Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mottos and the New Year

Motto comes from the Latin word “muttire,” which means to mutter, mumble, murmur.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my sister-in-law who passed along a great idea that she got from her son (my nephew) who got it from one of his professors—who probably got it from someone else, ad infinitum. So here’s my chance to pass it along to you.

The idea is to define your upcoming year with one word. Make that word your motto for the entire year.

My sister-in-law did this at the beginning of 2009. By the time December rolled around, she had an impressive list of accomplishments that were the result of living by her year’s motto.

Now I’ve never really been one to make New Year’s resolutions. But I think that a personal slogan is a brilliant way to start a new year.

So ever since I heard about it, I’ve been trying to define my word. As a writer, I feel a lot of pressure to make it the perfect word. Which is probably why I haven’t settled on anything yet. But there are a few choices in the running.

- Accomplish. I need to move my ideas out of my head and into the real world, so this seems like a good word to remind me to actually get something concrete done this year.

- Empower. This one’s probably out of the running because I don’t like the word. It’s been too politicized for my taste by every group that feels put upon by others. I want something that reminds me of my inner strength and ability to change things for the better, but this word doesn’t do it for me.

- Allow. Often when I’m reluctant to do something or just plain dragging my feet, I ask myself, “What am I waiting for? Permission?” Maybe this motto will be my permission to succeed with my online book and anything else I want to do in 2010.

- Flow. As in “go with the flow” or “let good things flow forth.”

- Participate. “Just do it” is already taken, so this seems like a good alternative. A reminder to keep taking active steps to make my life better.

- Not Helpful. I know what you’re thinking: that’s two words. “Not helpful”—which isn’t about not lending a hand—is another idea I got from someone else. If you’ve seen or read The Last Lecture, you know that it was given by Randy Pausch, a forty-something university professor who knew he was dying. The lecture is extremely inspiring and entertaining, but what really stuck with me was an interview with his wife. She said that when sadness or anger surfaced about her husband’s imminent death, she banished it with the words, “not helpful.” Her feeling was that these negative feelings reduced the time and energy she had for enjoying Randy’s presence while he was still with her.

I’ve been employing this “not helpful” attitude while we say goodbye to our beloved terrier mix—who will rate her own post at a later date—and it’s been helpful in remembering to enjoy her while she’s here.

If I spend a year banishing thoughts and actions that are not helpful to my mental or physical well-being, I may be able to actually accomplish my goals.

- Happy. I’ve spent way too much of 2009 worried, annoyed or frustrated about my lack of advertising work and inability to move forward with my book project. Perhaps a steady reminder to do what makes me happy can propel me forward.

- Balance. My balance is fine in yoga class, but outside of there I’ve been off kilter. Too much living in my head and not enough action or physical activity. A return to more even weighting in all aspects of my life may be just what I need.

- Risk. Success doesn’t come to those who play it safe. Maybe what I need to push me to new heights is a motto that reminds and encourages me to take chances.

It remains to be seen what my motto will be for 2010. If you keep reading my blog posts, perhaps you’ll see changes in my life that provide a clue as to what it is. Next December, I look forward to seeing the results of living by the word I’ve muttered, mumbled and murmured to myself all year.

Here’s to new beginnings, including a new decade. And to you and yours, I wish you a happy, healthy, [fill-in-your-own-motto] New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gift-givers and Tidbits

Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop known for giving gifts to children, but only after asking if they had been good throughout the previous year. His name in Dutch is Sinterklaas, which was corrupted into Santa Claus. In the 16th century, the Protestants said the one bringing the gifts was the Christ Child—or Christkindl—which got corrupted into Kris Kringle.

As I mentioned in an earlier post (Attics and Creative Sparks), the tidbits that define my posts will be a part of the interactive website of my children’s adventure novel. There are about 150 tidbits throughout the 30-odd chapters. And it was incredibly fun researching every one of them.

Each new fact, fable or bit of trivia was like unwrapping a little gift. I often had to wade through pages and pages of information about a given subject to finally find the one little nugget that became the tidbit. Whenever I reached an “I didn’t know that” or “That’s interesting” moment, I knew I had something. (Then I had to verify that it was actually true.)

Here are some favorites that I uncovered…

Light travels faster than sound, which is why you generally see lightning before you hear thunder. The lightning super heats the air, causing pressure that results in a sonic boom. This boom is the thunder. The rolling or rumbling of thunder is caused when the shock wave moves along the lightning’s path.


In medieval times, the poor slept on mattresses stuffed with straw. The rich, however, enjoyed luxuriously soft featherbeds, sometime set on top of a straw or woolen-stuffed mattress. Curtains or embroidered hangings surrounded the bed to keep out the cold. The bed and bedding were considered so valuable that they were often passed down in the owner’s will.


The term for sun reflecting off a still body of water is “sun glint.” When waves break up the reflected light, it’s called “sun glitter.”


Black, oolong, green, yellow and white tea all come from the same plant—the camellia sinensis or common tea plant. The difference in the types of tea stems from the manufacturing process, not the plants themselves.


