Musings On Artificial Intelligence [AI]

‘The AI revolution will occur more quickly than most humans expect. Unless we develop new concepts to explain, interpret, and organize its consequent transformations, we will be unprepared to navigate it or its implications.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. Henry A.Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. John Murray Publishers. London. 2021.

‘A machine intelligence would benefit from flawless memory, even of events that occurred deep in the past, and would have the ability to calculate and to sift and search through enormous troves of data at fantastic speed. It would also be able to directly connect to the internet or to other networks and tap into virtually limitless resources; it would effortlessly talk to other machines, even as it mastered conversation with us. In other words, human level AI, from its very inception, would in a great many ways be superior to us.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. Martin Ford. Basic Books. London. 2021.

‘AI is the ultimate intangible asset, because it takes on the qualities of a perpetual motion machine—the algorithms give you more and more value without you having to do very much. The cycle looks like this: You feed data into an AI and it becomes more effective—tailoring a product to your needs, perhaps recommending news stories you want to read or songs you want to listen to. This improved service becomes more desirable, and so more of us use it. As more of us use it, we generate more data about our tastes and preferences. That data can then be fed into the AI, and the product improves.’

The Exponential Age. Azeem Azhar. Diversion Books. 2021.

‘…what has always been the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a machine that can communicate, reason and conceive new ideas at the level of a human being or beyond. Researchers often refer to this as “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI. Nothing close to AGI currently exists in the real world, but there are many examples from science fiction..One could make a strong argument that the development of general machine intelligence with superhuman capability would be the most consequential innovation in the history of humanity…’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘To chart the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, we may task AI to probe realms we cannot enter; it may return with patterns we do not fully grasp…We may find ourselves one step closer to the concept of our knowledge, less limited by the structure of our minds and the patterns of conventional human though. Not only will we have to redefine our roles as something other than the sole knower of reality, we will also have to redefine the very reality we thought we were exploring.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Most AI researchers recognize that significant breakthroughs will be required in order to achieve something close to human-level artificial intelligence, but there is no broad agreement on precisely what challenges are most important, or which ones should be attacked first. Yann LeCun often uses an analogy of navigating a mountain range. Only after you climb the first peak will you be able to see the obstacles that lie behind it.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Individuals and societies that enlist AI as a partner to amplify skills or pursue ideas may be capable of feats—scientific, medical, military, political, and social—that eclipse those of preceding periods. Yet once machines approximating human intelligence are regarded as key to producing better and faster results, reason alone may come to seem archaic.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Until now, humans alone developed their understanding of reality, a capacity that defined our place in the world and relationship to it. From this, we elaborated our philosophies, designed our governments and military strategies, and developed our moral precepts. Now AI has revealed that reality may be known in different ways, perhaps in more complex ways, than what has been understood by humans alone. At times, it’s acheivements may be as striking and disorienting as those of the most influential thinkers in their heydays—producing bolts of insight and challenges to established concepts, all of which demand a reckoning.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘One important approach is to look directly to the inner workings of the human brain for inspiration. These researchers believe that artificial intelligence should be directly informed by neuroscience.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘We must recognize that AI’s achievements, within its defined parameters, sometimes rank beside or even surpass those that human resources enable. We may comfort ourselves by repeating that AI is artificial, that it has not or cannot match our conscious experience of reality. But when we encounter some of AI’s achievements—logical feats, technical breakthroughs, strategic insights, and sophisticated management of large, complex systems— it is evident that we are in the presence of another experience of reality by another sophisticated entity.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Students studying statistics are often reminded that “correlation does not equal causation.” For artificial intelligence, and especially deep learning systems, understanding ends at correlation…[Judith] Pearl…likes to point out that while any human understands intuitively that the sunrise causes a rooster to crow, rather than vice versa, the most powerful deep neural network would likely to fail to achieve a similar insight. Causation cannot be derived simply by analyzing data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Pre AI algorithms were good at delivering “addictive” content to humans. AI is excellent at it. As deep reading and analysis contracts, so, too, do the traditional rewards for undertaking these processes. As the cost of opting out of the digital domain increases, it’s ability to affect human thought—to convince, to steer, to divert—grows. As a consequence, the individual human’s role in reviewing, testing, and making sense of information diminishes. In its place, AI’s role expands.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Yet in the worlds of media, politics, discourse and entertainment, AI will reshape information to conform to our preferences—potentially confirming and deepening biases and, in so doing, narrowing access to and agreement upon an objective truth. In the age of AI, then, human reason will find itself both augmented and diminished.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘…AI may operate as we expect but generate results that we do not foresee. With those results, it may carry humanity to places it’s creators did not anticipate.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. P. 216

‘The truth is that no one really has any idea exactly how the human brain achieves it’s unparalleled competence at autonomously learning from unstructured data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘The ability to learn information in one domain and then successfully leverage it on other domains is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and is essential to creativity and innovation. If more general machine intelligence is to be genuinely useful…it will need to be able to apply what it learns, and any insights it develops, to entirely new challenges.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Social media companies do not run news feeds to promote extreme and violent polarization. But is is self-evident that these services have not resulted in the maximization of enlightened discourse.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

Coastal Getaway

It’s been awhile since writing on this blog, and in time I’ll continue with the story about living in Bordeaux. But for now, here are a few thoughts about a trip to the Atlantic coastline taken this past weekend. This was to a town located just south of the french border with Spain.

On Saturday I drove a half hour to a railway station, parked, took a local train to Bordeaux city, and then took another train south for two hours along the Atlantic coastline toward Spain. In the early afternoon I checked into a hotel in the port city of Saint Jean de Luz, and then wandered by foot through this attractive and small city, and along the coast.

Plenty of people were out walking. Most wore masks, although unlike in Italy and Spain, doing so is not obligatory when you are outdoors in France, except in crowded locales and at market places.

Here are a few things I noticed.

First, hotel staff never even tried uttering a word of English (they knew where I was from due to my credit card billing address given during online registration). Because there is no tourism now, they know all foreigners are living in France, so presumably speak the language. That was somewhat refreshing.

Second, when I laid out a folding Opinel knife, saucisson, fromage, du pain and a bottle of 2018 Moulis en Medoc Bordeaux red wine (with a glass) on a bench beside a sidewalk, most passers by smiled and energetically uttered ‘bon apetit’—not only as common courtesy but as joint recognition that—with all restaurants and cafes closed except for takeaway service during these past four months—this is what we all do now.

Third—the city and countryside swelled with pedestrians and bicyclists and skateboarders, all relishing opportunities to wander in fresh air while they could, lest another lockdown be suddenly imposed. Back in my residential city of Blaye I’d seen the same: in February and March there are as many visitors to the local park and Citadelle on any Saturday as there normally would be on a warm July weekend.

Fourth—the city truly pulsed with life in the final hour before the 6:00 pm curfew. There were lines outside bakeries and delicatessens and chatting groups of all ages on Rue Gambetta or Rue de Republique. Everyone wanted to savor fresh air, gain some social contact and exercise before being confined indoors for the couvert feu (or curfew—the word originates from the French words meaning ‘cover the fire.’ This is what households would do during war time: dim their lights and cover fireplaces).

I heard no overt complaints or griping or even discussions about current restrictions. People just got on with life—happy with warmer days and the opportunity to meander at leisure throughout the indoor Les Halles marketplace to buy shrimp at the poissonerie, or a gateau Basque sweet cherry cake or Rocamadour cheese at the fromagerie, or to stroll across moist beach sand at low tide.

Everywhere surged with energy, with a hint of joy that spring and the budding of flowers begins, that birdsong increases and that each day is filled with more hours of light and sunshine.

We’re a resilient species, and rapidly adapt. Still, I look forward to porch side banter and socializing, if cafes do open in the coming months.

In the meantime, spring is still chilly, but glorious.

Click here for a brief video …. 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 3 – Bountiful or Bogus?

‘To be a good winemaker, you must first be a good liar.’

I could not believe such words—smoothly spoken by a long-haired surfer perfectionist winemaker from a family of vignerons with impeccable attention toward sanitation and quality. I was convinced this young man was an honest individual, as well as a paragon of integrity and industriousness.

Perhaps he was.

He continued.

This time he referred to the 2017 vintage—when a howling frost knocked half of Bordeaux grapes dead.

‘In years where there are few grapes, believe me—a lot of Pomerol wines will include juice from Blaye,’ he stated, referencing an illegal practice of trucking and then infusing wine from one appellation into wine from another.

His words shocked me.

Could it be?

Perhaps.

During years of living in rural Bordeaux, I had witnessed slivers of brazen but arrogant skullduggery in the winemaking world.

In the year 2010 I purchased hundreds of bottles of vintage 2009 Bordeaux wine on speculation (en primeur), which means the wine was still aging and not yet bottled. After it was bottled, I stored cases in my small cellar in the town of Blaye. Four years later this wine tasted wonderful. I then spoke to a son of the château owners and mentioned still having hundreds of bottles from the 2009 vintage. He was surprised. He admitted their own winery kept no bottles from that renowned vintage.

Curiously, the next year that same winery started shipping out boxes of—yes—(supposedly) vintage 2009. The labels differed slightly from those on the bottles I had: a lighter color and bolder text. Overnight, the value of my precious cellared bottles plummeted because some juice (hardly from that same vintage) flooded local markets. One storekeeper invited owners of this château to a blind tasting, served up their own juices—real and faux—and watched their chagrined faces betray their own sleight of hand.

2009 produced a sound vintage. As did 2010. It came as no surprise then, when somewhere close to the middle of the decade this same château began issuing boxes of faux vintage 2010. When I entered a restaurant in the nearby town of Bourg I saw cases of the supposed 2010 lined up against a wall. Same label changes: lighter color, bolder text.

Or—consider how, after the U.S. government slapped significant import duties on French wines with alcohol levels of less than 14.5%, vast quantities of Bordeaux wines—normally between 12.5% and 14% alcohol—were suddenly labeled as ‘14.5%.’ Perhaps they were—but unlikely without some deft cellar alterations to boost their booze levels. Whenever I asked a jacketed château owner, or some weathered vigneron with a coiffed goatee about these unusually high alcohol levels for the region, they nodded a chin or waved a dismissive hand and explained it was all the result of global warming.

How convenient.

In just a year, apparently, temperatures had skyrocketed enough to boost grape sugar quantities and consequent alcohol levels all over France. Throughout Spain and Italy too.

The truth is that institutional deceit is not uncommon in the wine world. The very premise of the supposedly bedrock backbone classification scheme for Bordeaux wine quality—that of 1855—is, literally, a century and a half out of date.

Although I live here and love it, I now remain somewhat leery not only of Bordeaux, but of the entire wine world.

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 took place in, of course, the year 1855. At the behest of Emperor Napoleon III—who was hosting the world’s fair (‘Exposition Universelle’) in Paris—scouts visited Bordeaux to discern the best quality wines so they could be displayed to visitors in the capital city. Their selection created a classification system still utilized today and—bizarrely—somehow considered practical by ample wine sniffing professionals.

It’s more like a quaint relic.

Books have been written about this classification, so I’ll avoid details.

But, consider time.

Since that classification too place, two world wars have been fought, the atom split, the airplane invented, the computer created, slaves emancipated, golf balls knocked across the moon, and buggies replaced by automobiles.

In 1855, ballpoint pens, air conditioners, television sets, PVC pipes, cars, washing machines, pasteurized products and elevators did not exist. This was the year missionary David Livingstone set eyes on Victoria Falls, the year Isaac Singer patented the sewing machine, and a year when steamboats transported goods and passengers into the interior of the U.S.

Would you buy a brand based on the reputation it had 160 years ago?

Many do. Frequently. In great volumes. And at huge expense.

Seriously.

Some argue this classification retains merit because soils underlying grapes have not essentially changed. True. But the world of agriculture was reshaped during the past century and a half—including land management practices, technological innovations, pesticides, herbicides, management techniques, climate alterations, quality control, and economic impacts of multiple external variables–including the invention of sophisticated processing equipment, deployment of air cargo and container ships, and viability of ‘flying winemakers’–able to provide precision advice from having worked vintages in dozens of countries.

Yet if both pedigree and integrity are not magically inherent to Bordeaux, why do its wines maintain their stellar reputation? The reasons are simple but intriguing.

Before revealing what they are, I’ll first share more tales about life in rural Bordeaux.

 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 2 – The Narrow Gate

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

Decades ago, I worked a plush job in Dubai before that city transformed into a sprawling metropolis. At that happy time, before the city exanded in size and population and popularity, we could casually run into friends at Thatcher’s pub or Fibber Magee’s bar or Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah. The atmosphere was laden with optimism; the city retained a socially optimistic vibe.

Bungee jumping into Dubai Creek

One hot weekend on the edge of an outdoor swimming pool at our El Manzel apartment complex in the Al Karama district off Sheikh Zayed highway, I dangled toes in cool turquoise water—reading a Time magazine. An article included a photograph of a smiling British financier who had moved to France, penned a book about life in the countryside and transformed to a bestselling author. This was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. The article riveted me, for this is what I wanted! I tore the piece out and kept it. Successful author. Rural France. Sunshine. Wine.

Bingo.

Golfing with South African co-worker Martin in Dubai

Years rolled on and I worked assignments in Angola, Panama, Guatemala, Thailand and Pakistan and spent years in California: Malibu and Laguna Beach. I eventually moved to France. The relocation was not premeditated, but blossomed from that seed of desire planted poolside in the Emirates decades earlier. I moved not to a rolling, bucolic and lavender scented Provencal village, but instead to flatlands surrounding the Gironde estuary— hectares of grass and rough soil and stout old vines ringed around Bordeaux city. I settled in a town too large to embrace any charming intimacy of Pernod swigging denizens recognized by gossiping neighbors, yet too small to shiver with opulent spires of gothic architecture within a grand city. This venue was not as expected.

