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.

i wanted him to say “you are”

this week

someone couldn’t see it

How I created
made it just right

The just right part
was what he wanted to cut

My arms crossed
WHY so always?

WHY so invisible?

Didn’t I explain it?
Why can’t you see?

I KNOW it’s perfect

Is it me? because its from me?

time capsule to the beginning of everything
arms crossed
Foo stamped

WHY not?

waiting to for the glance
for the words

“You are”

Because I am

How loud do I have to shout to be heard?


I am

yes, I am

Just right

I KNOW I’m perfect

I don’t want to wait for the glance or the words

I don’t know what you are

but I am.

Choosing Autonomy

When we first knew each other, Chris and I set out on a road trip to see his family. We got about halfway there–three hours in– before I realized that I had left my wallet and my cell phone behind.

The cell phone I could deal with. I could borrow Chris’s cell phone to check my voice mail and that would cover the bases.

But my wallet being gone freaked me out. Chris watched me with concern as I started to melt down. “Don’t worry. I can take care of anything we need.”

That didn’t relieve me. I felt the world shrink around me. I would have to wait on someone else if I wanted or needed anything.

He tried a different tack, “Think this through. What are you really missing?”


He asked how much it would take for me to feel like I had autonomy. I decided for this trip $40 would do it.

He gave me two twenties and I was safe again.

I trusted him, but I wanted to be sure that if I needed or wanted something I wouldn’t have to ask for it. I wanted the power to get it for myself.

I want to be the one working the levers and making the choices. I don’t want to need permission or assistance from anyone else. I want access to the choices. That’s autonomy, an environment where I can make whatever choices I want and even change my mind at the last minute.

I react pretty strongly when I perceive something encroaching upon my autonomy.
Unfortunately, I don’t always notice.

In his magnificent work The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek talks about how we have to have a range of choices in order to have liberty. If the sources of information I have are restricted, if they tell me only one side of a story, then I cannot make informed choices. Those who control the information are manipulating me into a limited choice.

Manipulation is not autonomy. It is coercion. It prevents me from making the choices that suit me best.

I get mad just thinking about it.

How dare someone else try to control me! I don’t want to be limited in my choices!

But as soon as I start to heat up I recognize an even more basic truth. There is another far more common way that my choices are limited.

I narrow my own options. I choke my imagination and restrict the possibilities.

So often I stick to what is known and what seems safe. I will get tunnel vision and not even realize there are other options.

They say that a rut is a grave with both ends kicked out. I get in ruts far to often.

The song says it well: Free your mind and the rest will follow. It is not something I can let up on.

worthy and unachievable

I am a perfectionist, and I like to get it right.

There is a satisfaction in arranging things, arranging data or objects and putting it all in its place.

I could do it all day long. I DO do it all day long.

I’m good at it. And yet, I can’t keep it all perfect.

There is no end to perfect. Because there is always something to get perfecter.

Makes me think of Mr. Incredible saying “Sometimes I wish the world would just stay saved.”

Then today I heard this:

Art is never defect free

It came from Seth Godin’s book Linchpin. Seth Godin was talking about how we are living in an industrialized, mechanized world but we humans are neither. And if we want to be valued, we have to do the things that only we can do.

Which is art.

If it can be measured and repeated, that is not art. It is work waiting to be given to a machine.

I don’t want to be  machine, I will never be as good at being a machine as a machine is.

Which means I have to come to terms with the imperfect.

To be perfect enough to get it done, but pay attention to the necessary defects. The things that can’t ever be perfect.

The human connections.

Darn it, I would like those to be perfect too, but those come with irregularities.

Perfectionism should come with time limits. I have to recognize that it can be a standard held loosely.

It’s a worthy and unachievable goal. The art of perfectionism come with defects.

That has to be okay, because it’s still worth trying for. Sometimes the defect is the point.

DIY role model

“Rage..Sing” is how the story of The Iliad begins. It was a story of war and bravery that is still preserved after ten thousand years, written to tell the Greeks who they were supposed to admire and aspire to be.

The heroes were super human and brave.

We don’t know that much about Homer, the author. We are sure that it started as a memorized poem, and then it was written down as soon as writing became a thing.

It’s full of gods, goddesses and impossible heroism. It’s history, but then again…it couldn’t have really happened.

It was 8 thousand years later, with the images and rhythms of Homer’s epic still bright in their memory, the Romans got a version of their own history when Virgil produced The Aeneid. Virgil writes a new epic poem, taking a character Aeneas from the Iliad and inventing a story of how he escaped the fall of Troy, with his son and went on to found Rome. One the way, he stops and conquers all of Rome’s contemporary enemies to prove that from LONG AGO Rome was destined to beat them in battle.

The people who heard the poem had to know it was a new poem. But since the audience had just been given a new story about themselves, a new story about where they came from it was very popular.

It was total fiction. It was transparent propaganda.

But Caesar Augustus and his court really liked it. It made them feel good.

I could see this kind of self-deception as a problem. How foolish and vain are these people, to allow themselves to be flattered by an obvious fabrication!

I used to feel that way.

But I have learned the power of the stories we tell ourselves. Honestly, I would like to compose my own Aenied.

A story I can pull out to tell me how I have a history of being brave and strong, even it is the most flattering interpretation of event, is a really valuable thing.

The stories I tell myself are just about the most powerful motivator I have.

It’s easy and unsurprising to give in to shame and self-doubt.

It is a hero’s work to move towards our best selves. Virgil gave Caesar Augustus a semi-fictional role model. I’m all for fictional role models. Those stories can keep me going.