If it wasn’t for the bubonic plague, beer steins might never have been invented. In the early 1500s, people still had no idea what caused the “Black Death.” Fearing that the hoards of flies in their midst might cause another outbreak of the deadly plague, the government of what is now Germany passed a covered-container law.

To comply with this law, common beer mugs had to have a lid. Someone cleverly made the lid hinged with a thumb piece so people could drink their beer with one hand—and the beer stein was born.

Around this same time, new techniques for firing earthenware were developed. Higher temperatures turned clay into a more solid, stone-like material. Beer steins were made of this new stoneware. The word “stein” is short for “Steinkrug”, which means “stone jug” in German.


The smoke produced by a fire is a mixture of water vapor, gases and extremely tiny particles—about 40 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The actual make-up of the particles and gases depends on what’s burning, which is why smoke can have different smells and be black or white.

As the fire is extinguished, the smoke particles cool and adhere to everything they touch. This is why the smell of smoke can linger long after a fire.


The term “scapegoat” comes from the Yom Kippur ceremony of Judaism where a goat is driven into the wilderness (escape goat) to carry away the sins of the people.


Most rainbows appear to be an arc, but that’s because we’re only seeing part of them. If you could view the whole thing (such as from an airplane), you would see a full circle.


I hope you enjoyed these little gifts of knowledge. And I hope that Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Pére Noel, Babbo Natale, Joulupukki or whichever incarnation you prefer fills your holiday with friends, family and fun.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Science and Survival

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

— Isaac Asimov, 1988

When I first graduated from college, I was afraid that I would never learn anything again. After all, I was no longer in school. No longer in a formal setting where learning was my only job. No longer being forced to study things I thought I had no interest in. (I didn’t realize then that one of the gifts of my college education was that I had all of the tools I needed to think and explore and gain knowledge on my own.)

But at the time, I was sure that entering the working world would lead to brain atrophy. So I decided to combat this demise by consciously tackling a subject that had never particularly resonated with me—science. Taking a formal class didn’t sound too appealing since I had just finished with that routine. So I subscribed to a science magazine for laypeople called Discover.

I can’t remember any article in particular that made me realize that I did indeed like science, but there must have been something—or an accumulation of somethings—that sparked my interest. I finally grasped that this was an exciting field that was in a constant state of transformation, methodically chipping away at some of the greatest mysteries and questions ever posed by humankind.

I no longer subscribe to the magazine, but I’ve not ended my love affair with science. Today, my teacher of choice is TV and the countless programs about geology, archeology, biology, technology and all of the other –ologies that captivate me.

Perhaps there are so many programs to choose among because discoveries (and cable channels) are coming to light at an unprecedented pace. I think this is due to several factors. First, we have thousands of years of observations, theories and research to build upon. Second, computers have accelerated calculations and experimentation so that hypotheses can be proven, or negated, with astonishing speed.

And third is the one I find most intriguing—the near-instant globalization of new knowledge. Discoveries are shared with the world almost as soon as they’re made. Everyone has access to that knowledge, which they can use to inform or influence their own work.

It’s never been easier for scientists to take a more holistic approach to their areas of study. And not just scientists. Historians, political scientists and researchers from all disciplines are using the collective knowledge pool to explain any number of past, present and even future events.

For example, questions abounded about why an ancient Asian warrior tribe abandoned their lands to a weaker people. We know from paleoclimatologists that central Asia around this time was experiencing periods of drought followed by periods of extreme cold. And we know from historians and archeologists that the warrior tribe was dependent on horses, while the other tribe raised cows.

A look at the animals’ physiology points to why the “weaker” people were more successful in handling the weather swings. Cows have three stomachs to process their food, allowing them to exist on a poor-quality diet. The horses, however, couldn’t get enough nutrients to survive. So the warrior tribe had to move to greener pastures (literally) or abandon their precious horses. Obviously, they chose to migrate.

Another example is the massive eruption in 1783 of the Laki volcano in Iceland. The ash cloud it generated covered most of Europe and caused harsh weather that destroyed both crops and livestock. After years of extreme climate changes, the common folk in France got tired of suffering severe food shortages while the aristocracy flaunted their extravagant indulgences. Their frustration eventually triggered the French Revolution.

So everything in, and out of, this world really is interconnected. And capable of altering not just the physical landscape, but the political one as well.

When you look at how formidable our opponents from the natural world are, it seems foolish for humankind to keep putting our knowledge into how to destroy each other. We need instead to pool our intelligence to figure out how to survive the next catastrophic event coming our way. We need to gain our wisdom at the same rate as our knowledge.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Treasure and Triumph

Treasure comes from the Greek word thesauros—which is also the root word for thesaurus.

Christmas is still weeks away (thankfully), but a dear friend has already given me a precious gift.

She’s about to move into a new house and is sorting through her belongings to separate trash from treasure. When we met for brunch this Sunday, she brought me one of those treasures.

What I received was a 9x12 envelope addressed to my friend in my handwriting. She pointed out the date stamp of June 3, 1985. Amazing to realize, that was half my life ago. Inside the nearly quarter-of-a-century envelope were four of my short stories and the opening chapter of a novel that I can’t even remember now if I ever finished.