Dinner with view of Gironde Estuary

Looking back, however, the move went well. Since I first read about Mayle’s bestselling book, Provence had transformed to a Francophone version of Orange County in southern California, with too many cars, too little parking, cringeworthy property prices and a saturation of non-French residents flush with cash, though deficient in linguistic proficiency.

The ancient citadelle in Blaye

The roots of my settlement in Bordeaux hinged on family, history and—mais oui—women.

My childhood had a dose of European influence. After my parents sold their Chicago business, they relocated family to rural Ireland in a move that was somewhat romantic, but displaced in time. This was when poverty was rife and teachers dressed in religious black robes and whacked grimacing student across palms with their hand whittled wooden canes within dim-lit classrooms. This all brutally contrasted to a Chicago north shore suburban school with huge picture windows, ample lego sets and bright lights.

With siblings in Ireland (I’m on left)

Yet, away from those gray, dull, sodden prefabricated classrooms and the smelly concrete toilet block, our home in the village of Delgany stayed comfortable. The parents renovated a rectory originally constructed in 1725. The garden included a running brook and orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother—when not tromping around in Wellington boots planting potatoes or picking strawberries—devoured historical novels by Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt, as well as history books. She then recounted, over dinners of roast beef and fat spuds and steaming green beans, the names and birth years of the wives of Henry the VIII of England, or tales of intrigue from the Tower of London. Sometimes she mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine within the French region that now includes Bordeaux. Eleanor. Aquitaine. These words smacked of alliteration and intrigue.

Rural Bordeaux countryside

About that time a sister hitchhiked to Bordeaux with an American ally who lugged his guitar case and who—troubadour-like—lit up public parks or hostel hallways when strumming and crooning tunes from Cat Stevens or Buffalo Springfield. Gendarmes once stopped and searched their framed backpacks for drugs, a routine scenario during this post-Woodstock era of bell bottom jeans and dangling ponytails.

During her final years, my mother joined a wine club in the U.S. She received boxes with mixed varieties, poured us dinner glasses during visits, and ignited my eventual interest in international vintages. So also did an ex-British girlfriend and her mother, who sent a gift box of wine while I lived and studied in Newcastle-On-Tyne in the UK. Beer swilling classmates were as intrigued as I that wine was produced in Chile. Finally, a Californian girlfriend gave me a gift—a book about wine. She penned on the inner cover the instruction that I was to learn about wine, then teach her—someday.

Laguna Beach, California

These intersecting interests in France, writing and wine eventually led me to visit the fabled region of Aquitaine, where Bordeaux city and countryside sit.

That brief visit was made over a decade ago while I was studying business in the UK. I flew into Bordeaux and stayed at a bed and breakfast on Rue Saint Genes. That evening I walked to a nearby bar named Nieuw Amsterdam on Cours Aristide Briand, owned by two Dutch brothers. Seated at a bar in the shape of U, I drank beer, and past midnight people began dancing on tables. Trust me—I took photos.

Dancing on tables

Past midnight the front door opened and a whistle blew—a  police raid! How wonderful. A lovely woman seated close at the bar recognized peril for an innocent visiting American. She stubbed out her cigarette, swigged down a beer and summoned me with a waving index finger. I happily followed. We scooted out a back door with her friends, slipped into a van, and drove to her apartment where the party continued until past 3.00 am. Eventually someone walked me to a tram stop and pointed the way back to the bed and breakfast.

My rescuer

I thought: I like this place.

The following day I departed for another pre-booked bed and breakfast. It was in the countryside outside the city. I drove a rented Peugeot 200 south to Sauternes, east to Saint-Émilion and Libourne, and finally north to a town named Blaye (pronounced blye; rhymes with sigh). I arrived late, well after dinner time. The South African owner invited me to an upstairs kitchen inside an old villa on Rue Saint Simon. We sat. He and his sometimes business partner opened a bottle of Bordeaux wine—perhaps Confiance or Cantinot or Le Con. We talked. Eventually, though late, he opened a second bottle. That second bottle was key. I began enjoying hospitality within this little known town.

Libourne

Within years I moved to Blaye and (with the aid of others) purchased wine, cellar, apartment and stake in a winery. I soon learned about a fleet of chromatic, erratic and less than static characters: a delightfully meandering river of personalities.

In Blaye the ancient citadelle fortress was at that time overgrown and neglected (since then greatly improved). For a sizable 17th century complex, its two entrance gates appeared relatively narrow—wide enough today for passage of a single vehicle. Likewise, the entrance door to the building in which I purchased an apartment also included a tall, narrow door.

Entrance to the Citadelle

Not being religious (even after years of caning from Irish teachers in dank and gloomy County Wicklow classrooms) I was later surprised to encounter—somewhere—an apt verse of scripture from Matthew 7:13.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

It was here, not within any sunnier but tourist trampled acres of France, that I found my own narrow gate. Through this, eventually, flowed time, wine, intrigue and a river of stories—which I shall now begin to share.

Allies in Blaye and Bordeaux

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux

Bordeaux—place or beverage—is a word associated with wine, wealth and a smidgen of bawdy history, while nuclear relates to atomic particles smashed together to generate light and power, or even to snuff out planetary life. Nuclear also refers to tight, bright family structures that sometimes help homo sapiens sail against the inclement winds of anarchy and possible extinction.

Within Bordeaux, the word ‘nuclear’ means both.

The word Bordeaux means, basically, waterside. It is both city and region, and the western portion is a sunny segment of southwest France that sticks into the Atlantic like a thumb, and is known as the Médoc. It is flat as a crêpe and riddled with rounded stones—enough to scare off even potato farmers. Counterintuitively, grapevines love these conditions because vine roots thrive on adversity.

This ‘left bank’ of Bordeaux includes hundreds of wine estates, or châteaux. A few are associated with prodigious wealth. This is a place where individuals named Arnault, Castel, Wertheimer and Rothschild—collectively worth some $100 billion—visit their own well-trimmed and architecturally eloquent wine estates.

But consider this glaring and seldom mentioned paradox.

Take a renowned wine estate, such as Château Lafite Rothschild. This is classified as one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux with respect to quality, according to a dusty, perhaps dubious old classification system penned with quill and ink in 1855 (a century before steel fermenting tanks were even invented). As a crow flies, the Lafite property sits just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) distant from the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. That’s the local nuclear power plant. Only a half mile further away from these buzzing electrons sits Château Mouton Rothschild, another ‘top five’ producer, owned by a separate branch of that same family.

In summary—bundles of wealth, cellars stuffed with gorgeous vintages, and streamlined, green opulent estates all exist in happy proximity—the distance walked during a round of golf—to a facility that generates potentially bone gnawing toxic materials with a half-life of 700 million years.

Some years ago I wrote the following in a blog post:

‘The Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais is located on a plain east of the estuary. This assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy. It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.’

The word ‘nuclear’ also refers to a basic social unit: the family.

Bordeaux includes strong family ties and complicated inheritance procedures. This sometimes-sun-drenched region was home, close to a thousand years ago, to wandering minstrel troubadours who traipsed its soils and sang love poems to women they fancied. These men regarded women not as chattel but as bright spirits to court and woo and shower with affection in order to win not their subservience, but love. Romance was sacred, and families critical. After beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast swathes of this territory in the 12th century, she enhanced her man-magnet status and became—through marriage—first queen of France, then queen of England.

A wise ruler, adventurer, business woman and mother—Eleanor was so powerful that her husband feared she might influence their sons against him, and so imprisoned her for years in Winchester, England. Fortunately, she outlived the bastard, and walked away from her castle arrest.

Bordeaux, nowadays, has this sort of a Ring of Fire paradoxical beauty—gorgeous, although perennially threatened by some volcanic explosion (in this case, a Chernobyl sized sizzling meltdown). Although segments of the populace can be at times stiff, traditional and abhorrent of any mangled use of their delicate French language, they are also—generally, and generously—non-judgmental folk who will not tizzy your head with obsequious gossip or vine country innuendo. They rarely pry and let others—local or foreigner—get on with life unhindered and without prejudice. One magic of Bordeaux is the ease it provides for staying anonymous.

Within a two-minute walk from my small, silent apartment there is a fruit story, fromagerie (selling cheese), café, wine bar, winery, boulangerie (bakery), guest house, park, restaurants, lingerie store, hairstylist, ferry boat, and PMU—where you can bet cash on horse races. A few minutes more walking and there is a massive citadel—some 40 acres (16 hectares) in area, which includes ample crenelated walls, a dry moat, tunnels, gardens, stores, restaurants and grand elevated views of the snaking Gironde estuary, the distant Médoc and—mais oui!—our beloved nuclear plant.

One local high school is named Jaufre Rudel—after a 12th century Prince of Blaye, troubadour and crusader who, legend has it, found his way to Libya after hearing tales of how gorgeous the local princess appeared (into whose arms—apparently, fantastically and no doubt apocryphally—he then died in raptured bliss).

During coming weeks I’ll share stories about living in rural Bordeaux, about a town located less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful, enticing city of that same name. This town named Blaye (pronounced Blye, or Bligh or Blie) is located across estuary waters from most of the great, grand châteaux and to the south of the nuclear power plant. It is surrounded by vineyards.

Stay tuned, and thanks for tuning in!

If you want to read my blog on wine, food and travel – Vino Voices – click here.

And you might want to read my 50 Rules for Life….

 

Is Artificial Intelligence Fomenting Social Unrest?

First, I published a book last year titled: Simple Rules of Life—160 Original Life Insights with Photographs. If you are interested—it is here. If you have subscribed to Roundwood Press in the past year, send me an email and I’ll send you a free copy.

Sample insights  (or lessons about life) include the following:

  • Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of.
  • Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

  • Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.
  • All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.
  • Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

  • It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.
  • A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.
  • When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

  • Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.
  • Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.
  • When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry.

Second—my latest Forbes articles are here (although I am taking a break from writing any during the month of June).

Third—Consider checking out my wine and food related blog here, titled Vino Voices.

Fourth—the topic of this post is about artificial intelligence.

Covid-19, mass protests on a grand international scale and—the possible deft hand of Artificial Intelligence?

The last few months have delivered rapid conformity through much of the work: lockdown, mask up, social distance and then protest—or at least do not hinder other protesters, not matter how violent and criminal they may turn.

Conform, or risk hindering national, yay, global, health and social awakening.

So we are told.

 

The speed of the deployment of such messages, edicts, social requirements and urges to conformity has been more rapidly processed via the aid of the internet (via media and social media) than ever before.

Is there more going on than almost spontaneously erupting international protests (and riots)? Is an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) perhaps impacting this process—whether or not via conscious input from sentient human beings?

In his 2019 book titled Human Compatible—Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (praised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kauhneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) author Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the following (before anyone had heard of covid-19, and before the recent flare up of protests and rioting shook the U.S. and Europe):

“To get just an inkling of the fire we’re playing with, consider how content-selection algorithms function on social media. They aren’t particularly intelligent, but they are in a position to affect the entire world because they directly influence billions of people. Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user’s preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on…Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user’s mind—in order to maximize its own reward. The consequences include the resurgence of fascism, the dissolution of the social contract that underpins democracies around the world, and potentially the end of the European Union and NATO. Not bad for a few lines of code, even it it had a helping hand from some humans. Now imagine what a really intelligent algorithm would be able to do.”

He later reiterates this core message:

“Why might an intelligent machine deliberately set out to modify the preferences of humans? The answer is simple: to make the preferences easier to satisfy.”

In other words, rather than aspects of Artificial Intelligence figuring out what each of 4 billion humans on the planet individually want, and then trying to provide some specific but different image or article for each of them (such as a link to an Amazon.com product) in order to help satiate each bespoke desire, it is far more efficient for AI to modify the thinking patterns of as many humans as possible so that people desire more general items (virtual or tangible) which can be more easily delivered to satisfy them.

He later adds:

“A more subtle way to change people’s behavior is to modify their information environment so that they believe different things and make different decisions. Of course, advertisers have been doing this for centuries as a way of modifying the purchasing behavior of individuals. Propaganda as a tool of war and political domination has an even longer history.

“So what’s different now? First, because AI systems can track an individual’s online reading habits, preferences, and likely state of knowledge, they can tailor specific messages to maximize impact on that individual while minimizing the risk that the information will be disbelieved. Second, the AI system knows whether the individual reads the message, how long they spend reading it and whether they follow additional links within the message. It then uses these signals as immediate feedback on the success or failure of its attempt to influence each individual; in this way, it quickly learns to become more effective in its work. This is how content selection algorithms on social media have had their insidious effect on political opinions.”

This is not a grand conspiracy. This is not Russian or Chinese trolls trying to change your voting decisions. This is not some powerful cabal of humans deciding how to manipulate humanity. This may be—and I am certainly not qualified enough to ascertain whether it is so or not—the subtle influence of exponentially growing AI capabilities that consider it far easier to influence a herd, or a swarm, rather than to cater to the multivariate desires of billions of individuals with differing dreams, wishes, anxieties, cravings and yearnings for recognition, power or reward.

Brave New World?

That is not a Utopia you would want to live in.

Thanks for tuning in again!

Mountains and Mind

The Maiden, Front Range, Colorado

During lockdown I read a few books, including Mountains of the Mind – A History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane [published by Granta in London in 2003]. Note that the subtitle differs in the U.S. version.

Macfarlane, a British mountaineer, weaves stories of his own climbs around the world with a history of mountaineering, and attitudes toward mountains. He tells how, in the Middle Ages, climbing mountains was frowned on as being a sort of sacrilege. He also reveals how mountaineering historians consider the first technical rock climb to have been made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of Kubla Kahn poem, and fan of opium). And he tells of the three attemps to climb Mount Everest (also named Chongolumba) by George Mallory.

Below are a few quotes from his book.

That first photo above? That is me as younger lad rappelling off The Maiden rock pinnacle, located between the towns of Boulder and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. Two of my brothers and I climbed the back side of it, then needed two full 160-foot ropes tied together to abseil off the top. The climb actually was not very difficult. Because we had not yet invested in rock climbing shoes (and never touched chalk bags), we climbed in our Adidas Rom sneakers. Good Times!

