Tick Tock

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Late last night I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan, in which he linked to living will documents for all 50 states.

This was part of an ongoing discussion of his about how it would be wise if more of us gave some thought to living wills, as it would help reduce health care costs, among other things.

I clicked on the Wisconsin living will document and felt a bit overwhelmed while thinking about which instructions to choose. I quickly closed the browser window and went to bed with thoughts of persistent vegetative states dancing through my head.

Shortly after waking up this Good Friday morning I happened upon a poem by Mary Oliver:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Later this morning I drove past a funeral procession that blocked traffic for a while. One of the cars had a license plate that said “TIK TOC.” How appropriate, I thought. Funeral processions are a reminder that life is tick tocking away. I recalled an afternoon when I was eight-years-old and sat down and contemplated death for the first time. I thought to myself then, “each day I’m one day closer to my death.” Tick tock. Death seemed so far away and I was more content to live in the present then.

Pascal said:

The present is never our end. The past and present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, we are never actually so.

Actually living vs. hoping to live… As I pondered that while running on the treadmill this morning, it became clear that filling out a living will won’t be so hard after all.

And as Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, “Human being is more of a verb than a noun.” Be-ing vs. being. “Be — and at the same time know the implication of non-being,” said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. That makes the living will questions easier to answer too.

I’ll close with one more quote from Dr. Remen:

Death has been referred to as the great teacher. It may be the great healer as well…All life paths may be a movement toward the soul. In which case our death may be the final and most integrating of our life’s experiences.


Filed under: Kitchen Table Wisdom (the book)Reflections

Erma Bombeck Celebration Day 2011

Today is the anniversary of the death of Erma Bombeck. It’s my tradition on this blog to post something about Erma on this day in celebration of her and her writing. I guess it’s fitting that it falls on Good Friday this year, as Erma was a Roman Catholic.

For the back story on the influence Erma had on me in my younger days, see this post. Essentially, Erma was an archetype for me. You know how it is when you’re young and youthful insecurities cause you to look to the outside for inspiration and the permission you need to proceed accordingly. Erma also made me laugh a lot.

A kind reader recently brought to my attention this 30 minute PBS documentary about Erma. It also gives an interesting glimpse into what life was like during the Depression and that brief era afterwards when housewives were the norm:

Watch the full episode. See more ThinkTV Originals.

It seems appropriate to close with this excerpt from Erma’s March 10, 1987 column:

I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will go like this: ‘So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’

And I will answer: ‘I’ve got nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.’

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Filed under: Inspiration

Image and video hosting by TinyPicIf you’d like to get better at everyday communication… or want to improve the writing or speaking you do for the public, such as blog posts, lectures to students, sermons, presentations at work, etc… then the below formula will help you.

Every communication should have what Aristotle called: logos, pathos, and ethos.

Logos – Something for the mind. This could be a new piece of information or tip that the reader/listener can apply. It could be a story that doesn’t outright teach but lets the reader come to the conclusion himself. It is the substance of what you are saying/writing. Make sure you actually have something to say and don’t tell them something they’ve heard hundreds of times already.

Pathos – Something for the emotions. Ask yourself how you want the reader/listener to feel afterwards. Uplifted? Sad? Motivated? Angry and ready to take action? When your reader/listener is feeling that particular emotion they will be more interested in what you say.

People tend to remember how you make them feel more than what you actually say. Also, they are going to feel a certain way afterwards anyway, even if you give it no thought, so you might as well give this consideration while preparing.

Above all, you should avoid making them feel bored. Get to the point. If you have a clear beginning, middle and end to your communication, it will help you avoid the trap of writing/speaking in circles until you find something to say.

I have several blog posts sitting in my draft file because I don’t have a good beginning or middle or conclusion to them. I’ve ditched many drafts of writing projects for clients for the same reason. Perhaps the most common mistake I see is when a writer/speaker has only a middle and no beginning or conclusion.

If your topic is dry in nature, you can still alleviate the boredom by making it more fun by adding visuals such as a video, photos or clip art, or telling an interesting story associated with the topic. The fun factor doesn’t have to be of the “hahaha” variety, but simply anything that helps make your reader/listener feel more energized by what you have to say.

Ethos – Something for the imagination. The reader should be able to imagine how your message will apply to their life. It should be clear to them what they are to do with your information. Don’t leave them hanging.

Speaking/writing is a two way street: you communicate your message and the reader/listener runs with it. It’s not all about you.

The word “imagine” is one of the most powerful words you can use. Storytelling is the best device for engaging the imagination of your readers/listeners and for applying this entire formula.