I quickly flipped through the yellowing manuscripts, skimming the title pages, two of which I didn’t even remember. Brown rust stains surrounded the old paper clips. Corrections and additions were added by hand. There were also several different typefaces, indicating the various typewriters I had used to write the stories. (You know, back in the old days when we didn’t have computers on wireless, pocket-sized phones.)

The package also contained a hand-written letter on yellow legal paper—my favorite stationery at that time. Now anyone who’s ever tried to read a hand-written note from me knows how long it takes to decipher. So I put the package aside to examine later and went out to have a fabulous day of communing with many of my favorite people.

It wasn’t until later that night that I realized how special this time capsule really was.

The letter I wrote to accompany the birthday package of manuscripts was penned just hours before probably the most dramatic, life-changing day of my existence. My words chronicled what I was feeling right before this seismic shift.

The events leading up to the letter began in mid-March of that year. I went to San Francisco to visit my friends and scheduled a few interviews with ad agency creative directors while I was there. The first three interviewers saw my potential, but suggested I get more experience. The fourth one offered me freelance work, but I didn’t have the nerve to move across country without the promise of a steady job.

So I went back to Ohio and found another job that would broaden my work horizons. The day I sent in my acceptance letter (how quaint that sounds now), I got a call from the fourth creative director. He was checking to see if I was still interested in a job in SF and if so, could I possibly fly out to interview with the big boss. Ummm, yes and yes. One tiny sticking point, however, and I went on to explain about my other offer and how I didn’t want to string along this perfectly nice company. We finished our conversation that Friday with his promise to see what could be done to accelerate my hiring.

Early that Sunday evening—apparently just moments before I started writing the letter—my potential boss from the Columbus job called to ask if I would mind if my first week of work consisted of flying to New York City to observe a TV commercial being shot for the company. Ummm, no, I had no problem with that.

So that’s where things stood when I wrote to my friend. I’m guessing that I mailed the package during lunch the next day, which forever preserved the date for me. By that evening, the news the letter contained was already out of date.

When I returned home from the job I was about to leave no matter which suitor I chose, I got a call from San Francisco. My thundering heartbeat made it hard to hear the voice saying that there was no need to fly me out for another interview. Could I just start in two weeks?

There are not enough words in the thesaurus to describe the thrill—and the power—that I felt in that moment. It was an exhilarating rush of “I did it!” joy.

Touching this golden relic of my personal history transports me back to that period of triumph. More importantly, it reminds me of how much I want to create my next “I did it!” moment.

So my deepest thanks to my friend for this incomparable gift. Or should that be unrivaled gift? Unparalleled? Unique? Without equal?

Well, whatever the thesaurus says, it’s treasure to me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cranberries and Sharing

Native Americans prized cranberries—or Sassamanash as they called them—for their natural preservative power. By mixing crushed cranberries with dried meat, they could extend the meat’s shelf life, which is why pemmican was one of their diet staples. The local Wampanoag Indians generously introduced the Pilgrims to these precious berries and many other native foods to keep them from starving.

Turkey gets all the press around Thanksgiving (even if it’s just an article about having a turkey-less feast). But as much as I like the big bird and all the trimmings that go with it, the real focal point of the day for me is the people I spend it with. It’s about taking the time, making the effort to gather—and by doing so to say, “I’m happy that you’re in my life.”

I know that there are those who find Thanksgiving to be more curse than blessing. Many people don’t enjoy their family, or don’t have deep friendships, which I’m sure can make the day seem hollow. And not everyone even wants to celebrate the traditional way.

But for me, I love the whole custom—which may stem from the Normal Rockwell-ish celebrations of my childhood. When I was a kid, most of my relatives lived in Baltimore. My family moved from there in 1960, but wherever we were, we made the drive to Maryland for Thanksgiving.

Rerunning those days through the projector of my memory, I smile at how well they mirror the era. The women stayed in the kitchen and dining room, preparing the food and tables while catching up with each other and sharing family gossip. Remembering my grandmother’s extremely cramped kitchen, it’s a mystery how they managed. The men sat in the living room, watching football and drinking beer. They too, were catching up with each other and sharing family gossip, though in their “how’s business?” manly way.

Meanwhile, the kids went down to the finished basement to create the entertainment for after dinner. We were an imaginative bunch, using the dress-up clothes my grandmother saved for us and adding any other props we could find. The basement’s configuration offered the perfect setting for our homemade theater. There was a big, open space bounded by a wall of built-in storage benches at the back. Above the benches were curtained windows. Behind this wall was a narrow area where the washer, dryer and pantry all were. When it was time for the play to begin, we put chairs in the open space for our audience, used the benches as our stage and the laundry area as our dressing room.

All these years later, I have no idea of what our plays were about. What I do have, though, is warm, wonderful memories of being with my cousins and creating something together. And of course, basking in the applause of our parents and grandparents. What kid doesn’t remember the praise?