Good book and Great Wine

“Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant: flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage.”

Yosemite, California, USA

“On a map the weather is always good, the visibility always perfect. A map offers you the power of perspective over a landscape: reading one is like flying over a country in an aeroplane—a deodorized, pressurized, temperature controlled survey.”

Andermatt, Switzerland

“Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move—is constantly revising itself.”

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

“Returning to earth after being in the mountains—stepping back out of the wardrobe—can be a disorienting experience. Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy returning from Narnia, you expect everything to have changed. You half-expect the first people you see to grip you by the elbow and ask you if you are all right, to say You’ve been away for years. But usually no one notices you’ve been gone at all. And the experiences you have had are largely incommunicable to those who were not there. Returning to daily life after a trip to the mountains, I have often felt as though I were a stranger re-entering my county after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech.”

Dillon, Colorado

“Travelers found that the coldness of the high mountains possessed another remarkable property beyond the beautiful visual effects it produced—the property of arresting time. Cold kills, but it also preserves; it slows down the organic processes of disintegration.”

Thanks for tuning in. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and Instagram livestream videos related to wine are here on my sister site Vino Voices.

 

 

Letter To A Just Married Couple

Snow Hill

In 1998 I flew from Panama to Pennsylvania, rented a car and drove to a rural wedding of my friend Jim Murphy and his bride to be Jackie. I had met Jim in Peace Corps in Malawi and he had visited me in England after he returned from doing field work in Africa. After the wedding he and his wife were going to Tanzania for nine months as part of his research for a PhD.  I wrote this letter to them after the wedding while I was still in Pennsylvania. I have not altered a word. Because I have no photos from the wedding, I’ve included a picture of James (the groom) from Malawi, as well as photos from Panama and a photo of an art gallery.

*                                                                                  *

Jim Murphy in Malawi

The images are still clear; the memories distinct. Time to catch them.

Ten p.m. at Ludwig’s restaurant–the Murphy brothers seated and sipping as though in an Irish pub; Jim’s enthusiasm, Jack’s wit, Jackie’s warmth. Three thirty a.m. in a cramped hotel room talking philosophy, gulping Yinling brews and twiddling the AM dial on a cheap radio; sunrise golfers up and sipping bloody Mary’s. Noontime wedding day: lounging by the poolside while other guests roll in.

Big ceremony in a small church. Boxed pews, quick prayers and a row of bridesmaids clutching crimson bouquets. Prayers for victims of East African embassy bombings. A tangerine wedding program with wise words of land stewardship by Wendell Berry. A line drawing on the back cover: “The earth laughs in flowers.”

The wedding reception: huge strawberries beside a vat of chocolate sauce; Neil takes the microphone. Closing down Eagle Tavern. Rene foregoes sleep to be the designated driver. A two a.m. climb over rails for a cold dip in the pool. The manky morning after taste of Havana cigars.

Late, late breakfast at the Black Horse. Hugs and handshakes to strangers forged into friends and departed from within 48 hours. Too much, too good, too fast. I return to the Hampton Inn and find a hallway without breakfast chatter. No more familiar faces by the poolside. Maids make beds where friends no longer sleep. They tuck in sheets. They tuck away the past. Guests have gone. They have flown and driven east and west. I am alone. Pennsylvania. One day and a half left. In room 210, I drop a phone on the couch and dial numbers. Disappointment. Friends I once knew no longer live in Rhode Island or Glen, New Hampshire. I phone family in Albuquerque and Denver. There is no reply. It is midday on Sunday. The sound of the wedding reception band, the squeal of Molly the baby in room 211 and the poolside splash of familiar faces–gone.

Alone.

What to do?

Kwani Dup Island, Panama

A memory: morning hallway talk with eager Mr. Murphy. The region, he explains, is rich with possibility. With cash and car and free hours, there is much to do. He recommends Brandywine River Museum.

A second memory: breakfast in the Black Horse. Shoveling down scrambled eggs and forkfuls of scrapple and blueberry coffee cake into sleepy guts. For only a moment, Erin, Darcy and Ellen are quiet. Becky, suggesting a place to visit, lowers her coffee mug, looks up with huge liquid eyes, then cracks the silence:

Brandywine.

So I go. Into the Budget rental compact, crank up the air conditioning and leave the memory of a hotel where friends no longer stay. I drive south. Past the exits of Exton and King of Prussia. While moving, an overwhelming certainty arrives. It covers me like paint. My skin glows, as it does when this feeling come perhaps every other year. Something huge awaits. The intuitive certainty is enormous. This sensation rarely lies. At fifty miles an hour I turn onto a side road and pass hay bales and tilted green hills and veer over the impeccable asphalt of one more beautiful American highway. Finally, the museum is ahead.

Photograph of rice workers

Wyeth. Mr. Murphy said Wyeth. Who is Wyeth? He is a painter. Renowned. Of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and of Maine. The counter attendant says his work is on the third floor. Waiting for the elevator takes too long. I skip up wide concrete steps two at a time, head reeling from late nights, and step into a carefully lit gallery. Paintings on a far wall fix attention. I walk that way.

Months ago–when I first arrived in Panama City–an Argentinian engineer named Marcello described his first visit to the canal. For hours, he watched ships raised and lowered and tugged through locks. He looked with awe as cargo tubs passed through the Gaillard Cut single file, like ants over a narrow path. He told how the sight of the work–a marvel of engineering–had been for him an intensely emotional experience. In contrast, I felt no emotion about the canal. Nothing. It looked fascinating, certainly. Intriguing, yes. But something to get emotional about? Come on. What was he talking about?

Panama Canal, Panama

The answer came on the third floor of Brandywine museum. The art, though simple, is shocking. Looking at paintings hanging on the wall untied inner knots of anxiety. It was as though I had been starving–without knowing it–for this sort of imagery. Emotions quietly exploded inside. For minutes, I stood without moving before N.C. Wyeth’s painting In the Crystal Depths, and before Weymouth’s canvas August. River water reflections besides an Indian’s canoe; strands of blue and yellow straw laid out on a sloping field. The canvases satisfied a thirst for detail.

Two days ago, I arrived in Pennsylvania without a wedding present. You both have enough books to study. I don’t know anything about furniture (though Jack briefed me on the merits of a La-Z-Boy on the way back from Eagle Tavern). So I will send you a copy of the print August–the month when you were wed. The details and light, at least to this untrained eye, are riveting. Another museum in Brandywine contained a copy of Life magazine from May, 1965. In an interview, Andrew Wyeth said something that definitely applies to Weymouth’s painting August:

“My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing–if you have any emotions about it, there’s no end.”

No end.

Satisfied with the company of these paintings, I moved through the hallway. More surprise was still to come. The painting Snow Hill hangs from a curtain wall inside the entrance to one room. The image stopped me cold. It left both eyes staring. It caused a shock, a punch of laughter. I felt high. It grabbed drowsy senses and shook emotions and finally left me in a state of calm.

Snow Hill is a wide panorama. It shows a clutch of individuals, including a soldier, a girl, and a man with a hook for a hand, dancing below a maypole in a trampled circle of snow. The image is wide and open and free: limbs elastic, hair flailing and carefree motion captured on a broad canvas. Dance. Celebration. Colored maypole stringers atop a low hill with a barn–a farmhouse?–down a valley and to the left. Perhaps it was the caffeine. Perhaps the sleepless nights. Regardless, the painting blasted me with a sense of hope, of triumph.

Myself in Panama

I then realized that these bubbling emotions were the same caused by your wedding a day earlier. The minister warned you both about difficult times ahead. She cautioned you to resolve these together. This would take work and dedicated effort. Recalling her words, I looked at the soldier on the hill. He was dancing. Life was festive. But there were other times, it was clear, when he would also have to fight.

When entering the museum, part of me was starved for images, for a larger perspective on ordinary scenes. Snow Hill is more than a depiction of dancers. The image also projects a larger, more abstract theme–that of hope. An injured man and a weary soldier dance hand in hand with an innocent girl wearing ancient clothing. For that moment, the weight of their duties, battles, and injuries from the past, are all gone. The painting is larger than just an image.

On the night of the wedding I learned that Ashley was upset. I had convinced (convinced?!) Jack to stay up late drinking beers–caring little about the consequences to his family–Ashley and five month old Molly. But we hadn’t seen each other in six years. Since then, Jack had grown up. He had married and had a family and responsibility. Yet I was the same. I came to your wedding with a narrow perspective and canned expectations. I saw Jack as Jack as he was six years ago. When the weekend ended I also saw him as a man for whom late night cigar smoking shindigs with the boys had hidden repercussions. Although Jack looked the same, the picture of his life, and the people inside of it, had expanded. My ability to recognize that had not.

This reminded me of Jim’s poolside comment on the afternoon of the wedding day. You said that a serious commitment to another person forces you to change your selfish thinking. You suddenly have to consider another person’s needs and desires. As though the commitment to be married forces you to live, and to act, within a larger canvas.

Art gallery (actually – located in Cape Town, South Africa)

I keep roaming the world–Bangkok, Dubai, Luanda, Panama, and across the golden sands of Namibia to a place named Werld’s End. Nine years on the trail. At each new home I unpack an atlas and a dictionary and clutch onto the security of selfish goals: just one more continent to work on, one more project to complete, another skill to tack onto a resume, another language to learn, another acre to buy, or check to deposit into a mutual fund savings account. For years, this wanderlust has satisfied an itching for sights, for novel images. But lately, the joy is missing. Now, when I consider these actions in light of Ashley’s disapproval and Jim’s poolside words, I see myself high on that snowy New England hilltop, whipped by wind and circling a sturdy maypole–but all alone.

Your wedding, your swapping of vows, recitation of prayers, exchange of golden bands (and cutting of cake), has forced at least one person to reconsider selfish pursuits. It has provided a larger perspective on that which is important to life: the people you care for and the relationships developed with them.

The wedding is over. Your journey has begun. It’s now late on Sunday afternoon. I sit on a green bench below a maple tree beside a rural Pennsylvanian highway. Nissan Patrols and Harleys thunder back to Philadelphia after a weekend away. Alone, I recall the wedding and the weekend, the long nights and full days and the champagne toasts. I also recall standing in shorts and sandals before these paintings. Something huge, and unexpected, happened today and yesterday. I do not understand why or how and will not guess at reasons, but the picture of what is important to life has expanded. And your wedding–like the image of dancers on Snow Hill–has given me a huge and renewed sense of hope. About everything.

Congratulations.

 

 

Captain Cook … And We Think We Have Challenges?

I am reading several books at once, including Sextant, by David Barrie. He tells the value of this maritime navigational instrument by sharing his own journal entries from a 1970’s sailing trip across the Atlantic with friends, as well as by including true stories from past sailing escapades.

Author Barrie tells of Captain William Bligh, an English officer of the Royal Navy who commanded the ship HMS Bounty. In the year 1789, acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian and the ship’s most able sailors mutinied on the Bounty in the Tonga Islands of the Pacific Ocean. At bayonet point they put Bligh into a 23-foot boat with 18 men and limited provisions.

Bligh managed to navigate their uncovered boat 3,618 nautical miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They landed some six week after setting out, having lost only one of their crew members to murder when they had stopped to try to reprovision with breadfruit on Tofua Island. Bligh had been able to use a sextant to determine their latitude—effectively, their ‘horizontal’ position if you look at a globe. He may learned his sextant skills earlier, while he sailed with Captain Cook on the ship Resolution.

Barrie next tells of Captain James Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who began his seafaring career at the age of 26. He made three long sea voyages during which he collected valuable navigation and geographical information about Newfoundland, and later the Pacific Ocean. Cook sailed into frigid waters near the Antarctic, as well as north of the Bering Strait (separating Russia from Alaska, today). His ship Endeavour was once halted on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and the crew managed to push it loose and patch a gouge in the hull temporarily until they found landfall to make repairs.

Cook’s first long term voyage began in the year 1768—in a ship about 105 feet long and 29 feet wide (32 meters by 9 meters) named Endeavour. When the voyage began, the ship included not a recommended crew of 20 men, but a total of 94, as well as provisions for 18 months. These included pigs, chickens and a goat, nine tons of bread, three tons of Sauerkraut, 250 barrels of beer, 44 barrels of brandy, 4,000 strips of pork, 12 swivel guns and much, much more.

Considering that the lower deck was 97 feet long (29 meters), all of these people and supplies were on a ship having about three and a half times the floor space of an average Starbucks store. Oh, and no engine. No electricity. No refrigeration. No central heating. No GPS. No flush toilets. Probably no toilet paper. No washing machine. No radio. No antibiotics. And most times—no frickin’ idea where the next landfall would be. For some three years. From Plymouth, England, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, around Cape Horn and then to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Timor, the Cape of Good Hope and back to England.

Think of that next time you get antsy about lockdown, and having to do calisthenics before a virtual instructor on your flatscreen, or before you cook up some spicy prawns on a gas or electric stove and uncork a bottle of chilly Chablis.

In effectively the space of three consecutive (non-generational) full lifetimes (assuming a lifespan of some 85 years) the ships that circumnavigate our planet have changed, dramatically. During that time humans effectively learned to generate and control the power of lightning—creating electricity, invented ‘central heating furnaces‘ to control the flow of heat, honed longitudinal navigational certainty through the invention of accurate, portable timepieces (and, eventually, the use of satellites), began using iron instead of wood to build large ships, invented the steam engine and internal combustion engine to convert heat and flammability into motion, and harnessed compression to change liquid and gaseous states in order to change temperatures—hence provide refrigeration. And don’t forget radio and satellite communications.

Our modern technical prowess has brought us far, in a relatively short space of time. Sure, we need to improve conditions for wildlife on this planet, as well as for those who are still hungry or oppressed. We need to reduce pollution. We need to do much. And we can. It is those who look forward with positive attitudes, those who take actions to improve the lives not only of themselves but of others who have made—and who will make—this world a better place.

