counterbalancing the evils

Me and the family just got back from a week in Hawaii. It’s the longest trip we’ve taken together, distance-wise. And it is nice to get away.

It’s also nice to come home. Settling in at home again, I picked up my (audio) book of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, since I’ve been nibbling away at it all year. I discovered that Charles had come to end of his voyage, and he was ready to give his readers his opinion on traveling.

He is a great observer, after all. The whole book is filled with his close observations of what he sees. The meta-significance of his travelers would not escape his analysis. In Victorian style, he gives his advice on travel:

“No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils.”

It’s not for everyone. And he didn’t even have to deal with Jetlag! I’m not going to be myself for a while. Except I did really enjoy seeing new things, and stepping outside my usual life. I escaped to the Green World and came back transformed.

Lots of people talk about their summer vacations, and not many of them are able to adequately express their changed perspective. I am grateful to my serendipitous reading of Darwin to save me from trying. After all, I’m still worn out from all that relaxing and I’m trying to merge back into the high-speed freeway of my life

My essay this week will stand on the shoulders of another.

His final word about traveling, is that it “ought to teach him [the traveller] distrust, but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.”

In addition to seeing new things and understanding this world we live in, we also get to learn that the world is full of really nice people. When we get vulnerable to others, it seems to allow others–from all over–to step up and be kind.

For a man who was about to change humanity’s perception of their place in the universe, he began with a great appreciation for people’s good nature.

Second Chance

In the middle of summer, my strawberry bed is producing well. It’s a fight between the birds and me to see who will get the ripe red berries first. I have tried to leave the berries on their mother plants, to let the green recede to full redness. The birds are not as patient as I, and will peck at the red bits if they see it.

Berries that are hidden under a leaf can stay intact, but the brighter they are the more likely they will be seen.


I’ve learned to pick them faster, or I won’t have any. I’m not always prepared to eat them right away. I would leave a little pile of pink-red-greenish berries on table or the counter.

Simon cat found them, and would bat the round things off to the floor. Bad kitty!

New plan: put the delicious berries in a dish.

And there the berries are safe, waiting for me to wash and eat them.

I know strawberries are best when fresh, and I have a treasure from my garden.

I was getting ready to eat them, really, when I see the berries have dissolved into rottenness.

I have failed. I am too late and I have lost my chance.

My berries will not fulfill their strawberry destiny. All the work I put into building the strawberry bed, installing the watering system, and planting them –it has all come to nothing.

Why did I let this moment pass? Why did a squander all the work that made these berries?

I’d been looking forward to these berries for months! Why did I falter right at the moment they were at long last ready?

What’s wrong with me?

And then I remember.

I will get another chance. Very soon.

The new green berries will ripen. The whole system of the world is fashioned around second chances.

Each strawberry is a poem of abundance–how many seeds does one berry really need? There are more than enough.

True, strawberry season will end when the cold hits. But it will begin again.

I’ll do the work to keep my harvest, but I can be a little easier on myself. There is margin for error.

Thinking hard so I don’t have to

It’s halfway through summer. With all the long days, summer feels like it is lazy. I am not so good at lazy and I woke up this morning ready to start making plans.

Whenever I make a plan, the goal is to set up a system so that I don’t’ have to think about it. Thinking is strong medicine; it’s best to keep it in reserve.

I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He names two systems for thinking, one fast and one slow. The slow one is the one I am talking about keeping in reserve.

The fast one is the one I want to use all the time. It’s a kind of thinking that’s barely thinking–practically a reflex. Some of the basics are things like “Am I thirsty?”

These are things that a baby knows.

For more complicated kind of thinking, I have to set up a structure to make it easy. And that takes work.

A good example is learning the multiplication tables. Seven times nine requires a lot of thought, until I make a point (as a school child) of memorizing the multiplication tables. Once I took the time and effort to put all that information in my easily retrievable memory, it was easy.

The memorization was hard, but after that it was easy.

I have found that many things work that way. If I put in the time and practice for stuff I do–or stuff I PLAN to do–repeatedly, it will save effort.

In the past few years, I have started several new jobs. Since these jobs rely on me to use my brain, for every single new job I have had to learn a set of documents, files processes and systems that are necessary to do the work.

And then there are the parts of the job for which there are no processes or systems. Those parts I have to make up as I go along. Those are the ones that require gathering the information, determining what’s relevant, making a decision and taking an action.

When I am new in a job, I have to think about every decision and action I take. There are a very few things I am sure of–username and password are often the first.