Not all my Thanksgivings have been great, of course. There was the teenage one spent in the hospital—though I did get to eat my first solid meal that day and I don’t think turkey has ever tasted better. And there have been years where the shadow of loss has darkened the celebration of abundance. But all in all, I have been blessed with happy days spent among family and friends.

I wonder if we would even bother to commemorate this day nearly 400 years later if the Pilgrims and Native Americans hadn’t held a joint, end-of-harvest celebration. After all, it was that spirit of sharing, of cooperation and gratitude that prompted the first Thanksgiving. (Too bad future dealings with this continent’s indigenous people didn’t demonstrate the same respect.)

It’s that same spirit we try to recapture when we come together to share our food and our time on Thanksgiving Day. A tradition I hope is preserved for another 400 years.

Pass the Sassamanash, please.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day and Influence

Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, is celebrated on November 11 because that’s when the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end the First World War. Unlike Memorial Day, which honors those who have died in service to this country, Veterans Day honors all military personnel, living and dead.

Since today is Veterans’ Day, it seems appropriate to write about my father, a Korean War vet. Thankfully during his military service, he was a supply sergeant—a job that kept him far enough away from the front that he could return without the physical or emotional trauma faced by so many others.

After the war, he married my mother, started the family I was to become a part of and went into sales to support the five of us.

Traveling was a part of his job for as long as I can remember. His territory changed and expanded as he moved up the corporate ladder and we moved from city to city. But the job still called for many nights away from his family and on the road.

When my father returned from his sales trips, he often had stories about people he met while on the road. Eating alone in a restaurant night after night was not his idea of fun, so he sometimes found other traveling salesmen (and they were all men at that time) to converse with over dinner. By sharing their stories with us, we learned about interesting products, new industries, different parts of the country and so much more.

Looking back at that simple act of sharing knowledge, I realize what an impact it’s had on my life. I seem to have an insatiable curiosity about most everything. Even things that aren’t inherently interesting—Velcro for example—can be fascinating when you start to learn more. (Case in point: After a hunting trip in 1948, George de Mestral removed the burrs that stuck to his pants and looked at them under a microscope. He observed little hooks on the burrs that grabbed onto the loops of the fabric. Shortly thereafter, Velcro was born.)

You may notice from my tidbits each week and even the content of some of my posts that I have fairly wide-ranging interests. I thank my father in part for this.

I feel my father’s influence as well when I talk to people I don’t know at parties, weddings, bars, on airplanes (sometimes) and at other places where we share time together. I believe most everyone has an interesting story to tell if you ask the right questions and take the time to listen. Engaging strangers in conversation often rewards me with good stories—or at least pleasant interactions with my fellow humans.

I’m sure as my father was relaying the lives of the people he met all those years ago, he had no idea of the effect he was having on his family. He was just being himself, talking about what he found to be interesting.

When you think about it, that’s often how we pass on habits, traditions, traits, and everything else we do that inspires or motivates someone else. It’s the small things—the unheralded moments—where we show the true nature of ourselves that often have the greatest impact.

For that, and thousands of other reasons, I will be eternally grateful that I get to celebrate my father on Veterans Day instead of Memorial Day. I only wish so many others could have been that fortunate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Halloween Traditions and Playfulness

Hundreds of years ago, Europeans believed that ghosts returned to the earthly world on Halloween night. Anyone who had to leave their house after dark donned a mask, hoping the spirits would mistake them for one of their own. To prevent the ghouls from entering their homes, people set bowls of food outside their doors.

I’ve almost finished putting away the Halloween stuff, which is no small feat considering that we have eight bins of decorations and lights, not to mention all of the oversized skeletons, tombstones, witches, etc. It’s a lot of work to decorate and undecorate every year, but I have so much fun, it’s worth it.

Our front yard provides the perfect spooky setting. We have a 10’ concrete retaining wall in front with a few ominous cracks caused by the shifting ground beneath us. Wrought iron fencing tops the wall along the street and up the first stairwell. Mature palm trees grow throughout the yard, with the fronds of the elephant palm hanging above the lower stairs. At the top is a landing, then another set of stairs leading up to our front porch.

From the street, you can see fake spider webs on the concrete wall, plus orange and purple lights that outline the wrought iron, porch railing and front of the house. As the trick-or-treaters open the iron gate—which creaks, naturally—and walk up the steps, they’re greeted with a graveyard on one side and a lit pumpkin patch on the other. On the porch is another scene involving a skeleton, rats, a giant bat and a disembodied head that talks to anyone who gets close enough to it. The kids are so engrossed in the decorations that they forget they’ve just walked up two flights of steps.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed hearing the little gremlins’ comments as they enter our haunted homestead. One of my favorites was a boy about five or six who told me that he didn’t think the yard was as spooky as it had been the last year. I feigned surprise that he wasn’t scared, then caught his father’s eye and shared a smile. Neither of us pointed out that he was a year older and prepared for what had obviously given him a fright the year before.

My all-time favorite comment, though, came from a little girl about three years old. After receiving her candy, her mother prompted with, “What do you say?” to which the little one replied, “I wanna eat ‘dis!” Now that’s genuine gratitude, child-style.