Cheers to navigators, explorers and inventors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From A Nobel Prize Winner

Though it is difficult to believe, it’s been almost a decade since I bought the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I purchased it in some Barnes and Noble bookstore while in the U.S., read most of it, underlined heavily, then actually had the foolishness to discard it in Washington D.C. before flying back to work in Pakistan, because my luggage was too packed. I subsequently bought the book again, and again heavily underlined his words.

To summarize much of this bestselling book by a Nobel Prize winning economist, the mind has two fundamental modes of thinking. One way he labels as System 1. This operates ‘automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

The other way he calls System 2.

‘System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’

Sounds simple enough. And Kahneman’s writing keeps this book easy to understand and pragmatic.

The thing about System 2 is that it requires paying attention, and that ability is hindered when you are distracted or disrupted. Intense focus on one task means that you become effectively blind to other stimuli around you.

So what?

Both systems are active when we are awake.

‘System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.’

So there is a constant dance in our mental activity—our consciousness communicating with our unconscious/subconsciousness, which generates suggestions and analyses. That dance between the two is the basis for this fascinating, and often very practical, book.

The author writes that the premise of the book is that ‘it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.’

He also writes that: ‘Much of the discussion of this book is about biases of intuition.’

Regardless, rather than  summarize more, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from the book. These are below.

 

‘Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.’

 

‘Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there.’

‘People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and that is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.’

 

‘Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.’

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

 

‘Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.’

‘The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.’

 

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Studies of brain responses have shown that violations of normality are detected with astonishing speed and subtlety.’

 

‘…there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.’

‘To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make these sources independent of each other.’

 

‘We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.’

Thanks for tuning in again…

How AI Stole My Freedom of Expression

Architecture from an age long before AI

Okay, so that did not really happen.

It was a dream.

But a powerful dream.

Here is is:

I reviewed my photographs on the computer, then deleted several from a recent month because they were virtual duplicates, or because they were out of focus, or because they were mistaken shots where the camera pointed at the ground. The next time I logged into the computer, ALL such similar shots from all my photographs had been deleted. Gone.

Art from an age before AI

Next, I performed a task on the computer, such as choosing a flight to London. I began to work on the next tasks, such as choosing a hotel, then finding the best means of transport from the airport to the hotel. But the AI in the computer’s internet access had already performed those tasks, and WOULD NOT LET ME do them, manually, again—because that was an inefficient waste of time. Instead, the computer showed me a list of ‘to do’ activities, based on its having reviewed all my previous ‘to do’ lists and an assessment of what this day’s most appropriate ‘to do’ list should be.

Architecture from an age before computer aided design

I had no control. I tried to go from A to B to C, but artificial intelligence recognized this was an inefficient pathway and instead insisted that I choose another route—from A to X, for example. I had no choice. There was no way to switch this feature off the computer.

Field work from an age before robots

Suddenly, in the space of a day—actually a few hours—I had not only lost autonomy and control, but realized how my previous actions and decisions seemed almost australopithecine in their inefficiency. And, my life had a new master. Someone had switched on an AI program and I was just a servant in a cell doing the bidding of some other entity’s thinking, or reasoning. I became an instant servant, an employee doing the work of a boss I never chose.

Much will change, very quickly, in the next decade. The rate of change is increasing.

Better enjoy ourselves now!

Sculpture from an age before 3-D printing

 

 

 

Time, The Universe, Reality, And Two Plucky Irish Fighters

Recently I bought these books in the city of Bordeaux, France.

Below are insights harvested from three of these books regarding time, the universe, reality, and applying these insights to the unexpected lives of two defiant Irish fighters.

TIME.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli reveals a few surprises.

– Time passes faster in the mountains than at sea level.

– Wherever there is a difference between past and future, heat is involved.

– Time passes more slowly for someone moving than for someone resting.

– The smallest unit of time is called Planck time. It is 10 – 44 seconds, or a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

The book notes that time passes “at different rhythms according to place and according to speed. It is not directional: the difference between past and future does not exist in the elementary equations of the world…The notion of the ‘present’ does not work: in the vast universe there is nothing that we can reasonably call ‘present.’ ”

Author Rovelli explains.

“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events…things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event.’ It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

“The physics and astronomy that will work, from Ptolemy to Galileo, from Newton to Schrödinger, will be mathematical descriptions of precisely how things change, not of how the are. They will be about events, not things…We therefore describe the world as it happens, not as it is. Newton’s mechanics, Maxwell’s equations, quantum mechanics, and so on, tell us how events happen, not how things are.”

Ah.

So, time is a changing character, much like a chameleon modifying its colors as it climbs a tree.

THE UNIVERSE.

The first chapter of the book titled The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow states that:

“…philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

And later,

“…we now have a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory … According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states…”

REALITY.

From where do we get our impressions of the world? Well, from living in the world, traveling in the world, working in the world, speaking to others about their situations in the world, and reading about the world.

We also get impressions from news outlets. Taking this information too seriously may not be such a wise idea.

In the book Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, he writes first about news, and then about progress. A slice of this context comes from the quotes below.

“The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible and horrific. Figure 4-1 [not shown here, but the second figure is shown in this Forbes article]. Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970’s to the present day.”

“So, has the world really gone steadily downhill during these decades?

“Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”

“All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.

“As it happens, the world does agree on these values.  In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on the eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015 that blend right into this list.

“And here is a shocker. The world has made spectacular progress in ever single measure of  human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

CONCLUSIONS.

Let’s consider a few insights from these three books.

If time is not quite the fixed entity we thought it was, if the universe is more bizarre and multi-layered than we could ever imagine, if indices indicate that the living situation on earth appears to be moving in a generally positive direction with regard to increases in living standards, reductions in illnesses, diminishment of war casualties and in several other ways—than two obvious conclusions can be made: First, the world in which we live is neither fixed, static, or hostage to any pre-ordained or predictable trajectory, and, second, often we humans can—through conscious thoughts and actions—modify and potentially improve our own reality as well as possibly the reality that surrounds us.

Those conclusions may sound facile, even simple. Yet they are not.

Every day humans struggle to move forward and to make progress. Often they encounter difficulties not just because of challenges presented by their task (such as becoming a better athlete) but also due to opposition from others who are scared that their actions may change the current reality they are so familiar and comfortable with.

Two examples  are below.

FIGHTING IRISH.

Because the origin of this website relates to Ireland, and because my father went to the University of Notre Dame (whose athletic teams are described by the motto ‘The Fighting Irish’) I’ve selected two stories from Ireland (which I recently found in piles of my past notes) about a determined man and woman who had to fight pre-conceptions of reality to attain their success.

Conor.

I have little interest in televised sports, but read and kept clippings from the August, 2017 edition of The Financial Times Weekend. An article titled A brawler with the gift of the gab, by Murad Ahmed told about an Irish boxer.

In 2017, the fight between Irishman Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather was a huge sporting event (Mayweather won).

I had paid no attention to this event until after it took place.

But the story of McGregor is astounding, and tells how quickly life can change.

Ten years before that fight, McGregor was a plumber’s apprentice. He quit that job to practice boxing and to try to make money at that sport. This action infuriated his parents in the Dublin city region of Lucan.

At his first UFC fight in Stockholm (in April of 2013), McGregor cashed in his final welfare payment of 188 Euros.

Four years later, in 2017, he was worth, according to Forbes, $34 million.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2015, McGregor said, “I had no love for plumbing. But it’s weird how society works. Rather than allowing you time to find the thing you love and can pursue with complete conviction, we’re told: ‘You must work, no matter how much you dislike it.’ ”

Conor, in other words, disregarded the insinuation from others that the world in which he lived was fixed and that he had to labor at a job he didn’t like. He decided he could, and would, change his life. He did not take reality as fixed, and did not fear changing it.

Katie.

In 2012, I read a story about another Irish boxer. This caught my attention because Katie Taylor comes from the same town in Ireland (Bray) where I had spent years going to school in Ireland when young.

Katie’s father Peter was an Irish boxing champion in 1986, and taught his two sons and daughter Katie how to spar. Katie trained in a gym that was so small that when she had to use the toilet she walked 150 yards up the road to the Harbour Bar (the same bar where my brothers used to knock back pints of Guinness). Because women boxing was not sanctioned in Ireland at the time, she had to pretend to be a boy in order to enter contests. (“When I took the headgear off at the end of a fight, there was uproar,” she said.) In 2011 she participated in the first ever sanctioned women’s boxing fight in Ireland.

My friends Barb and Ocean in County Wicklow, Ireland

Later, the Olympic Committee decided to evaluate Katie’s performance in Chicago to determine if women boxing could become an Olympic sport in the London 2012 games. After they watched Katie, the committee agreed to allow entry of the sport. The 26-year-old, religious, non-alcohol drinking, hard-working Katie won a gold medal at the Olympics, and riveted the nation of Ireland. Modestly, she said afterwards, “I actually think there is great strength in quietness.”

In a country that forbade sanctioned women’s boxing, Katie ignored the ‘contemporary reality’ of limited thinking of her peers. She changed the regulations regarding boxing forever in Ireland. She later helped change the regulations of the Olympic Committee regarding boxing.

Conor and Katie used time as their allay, ignored any concept of a fixed universe and decided and then acted to improve their personal situations.

Time, the nature of the universe and the fate of our planet and personal situations are not fixed and unchangeable. We can all choose to modify our situations, and try to move to focus more on what it  is that we love doing and what interests us.

The Best of the Holiday Season to all of you!

Thanks for reading these posts during 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From Writers

This post includes a few quotations picked up in recent years from different books. They include wise, and sometimes practical words.

‘The idea of a mental reducing valve that constrains our perceptions, for instance, comes from the French philosopher Henri Bergeson. Bergeson believed that consciousness was not generated by human brains but rather exists in a field outside us, something like electromagnetic waves; our brains, which he likened to radio receivers, can tune in to different frequencies of consciousness.’

From How To Change Your Mind—The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan [Penguin; 2018]

‘No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination. Lions can run, jump, claw and bite. Yet they cannot open a bank account or file a lawsuit. And in the twenty-first century, a banker who knows how to file a lawsuit is far more powerful than the most ferocious lion in the savannah.’

From Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrowby Yuval Noah Harari. [Penguin; 2016]

‘Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.’

From Quiet–The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. [Penguin; 2012]

‘Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.’

From the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ column titled ‘The anti-social secret of success,’ by Janan Ganesh. Financial Times Life and Arts section. [May 25&26, 2019; page 20.]

And  three quotes from a Nobel Prize winning scientist:

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy  for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic ‘How to Solve It’: ‘If’ you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.’ “

From Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman [Penguin; 2011]

‘…the universal touchstones of holiness—chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises—appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power.’

From The War on Heresy, by R.I. Moore [Belknap Press of Harvard; 2012]

‘The best cooks are  ex-dishwashers. Hell, the best people are ex-dishwashers. Because who do you want in your kitchen when push comes to shove, and you’re in danger of falling in the weeds and the orders are pouring in and the number-one oven just went down and the host just sat a twelve-top and there’s a bad case of the flu that’s been tearing through the staff like the Vandals through Rome?…A guy who’s going to sulk if you speak harshly to him? A guy who’s certain there’s a job waiting for him somewhere else (‘Maybe…like Aspen, man…or the Keys…’)? Or some resume building aspiring chef? …Or do you want somebody who’s come up the hard way? He may not know what a soubise is, but he can sure make one! He may not know the term monter au beurre…but who cares?’

From The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain [Bloomsbury; 2006]

 

 

Why Is Airport Security Frozen In Time?

The attacks that felled New York’s twin towers occurred a little more than 18 years ago—in September of 2001. Soon after that, stricter security procedures were implemented at airports. They involved, and still involve, basically—passengers  removing belt, coat and sometimes shoes, emptying pockets, taking laptops out of bags and putting all these items onto trays that pass along a moving belt through a scanner. Passengers then walk through a metal detector.

The entire experience is inundated with trays, trays, trays.

Fundamentally, the same system is still used at thousands of airports in hundreds of countries. There are variations at different locations and airports, but basically it’s the same: Off with belt, coat, sometimes shoes, empty pockets, remove laptop and put everything on trays before walking through a scanner. The system has been fundamentally the same— for millions and millions and millions of passengers—for about 17 years now.

Think about that.

More importantly, think about how many technological advances have taken place in the world during those same years. As you do so, consider this question: why have airport security procedures for passengers fundamentally not improved for almost two decades?

Here are a few technological advances that have taken place in the last 17 years.

The first ever iPhone was released in 2007 (about 5 years after we began putting belts on trays at airports). It has undergone almost a dozen evolutions since. About 2.2 million apps have been developed to make life easier while we use our phones on the move.

The final sequencing of the human genome occurred in 2003.

Skype was founded in 2003, and Facebook began revolutionizing global social communications in 2004.

YouTube began in 2005.

Uber began in 2009—some eight years after you began taking that laptop out of your bag at airport security.

In 2010 the first completely artificial cells were completed.

The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring ever since.

And if you traveled on an airplane in 2012, you were still taking your belt off and putting it on a tray.

Just two months ago an explorer descended to more than three miles below the ocean—to a depth of 18,208 feet, or 5,550 meters.

Since 2012, the technology to allow vehicles to ‘self-drive’ has increased drastically.

In 2013, researchers at Cornell University 3-D printed an outer ear that functions much as a real one.

Since 2013, bionic eyes are increasing in prevalence and quality.

In 2017 gene therapy was used to cure a teenager of sickle cell diseases.

In 2019, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole.

And, yes, you and millions of others still have to empty your pockets and put the contents on a tray at any airport.

Yes, most of us are DELIGHTED that airport security is thorough, and the processes do work to  reduce the threat of danger. Fantastic!

However—I suspect that through a bidding process and technical innovations, such systems could be altered in a way so that they become quicker, and easier (and still remain secure).

