If the Music Won’t Die, Neither Will I

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.03.34 PMHaven’t run in a while–it seemed like a great day to get back. 80 degrees in Rhode Island. Sun. When I got home from work, the world was happy and everyone doing his thing–the perfect time for sneaking off for a pre-grilling workout. But…the iPod was on red. Deep red. Would ten a minute charge be enough? I need tunes–ten minute charge. Exit stage left.  I needed the run. I needed the music–the same three playlists that I listen to every run… helps my meditation, and helps keep me from running backwards. I always mean to change the playlist but never do. Sort of like half the tasks we all have hanging like fruit waiting to be picked from a tree that just hangs and never gets eaten.

The music lasted–It lasted and lasted till the end of the several mile run. It was like the Maccabees and Hanukkah in iTunes land–the music should have gone a tenth of a mile, but it lasted all five miles.  A miracle even if it wasn’t oil lasting eight days.

I ran and ran and ran–too far for a first day back. I lack moderation. The music played. That made me want to run some more. I did.

The iPod on red. Music played. I ran. The iPod had more in it than I thought.

Sometimes, we have more in us than we think.

I consider this year–a very good year. A year of transformation. New job, new business, new voice. Getting things done. Quite amazing. Every time I thought I had nothing more to give, I survived. I made things happen. I became a better person.  Exhilarating.

I ran and ran and ran and the music never stopped. Each time I thought it would, it continued.

I remembered a lesson from Chinese medicine. I studied for a few years, never achieving mastery, but I learned some life lessons. There was a point on a meridian, not far from the knee, called zu san li. It translates to “three more miles.” When stimulated, it helps invigorate the patient. It was useful in constructing the Great Wall–legend has it that by using this point to treat exhausted workers, foremen could get three more miles of work out of them before they keeled over and died.

Pushing and pushing can be a bad thing–sometimes we go three more miles and burn out.

But it can also be the thing that makes all the difference, taking us exactly where we need to go–through the wall, over the hump, and in the place where we need to be. To the glory.

So, I ran until I knew it was really time to turn around–a few miles too late. I headed back. I waited for the music to cease. It never did. I picked up the pace. I listened more. I sprinted the last half mile.

The music never stopped. It made it to the end.  Sort of how it always seems to work out that way in life.

Food Extremists Who Are Worse Than Me

This is me. Entirely. I never made out with anyone in the produce aisle, but I feel strongly about food. I want to grow and raise what I eat. I want to eat healthy, to avoid packages. I do lots of things that are considered weird. I bake bread–it goes on the counter to rise at night so it’s ready to make in the morning. I make two types of yogurt–Greek yogurt, and filmjolk, both of which can easily be made into cheese, which I then mix with herbs from my own garden and spread on home-made bruschetta. If I could be perfect, in my own mind, I’d produce or trade for the bulk of my food. I have the land to do that now, and it’s going to get ugly–things planted everywhere–a landscaper’s nightmare, but my idea of heaven. My husband has advised me to “Stay the #$%%^ away from the front yard.” So far I have.

“People don’t like militants,” said my new friend with whom I was discussing food. Am I that bad? I don’t eat meat, I don’t like packaging, I try to avoid processed sugar, erring on the side of local honey and local maple syrup. I denounce pre-cut fruits in bags in the store and I think that the person who invented the Lunchable, is a marketing genius but the devil incarnate.

I never eat fast food–I told my son Chuck E. Cheese was the evil mouse. I haven’t taken him yet. There are much better foods to eat. Like the ones I grow myself.

I just ate my first salad from the garden. I made my own mayo for the dressing from eggs I got down the road–kidnapped right from the chicken at my request, the farmer put them  in the carton I brought from home–never even saw a fridge before they were converted into culinary greatness.

Maybe my friend is right. Perhaps I am a bit extreme. But not militant. I don’t spray-paint people’s leather shoes or threaten their eternal salvation if they eat shellfish or drink beer. I’ll even cook you a steak if you’re a carnivore guest, as long as it’s grass-fed beef.

I just think we’ve lost touch with our food and I think it’s time to find it. But I’m feeling a bit paranoid–am I really all that extreme? It’s time to engage in the great American past time of looking at other people to make myself feel better.  After all, I’m just a vegetarian–there are plenty of extremists out there worse than me.

Many  cultures don’t understand vegetarians. When I was in Russia, people would offer me meat. I’d politely decline. They’d say “Oh, just have one.” I said, “I’m a vegetarian, like Tolstoy.” Tolstoy was also a political extremist. That never helped, but it got me out of the beef stroganoff even if I had to starve that night.