As much as I enjoy the trick-or-treaters, I have even more fun at the adult party, which we usually throw the weekend before. There are a core of about 30 of us who attend every year, though some years bring in even bigger crowds.

While we make it clear that costumes are optional, I love that the vast majority of my friends get into the spirit of the day and dress up. Costumes range from traditional to clever to topical—both balloon boy and Octomom were here this year.

Often the costumes lead to impromptu live theater. When three escaped convicts appeared at this year’s party, things began to disappear, including several of Octomom’s babies. (Don’t worry, the one in the freezer was rescued before any permanent damage was done.) Shakespeare might have had my friends in mind when he penned the line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Providing the setting for friends to allow their playful spirits to emerge is what makes the party preparations worthwhile. We may not don our masks and capes and wigs for the weeks leading up to Halloween like the young ones do, but we have fun memories and laughs to enjoy for weeks, months, sometimes years later.

That seems much better than a bowl of food for keeping unpleasant and fearful forces from entering our lives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Birthday Cake and Aspirations

In medieval England, small objects—gold coins, rings, thimbles, etc.—were added to birthday cake batter before baking. Finding one of these in your piece of cake meant you would experience wealth, a wedding, spinsterhood or whatever the object symbolized.

Three of my friends are celebrating their birthdays today. The youngest one is turning 50 (which just shows how old my friends are) and enjoying a week-long party with her family and loved ones.

It’s been interesting to watch my friends reach this milestone birthday. The celebrations have ranged from big parties to more intimate gatherings of close friends to please let this day pass with as little fanfare as possible.

While the party/no party choice is sometimes a matter of personality (some people just hate being the center of attention), I think it also has to do with how we view ourselves and what we’ve accomplished—or haven’t—at this age.

Turning 50 last year certainly made me take stock of where I was in life. It made me look (and laugh) at some of my youthful aspirations.

When I graduated from college and was ready to start making it on my own, I had three main goals for my life. The first was that I wanted to have a lot of fun. That was paramount to me after spending so much of my time during high school in the hospital. I’m happy to report that having fun has been and continues to be a driving force in my life. Of course, my definition of fun has changed over the years. But it’s still one of my primary pursuits.

My second goal, somewhat related to the first, was to be happy. For some periods of my life I’ve succeeded beautifully at this. Then there are other times where contentment was not on my radar. In retrospect, this ebb and flow of happiness seems simply to be a reality of life. Things beyond our control can happen and suck the joy right out of our lives. The trick is to find a way back to what makes you smile. Thankfully, I’ve been able to negotiate all of the detours I’ve encountered to date.

My last goal was to make my living from writing. This, too, I have done (at least so far), though not exactly as I planned. Optimistic child that I was, I gave myself a target age of 25 to become a published author, which was then to lead a few years later to regularly making the best-seller list. (Technically, I did reach the “published author” goal. At 23, I wrote two columns—one with a byline—in an internal life-insurance publication produced by my employer.) Luckily, writing isn’t a career that’s defined by youth, so I still have time to get published—though in my own way as I’ve noted in previous posts.

Because I haven’t abandoned my youthful dreams, I was able to approach 50 with a smile and a look to the future. My dear friends joined me for a long weekend of celebration at a nearby resort, where they delighted me by acting out an adaptation (created by my two BFFs from college) of my children’s novel. It was a grand way of bringing together fun, happiness and my writing.

It’s friends and moments like this that make my life so rich. No gold coins needed in my birthday cake.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spiders and Tenacity

Spiders that create webs (not all do) have glands at the tip of their abdomens that secrete spider silk. Different glands produce different types of silk (sticky for catching prey, fine for wrapping it, etc.). Though webs appear fragile, spider silk is actually five times stronger than a steel strand of the same weight.

For our annual Halloween party, I usually end up removing real cobwebs to replace them with fake ones. The imitations make for more dramatic decorations (and don’t reflect poorly on my housekeeping skills), but their engineering pales in comparison to the genuine article.

If you’ve ever paid attention to a spider’s web-spinning activity, you know what a marvel it is. To begin the classic design, known as an orb web, this eight-legged wonder attaches a fine thread to an anchor spot, lets out more silk and swings on the end of it to a second anchor spot. Then it walks back and forth on the attached filament, adding more silk with each trip to strengthen the line.

The next step is to create a loose loop and pull down on the middle with another strand to make a Y shape. Walking back and forth, the spider continues to create an outside frame for the web, plus spokes (like those on a bicycle wheel) that are all connected in the middle. The last step is to move from spoke to spoke, letting out sticky silk in a spiral design.

(This animation from does a better job of showing the construction than my words can convey.)

Sometime in August of this year, a cross spider* appeared in our back yard. I found it one day after accidentally walking through its elaborate web while cleaning up after the dogs. As I waved the sticky threads away from my face, I noticed the spider—which had a body about the size of my thumbnail—race to the curled edge of a nearby leaf for cover.

A few minutes later, I returned to find it hard at work repairing the web I had just destroyed. The restoration began with the spider eating the broken threads. Spiders are great recyclers and devour old or damaged silk to help them produce more.

