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.