Then I have to go through and figure out the systems and processes for each thing. It takes several months before I’m sure of which ones have a system and which ones are in the make-it-up bucket.

Every workplace has gaps. If those gaps are actions that need to be repeated, then I make up my own system, my own folder and files. Once I have made that decision, then I don’t have to think about it anymore. I just process it and leave my mind free for the situations I don’t have an answer for.

My job is a game I play, a game in which someone else creates the rules. I have to play by the rules or I don’t play anymore. And the rules do change.

I am also allowed to make up my own game. And that is what I do when I come up with a personal project.

If I am serious about making my plans a reality, I have to create a system and a process–a schedule if possible–to let that plan be easy. If I have to think too hard, I will very likely never do it.

That kind of thinking takes effort. It’s hard, and ponderous, and it is way more accurate. That’s the slow thinking Kahneman talks about in the book.

That’s why I like to find a patch of free time, to think about what I want to do, figure out the outcome and the steps it will take to do it. Take it slow, think it through and set it up so that I don’t have to do it again. At least, not for a while.

Can the world be saved by Beauty?

The name of Dorothy Day has been popping up in my readings lately. She’s a religious role model for the Catholic Church, and a writer. I decided to look into this person

I just finished reading Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. It was written by her granddaughter, so there were a lot of personal stories. Dorothy started as a Bohemian and communist in the early part of the 20th century. She was politically active and involved with the union movement and then a communist.

But she surprised her friends when she took a turn in the middle of her activism and joined the Catholic Church. As a convert, she took her Catholicism very very very seriously.

For her, the religious devotion and the social activism formed an alchemy that led her to start hospitality houses–basically homeless shelters–for down and out people who needed a place to go.

She had a never-ending soup kitchen in her hospitality houses, and she fed and sheltered people. She had a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that put forth her religious and political philosophies. It’s still going.

She wrote essays and newspaper pieces. She published books. And she shared what she had with people who needed it.

A lot of people admire her, and right now she is on the shortlist for sainthood.

I tasted ash in my mouth after I finished the book. What about her daughter? Didn’t a mother have some responsibility to keep her child safe and give her a good chance in life?

I don’t romanticize communes. I spent time in and around them and it seems a very messy solution. The book underlines some of that mess.

I knew I didn’t have the picture of Dorothy Day that most people did. This book didn’t give me the reasons why so many admired her. I needed to read more. I picked out Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.

That sounded like admiration. The author Robert Coles had known Dorothy, and he wrote the book with a lot of conversations that they had. So there were stories and her self-interpretation of her life. The picture emerged.

I did like her humility and her intensity. She believed intensely in what was right, but could back away from taking herself too seriously just in time. Holding a high standard in one hand and mercy in the other.

That could create a crowd of admirers. Faithful readers of a column, that might not ask too deeply about how her daughter had not been given enough options in her life to make good choices.

But life is messy. And Dorothy Day was trying hard. She was actively looking to help the needy.

The needy aren’t so easy to help. The needy will steal and drink all the alcohol. Sometimes.

I could see how she made some ultimate sacrifices. And also how in more than one sense, the sacrifices were pointless. The need was too great.

That’s they mystical part, how she believed in what she was doing despite all evidence to the contrary.

I’m not convinced that her methods work. But I am not convinced they are worthless either.

I’ve spent a little time looking at her life. She was very intense. I would not make the same choices that she did. And her choice had very broad effects. She lived a marvelous life.

Know what I mean

Re-visiting some classics, I read “A Modell of Christian Charity” which is a sermon by John Winthrop given to the Pilgrims of America on the Mayflower

This is the sermon where he talks about being “a city on a hill”, which I just this second discovered is a TV series on Showtime.

What? A Pilgrim preacher said something that is now a ShowTime series?

Before it was on TV, it was quoted by Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Reagan.

It’s a good quote.

I’m doing a new project exploring American literature, and this is one of the FIRST big deals for America. (You can check out the project here. Please subscribe)

I’m going back to the beginning and making a list of the significant writings in America.

Reading this sermon was part of the research. It’s not long–only 9 pages on the PDF I found.

But let me say that again. It’s 9 pages of a SERMON. These puritans had stamina for preaching. 9 very dry pages. I’ve heard a lot of sermons, and this one is not like any I’ve ever heard. If it were preached in America today, the whole church would be snoring.

And the good part is on the last page. He took a long way round to get to the part that no one can forget.