Over the next few weeks, I made a daily check on my backyard friend’s welfare. One particularly windy day, I found it clinging to the thin threads, holding on for dear life with all eight legs. The next day, the spider was in a new location with a brand new web, probably because the powerful gusts destroyed the first one.

I couldn’t help but admire the tenacity of this little creature. When forces beyond its control took away everything it worked so hard to build, it simply moved on, got to work and started anew. I doubt there were any hand-wringing, bemoaning, “why me?” moments. Simply an acceptance that this is where I am now and if I want to eat, I better get busy.

It seems that I have a lot to learn from spiders. When I get pushed off course—as I’m experiencing now with my career—I need to ditch the self-pity. Learn to accept and adapt. Get out on the end of a thread, find new anchor points and start spinning a life around my changed circumstances.

Remind myself that I too, have something within me that’s stronger than steel.

* Thanks to Patricia Michaels of for identifying the species.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Attics and Creative Sparks

Ancient Greeks who lived in Attica, the peninsula that includes Athens, used to build a low, decorative wall above the main building to hide the roof. In time, these became enclosed and the space between known as an “Attic story,” later shortened to “attic.”

Five years ago, what is now my office was just unimproved attic space. To access it back then, you had to put a ladder into the front bedroom closet, push a 2’ by 2’ piece of plywood out of the way and shimmy around the clothes rod and through the cutout. Once there, you had to walk on the joists because there was no flooring. Loose insulation filled the spaces between, 100 years of dust clung to the rafters and you couldn’t stand upright except for where the roof peaked.

It was perfect.

Luckily, a friend—who has the design and construction skills I lack—shared my view. In a few short months, and lots of physical labor later, we went from wishful thinking to reality.

Now I not only have an office that I love, but also wonderful memories of building it. I particularly enjoyed watching my friend design on the fly every time some new challenge presented itself—and there were many in this quake-altered frame. My vision of “we could do something with this space” became a fun, creative challenge for her.

This is more or less what I’m trying to do with my book and website. Present a starting point for other people’s creativity. Offer the spark that ignites an imaginative fire.

I could say that this whole idea started because I want to help young people unleash their creative power so they can visualize and build a better world. But the truth is less altruistic. I simply want a way to publish my completed (finally) book.

After doing some research, it didn’t seem like going the agent/editor, print-on-demand or e-book route was quite right for me. So I came up with my own idea.

What I’m envisioning is a website—actually, more like a community—built around the novel that encourages anyone and everyone to upload their own work based on the story. This could be illustrations, videos, songs, animation, side stories, costumes, games, puzzles—whatever.

But it’s more than that. Readers also earn “extras” as they go deeper into the novel. Some of these include an animated map that tells where the chapter takes place. An electronic bookmark that at sign-in goes directly to the last page read. A highlighter, notepad, sketchpad, chapter summary, and other tools to help kids record key things about the plot and characters so they can create their own contributions.

Then there’s my favorite extra, the 3-6 pop-up tidbits in each chapter. These pertain to something going on in the story and provide interesting trivia (the Chinese had armor made of paper), as well as activities (how to create a quill pen) and behind-the-writing stories (one of the female characters was male in an earlier draft). These are much like the tidbits that frame each post on my blog.

I could go on and on about the other things such as the contests, polls, section for parents and teachers, etc. But the final site might look very different from my vision given my limited budget.

Or maybe if I get the right team working with me, it will be even better than I envisioned. Just like the attic where I’ve come up with these ideas.

Who knew that an ancient architectural adornment would have such a profound impact on my future?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cork and Thinking Differently

Cork comes from the thick, spongy bark of the cork oak tree. Slabs of bark are hand harvested from the trees 12 times in their 250-year lifetime. In addition to wine stoppers, bulletin boards and fishing rod handles, this renewable resource can be used for flooring and ground into concrete mixtures.

During dinner the other night, some friends and I debated about what to do with the wine cork. The bottle obviously belonged in the recycling bin. But the cork? Compost or trash?

Now this certainly isn’t the first bottle of wine that’s passed through my house. But recently, I’ve become even more vigilant about practicing “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which prompted the cork question.

This heightened awareness probably stems from San Francisco’s new law that requires everyone in the City to recycle and compost. Yes, you read that right. A law.

Now exactly who is going to make sure everyone’s banana peels go into the green (compost) bin instead of the black (trash) bin is another question. Perhaps we can draw from the staff that enforces the law stating that all pets kept outdoors must have access to clean drinking water at all times.

San Francisco has a number of unenforceable mandates that invite ridicule. Yet sometimes there’s a smart idea wrapped inside that legislative language, which leaves me conflicted. I admire the way our city often sticks its neck out and tries a new approach to the same issues bedeviling everyone else. Because it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon once someone else builds it. Or laugh at their construction if it fails. What’s hard is to be the one with the blueprint—and the guts to implement it.

So looking at this latest law, you can see the benefit in its intention to shift 75% of the City’s waste into composting and recycling programs by next year, leading up to the ultimate goal of zero waste by 2020. It’s a cheap and effective way to be eco-friendly. And recycling and composting programs can be set up quickly, making them a solution we can implement now.