Many of my students are Hispanic. Vegetarians are even less common in that space. More than one student or parent has, out of great concern, tried to send me to the doctors. “Vegetarian? You need to see someone about that.”

But am I really all that weird? I researched other diets. There are people out there who are far more particular than me. There are some really extreme foodies out there.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 6.18.03 AMI feed paleos all the time. Their food lists are like mine, if you cross off the meat. A list of restrictions that makes an Iron Chef competition look easy. Then there are celiacs, raw foodists, vegans, and locavores, each with their own lists of prohibitions, rules, and food prep nightmares. Muslims and Jews are easy–even though I technically need a second kitchen and a rabbi to convert me to really cook properly for my Jewish friends, there’s a tacit agreement that vegetarians are understanding enough not to use bacon grease in the home-grown French cut beans, and we’re good with that. It’s the culinary secret handshake. If only solving peace in the Middle East were so easy.

So, I do my best to eat my raw carrots for breakfast unobtrusively, while I greet my next-door colleague who’s busy avoiding wheat, apples, and lactose. We drink home-juiced liquids out of mason jars and shot glasses, and the leaves in my desk aren’t inappropriate for a school setting, they’re just a blend of black and fruit teas, some of which I grew and dried myself.

Am I that far outside the mainstream? Maybe so. We planned a work outing. “You two will not be bringing the food.”

“Your loss.” I thought, as I downed another shot of my friend’s juice–two beets, a banana, pear, and just one sprig of kale–and ate my home-made sauerkraut from a mason jar. It was pretty good. And it was all mine.

[Image: beginwithnutrition.wordpress.com–today this is a link because there are some awesome recipes here!!]

Financial Literacy Is Overrated

Robin Hood“Mom!”


“Can I borrow five bucks?”

“You’re five. What do you need five bucks for?”

“My Junior Bow.” We went to the Bass Pro Shop about a month ago. We passed by the hunting section. I wandered in looking at the bows. I don’t hunt. I’m a vegetarian Gandhi-loving pacifist. Archery is fun, though.

“You need this,” said Rusty, showing me a cross-bow so complex it required an auto mechanic.

“No,”  A few days earlier, after the banning of dodgeball hit the news, we’d discussed all the things you can’t do in schools nowadays. I learned archery in school. Now that we have land, I contemplated picking it back up again. I don’t want to kill large animals. A crossbow is unnecessary.

“How about this?” he asked. It was a huge compound bow. I don’t want to be on a Homeland Security list, either.

“No, a simple bow. Like Robin Hood.”

“Oh, you want a longbow.” Helpful Salesman advised they didn’t have longbows. This was the hunting section. Longbows aren’t best for killing. I didn’t want to kill anything but targets. Maybe even study kyudo, zen bow. Samurai hunted. Kyudo supplies should be in the hunting aisle.

Declan picked up something at eye level. I thought it was a toy. It was the Junior Bow. Helpful Salesman informed him that the $149 starter hunting bow was a real bow. Seeing my face, he advised that it was only available when you turned seven, but he’d put this one on hold. I thought that’d be the end of the subject. Alas, I was mistaken.

Declan has been scrounging, saving, and trying to earn money. When asked why, he says consistently, “For my Junior Bow.” He remembers the price, counts pennies, and makes piles of coins in Mr. Smiley, the bank my dad gave to me for my pennies and Declan now has on his dresser.

“Mom, I need cash.” He does this a lot lately. I worried that he was developing a drug habit he needs cash so often. He reminds me, “For my Junior Bow.”

Today, it was a whole five bucks–usually he scours the car for pennies, or tries to see if there’s change in my pocket.

“But it costs more than that.” I said.

“I know. You can lend me five dollars today. Then $144 dollars a different day.” He shrugged his hands in the air to illustrate this was basic common sense.

WHAT? At five, he can already fleece me into the hundreds? I’m not even saving for college. I’ve got two words for that–West and Point.

I’m in deep trouble with this kid.

He taught me a lesson. Financial literacy is dangerous. I’m canceling all references to the subject in my teaching. True, I think financial literacy is one of the most critical yet undertaught skills in schools. I always integrate it in my lessons, no matter what subject I’m teaching. I tell students who “hate math” that they can continue to do so–if I hire them for my business, I won’t have to pay them correctly. I win. But truthfully, finances are important.

Years ago, a student I’ll call Jonathan (that’s his name) brought me a bank statement.

“Miss! What are all these minuses?” They were overdraft fees.