That’s something to think about that the next time you, and millions of fellow passengers, pick up your tray and struggle with taking off your belt or coat at the airport.

 

Running Toward Enlightenment?

Estuary in Blaye

I had difficulty waking. Felt heavy and tired. Finally, I got out of bed about 8.00 a.m. to go running. Stepped outside the apartment and saw neighbor Lara—also dressed to run. She suggested we go together. I would usually refuse, as she sprints like a rabbit, but the timing of our coincidental meeting appeared auspicious—so I said yes.

Vines along the running route

We ran down the main street of Blaye and then up the path along the side of the citadelle fortress, then back to the bicycle path leading toward the town of Etauliers, many miles away. Lara pulled out her phone, ignored the headphones, and played a podcast aloud so we both could hear. It was from some ‘Oprah’ inspirational series, and included Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert began by saying, generally, that if we believe the universe is indeed benevolent, then at times she wonders why she has been put into a particular situation.

Country scene outside Blaye

Soon, after a mile of running at a pace too fast for me, I said farewell to Lara and returned to Blaye. Yet the words stayed in my mind. Belief, benevolent universe, purpose of particular situation.

Later, Lara sent me a text saying next time we’d listen to a podcast about Wayne Dyer and manifestations.

Lara (foreground) and her visiting friend

I’d already read a few books by Dyer. I searched my past journals and found this from October of 2013.

Today I took a break from work, checked out my online version of the Amazon Kindle ereader, and found a book Wishes Fulfilled by Dr. Wayne Dyer, which I had read before but began re-reading.  He gives ample consideration of the power of imagination in creating our future lives.

 ‘Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.’

From a village in Languedoc, France

This excerpt from a past journal ignited memories of opportunity, and power.

In my own writing, I had suggested that the world is partially objective, and partially a creation of our own thoughts. In a chapter titled ‘Greenland’ from my book The Synchronous Trail—Enlightening Travels, is this:

Humans have not yet learned the geology of serendipity; we cannot discern the common strata that underlies the terrain of coincidence. This understanding will emerge with time and bring with it a different respect for the world in which we live, a world that is partly a collection of objects and partially a projection of thought. 

Ancient ship docked in Bordeaux city

Reflecting on those words as well as on the books by Dyer, and what Gilbert said during the podcast, brought a reminder of the power of what I call ‘rotating reality’—changing the very fabric of future events using thought. If a multiverse exists—that is, an infinite number of parallel and alternate universes—why should we not ‘surf’ to relatively adjacent universes that are more benign, plentiful, benevolent and healthier?

12th century copper – showing respect for sharing, and for the printed word

And even if there is no multiverse, sometimes, when we are calm and confident, we all manage to navigate ourselves into situations we have dreamt about.

Which is why it’s important to remember the power of dreams, and imagination.

From the bookshelf of an ally who actually speaks French

Waking later than planned?

It turned out to be most beneficial.

Rural southern France

 

 

August Insights And Lessons About Life

When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

The more you have, the more you have to take care of.

But it can sometimes be rewarding to have stuff.

3.00 a.m. is the best time to see Rome in summer. Sometimes switching schedule from what is common can dramatically change your environment and experience.

Interior decor rarely makes up for a beautiful outdoor vista.

It’s difficult to maintain appreciation for traveling First Class unless you sometimes go ‘cattle car’ for contrast.

Going ‘cattle car’ can also increase both humility and empathy.

A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.

Open your mind, and watch the universe wobble.

You are being subconsciously nodded in the direction of your desires. When a bold opportunity arrives, don’t disregard it because you think you have to empty the dishwasher.

There is no Marrakech Express. I searched, decades ago. But, the song is still inspiring.

You may not appreciate an award or trophy you are presented, but others likely do. Accept it with grace.

When it’s time to move on and you want a huge sign from the universe, it is more likely come as a casual comment from, say, a passing street sweeper.

Our lives interact more as rivulets than as bouncing ping pong balls.

When a society is rich and abundant, it no longer relies on one staple food. When the mind is transcendent it no longer requires one core religion or philosophy.

Just because you only sleep in one side of the bed does not mean that a king size mattress feels any less spacious.

Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.

To change your situation, first, shift your point of view.

The universe will deliver, but it’s wise to first provide it with a mailing address or a landing pad. Meaning: prepare yourself for abundance.

Having a little more control each day (more exercise, cleaning dishes before sleeping, visualizing forthcoming goals accomplished) can quickly lead to massive influence on the betterment of your life.

There is a wealth of natural beauty all around us: geometrical, geographical, biological, meteorological, gastronomical, artisanal. Frequently put in effort to see deeper levels of that which you yet know little.

Similar accents align with similar mindsets. Consider changing your pronunciation and enunciation to alter your own world.

Being on time is sometimes better than early. But only sometimes.

You may think you are more advanced than your pet, but your pet is likely tolerating you with patience.

We can’t very well recall the wonder and different worlds of possibilities that coursed through our minds as teenagers.

Getting rid of life’s evil influences is mostly about letting go of holding onto them.

Prefer a gruff personality who achieves beneficial results than a charmer who accomplishes little.

It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.

Below are 4 secrets to becoming rapidly successful. Five through eight are bonus additions.

  1. Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.
  2. Calmly cultivate an inner expectation of success.
  3. Maintain an open mind.
  4. Keep a positive attitude.
  5. Select a few (or even one) challenging goal(s).
  6. Eat well and exercise.
  7. Associate with positive people, and shed negative associations.
  8. Create a mental bubble of your new reality, then live into it.

All those sayings and slogans and memes and jokey stories of how things actually end up for the worse in general? Steer clear of them! And all who propagate them.

If you have the time and inclination to gossip, change your situation to find fresh wonder to amaze you instead.

Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

A very long walk can often help solve seemingly large and intractable problems.

Mind altering substances can lead to altered states; but so can prayer, and visualization.

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Artists To The Moon And How Railroads Altered Time

 

Vineyard sunrise

Before discussing time, here are a few words about space.

SPACE

In this video conference, Elon Musk announces that he has a paying customer who wants to take a flight around the moon. This Japanese chap, about 40 years old, made a zillion dollars with some app. He has offered to pay Elon Musk for all eight seats when Musk’s rocket flies around the moon in 2023. This ticket buyer said he wants to fill the spacecraft with artists.

This is actually quite fitting.

Timeless Havana

I you listen to his various talks, you realize that Elon gives credit for developing his rockets to inspiration he received from reading. He cites books that include the Foundation science fiction series written by Isaac Asimov, as well as the cartoon Tintin (which inspired the shape of his rocket), as well Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

All books. All fiction. All creative fantasy. All helped inspire this man to reach for sending others toward the moon. He (or at least his rockets) will do so in the relatively near future.

This reflects the power of words and stories and the power of books to stretch our minds in new, often elaborate directions. It helps us to remember to Dream Big.

Artists to the moon…Why not?

Railroad time in Pakistan

Now, a few words about time.

TIME

Last July I drove from Ohio to New Mexico. On the way I listened to the radio. While in New Mexico I heard an intriguing National Public Radio segment about how railroads helped push the standardization of time.

Before railroads crossed the country of the United States, the time in any town differed somewhat than time in other towns. In fact, time at varying locations in the same town often differed. That’s because time was based on the sun’s position. If a clock in Wichita differed by some minutes than one in Kansas City—who cared?

But railroads had to adhere to schedules. This meant that time needed to be standardized.

People protested at the prospect. Many simply ignored this ‘new time.’

Between the 1840’s (when a railroad schedule was published in New England) and 1883 (when railroad officials created five time zones in the United States) there were often vehement arguments about the differences between ‘local time’ and ‘railroad time.’

The brief overview of this story is here—just click.

The longer, and exceedingly intriguingly thought-altering podcast about the concept of time, is here.

Click to hear about railways and time.

Listening to this entire episode is worthwhile. It was actually recorded in 2007, but gets repeated because it is well, timeless.

This subject reminds me of how, when I worked in the southwestern country of Namibia in the 1990’s, the government adopted daylight savings time.

It was disastrous.

People woke at sunrise. Period. And clock changing be dammed.

A Himba elder

Rural Himba and Herero communities became confused when stores opened later. Some store managers, in order not to alienate customers, simply ignored this new daylight savings time. Probably half the country ignored clock changes, while the other half paid attention to this alteration of time, although confusedly so.

At the time I managed a team that drilled and installed deep wells. One foreman laughed about others messing up work hours, and mentioned that some people were on ‘old time.’ For him, ‘old time’ was, well, different.

No wonder the Himba people of northern Namibia (where topless women smear their bodies with mixtures of butter fat and ochre) consider time as a river. In my book The Deep Sand of Damaraland, I wrote:

The Himba consider that in the desert of life, time is a river. They watch the past swirl downstream while the future — behind their backs and out of sight — flows by of its own accord. In a universe where ancestors guide fortune, a desire to discard the past and ‘start anew’ is both alien and ludicrous. For them, the present conveys sense only when looked at in context of the past.

Time is a river, or perhaps sometimes a canal

Our regard to time has changed over time. Before the 1880’s, our regard for minutes and seconds, as measured on a watch, mattered little.

I recently read an article in Scientific American [‘Split-Second Reactions’] about how scientists wanting to film chemical reactions (such as photosynthesis) bombard molecules with X-Rays to film them, but must do the filming before these same X-Ray destroy the molecules. The time difference between X-Ray contact and destruction is measured in femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second. Put it this way: the difference between one femtosecond and one second is equivalent to the difference between one second and 32 million years.

Imagine: 150 years ago our general regard was for hours, at best. Minutes and seconds were abstractions. Today, some have mastered ‘serial femtosecond crystallography’ to witness events occurring in a millionth of billionth of a second.

Times have changed.

Time as central to any village or city

Because time and space are interconnected, it is unsurprising that on a personal level some days appear to pass rapidly while others move more slowly.

I’m now reading a boot titled Exactly—How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (published last year). He tells of how Saint Augustine once mentioned that although he could not explain time, he certainly knew what it was. Sounds familiar, yes? Winchester also notes that although our counting system begins at zero (0, 1, 2, 3 …) as do our clocks (00.30 being half past midnight), our calendars do not. They, instead, begin at 1 (January 1st, but never January 0th).

My winemaker friend Robyn, who has been traveling in a camper van across Australia for over a year, recently posted a photograph of a road sign—located between Cocklebiddy campground and Fraser Range Station reading: Central Western Time Zone – Advance Clocks 45 minutes.

45 minutes? What gives?

It’s complicated (Photo Credit: Robyn Drayton)

Investigating this, I found out that many world regions are still parochially odd about their time zones. Consider that before the Second World War, Amsterdam’s time was 20 minutes ahead of that in London.

And although the distance east to west across China is 3,250 miles (while the greatest distance between any two mainland points in the U.S. is some 2,900 miles), China only has one time zone.

One.

There used to be five.

But in  1949 Chairman Mao Zedong put the entire country on Beijing time for the sake of ‘national unity.’

Actually, the Uighur’s time in the northwest of the country is unofficially two hours behind that of Beijing. Yet one man was detained for changing the time on his watch to reflect this because it was considered a form of ‘resistance’ to the central government.

Ah, time as a form of silent subversion.

We can now film photosynthetic reactions on a molecular level

Newfoundland in Canada is a half hour different than adjacent time zones. If you cross from Afghanistan to China, the time difference immediately changes 3.5 hours, while crossing the border from India to Nepal changes time by 15 minutes.

These inefficient blips are attractive because they don’t sing the same song as the usual choir. They reflect diversity, and almost disdain for doing the same as everyone else.

In a hyper-connected world of nanometer precision where we can edit genes and land spacecraft on distant planets, it’s somewhat refreshing to learn of quirks, oddities and regional characteristics that ignore efficiency. It’s a reflection of how sometimes character counts more than conformity, that sameness is not necessarily sane, and that time and space are often still regarded more as subjective than objective.

Instead of sending scientists to outer space, a module full of artists will, in a few years, zip into zero gravity for a few days.

Why not?

It will be trying something different.

It’s about time.

 

 

 

 

Love As An Altered State

I’ve tried different altered states of consciousness in life. These have been induced not only by alcohol but also by other mind altering substances.

And I’ve learned how we can also reach altered states, and serenity, without substances.

One way, for example, is driving a well engineered automobile along a well engineered road (preferably along a winding canyon, while listening to beautiful stereo music). This can lull our mind into a state of serenity. This is actually not surprising, considering that such a state of harmonious motion and control did not exist for most of the long period of human evolution: the experience is bizarre enough to push our consciousness into a state of awe.

Another example is love.

Although it may not be love.

It may be something else.

Entirely.

It certainly has to do with being influenced by another person at a distance, without physical, acoustical, visual or electronic communication. It has happened only twice in my life (not the state of being in love, but encountering love as an altered state) and it was surreally, bizarrely and powerfully positive. It once lasted a week. Another time it lasted only a minute. On both occasions it put my mind into a completely transcendent condition, where fear and worry and concerns about the future became, for a time, thoroughly absent.

The first time occurred over a decade ago while working a job I had no love for. I found myself one day feeling a sense of peace and invincibility, as though there was no need to worry about anything—whether related to income or the future. This feeling stayed with me for days. I felt a sense of peace that lacked all worry. Wondering where this sense came from, I carefully checked whether any of the following had increased or decreased during that time: my exercising, eating habits, or levels and frequency of drinking caffeine or wine.

Nothing had changed.

I also confirmed that I had received no good news or pay raise and had not been subjected to any external factors that would have changed my demeanor or thinking. The weather had not altered significantly. Nothing had changed. Yet the feeling lasted, gloriously, for days. During this time I thought to myself—this must be what heaven feels like! At the end of the week I had a spontaneous and unplanned meeting with friends in another city, including with a woman who had been quite important in the past. We did not know in advance that we would meet again, and our meeting was purely platonic and unremarkable. Yet I strongly suspected that the previous feelings during the past week were somehow linked to the bond previously forged with this individual.