Like I said, great idea. But a law?

Could we maybe have considered using education instead of legislation? Tried creating something that makes composting and recycling cool? Like hilarious videos on YouTube that get passed from friend to friend. An online invitation to upload funny or clever things—animation, songs, photos, poetry, artwork, whatever—that teach people how to create zero waste. Visits from celebrities to schools that achieve the best record of recycling and composting throughout the school year. That type of thing.

If we’ll take our willingness to think differently a step further, we might figure out how to use peer pressure instead of police pressure to achieve the same goals. Get people involved and excited in something that benefits us all. Compel them to comply with a motivating message instead of a toothless law.

Maybe that’s a way we can get this City to work better. Just a thought.

Oh, and that wine cork? It goes in the trash. At least for now. We have until 2020 for someone to think differently about how it can be collected and distributed to the flooring and cement manufacturers that can reuse it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Proust and Plunging In

People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.

— Marcel Proust

What is it about aging that makes us so cautious? I’m not talking about the “afraid I’ll break a hip” or “driving down the freeway at 35 mph” type of caution. But more like the unwillingness to take risks that I once wouldn’t have even considered risky.

I thought wisdom, not caution, was supposed to come with age. Perhaps there is wisdom in this carefulness—I’m just not smart enough to see it as that. From my perspective, caution just looks like fear. And I’ve never liked being afraid.

So what is it I’m afraid of? Spending my savings to fund my dream. Paying thousands of dollars to publish my children’s novel online and market it to the masses. (More about the book and website in future posts.) I’m afraid to risk my rainy-day bundle on something that might never bring in a dime—especially since there’s not a lot of cash coming in these days.

My younger self wouldn’t have thought twice about spending the money. (Of course, my younger self didn’t have a mortgage or want to retire in the next decade or so.) If I wanted something and had the wherewithal, then the decision was made. No second thoughts, no regrets.

I wanted to move cross country to San Francisco and spread my wings while putting down roots. Check. Quit my ad agency job to work on a novel. No problem. Take months off from freelancing to drive across country and then years later, more time off to focus on my personal writing. Done.

But now…I don’t know. Maybe. Sounds awfully risky. It might not work out.

What if work stays slow for months and months? What if I need every last cent of my savings just to pay my bills? What if I never get work again?

I can “what if” myself into a frenzy.

So I try to turn it around with what if I didn’t even have the money? What if I never earned it, or worse still, invested it with Bernie Madoff? Then I wouldn’t have this dilemma. Or this opportunity.

Am I too old to believe that the details will fall into place if I just head in the right direction? Am I too scared to have the faith that has allowed me to make bold moves before? How long will I cast about for a safety net, a guarantee, when I know life offers no such thing? Can I find the courage to trust that I’ll be okay no matter what happens?

Deep in my heart, I know that I really don’t have a choice. I either spend the money on my dream now—or spend the rest of my life being mad at myself. In that equation, the money seems a much smaller price to pay.

So it’s time to take a deep breath, let both feet leave the ground and dive into the deep end. Stay tuned to see whether I sink or swim.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cave Paintings and Instant Memorials

People first started illustrating cave walls around 32,000 years ago. While there’s some debate as to their original purpose—decorative, religious or instructional—these petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) continue to fascinate us, providing a connection to early humans.

My brother’s family had to have their beloved dog put to sleep last week. Gretchen the golden was 13, a good age for a dog her size. Still, the parting was sad, as it always is.

I found out about it in the morning when I opened my Facebook page. Fifteen minutes earlier and 3000 miles away, my niece had just posted “R.I.P. Gretchen” followed by a picture of the old girl. I clicked on Comments to offer my quick condolences and was shocked that I wasn’t the first to leave a sentiment. In the time it took my niece to type a response to me, another friend of hers had posted her sympathies.

Now I’m no stranger to the instantaneous nature of the Internet. Still, the speed with which this impromptu memorial sprung up and continued throughout the day astonished me.

This got me thinking about how much communication has—and hasn’t—changed since humans first started etching scenes from their lives on cave walls.

Our technology is so sophisticated these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s built on our ancestors’ ingenuity. We always use our past as a ladder to the future. Yet we’re so busy looking up that we sometimes forget to appreciate where we’ve been.

So here’s a quick look at a few of the clever inventions that made our modern interactions possible.

As noted above, humans began communicating in a permanent form using sharp stone tools, lumps of charcoal and berry-based paints on cave walls. The walls weren’t exactly portable, so later civilizations created clay tablets and a stylus made out of bone or bronze to engrave them. Depicting whole scenes in art form was pretty time-consuming (and wouldn’t fit on the tablets), so somebody had the great idea to use symbols to communicate rudimentary ideas.

The never-ending quest to improve the day’s technology led to the invention of papyrus, parchment and eventually paper. To write on these surfaces, people moved from sharpened reeds and bamboo shoots to quill pens—which dominated for a thousand years before being replaced by fountain and then ballpoint pens. Of course, the development of inks accompanied these innovations. And to further speed along our written exchanges, humans shifted from symbol-based writing systems to alphabets.