And I have to wonder, could he have done with a little editing? Could those first 8 pages be dropped?

Maybe his audience needed to hear that part first before the good part could sink in. I’m not a Puritan. Winthrop was. Maybe his crowd needed the jackhammer of scripture references, and question & answer exposition.

The Pilgrims were very serious. At least their sermons were. My crowd is not that serious. I am reminded of another author, Terry Pratchett, saying serious is not the opposite of funny…Funny can get through the keyhole while serious is still pounding on the door. I’d spice my speeches up with a little laughter.

But it can take some doing to get to the part where it gets through. With writing it take building the right foundation. For me, as a writer, I often have to sneak up on myself to even know what it was I was trying to say.

I don’t know what I mean until I have sad it.

And even then, I am pretty sure I left a lot of material unsaid.

Deceptively, once the bell is rung, it seems so clear and pure that the climb it took to ring it seems inconsequential and unnecessary.

I don’t know why, and I don’t know the exactly amount of extra it takes to ring the bell. But it takes it. The switchbacks enhance the view.


DIY dolphin

We are getting ready to leave our 1950s house and do a very period thing. Our California family is going to Hawaii.

Just like Elvis and the Brady Bunch.

Unlike them, though, the girls in our family have decided to really swim. It’s all Veronica’s fault. She loves the water.

Most of her life, she’s been perfectly happy to splash in the shallow end with floaties.

Most of my life I’ve been satisfied to keep my head perfectly dry and my feet mostly on the ground.

Chris grew up with a pool, so he is the best swimmer. He worries about Veronica. He would not be able to relax with Veronica in the water.

Me neither really.

So, once again off to swim lessons. We’ve done it before.

THIS time though, there is a shark nipping at our feet.


We are going to the big vacation and we need to take this thing seriously.

A local college student is home for the summer and she offered up swim lessons to the public.

Perfect! Veronica can learn to swim.


This could be the moment that I do something I’ve never done and learn how to do this thing I insist my little one do.

I swim like a dog. Head up.

Time I learned to swim like a person.

Today is the third lesson.

I do a lot of things a lot better than my daughter. Fold sheets, for one.

I do not swim better than she does. She already looks like a dolphin.

I am a DIY kit whose instructions are missing the last page. There are a lot of parts, and some of them are more important than others.

Kick with your feet together…And don’t rock your hips in the water. Keep your head tucked

and *GASP* don’t forget to breathe!

Breathing is the most important part. The most immediate part, anyway

What looks from the outside to be a single continuous fluid motion

for me

is a jigsaw puzzle

Without a picture


I am very good at breathing.

I am expert at many many many uses of legs and feet and arms

Not swimming.


Something new, right?

I’m proud of myself.

and I’m not so happy to feel so ridiculous

My teacher tells me I have all the pieces. I think she is sincere.

But the pieces aren’t the picture yet.

And one of the other important things, close to breathing, isn’t even one of the pieces.

It takes a lot of strength to do this.

I may float like a champ, but I’m trying to move. And I use all the muscles that are quite happy to remain unused in every other activity.

I pulled myself out of the pool and could barely walk.

It wasn’t until I got home that I could tell which parts hurt.

My arms. The muscles right beneath my collar bone.

Is this the joy of learning something new at an age when I’m supposed to have it all figured out?

The exquisite realization that I will never have it all figured out? The joy-pain of knowing I am terrible at something and doing it anyway?

My life is filled with the expected, with millimeter gains and games of small stakes.

I am willing to be weak and ridiculous to try something new. It’s a good practice for experiencing paradise.

Making it

“How’s it feel to be the man?”- Ben Folds

So turns out until very recently the American Coast Guard reported to the treasury department. That doesn’t make sense.

What does the Coast Guard have to do with the treasury?

I didn’t even know this strange fact until I read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. He told me a lot of things I didn’t know about the starting of America. Interesting to hear blow-by-blow descriptions of the decisions made from the biographical perspective of someone who was living at the time.

They were not at all sure that they were going to win over big ole Britain. It was not at all a sure thing. But they did achieve victory and started a new country.

Back when they were fighting the British all the shipments that came into America were British ships. Pretty much.

So it benefited the war effort for Americans to be pirates and take the cargo from the British ships. A lot of people thought that was a great idea. They got free stuff.

But then–surprise! –America won. Those ships that were sailing into American sports were not British anymore. They were American ships or ships bringing goods to America and taking away American goods. Our new country wanted to protect these ships. America did know that trade would make them strong.