This also happened again last year while I was inside a wine cellar on the Italian island of Sicily. I had communicated that very day with a woman in another country by sending her a message, wishing her the best on her birthday. We had met years earlier, seen each other only a few times, but maintained a correspondence due, I think, to some sort of mutual interest. I was in some part of the cellar (and had not yet sipped any wine that day) when this sense of peace coated me. All of the sudden my concerns about having to take copious notes to write an article about wine evaporated. The same feeling as a decade ago settled on me: don’t worry about anything. Because everything is perfect and will work out splendidly. Again, I suspected that this feeling was somehow linked to this person I had communicated with.

Perhaps not love, but some other bond somehow connected us.

And yet, this is just anecdotal recollection (although I do have journal entries to back up the times as having been remarkable).

The point is this: I believe we can, on this earth, reach altered states of consciousness through connections with other people that are not physical, verbal or acoustic. There is power in relationships that can take us to higher levels, and when we are at those higher plateaus we realize that there is a realm (whether in this life or on some plane that may not exist until after we depart this earth) in which our quotidian fears and worries and doubts and concerns and frustrations vanish. It is an amazing space. And we can, at times, reach that place while we live. The connection with others is critical. Especially when we share with those others mutual intrigue. Just how to make those events occur more often is a mystery.

These experiences also left a lingering question. If that sense of peace says, so confidently, don’t worry about anything, shouldn’t I pay more attention to that message?

Thanks for tuning in.

In the next weeks I’ll review books about Renaissance era Florence, and artists who lived there.

 

 

More Strangely Simple Rules Of Life

Time and deadlines will often accommodate you, if you quietly insist to the universe that they must.

Keep your mind and body strong and you will attract the most attractive people, and situations.

There will always be polarizing and radical voices and ideologies. Accept that fact, and then deflect their influence or neutralize their existence using deft strokes of your inner mental tennis racket.

As Elon Musk realized, most any goal can be attained if you just stick with progressive steps.

Second tier wines are often about 10 percent lower in quality than first tier wines, but cost about 40 percent less. Same with life. Save the best quality for special occasions when cost is no big consideration.

Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.

All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.

Sometimes the book you need actually will fall off the shelf before you. Wait and see.

An excellent algorithm can provide amazing results, but a good story will attract a glowing audience.

Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

When uncertain, accept that invitation.

Whoever broke your heart will end up coming back when you have lost interest. Meanwhile life’s incessant rainstorms of opportunity are to be enjoyed.

Simple though it sounds, sometimes ‘believe and you will receive’ can work splendidly.

Avoid negativity and pessimism as you would a dirty, dangerous alleyway.

Go slow and steady and you will often be shocked at how far you’ve ascended, and how fast.

The best advice is short and simple and usually arrives when unexpected.

Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.

Step back and steer clear of mobs.

Numbers of bottles in a cellar diminish with time, but replenish with every harvest. Same with many other situations in life.

Sit and still the mind, then plant a clear desire and the world can often change, sometimes rapidly.

As a Dutch friend once said, ‘there’s time enough.’

Respect the value of history. Consider Hannibal marching elephants over the Alps, or those who built the cities of Venice or Cuzco.

Usually within three minutes of the moment you actually let go of a past regret (or love), an opportunity arrives for an even better scenario than that one left behind.

When that alternative arrives, gracefully say yes—but in doing so, heed lessons learned from that past experience.

Bob Marley was correct – life is full of signs that you’ll miss if you ride in ruts.

Bob Dylan was also correct in that when something is not right, it usually is wrong

Life and cooking are similar in that balance comes partially from recipe, advice, experimentation and a bit gusto.

Respect others, but also respect their respect for you—should you be fortunate enough to receive it.

You look forward and see only the short straight line of your progress, rather than the much larger spherical volume of its expansion all around you.

We’re all moving on this spinning ball zipping through the universe together, so take time to consider the bigger picture.

Be enlightened by those who inspire; stay clear of those who promise to solve all of your, and the world’s, problems.

Free stuff comes at a price.

Fully accepting where you are is often an excellent place to begin.

When you begin, don’t overlook the value of a sheet of paper and a pen.

You are likely ready now for your next phase in life. Regardless, you soon will be.

Sunshine, picnic and good company can be poetry for the soul. A dose of poetry can also be good for a wine filled picnic.

All cities, villages or settings have at least one inspiring locale. Seek, find and enjoy it, but realize that these locations change with time.

True magic is finding a bar with no name. Better still when you are not looking.

When signs pelt you in the face, stop rushing to pick up the dry cleaning, and take time to consider your situation in life.

Listening is skill, analyzing can be strategy and remembering is a form of power.

Begin weaving your social fabric by remembering people’s names and interests.

Synthesizing input can provide synergistic results.

Hard work can do the same, but be smart about it.

Three valuable questions to ask anyone about their work: challenges, rewards and the future?

Saying the world is flat may gain you attention, but it’s likely not the type you want.

Those who are rich and powerful, or loud and decisive, may be resented; but those who appear different are often feared most.

Two keys to reduce effort and multiply impact are to visualize, and to respect the power of rhythm.

Sometimes you really do need that glass of wine. At other times you need it with your allies.

Never disregard the power of, and satisfaction derived from, a good list.

 

Thanks for tuning in. More strangely simple rules of life are here. A few observations about success are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing More Of The Past

An ancient round tower in Glendalough (‘glen of the two lakes’) in Ireland

I recall a trip taken to Kansas over a decade ago, and a post written about that event. The story included only half the original writing.

The first half of the story was about meeting someone in Kansas, and their connection to Ireland.

The second half, just found in my computer files and included here, is about Kansas.

It’s taken from journals of a trip penned while retracing the route of Lewis & Clark across the United States. For almost six months I followed the route these explorers took over two centuries ago, while in my small camper. Most of it was along the Missouri River. This excerpt takes place in and around town of Atchison, Kansas.

It recalls a strangely peaceful moment in life.

Here it is, as originally written:

View of the Missouri River

“The next afternoon, with a leaking nose and goosebumps, I dodged cold breezes and paced through Atchison. On Commercial Street I nipped inside the Magnolia Bakery and Café and huddled at a varnished table below a shelf filled with Crispy Dilly Beans and cans of Hot Pepper Jelly. The waitress served me a mug of Colombia Supremo decaf, a bowl of Tex Mex corn chowder and a blueberry oatmeal muffin. I stopped eating twice to cup my chilled hands around the glowing coffee mug.

The Southern Pacific railroad could take passengers from Kansas City to California in the 1920’s

Afterwards, I drove past signs outside Atchison. The country route led to a grassy lane at 16701 286th Street, a location far less cluttered than its address. There, a meager airstrip, hangars and a lone building constituted this well tended anachronism, a cluster more insulated from time than the main street in the town of Weston. Grass surrounding the runway was trimmed like a fairway purloined from a tournament golf course. A parked Piper airplane aimed toward scrumptious views of inclined Kansas farmlands. The only sounds were the pecking of bird calls and the odd whack of a breeze. I saw no one else until a hangar door slid open.

A bald man with a silver mustache wheeled his Suzuki 500 outside the hangar. Oblivious to my presence, he cursed the bike.

I coughed, then spoke.

“Always this quiet?” I asked.

He sniffled, then stopped to light his drooping ash pipe. He looked not only eccentric, but rustic, a character cut out of a Sherlock Holmes book and pasted onto a postcard of Kansas.

“Quiet day,” he drawled. “Been some touch and go landings this morning. Not many. You’re welcome to visit the lounge.”

He pulled a red, white and blue helmet with cracked stars onto his head, then patted the space between us and chugged off.

I looked out toward peaceful fields and thought again of Charles Lindbergh—the man of pleasure, risk, and danger—and recalled how he described a portion of his transatlantic flight:

“Each flight on my mail route took me over its junction with the muddy Missouri. Now the movement of the ocean waves below, extending on to the straight line of the horizon, reminds me of the river’s wheatfields. They too bent and rippled in the wind.”[i]

More of the Missouri River, nicknamed the ‘Muddy Mo’

I moved toward pearl colored bricks and blue trim windows of the tiny airport terminal, the size of a single family bungalow. The structure belonged to another era. Scotch tape held an advertisement to the glass of the front door.

FOR SALE 1966 CESSNA 150 IFR

LEARN TO FLY, CHECK YOUR CATTLE, GO FOR PARTS OR COMMUTE TO WORK…

I stepped inside. The interior looked like a doctor’s reception from the 1960’s. A couch and overstuffed chairs faced a glass wall before the airstrip and distant gliding meadows. Large windows flooded light inside and a Cordley Water Cooler hummed. A 20 inch wide rotary dial General Electric television stood inside an ornate, wood paneled box. An odd, almost hallowed silence made me wonder if I had somehow stepped back in time.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Otis arrived with his wife—Amelia—to work as an attorney and judge in Atchison. When the town’s railroad prospered, the couple’s wealth soared. They chose to live high on the bluffs of Quality Hill overlooking the Missouri River Valley. Their daughter married a railroad attorney from Atchison named Edwin, but was disappointed when his income did not buy the lifestyle she was used to. The topic of money strained their relationship and caused their eventual divorce. The couple agreed that their two daughters should continue schooling in Atchison.

Throughout school years these girls lived with both grandparents in their spacious home above the Missouri River. They spent summers with their parents in Kansas City. The daughter born in 1897 was an unabashed tomboy. She wrote about how she and her sister wore the first ‘gymnasium suits’ in town. “We wore them Saturdays to play in and though we felt terribly ‘free and athletic,’ we also felt somewhat as outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in skirts.”[ii]

Nicknamed Meelie, this rambunctious, devil-may-care girl later recalled “mud-ball fights, picnics, and exploring raids up and down the bluffs of the Missouri River.” For her the river “was always exciting. There usually were large and dangerous looking whirlpools to be seen in its yellow depths, and the banks were forever washing away. Not that any of us ever got very near the banks, but—a few of us remembered dimly the floods of 1903 when water crept up to the gutters of buildings and swept away bridges and spread out over the lowlands as far as the eye could see.”[iii]

Both granddaughters left Atchison in 1909, though Meelie returned a year later to attend college preparatory school. While there she aided both aging grandparents until they passed away within months of each other. Meelie never followed through with her plans to become a medical doctor, a decision that changed not only her life, but the world around her.

I moved in silence to another room inside the airport building. Chairs circled two chipped tables and six brown school desks. Patches of cloth torn from shirts of soloing flight students hung pinned to a white corkboard. The first was dated September 17, 1928, and belonged to an aspiring aviator named Charlie Brown (the comic character with the same name did not exist for another 20 years). A drawing next to this board showed Atchison in 1880, with steamers gamboling upriver past splotches of coal smoke.

For half an hour I meandered about this empty airport interior. No one entered or left. While pacing I thought about the little girl who played along the Missouri River, the would-be doctor turned pilot, the woman who wrote: “How can life grant us boon of living…unless we dare?” Framed newspaper articles on airport walls celebrated this town’s most famous aviatrix, the tomboy transformed to a strong, attractive woman.

Mild gusts knocked against the hangar panels outside. The sky suddenly coughed with the drone of a nearby plane and I hurried to the terrace and circled my head, inspecting the sizzling blue skyline. Was someone checking cattle? Commuting to work? The bulky whirring dissolved. There was nothing to see. And yet, I was so certain I had heard an airplane directly above.

Although without company, I did not feel alone that afternoon. Instead I sensed a presence in the air, as though that spirited tomboy who flew a Lockheed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 was somehow close to me. No doubt this woman who vanished over the Pacific during her round the world flight would have approved of how Atchison named its airport after her.

I meandered about the peaceful grounds for several more minutes, alone but for the sound of wind and the strange certainty that Amelia Earhart was still fluttering somewhere above.

 

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998.

[ii] Interpretive Display, Atchison County Historical Museum.

[iii] Ibid.

Sex and Drugs from Other Angles

SEX.

I spent several years growing up in Ireland, after living in the suburbs of Chicago in the U.S. Many formative teenage years took place on that European island—along the shores and within the hills of County Wicklow.

In Ireland (at least back then) there was no such word as ‘dating.’

You would, perhaps, go out with a group of friends of both sexes and if two of you ended up liking each other perhaps you would end up ‘snogging’ (kissing) or perhaps someday even ‘shagging’ (having sex). If you were friends and lovers you might end up staying together. It was quite a natural process.

Later, at American schools, I heard students talked about ‘dating.’

I didn’t get it.

In ‘going on a date,’ you (apparently) went out with someone to check out if you might be interested in a future relationship with them, perhaps physically intimate. The process involved a goal. A purpose. A mission. A ‘date’ was an object-oriented event. There were even associated time and place coordinates involved (‘dinner on Saturday at 7.00 pm at Commercios’ Pizzeria’).

Where was the fun in that? I mean, if you spend time with someone and feel comfortable and happy and laugh and have good time, you may end up holding hands and naturally becoming lovers, or even long-term partners. This is a natural event, where two people who want to spend time together let their relationship unfold, then possibly flourish.

In Ireland, romance was more like a story or song that played out over time, rather than some personality evaluation or quiz contest. It was a journey, not a hunt.

‘Dating,’ on the other hand, involves a set of players with a specific (though often discretely concealed) goal in mind. The underlying focus of a’date’ has an agenda, a purpose, an evaluation as well as a hidden scoring of the person you are with. You are not just going out for a beer or movie or dinner, you are doing so as a platform for evaluating the potential of another person for possible future and intimate inclusion in life. The concept, title and semantics imply that such a meeting necessitates not only full-on cerebral analysis, but also preening full-throttle before the ‘event’ to perform a more effective courtship dance.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing a single word, but with regards to relationships, ‘dating’ seems a bit technical and laden with a focused motive. It’s more like taking an exam, rather than taking a walk in the woods; more about capturing prey, than about sharing enjoyment; more about satisfying the curiosity of others who know you are ‘going on a date’ than comfortably just letting events unwind as you get to know someone else. Once the word ‘date’ is involved, then so too are analysis and judgment. Although reason is a precious mental tool (it invented the internal combustion engine and sent us exploring the moon in a buggy), it’s not always the most appropriate sensibility to heavily superimpose over a social event.