In short order, we added typewriters, electricity, miniaturization, logarithms and iPhones to our communications arsenal. All of which brings us to today and our amazing ability to instantly commune with others about our losses, loves and lessons learned.

An online memorial to a family dog clearly demonstrates how much our tools have evolved. But it also shows that the reason we communicate—to forge a connection with our fellow humans—is the same as it ever was. We just use a Facebook wall instead of a cave wall.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pomegranates and Social Media

The pomegranate gets its name from the Latin “pomum” (apple) and “granatus” (seeded). Seems like a good name for a fruit that has reddish skin and around 600 seeds.

I took my friend out to lunch the other day to thank her for creating my online portfolio. Knowing my fondness for beer, she suggested a brewpub in between our two homes. It was a hot day, which made the pomegranate wheat beer on the menu all the more appealing.

Pomegranate is such a trendy cocktail ingredient these days. Pomtinis (the best name, if not concoction) Pom cosmos, margaritas, punch—you name it. The color alone draws you in like a magnet.

So of course, we both ordered the pomegranate beer.

It proved to be the perfect accompaniment to our conversation.

As 50-something women who have both made a living on the creative side of marketing, we are dismayed and shocked to be more-or-less out of work. Sure, a few little jobs drib and drab in. Sadly, they’re not enough to keep either of us from eyeing our savings.

It’s disheartening to think that this is happening despite the fact that I’ve been writing advertising for more than 25 years. For over 20 of those years, I’ve been a freelancer and kept myself quite gainfully employed. I can’t put a number on my friend’s years as a graphic artist, but suffice it to say, she’s earned a “senior” job title designation. Yet here we both are, trying to remember what it’s like to sign the back of a paycheck.

Our lunch conversation touched on how we’re trying to, not totally reinvent ourselves, but retool ourselves for today’s social-media-dominant world. That’s why my friend is in school learning how to develop websites. As print sinks, online rises. By adding HTML to her CMYK* skills, she’s able to cast a wider net for jobs.

I too, am finding a migration from traditional advertising vehicles to ones I’m just now dabbling in. I’m seeing a lot of job posts for copywriters who “understand social media like they were born into it.” I’m about 25 years too old to fit into that category. But I do have the “active social network” they request. It’s just in person, not on the Web.

So now I’m asking friends and family to follow me into the world of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, etc. to help prove that I know how to start a conversation, build a community, encourage participation and bring in friends of friends. Just like I’ve been doing since I was a kid. Only this time, it’s online.

Because I don’t want to totally change what I’ve spent my career doing. But I am willing to make myself more contemporary, more relevant. Willing to add a little pomegranate to my beer.

*That’s industry-speak for adding computer skills to her print production talents. HTML stands for hypertext markup language (which is a fancy way of saying the code that makes web pages do what they do). CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). These are known as process colors, or the colors used in the four-color process—the printing technique that makes the junk mail you receive so enticing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Aristotle and Avedon

Over 2300 years ago, Aristotle observed the optic laws that make a pinhole camera possible. But it took until the 1820s for humans to figure out how to combine these laws with chemical processes to create modern photography.

A friend was in town visiting over Labor Day weekend and while she was here, we went to SF MOMA to see two exhibitions. The first was a Georgia O’Keeffe/Ansel Adams show titled Natural Affinities. The pieces were displayed to illustrate how each artist captured the natural world—often the same part of it—in their work.

I particularly enjoyed seeing so much of O’Keeffe’s work in person. Her paintings are even more alluring when you can distinguish individual brushstrokes and experience the vibrancy of color that no print can reproduce. It’s also easy to see photography’s influence on her work in the way she magnified her subjects—much like a close-up lens—to bring out their simple beauty.

This magnified beauty had a parallel in the work of the third genius on display—Richard Avedon. The retrospective of work from his entire career (1946–2004) featured his renowned fashion photography, as well as political and celebrity portraits. But the pieces we all found to be the most powerful were those of everyday people that he photographed in the late 70s, early 80s.

Enlarged to mural-size, these portraits of coal miners, carny workers, homeless and others seemed to radiate the very essence of these people. The epic proportions drew my eye to the tousled hair, dirt-encrusted fingernails and freckles that looked like paint spatters. I remember one photo in particular where the wrinkles under the man’s eyes resembled a river tributary system.

There was something about this magnification that made me realize these portraits were not powerful despite the people’s flaws, but because of them. The ordinary became extraordinary. The “ugly” became intriguing, at times endearing. I saw that, viewed through the right lens, anything is beautiful.

I left the museum with a strange elation that took me a few days to crystallize. What I experienced that day was the knowledge that bringing our limitations to light doesn’t make us less attractive, only more human. And our common, everyday humanity can be exquisite.

This has given me the courage to begin writing about my life, knowing that this will put my imperfections on display. You may view these as flaws. Or just what makes me, me. It’s a matter of perspective.

Something I’m sure Aristotle figured out 2300 years ago.