After the war ended and America was setting up a government, Alexander Hamilton founded the treasury department. He needed to get revenue in the treasury as soon as possible.

I know the feeling.

For a nation, one of the best ways to get money is to have tariffs on commerce. People don’t like personal taxes for sure. So commerce is a great way to generate money.

Hamilton needed to generate money from these ships sailing in an out of America. He needed to protect those ships from piracy.

This was not an easy shift for the American pirates. Before they were sticking it to the man.

Now the tables had turned. And they were the man. Maybe they didn’t feel like they were the man but this new country that they had started needed them not to steal from it.

It was a choice:
Benefit from sticking it to the man, and preserve the status of rebellious victim
Make something

Making something is a lot harder. And there is no guarantee of success.

I could be pretty sure that I could be a successful troublemaker, if that was my goal.

Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson and many others worked to create something, getting paid in dollars while dollars didn’t even have meaning.

Makes me look at their faces on the dollars I use a little differently. Meaning is there to be made.

Odds on the Prince

“Thanks, we will call you.”

I believe it when they say that. Unsurprisingly, I am a very literal person. If I said it, I would mean it.

But not everyone means it. I wish I could figure out who did and who didn’t.

I just finished a book You Can Read Anybody. The author, David Lieberman, had a whole system for how to interpret people.

Straight up: People are not thinking about you.

Well, sometimes they are, but only to wonder what you are thinking about THEM.

Of the people who were thinking about themselves–which in his world, was everyone–there are people who are confident and those who are insecure.

The insecure people spend more time trying to present an image to other people, and there are certain ways they can be expected to behave.

It seemed very true to me–but then, I would believe it, wouldn’t I? Literal person that I am–and it seemed very sad.

Are we all really so self-centered and out for ourselves?

Reminds me of another book: The Prince by Machiavelli.

Lieberman’s book makes me feel like everyone else is a poser and trying to impress. I am most certainly not like that…am I?

Machiavelli describes actions he recommends the rulers should take. It’s easy for me to distance myself from this fictional prince. I am not the ruler of anything!

But Machiavelli’s recommendations spring consistently from the most insecure viewpoint. No ruler is ever secure. No ruler can take chances with uncalculated mercy on his or her subjects.

In his world, Princes need to be paranoid and as merciless as a sociopath.

Machiavelli was not a prince. It very well may be easier to advise merciless action than to execute yourself.

Pragmatically speaking, always bet on people’s self-interest. It saddens me to think that people are so predictable along such self-centered lines.

Which may be why I don’t read people well. I want to believe in people.

Or it could be that I am just as self-centered as everyone else, and I want people to agree with MY value judgments.

I’m not that much better than other people. And even these experts might not know everything. Machiavelli had just been fired when he wrote The Prince. It was a gift to his patron to get his job back.

I might get a little better at reading people with these books. I think I’d like to take what I learn and avoid the people who are not straight with me. That’s how I’d like to take my chances.


Let us follow the natural order of things and begin with the primary facts.

I once read “All living things die.” I know that the heroic nature of our modern life is that we have something to lose. We lose our life.

But while I still have my life, I can lose the lives of others around me. I have lost friends, acquaintances, and last year I lost my father.

This week I lost my dog.

Dogs are even more mortal than humans. Seven times more mortal, using the rule of thumb that 1 dog year is 7 human years. Lucy dog had 13 years.

She was with me for all but the first part of her life. She did not know my inmost thoughts, but she definitely knew when I came home every day.

We shared a house. She paid more attention to this family than we paid to each other. We had to make room for one another, and work with each other to get what we needed. She did this expertly.

She had to ask to be let outside, so that she didn’t pee in the house. I didn’t want her to pee in the house, but I had less grace about it than she did. I would yell, “Didn’t I just open this door to let you in, and now you want me to open it again to let you out?!”

But we helped each other out.

She persuaded us to get to know our neighborhood, because she was confident that we needed to walk in it.

And we did. With alternating gratitude and grumbling, we learned the way the seasons flowered over the course of her life.

Until we were entwined. Every time I opened a door, every time I finished a meal, she had a request.

Empty peanut butter jars had a purpose.

And now she is gone. And the crusts I cut off my daughter’s sandwich are unsent letters.

I didn’t know they were important. Now they are mournful. My love-demanding dog is gone. I’ve learned that love is created in the giving of it, even if it is unwilling.