“Did you put any money in this account? Here’s where you got gas, and where you went to the store.” There were three days’ difference between the two transactions.

“No. They forgot about this one so I went shopping.” He hadn’t realized that could take multiple days to clear. There may be a delay between when you spend the money to where the cyberbank delivers it. Ouch!

But now I had this little five-year old Alex P. Keaton staring me down for five dollars today so he could “borrow” $144 tomorrow. And the totals equaled out. Sans tax–that’s a lesson for a different day.

Money grows on treesTeaching financial literacy is dangerous. It’s too expensive. If the next generation knows more than Congress and the IRS about fleecing me for money, I’m going to be broke, no matter how much I work and how well the business does, taxes aside.

Today it’s $5, tomorrow it’s $144, what’s next? Real estate? “Mom, I saw this property down the road–it’s a fixer-upper, but I think I can flip it for a nice profit.”

Suze Orman and Clark Howard are getting put on the back shelf before it’s too late.

I’ll just tell the kid to watch Les Stroud on the Discovery Channel, and go into the woods to make his own Junior Bow. He can invest that $149 somewhere else.

But if I see him turn the cartoons even once for Financial News Network, I’m canceling cable.

[images: http://mafabaalaso.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/robin-hood-or-robin-bis/ and http://drboycefamilyfinance.blogspot.com/2009/04/recession-promotes-literacy.html]

How Much Manure is in Your Job?

The snow has melted. There is a really loud bird singing outside the window. Crocuses poke through the dirt, and the Yankees just got clobbered by the Red Sox–it’s spring.

Time for growing stuff.  This weekend, we constructed the garden. At the old house, I built a ton of raised beds built when my husband wasn’t looking. It was a suburbanish-urban area right under the flight path of the airport. Our yard was first thing important people and foreign dignitaries saw upon approaching the runway. Our urban homestead had the potential to make everyone smile.  I waved as planes approached the runway, hovering three feet over my treeline. The guy in the third seat behind the wing tipped his glass, waved back, mouthing the words, “Nice garden.”

“Thanks,” I mouthed back, “Enjoy your stay.”

My husband didn’t feel the same way about my homesteading. “It looks like you barfed vegetables all over this yard, like someone with ADHD invaded!” He wanted rows. I wanted production. I stuck vegetables in every pot, raised bed, and crack in the sidewalk I could. Production.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 6.01.39 AMWe’ve relocated to the forest and fenced in space for an epic garden–the kind that’ll feed a small nation through the winter. It required more than the usual couple bags of manure–it was time to get real, so I visited the family farm down the road. Ironic that I grew up in a rural area–we all laughed about chickens, tractors and cows, and now I want to be a pseudo-farmer.  I respect them. They work hard on behalf of the nation for very few accolades–kind of like teachers. We share a common affinity.

“Oh, we have manure,” said the farmer, leading me to the bags. Point to note, you must request  “aged manure,” or “composted manure.” It makes a difference. You can’t just let the cow poop on your carrots; that’s a health hazard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 6.01.23 AM“Why can’t I just poop in the garden?” my son asked looking to cut out the middleman and be naked in public.

“Can’t I use the cat’s litter box?” another friend wondered.

No. It must be aged manure.  I handed over the measurements, and faster than I could say “Jimmy Cracked Corn,”  three cubic yards of manure appeared in the middle of my freshly tilled land.

Three cubic yards of manure is a lot of shit. We’ve been telling poop jokes all weekend.

The size of the pile made me wonder–if I could measure all the nonsense I’ve put up with in my careers in a tangible manner, what would it look like sitting next to this pile? And whose job would have the biggest pile?

Would a lean startup have less than a corporation, because they are so quick to measure and move, whereas corporations would let the pile sit, waiting for stockholder approval? Would police and emergency personnel have a larger pile because are paid to put up with it, or would they have zero because they have authority to do something about it? Would teachers have insurmountable piles because we can’t pick up a shovel without three layers of approval, filled out in triplicate after a national test, and by the time we get the ok, three more cubic yards would have been dumped on top?

Martha's vegetable garden. Not mine. Someday.

Martha’s vegetable garden. Not mine. Someday.

Would government officials have big piles, or would theirs be kept to reasonable levels because they have can donate parts of their piles to the rest of us? Would theirs be compounded by the manure added by opportunists, lobbyists, and extremists?

Who’d have the largest pile?

I started to think it wasn’t the size of the pile that would matter, but what happened to it. Would we smile, pick up our shovel, and use the manure to make things grow or would we let it fester into a pile that grew ever deeper… How do we make a difference in whatever we do, enjoy going to work, and grow a beautiful garden of results?