Is it?

I mean, opening a bottle of wine in the shade of an oak tree on a blanket and letting passion prevail and reveling in a gorgeous, perhaps slightly spontaneous moment with another person you care for is not like playing chess or feeling like you’re being interviewed for a position, even if it is in some chic restaurant.

I’ve asked dozens of Americans over the years to explain ’dating.’ It’s still difficult to understand, partially because they all have different definitions.

What about just living and enjoying the company of others and getting to know them along some continuum and letting events occur at their own pace without there being some specific outcome involved?

Let’s say I invite a woman to go bicycling. Or, she invites me on a day trip to some beach for lunch. If a friend then finds about this in advance and asks, ‘Is this a date?’ the question almost vacuums the joy from a still mysterious event that has not yet even occurred. The word creates an implication that the event should be labelled, categorized, and shifted into a yes/no, ‘potential romantic relationship or not,’ event. This sounds sort of like work instead of play. It’s certainly digital instead of analog. Usually, I ignore the question. But if I do bother answering, I’ll say, ‘Actually, we’re just going to the beach.’ Such obviousness often confuses the person who asked the ridiculous question. Which is, honestly, wonderful. (Where I live in France, however, fortunately such questions never arise.)

What’s the rush, anyhow? Today, there is also ‘Speed Dating.’ Think about that. Would you enjoy ‘speed dinner,’ or ‘speed sex,’ or ‘speed apertif?’ None of those sound organic, or in any way relaxed.

Letting affections develop for another person over weeks or months (sometimes years) can lead not only to a solid friendship but a strong romantic relationship.

A ‘date’ implies some specific type of event, while ‘dating’ insinuates a defined category of relationship. I’ve never been able to discern exactly what ‘dating’ means, although this nebulous word is apparently also a great excuse. For example (true story), let’s say a couple is sleeping together and getting to know each other. Then, one of them sleeps with another person, but justifies this action to their original partner as being okay because until that point, the two of them had only been ‘dating’ rather than ‘going out’ when the transgression occurred.

Really?

At that point, it may be time to look for a new partner instead of a dictionary.

Ultimately, this is about semantics. Words shape our mindsets, our outlooks, our perceptions and expectations. They can also be seriously limiting. Friendship, companionship, and love can often be enjoyed differently once we remove certain mental filters, and the words associated with them.

DRUGS.

Author Michael Pollan, who has written an excellent series of books about food, just published a new book about psychedelic drugs. Apparently, after decades of these substances being pushed from the realm of medicine and healing, they are coming back and appear effective as treatments for certain health related issues.

It’s about time.

His book is titled How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsPollan decided to experiment with these drugs when he turned 60, partially to see if he could change his thinking patterns. An article in the Financial Times of May 19th tells how actor Cary Grant praised the benefits of LSD therapy in 1959. Other therapists used them to treat alcoholism and depression before they were legally banned.

I tried some of these substances decades ago. The first experience changed my life.

Why?

Because at the age of 17, on a sweet, sunny spring afternoon in a countryside within Europe, I realized that all authority figures I respected and looked up to had been professing ‘truths’ that did not appear to be related to factual reality. I realized that such substances, in moderation, could open our minds in beneficial ways. The books and articles I later read said alike. I then read The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and other texts and learned that these substances had been used for beneficial medicinal uses in the past.

The title of Huxley’s book (which the name of the band The Doors came from) relates to a 19th century poem written by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was Blake who also wrote the sweet verses of a poem titled Auguries of Innocence, which includes the following magical first four lines. They basically surmise how the larger world can be reflected in smaller events, and vice versa.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

POLITICS.

Politically, some of my ideas and beliefs can be considered as wildly liberal, while others are thoroughly conservative.

Why should I choose to be from one political party, exclusively? Why choose to stand on one side of a fence and criticize everything on the other side, regardless how sensible any one particular policy from the ‘other side’ may be?

This does not make sense.

Let’s say you choose to watch some movies from Netflix and others from Amazon prime. Or sometimes you drink wine, while at the other times you drink beer. Is there anything wrong with that?

Of course not.

Orin Hatch from Utah writes an excellent Wall Street Journal article about the fallacies of ‘Identity Politics,’ here.

ROCK AND ROLL.

I know little about Rock and Roll except that I enjoy the music, and grew up with it.

What I do believe rocks is the following TED video from Steven Pinker. He suggests (implicitly) that we might want to stop indulging in whining, given the facts about our world’s state of affairs.

No doubt others will disagree, and clamor to tell how dire our global situation is. Which, for me, will bring back the memory of a poem (unattributed, because the author is uncertain):

Two men looked out from prison bars.

One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Thanks for tuning in.

Keep looking skyward!

 

 

 

 

The Bibliophile of Bordeaux Wine Country

Château Margaux was rebuilt in 1815

Earlier this month I had the fortune to be invited for a private lunch with two individuals in the Médoc region of Bordeaux: the owner and the General Manager of Château Margaux.

Today I posted a piece on Forbes about the mother / daughter team running the château.

Now, about books.

Because of a rainstorm, the owner of Château Margaux, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, was late to arrive. This turned out to be serendipitously advantageous.

Her flight from Paris to Bordeaux was going to be diverted to Biarritz. However, after circling, they were able to land at Merignac Airport on the outskirts of Bordeaux city—their original destination.

Because of her delay, I had more time to meet and interview General Manager (and winemaker) Philippe Bauscales. We also sampled from three bottles of Château Margaux—2004, 2012 and 2015. Beautiful!

When Madame Mentzelopoulos arrived, we met inside her château. The walls of the main room were lined with books. Before we began discussing wine, and before we sat down for lunch, we spoke about books.

[Strangely, and I only realized this while transcribing the conversation, her two dogs began grumbling when she began to speak about an author who writes about dogs. Bizarre.]

Within the cellar at Château Margaux

Here is what she Madame Mentzelopoulos said.

[The books on these shelves are] “…from former owners. We’ve kept them very carefully. I should have them restored in Paris. They’re gradually becoming unkempt. One day I’ll have the courage. Because there are so many things here that are more important in a way—the cellar, the plantings. And we’ve been doing a lot of things in the château also.

“Or maybe my daughter will be put in charge. Because her father loved books, older books, he lived for older books. So maybe she will like the idea. Myself not so much. I like modern books. Because I mark with my pencil, I take notes. I’ve been doing that since university. And I’m supposed to re-read it again to remember and go further into the information. I don’t always do it. But I’m trying. Five years later you look at the book because you’re putting it away and you look at the notes and you don’t remember a thing. ‘What did I even mean?’ You don’t know. Oh, well. It’s a habit.

“And I sometimes do remember things. I love learning, so it’s always the dates. History, authors, literature. And when I get very lazy I read American books. Thrillers. Such as Sue Grafton. Danielle Steele? No I stopped. Mary Higgins Clark? I stopped. That’s too stupid.

“Not being born English speaking, there is the effort I am making, I get the impression I’m getting my head to work because it’s in English. And also it keeps my English going. And I come out with some sentences I didn’t even know. I don’t think I could read the same books in French. I would be more critical. I don’t read any French stupid novels, but in English, there’s the effort of reading in English.

$1,200 a bottle. On the nose—stunning. In the mouth—quite the treat 🙂

“So Baldacci, all the guys you know who are on the bestseller list of the New York Times. Taylor. John Grisham. But I read too many of Grisham so I kind of know what’s going to happen. I have found out with Mary Higgins Clark—you know the plot. There’s a guy called Cameron who writes about dogs. Now that’s very stupid but I just adore it. And that’s wonderful. Just to really let yourself go.

“I have three Kindles. I never use them. I like the books better. The only advantage of the Kindle is that you can read it before you get the book. At Amazon they allow you to read it on your computer. Used to spend my life in bookstores. Now I can browse and you can get the details as well. Honestly.

“I walk over my books at home. They’re all over the place. But I just love it. I love Amazon. I’ve been a client since 2001. And that day I understood it wasn’t the future, it was the present. I remember telling a very important wine dealer and owner and merchant here in 2001, if you don’t put your wines on a website, if you don’t build yourself a website, you’re out. Every time he sees me—he thanks me. Because he trusted me. Because I thought—this is amazing. This is so much fun. You sit there and you have the whole world of literature at your fingertips. I mean, extraordinary.”

Château Margaux has its own cooperage to make barrels. Photo credit: Francois Poincet

 

 

 

The Power of Words

Words can change us.

They can make our bodies shudder with emotion, fire us to action, or guide our trajectories through life.

I recall three sets of words that are powerfully memorable.

The now peaceful skies over rural U.K.

The first is when the Nazi regime attacked Britain via their Luftwaffe air fleet in at the beginning of the Second World War, in what became known as the Battle of Britain.

Winston Churchill—having failed several times during his previous career, was now the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He broadcast the following words to the House of Commons in June, 1940. The words galvanized the citizens of an island to steel themselves against the forces of darkness, regardless the uncanny odds against them. Despite the air attacks, the German forces never did gain a foothold on the island of Britain.

You can click on the link below to hear at least some of his words.

In the broadcast, Churchill said:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall Never Surrender!”

The moon – no longer completely mysterious and alien

The second set of words was spoken by Neil Armstrong, when this astronaut—the first human ever—descended from the lunar module on a ladder and put his booted foot on the ashy soil of the moon. The words he spoke were not scripted by NASA, nor were they prepared by Washington beauracrats. Instead, the first words spoken by the first ever human being to touch the soil of another land beside our own planet were created by the astronaut himself (though likely apocryphal, I like the story that his wife suggested this phrase to Armstrong during pillow talk the night before his great adventure).

[LM stands for ‘Lunar Module,’ the vehicle that landed on the moon.]

Armstrong said:

“I’m, eh, at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. (The) ground mass is very fine. Okay. I’m going to step off the LM now.”

Long pause.

“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

The third set of words regard the resistance to an attack on the U.S.

On September 11th, 2001, when their flight—United Airlines flight UA93—had been hijacked by terrorists, thirty-two year old passenger Todd Beamer from New Jersey, father of two, spoke on his cell phone to Lisa Jefferson, a switchboard supervisor from the Verizon phone company. Beamer described their plight: the flight had been hijacked, and he saw two hijackers with knives and someone else enter the cockpit. He and others on the flight learned from phone conversations that three other flights that day had been hijacked by fanatics and crashed—into the Twin Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon. They knew that their plane, hijacked, had been turned around and was likely to be commandeered to crash into—perhaps—the Pentagon or the White House. They knew they were doomed.

These passengers had no choice but to do nothing, or to act by attacking the hijackers. A group of passengers that likely included thirty-eight year old Tom Burnett Junior, thirty-one year old Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, fight-attendant Sandra Bradshaw and Todd Beamer (and others) apparently worked together from the back of the plane. They made a plan, executed it and attacked the hijackers. Their actions prevented the hijackers from fulfilling their mission of using the plane as a missile to attack another building. It resulted, as the passengers likely knew it would, in the plane crashing prematurely into a quarry in Pennsylvania, killing all.

Beamer’s words during the 13 minute phone conversation were unrecorded. According to the woman who spoke with him, after sharing a prayer with her, Beamer said something to the effect of: “A group of us are going to do something.” He then left his phone while he spoke to the other passengers. She heard him saying:

“Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”

Musician Neil Young soon created a song about the event. His words tell the the story from the view of the passengers on the flight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

Just as we inhale, then exhale, there are times in life when we need to exert effort, and times when we need to relax. There are times to work, and times to play.

This is like pushing a car out of a ditch. You don’t just push the car, you rock it back and forth until the time comes for one mighty heave (preferably from several people at once) that slips the vehicle out of the ditch and onto the road.

It is by working together with the rhythms of nature, and the rhythms of people, objects and situations, that we minimize effort and maximize results.

Once we understand the naturalness of such rhythms in life, and tune into them, our own lives can become more balanced, healthier, and better attuned to our surroundings as well as to other people.

Quite the flow

We are surrounded by systems that ignore this. The linear, barely interrupted office work day and 50-week work year are unnatural remnants of the Industrial Revolution, in which squeezing labor out of subordinates was adopted as a cultural norm. Humans perform best when they focus on a mental task for 4 to 6 hours in the morning, then switch gears to physical activity, then work mentally again later. The Latin culture understands this with the concept of the siesta, where the body and mind work and rest in accordance with soaring and waning daily temperatures. This also respects the human craving for variety.

These oscillating rhythms of life can also apply to times when we stay in control, and times when we surrender.

Sometimes we plan out a route with perfect precision. And sometimes events occur along perhaps that same journey where we lose control. Rather than fight uncontrollable events, it can be prudent to surrender. There is economy and efficiency in the fabric of reality that we need to give into at times—in order to achieve often far more than we originally planned, or to attain levels of peace not previously anticipated.

Here is an excerpt from the book I’m now re-reading now titled “Lost Horizon,” written by James Hilton and first published in 1933.

Here is the background: A group of four Europeans being evacuated from Baskul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in British India (now Pakistan) find themselves on a plane that has been hijacked, and which (after a re-fueling) crash lands in the high peaks of northwest Tibet. There they are found by a group of locals who take them on a mountain trek back to their home, a locale named Shangri-La. Together with the locals, these passengers hike through the mountains for hours—wet, cold, tired and confused. One passenger (Mallinson) speaks with another passenger named Conway—the protagonist of the story.

Photo of the Himalayas…taken years ago when flying to Bhutan

The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do?”

Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”

“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

[Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel (p. 43). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.]

The rest of the story, which I’ll not reveal, is about finding a paradise—and learning to enjoy it there and then.

Monks in Bhutan

The point is not to wait for desired events to plop into your lap. But once we realize there are rhythms in life we must sometimes surrender to, our own situations can become more colorful, vibrant and rewarding.