(H/T – Getting The Word Out Hollywood Style)


Filed under: BloggingConversation/CommunicationStories/Storytelling

Fun Friday: a tiny wooden ball performs Bach

What a creative way to perform Bach:


Filed under: Fun

Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary!

Today is Beverly Cleary’s 95th birthday. Her books, especially the Beezus and Ramona series, have been very popular with my daughters over the years.

When I was a kid the Runaway Ralph book was my favorite. The idea of a mouse who rode a motorcycle was compelling to me.

The New York Times posted a profile of her today. I especially like this part:

How does Cleary explain her popularity? “I wrote books to entertain,” she told me. People often asked what she was trying to teach in her books. She would reply, “I’m not trying to teach anything!” This was the same attitude she had when she was first reading. “If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book,” she remembered.


An only child, whose parents were forced to sell the family farm, Cleary was painfully shy. Troubled at school and beset by bad teachers, she didn’t learn to read until the third grade. Though, as she remarked tartly in our conversation, “My mother always read to me, so why should I learn to read?”

What ultimately drove her to write for children, she recalled, was a book she noticed when she had a job in a children’s bookstore in the 1940s. In it, a puppy said: “Bow-wow. I like the green grass.”

“No dog I had ever known could talk like that,” Cleary said. She wondered once again, as she frequently had while working as a children’s librarian, “What was the matter with authors?”

Her conclusion: “I knew I could write a better book.”

I let my youngest daughter take a personal day off from school today, so as to give her have some down time away from both her sisters and the classroom. I’m now going to see about reading some Runaway Ralph to her, in honor of Beverly Cleary.


Filed under: BooksParenting

Your Fate

Image and video hosting by TinyPic“Whatever one’s fate may have in store, the task, if we are up to it, is to serve the individuation imperative, to become as nearly like ourselves as we can manage.”

-James Hollis

So what is this “individuation” Jungian psychologists are always yapping about?

I’ll let Hollis explain (from his book Creating a Life):

One of the most profound of Jung’s contributions to the field of psychology is the paradoxical concept of individuation. Even today the term is misunderstood as egotism or self-absorption. Such a path is seldom if ever the path of ego gratification, creature comforts, vacillation and flight. It is the cruciform path of the Self which will seek its own fullest being whether the ego cooperates or not.

Just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer surely prayed for his release from Flensburg K-Z Lager, so he also prayed that in that mad place he might know God’s will for him. He had been brought there because of his opposition to Hitler; it was not God who put him there. But his task, while there, before he was hanged, was to find and serve his fate with as much fidelity as he could manage. That is the model of individuation. It is not the path of solipsism, isolation, self-aggrandizement. It is the path of defeat which may lead to a life well lived.

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Filed under: Psychology

Six Word Story #36

He put the sin in Wisconsin.


I realize the “he” in this story is vague, so, for fun, here are some possibilities:

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A politician:

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A thief:

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Or, more likely, a combination of all of the above. :)

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Filed under: Stories/Storytelling

Imagine you could lose weight… have control over your anxiety and depression… prevent dementia and other debilitating side effects of aging… improve your brain power at any age… all without taking meds or making trips to the doctor.

Well, you can, says John J. Ratey, M. D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Yep, you guessed it. Exercise is the best medicine.

If an inexpensive pill came out on the market that could do all that, with no negative side effects, we’d probably be all over it.

But the word “exercise” can tend to make one recoil. It’s work, after all.

I spent most of my adults years thinking exercise was good for cardiovascular health, maybe losing a few pounds or at least preventing future weight gain, replacing fat with muscle, and that’s about it.

As it turns out, those are probably the least of the reasons you should exercise.

The Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Ratey says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” This is based on hundreds and hundreds of research papers published within the last decade.

He has chapters devoted to how exercise helps with learning, stress, anxiety, depression, ADD, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. I’ll focus on just three of these in this post.

Anxiety: Nothing To Panic About

A group of cardiologists took psychiatrists to task in a 2004 New England Journal of Medicine article for failing to note that exercise is an additional means of treating anxiety.

These doctors said: “Exercise training has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety.”

Dr. Ratey says there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine, but if you can achieve the same effects through exercise, you build confidence in your own ability to cope.  “Teaching the brain that we can survive is crucial to overcoming anxiety.”

Depression: Move Your Mood

A landmark study in 1999 at Duke University found that exercise worked even better than medicine over the long term.

Dr. Ratey says:

Unlike many anti-depressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything – it adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling.