One shovel at a time, I think. Never look at the pile in front of you, just take a shovelful, rake it around, and then plant some seeds. You’ll be eating carrots, radishes, and tomatoes in no time. Everyone else will be standing around looking at their piles while you feast.

[Images: hacer.org, green.autoblog.com and marthastewart.com.]

Carrying People Through The Sand

There is a story that runs over and over again in many different forms called “Footprints.” It’s about a person walking in the sand with God. You see the footprints. Two sets of footprints, and then, at times, just one.

Are you carrying others or being carried? Both are important.

Are you carrying others or being carried? Both are important.

The person laments to God, “God…these are the times in my life when things were most difficult. Why, ” he asks, “did you abandon me?”

God smiles. I imagine God smiling that sort of smile of love and amusement when someone has said something naive, bordering on stupid. “I didn’t,” God replies. “Those are the times in your life when you struggled. I carried you.”

We walk along the path of life, and we meet people. We connect. There is that moment of excitement–that period where we realize that our new friend is just the friend we needed. We exchange stories, plan activities, say, “Hey, me too!” a hundred times in deep conversation. We realize that through this connection, our world has changed in some way–sometimes radical, sometimes slight, but it has, indeed, changed. It’s “friend Christmas.”

We connect constantly–but we keep few. We gather an inner circle of people who together make, “the perfect friend.” We go to them for “their” things. We’d be fortunate enough to have one or two of these friends at any time. I look around. I realize I am lucky. In addition to my family, I have a compendium of others…my childhood friend, my sensitive friend, my friend of two decades who just sent me a photo, the friend who tells me I’m overqualified every time I discuss a career change, my girl-power friend, my “I can call you at 4AM” friend, my nothing-like-me friend from college, and some recent additions. Friend Christmas. I am blessed.

Once in a while, someone comes along that transforms the entire scope and sequence of our lives. I’ve had a couple of these, too. People who snuck up on me when I didn’t know I needed them. When I looked back, radical changes had taken place. Nothing would ever be the same.

We all have one or two of these people if we listen very closely. A mentor, a professor, a boss, a student. Someone who makes us see life very differently, through another lens–someone who changes our paradigm forever. I would like to think that maybe, if I live a good life, I have not only been the beneficiary of this magic, but I create this magic too.

I think “Wow, I’m glad I met this person. I am inspired. I have vision!” Sometimes I fail to see that on their road, and the roads of others, I serve the exact same purpose. I fill the holes, inspire, serve a need. And occasionally, I change a life that radically myself. It’s never all about me. I am this person, too. We are all this person. It is a blessing and a responsibility.

And so, I must say, “How has my life touched the lives of others?” Have I made a difference, even to those who my life has touched in the slightest measure?

We connect. And we fly.

We connect. And we fly.

In the geometry of life–in those paths that cross and intersect, those concentric circles enclosing those we touch–our acquaintances, our innermost friends, our families, and eventually ourselves–to whom we owe the most and rarely indulge–am I making a difference?

Today, I will do better by those who my life touches in the slightest measure, because I am grateful for those who have blessed mine. I want to be a better person, to have vision, to be the person I should be.

Touching lives is what teachers do every single day.

We smile, we give a kind word, and often we carry someone through the sand without them ever being aware. And a mediocre life becomes great. The challenge is this. I must always being aware, because I never know the moment when we change someone’s life forever. Sometimes, I never even find out.

[Images: eldersabin.blogspot.com and marymoxongardens.com]


Birds Don’t Go to Meetings

Flocking BirdsDriving down the road, I see a flock of birds in the sky. A flock of about 150 birds. So many birds, it’s like a giant cloud, except there is so much more grace and beauty.  They sail on the wind–all flying together.

Changing directions, zigzagging. In general, it should be a mess. Yet they all change direction together. With precisely the exact same angle, at the exact same time. It’s amazing. They don’t ask each other, they don’t have a meeting or a conference…they just…do. They fly together, not one bird left behind. They arrive at the same destination.

How does a person become the kind of leader who can coordinate that?  The kind of leader whose flock flies in the same direction, at the exact same time. The type that inspires people not to sit in meetings or conferences, asking each other, waiting for permission. That just…does.

How does a person become the kind of leader that inspires success, that rallies the troops, that lets their people soar above the clouds? Even in the face of the most remarkable odds, and the most impossible situations?

Study the birds.

Study nature.

