising regularly and preaching about the need to get off the couch, get our bodies moving and eating well. By all accounts, he was an amazing man, performing feats of strength and endurance at an age when others struggle with walkers in nursing homes. He appeared regularly on television, a medium that he started using in 1951 when he launched a local show in San Francisco, working to convince us that taking care of our bodies was the best prescription for a better life.

His passing has brought his message sharply into focus again at a time when so many people are overweight, eating poorly and feeling the effects of the diseases of prosperity: cardiovascular problems and diabetes.

The father of the fitness club phenomenon, Lalanne was famous before bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and fitness celebrities like Richard Simmons.

From the moment he changed his dietary and fitness habits in his teens when he was addicted to sugar, all the way to his death as a great-looking man of 96, Lalanne showed us that good health is about making some basic choices and then following up with appropriate actions.

A number of web sites have posted some of his remarks as writers reflected on his contributions. I like this one, because it speaks to our need to make life changes, no matter what your age:

"I train like I'm training for the Olympics or for a Mr. America contest, the way I've always trained my whole life. You see, life is a battlefield. Life is survival of the fittest. How many healthy people do you know? How many happy people do you know? Think about it. People work at dying, they don't work at living. My workout is my obligation to life. It's my tranquilizer. It's part of the way I tell the truth — and telling the truth is what's kept me going all these years."

For someone like me, for example, who at age 50 still has a sweet tooth, the clearest call to action is this one:

"I don't care how old I live; I just want to be LIVING while I am living!"

Well-said, Jack, and thanks for the wake-up call.


Notes
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The photo of Jack Lalanne is courtesy of Nathan Cremisino and Wikimedia Commons. It shows Lalanne at a ceremony in September 2007 in Venice Beach, California. Other photos, from a variety of sources, can be seen here.

Lalanne's web site, featuring a collection of his videos, can be found here.

More quotations from Lalanne are featured on this site.

Community service

Recently, a retired priest shared a personal experience.

The priest explained that for a period of some years he had been part of a small volunteer group. This group was formed in the parish to arrange regular visits to a nearby correctional facility that housed 700 prisoners. Every Saturday, the priest accompanied "the committee," as he called it, to the prison.

He was struck in particular by the efforts of one of the group's members, a man whom the priest described as having "great faith." It turns out the parishioner was a former police officer, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who had retired from the force after 22 years of service. He had then joined CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

These new duties apparently did not prevent him from remaining devoted to his religion: he attended Mass every morning, and continued visiting the inmates on weekends.

The priest marvelled at how a police officer, who for decades had worked to send offenders to prison, could now devote his time to helping people behind bars.

I'm glad he shared this reminiscence. It serves as a reminder that we can always make an effort to recognize the needs of fellow human beings, regardless of the circumstances.