It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression. It also serves as proof that we can take the initiative to change something.

Aging The Wise Way

Getting old is unavoidable, but falling apart is not. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging. According to Dr. Ratey:

The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging.

Here’s how exercise helps keep you going when you’re old:

1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.

2. It regulates fuel (keeps glucose levels from skyrocketing).

3. It reduces obesity.

4. It elevates your stress threshold (i.e. combats the effects of too much cortisol, which brings on depression and dementia).

5. It lifts your mood.

6. It boosts the immune system.

7. It fortifies your bones. Did you know more women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer? Eek.

8. It boosts motivation by increasing dopamine, which in turn guards against Parkinson’s.

9. It fosters neuroplasticity, which improves your brain’s ability to learn, remember and execute higher thought processes.

Mental exercise is just as important for the elderly. Dr. Ratey mentions an ongoing study of several hundred nuns over the years in Mankato, MN. These nuns challenge their minds constantly with mental puzzles, public debates about issues, keep teaching long past retirement age, etc. Many of them live to be one hundred or more. They all donate their brains to science after they die. Here’s what Dr. Ratey says about one of the nuns:

The interesting thing about Sister Bernadette is that she scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died, but when her brain was examined postmortem, it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease… In other words, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet despite the damage in her brain, she remained mentally sharp.

So what types of exercises are the best medicine according to all these studies? I’ll write a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the whole book and find out.


Filed under: AnxietyBooksDepressionFitness

Below is a video of a 57-year-old woman who talks about how wonderful it is to have gray hair.

First here’s a photo:

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Her advice to anyone wondering if they should rock their gray hair or keep coloring it:

“Do it. You can always color it but do it. I’ve had the best time of my life with silver hair.”

Here’s the video:

(H/T Advanced Style)


Filed under: Fun

What teachers really teach

Image and video hosting by TinyPicWhen my daughters talk to me about their teachers, they rarely talk about the subject matter but about something funny the teacher said, how the teacher made them feel, and the stories the teacher tells about his or her personal life.

I thought of this while reading how Carl Jung, while giving talks to educators, would tell them that teachers don’t teach their subject. They teach themselves.

I can’t recall a thing I learned in fifth grade, but I will never forget how my teacher made me feel at ease about being an introvert, as she was an introvert herself and never ragged on me about being quiet during class discussions, unlike the other teachers I had up until that point.

I also can’t remember anything I learned in my 8th grade math class but I will never forget how the teacher told us the story of the childhood wounding she received that made her decide to forever avoid men and become a lesbian.

I will always remember how to read music and play the violin, even though I’ve barely touched it in 25 years, thanks to the orchestra teacher I had for 7 years. I stuck with the violin that long, not because I was any good at it, but because I liked the teacher and his stories. He freely gossiped with us (I loved that), worried about us like we were his own children, and invited us into his home once a year for a spaghetti dinner that he prepared and served himself.

One day I entered my high school psychology class and noticed a Moonie there preparing to give us a talk. My best friend and I turned on our heels and marched directly to the office to tattle, as we intuited this was probably against school rules. Yep, it was, and she was reprimanded. We were quiet kids who usually didn’t assert ourselves like that and my boldness took me by surprise. The next time we had class the teacher came up to me and gave me the most sincere apology I’ve ever received. I had a great rapport with her the rest of the semester with no ill feelings. I can’t recall her name, or anything I learned in that class, but I’ll never forget what she taught me through her apology.

I still retain a smattering of French, and that is thanks to my high school French teacher, a reserved man with high expectations, but who also had a dry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that communicated more than his words did. I knew he liked me even though he never said as much, and even though I was far from proficient in French. I won’t forget how he showed up at my high school graduation and told me it was the first graduation he had attended. His watery eyes and quick hug said more than his words could ever say. I was deeply touched. The way he made me feel, and what he taught me about himself, is probably the reason I took far too many French classes in college.

My favorite high school English teacher taught me much about herself, including how a devastatingly dry wit can put teenage boys with huge egos in their place. She could even find something witty to say about Jonathan Edwards’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which was required reading in our textbook. I loved what she taught me about herself and I suspect that had a significant role in my choosing English as a major. Fortunately I had the opportunity to tell her that when I ran into her in a store several years ago. She died on Christmas Eve 2009 .

So it would seem the ability to be vulnerable and authentic is something the best teachers excel at and probably matters a lot more to our kids than the teacher’s credentials and it sure beats being lectured at. They also probably wouldn’t mind if all of us adults were more like that.


Filed under: ParentingStories/Storytelling

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