And fly…

[Photo: Jeremy Seagraves–environmentalgraffiti.com]

A Formal Apology to Henri Matisse

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.53.48 AMI was looking at a picture of bamboo. I love bamboo. I have spent so many hours painting it. In my sumi-e practice, I have painted a million bamboo plants. In the beginning, I thought this was insane repetition. In Western schools you don’t sit and write the letter “e” a million times. Maybe that’s why I always flunked handwriting.

I used to sit and work on the same image or same kanji hundreds of times. Eventually, I learned, it was all the same. To create an image a thousand times is to create it once. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, a cherry blossom–whatever. The goal is to reach perfection. The reality is that perfection doesn’t exist. The perfection is, in fact, in imperfection. Sometimes, our drive to be perfect consumes us. We suffer. Practicing these arts teaches us eventually that the learning–the experience–is in the journey–perfection is just a destination to imagine in the meantime.

What I liked about creating sumi-e was that it seemed unfinished. The Western eye saw that and said “Oh, you forgot half, you moron.”  But truly, that was its perfection. How liberating to jump that line. To realize that simplicity was, indeed, complete, and that the mind’s eye was charged with filling in the details. That the truth of the image could lie in a single leaf. The mind does the rest. This totally changed the way I looked at nature.

Bamboo was always my favorite. I’m not sure why.  When I was younger, I always drew a couple things over and over. One was a big tree. It’d start on the side of a page, and cover half. Sometimes, I’d insert a river with a little boy fishing, a fence…Often the tree emerged in a graveyard. I always loved graveyards. Still do. The colonial graves would appear around the tree, one by one–always slightly out of artistic proportion, because every time I put in details, the picture got skewed. Seems a fitting metaphor for life.

Bamboo was different…a single sweeping line with a couple interruptions, flowing leaves.  The unfinished tree picture was always that…unfinished. The bamboo was complete in its simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.37 AMYears before I studied sumi-e and shodo, I lived in Russia for a short spell. I saw a Matisse exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There were tons of Russians standing around with hands on their chin contemplating a picture of a house that looked slightly less skilled than a similar picture I drew in kindergarten.  I stepped away, trying to hide my laughter at the scene of these art aficionados contemplating what seemed to be a child’s mess.  My friend Svetla was concerned.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “I’m just not sure why everyone’s so serious about that picture.”  Seems I’d thrown out a judgment. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too ignorant to suspect the magnitude of my own stupidity.

She proceeded to talk about line, form, and other things with which I neither agreed nor could have processed at the time. Sometimes life throws depth at us that we’re just not ready to ingest. I tuned out, wondering which subway station would have farmers with the best vegetables to assemble for lunch. I also wanted some cheese.

Years later, after I had studied years of Japanese sword, calligraphy, and art, I ran across Matisse again, seeing a full catalog of his works. I stopped. I noticed the mastery of each line, color choice, form. I looked at this stunning catalog, researching Matisse further–how he evolved from what I would have understood to be a “proper artist” to one who liberated himself from the constraints of the establishment to transcend the rules.  He was, indeed, a true master worthy of the time those dozen Russians with their hands on their chins spent contemplating his mastery.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.48 AM      This was an epiphany. I was finally embarrassed by my earlier assumptions. I took a moment to apologize to Matisse.

In Japanese culture, there is a concept of “shu, ha, ri.”  Shu: is when you learn something and repeat it over and over,  following the rules. Ha: you make it your own, adding style and flourish. Ri: You forget the rules. Leave them behind. Transcend them.

Henri Matisse was at “ri.”

This lesson never leaves me. I consider it when I think about  self-development, improvement, and simplicity. 1. Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. They are the truth. 2. Often times, society makes us stop before we approach “ri.”  Society laughs at “ri,” It cannot comprehend that degree of freedom, always forcing us into boxes, expectations, and rules.  3. In order to achieve our greatness, we must make that jump from the safety of the rules to the exposure of mastery.

All the great artists, musicians, thinkers, and creators were at “ri.” It’s difficult to understand, and harder to measure. Society doesn’t always approve, and often, it’s only in the end that people step back and say, “Wow.”

These are lessons I’ve learned, but not always practiced. I see that in my writing, in my approach to education, in my willingness to take chances in life, I often stop at “ha,” conforming to the rules of society when there is so much more to be done. Truth is, most of us do just that.

Only when we commit to take that last step, despite the fact we will be seen as non-conformists and outliers… only when we promise ourselves we will speak and act upon that truth, can we get to the level of “ri,” and change the world.

[images: ascalaska.net and wikipaintings.org]