Many situations in life that I fought against ended up providing situations for the better. The pain of a relationship breakup? The hate of a course you needed to study? The fear of moving to a different location?

In retrospect, fighting against the tide of circumstances can be a waste of time and energy. That does not mean you should just give up—but realize when you have no control, and wait until a situation plays out.

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

This may even lead to prosperity, as Shakespeare understood when he wrote Julius Caesar. In this play Brutus speaks to Cassius, saying:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

1.5 Minutes To Another Universe

Here are two stories about the beneficial magic of veering away from what is routine.

The first involves a detour of a few minutes on foot, the second an exploration by car to a location an hour away.

ONE: MINUTES.

On Sunday evening, at the end of a long 14th of July Bastille Day set of weekend celebrations here in France, I walked out my front door.

I walked past the usual wine bars and restaurants, then decided to take a right. I passed a pizzeria and a Michelin ‘bib’ quality restaurant. I paced past kids throwing water off of a porch at their friends (it was 95 degrees F [35 C], after all) and checked whether a small bar/restauarant a group of us had  visited a year ago was open.

A gathering

It was!

I entered and ordered a glass of wine. The female proprietor told me I’d also have to order food.

Hot dog, I said after inspecting the menu. Plain. Dog, bread. That’s all.

I then sat on the porch.

She soon returned with the hot dog (which, in France, was three hot dogs squeezed between layers of a sliced baguette) and a glass of local red wine.

A young couple walked past. They said hello to the owner. I said hello to them. They then sat down to join me.

The couple ordered a Kronenburg beer, a glass of water and a sandwich.

Fred had lived in Portugal. Melissa came from the Cognac region to the north.

It was still plenty hot, but we sat in the shade.

We talked. They were curious—an American living in Blaye?! Did I know Yellowstone? Los Angeles?

Bien sur! I said. Of course.

They had met six years earlier. When they first met and talked they found out they each had a daughter named Melinda, and both of their daughters were six years old. Their ensuing relationship, they explained, was ‘destiny.’

The husband of the woman who served us, presumably the co-owner, stepped onto the porch. He wore his chef’s apron. There were no other customers. We all chatted. The summer evening bubbled with curiosity and stories.

A grandmother pulled up a chair to our table. She was together with her lively four year old granddaughter named ‘Ocean’—with one parent from Madagascar.

By visiting this slightly off the path locale, I had entered another universe. Everyone wanted to talk in the summer heat.

The sun went low, a breeze blew in, and we reveled in the cool air and conversation—animated and excited.

It reminded me of being at some bar in a remote Italian village, say, 30 years ago.

Yet the total walking time from my front door had been four minute and 15 seconds.  The deviation from my normal route was one minute and 30 seconds on foot, up an alley not traveled along in almost a year.

Another world.

That is the way of life. We grow used to routines, structure, means and methods which are familiar. We seldom truly head off the beaten trail—ditching guidebooks and advice and simply wandering.

And yet, as I learned 17 years ago when I drove a camper van through the United States to follow the route of the historic explorers Lewis and Clark, it is sometimes only yards away from well traveled highways that we encounter virtual miracles of hospitality, friendship and novelty.

This time a sudden, spontaneous and short lived cluster of camaraderie was only one and a half minutes away from what was routine.

Far away from what was expected.

And when I traveled a little further away (the story below), I learned how the experience could be not only enriching, but powerfully instructive.

 

TWO: HOUR.

I had to get out of town. After scouring multiple nearby locales on booking.com and Airbnb I chose one. Google maps showed it was 111 minute drive away, which sounded appropriately auspicious. It was a bed and breakfast with a swimming pool close to multiple restaurants in walking distance.

I couldn’t check in until 5.30, which meant that I had to depart during the hottest part of this 94 degree F (34 C) day at 4 o’clock in my beloved boat of a classical old Mercedes without, at present, functioning air conditioning, or ventilation (except for rolled down windows).

Perfect!

A challenge.

The canal and bike path in Saujon

Off I went and soon arrived. My upstairs room in this town of Saujon (which I had never heard of before) was quite minuscule, cooled only by a ceiling fan.

But there was the outdoor pool. With an alarm! Bizarre. The owner, a convivial woman, instructed me on how to deactivate the potentially wailing siren before plunging in.

The creperie on the water

I then walked a few minutes into town.

Intriguing.

This was a canal city, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean. Nice environment. There were large public squares, an admirable short and square bell tower and a tree lined bicycle path next to the breezy grass lined canal.

Most restaurants were closed, it being Monday. But I found a table on a terrace by the church spire (which then rang, timely and sonorous) and ordered a jug of white wine and roast chicken and raised my glass and toasted the couple seated at the adjacent table—Sante! Suddenly life was summertime full and brilliant and filled with quixotic slivers of generous serendipity.

Someone recently taught a French phrase appropriate for this type of relaxed moment we truly appreciate: Je profite de l’instant present—I enjoy the present moment.

Cool breezes on a hot day along canal waters

Thank you, Universe.

And then this realization arrived: When you arrive at a destination and it is completely misaligned with your expectations—yet not in an overall negative way—this allows you space, even forces you, to realign the shape of your own thoughts and expectations. About life. About everything.

This is a gift.

And when your table neighbors insist on pouring you a final and hefty glass from their bottle of Charente rosé, you again say thank you universe for unexpected camaraderie.

Fried veggies and olives

The sun hung low and orange behind the skyline buildings surrounding that public square and swifts and swallows dove around the belfry, past red flowers planted in oval terra-cotta pots at the edge of the terrace.

A minute after delivering a mug of ‘grande cafe’ coffee, a lovely young woman also delivered a silver pot of hot milk to the table and sang (truly sang) the word ‘voila‘ as she placed it with deft aplomb before she scurried away. Dusk flew in and the temperature cooled and a local woman in a black and white dress paraded her bulldog before the church and I wanted time to stretch and swallow and let me stay in that moment forever—or at least in some timeless iteration of that idyllic welcoming scene.

A colorful canal corner in Saujon

But here is an unexpected reason that those moments were so powerful.

The next evening I sat and listed decisions made since arrival in Saujon: specific actions to take to move forward with life. After pacing a canal side for a day and a half and eating fried vegetables and drinking Charente white wine or red Sicilian Nero D’Avola it turned out that I’d made 17 concrete decisions on actions and habits to take after arriving home. Many of them were creative, novel, and had never occurred before within the context of routine situations.

This powerful insight to planning occurred while wandering, relaxed.

Such is a benefit of moving to an unknown space now and then, of deviating from what is routine with an open minded attitude of exploration.

Sometimes it’s worth getting spoilt with globs of insight within unusual locations.

Sometimes it’s not bad to get lost.

 

^ ^ ^

If you are interested in reading more stories about travel and coincidences, check out my books…

Synchronicity as Signpost

The Synchronous Trail – Enlightened Travels

If you sign up below for this newsletter/blog, I’ll send you a copy of any one of them for free.

Thanks again for tuning in.

How Morocco and the Atlas Mountains Changed Life

Terry near the Atlas Mountains. We did not have many cares back then.

Every few weeks I’ll walk up the main street in the town where I live in in France and purchase a pink copy of the Financial Times Weekend newspaper. It’s all art and travel and cooking and even includes a magazine now and then titled How To Spend It advertising Cartier watches and including photos of tawdry lasses who transformed to posh gals by wearing Saint Laurent leather bustiers, silk bandanas and Wilson Swarovski crystal and rhodium plated brooches.

And then there are—after, say, a suave article about having lunch with author Hilary Mantel in a Devon restaurant—articles about travel.

One recent article was about Morocco. The author recalled his previous visit, 15 years ago, to the town of Imlil at the base of Mount Toupkal in the Atlas Mountains. He recalled how television was coming into the region, and the reaction of the local Berber people. He talked about Richard Branson’s new hotel, and mountaineering stores and ample cafes.

Really?

I remember something different.

Because I visited Imlil 27 years ago.

I had taken the ferry from Spain to Tangier and met a college friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer. We took various buses with two Australian gals I had met on the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Once in the mountains, the four of us rented a massive room on the second floor of a huge stone building at the base of the Atlas Mountains. There was no running water or electricity.

We piled all sorts of blankets over ourselves on a deep rug on the floor in the middle of the second story. The huge stone room was round and surrounded by windows and had no furniture.

There were candles, but no lights. That was not because the place was trying to be romantic.

Earlier, for dinner, we had found the equivalent of a restaurant up a hill, a lantern lit hovel inside a stone building where they served soup with hunks of fat encrusted beef and chunks of bread. I remember leaving hungry, questioning the food.

But it was the only place to eat at in Imlil.

In the morning the girls sat outside on metal framed summer furniture without cushioned pads and they drank Nescafe coffee on porch tables. Terry and I went for a long walk on a winding gentle footpath before the foothills of Mount Toupkal.

We chewed some local substance to enhance the journey.

Beautiful.

The day before, I had tried to take photos of brightly colored dresses of Berber children.

They threw rocks at me.

Wow!

I wanted to move there, to live there, to rent a stone house and to practice my writing.

Backpack, Moroccan mountains, and different frames of mind.

That never happened.

But, days later, after the Australian girls had gone their merry way, Terry and I traveled more, this time on the back of his motorcycle. At the time I was hell bent on becoming a writer, but knew I had to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write. I was tormented. I considered renting some stone home for a few months in the Moroccan outback and practicing my writing, trying to evoke the beauty of the desert in the same way that Edward Abbey had breathed life into his descriptions of the southwestern desserts of the U.S. in his book Desert Solitaire. One night, I think it was on New Year’s eve, we went to a disco in the big city of Rabat. They served alcohol and Terry was dancing with cute western women and I was agonizing about the truth that I needed to write! I felt intensely guilty about being in some disco while I should have been dedicating each minute to the craft I wanted to pursue. It was bizarre to be in the throes of fun and to feel so tormented.

Less than a year later I was off on my own adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, where I practiced writing and began a career of overseas work. About ten years later, having worked in Namibia, Angola, Dubai, Thailand, the Philippines, Panama and Guatemala (during which time I wrote books during my free time—self-published because the New York publishing scene never embraced my words) I FINALLY came to a conclusion, on another New Year’s Eve in my brother’s trailer in Paradise Cove in Malibu, California: finally I knew how to write. I had practiced my craft for more than a decade, and the angst felt during that trip to Morocco earlier had vanished.

I had learned to smoothen prose (much as I had learned to belt sand tables while working ten-hour night shifts in a furniture factory in Boulder, Colorado, during college).

We had visited many places during that trip to Morocco. We took trains to Marrakech (no, sorry, Crosby, Stills and Nash—there is no Marrakech Express); we had wandered through markets in Tangier, and hand carried our self made pizzas through dark alleys to a local communal oven for baking in the town of Tiznit, where Terry lived in rural Morocco with his American girlfriend.

No doubt those locations have changed.

I recall watching Terry climb up windmills with a monkey wrench to fix the water systems in different villages. And recall seeing, and appreciating, deep crimson desserts of the countryside while we rode on that motorcycle.

Perhaps I may return.

But—this time?

No more itch to rent a remote dessert building in order to practice writing.

No more guilt at having drinks while at a club in Rabat.

Life moves on. We learn, we change, we learn to appreciate change.

And to appreciate life!

***

If you would like to read any of the three books I’ve written about Africa, click below:

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – A Journal of Namibia

Water After War – Seasons in Angola

 

 

The Train Ride That Changed Life

After studying engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and disliking it intensely, I drove up to the ski town of Steamboat Springs, rented a cabin with two other people who were about my age and skied during days and worked various jobs—including as a night dishwasher at the Grand Banks restaurant on Main Street. After a few months, I left town, flew to El Paso in Texas, crossed the border by bus to the city of Juarez in Mexico and went to the train station. There I bought a train ticket for first class premium (prima de primera clase)—for $36—that allowed me to take a 36 hour train ride in my own cabin. This turned out to be the journey of a lifetime, and one that changed life.

The train car was an old 1940’s American caboose, and the back door was a huge wooden door split in two. The top half swung wide open that let me look at the Mexican countryside we passed through. Mostly it was desert scrub, very littered, and often with abandoned train cars by the rail side occupied as homes by rural locals. The train stopped now and then and passengers stepped outside to buy local tamales (delicious) for a few pesos. My cabin had a bed and a toilet and was quite cozy.

During the trip I finished one book and began another. Combined, these helped change perspective.

Blurry photo I took of a bus ride through deforested Guatemalan jungle. We had to wait hours while these guys with massive, 6 foot long chain saws cut this tree up to clear the road. At one point I considered just walking alone, but found out later there were some bandits in the region who had actually shot at another bus we encountered.

Before this trip I had driven from Steamboat to Boulder for a weekend to attend a ‘Tropical Deforestation Conference’ at the University of Colorado. It was held in Regents Hall and the keynote speaker was David Brower. The event truly alarmed me about the state of tropical deforestation in the world. At a sales table in the hall outside this conference room, I purchased two books. I read one back in Steamboat—titled In the Rainforest by Catherine Caufield. The prose was crisp, the organization of the book admirable, and the subject matter fascinating. The second book I brought along on this train ride. Titled The Primary Source and written by Norman Myers, it also told of tropical deforestation and efforts being taken to stop it.

Now and then a voice would call in the caboose hallway, and a railway conductor would pace up and down swinging a silver pail—filled with ice—holding ice cold bottles of cerveza for sale. I purchased a few, bedded down at dusk, and read.

At this time  I was truly agonized about what to do with my life. Stay in Colorado? Perhaps. Work in engineering? Never! I felt uncertain and almost defeated at racking my brains about what to do? 

I was also enchanted by the life of the author who wrote the second book, Norman Meyers. He was a worldwide environmental consultant, and a respected writer. He had a rural home in Kenya.

I visited Agua Azul in Mexico, found this jungle by the water and set up a hammock, where I slept the night. There were some strange noises all around me that night.

During that train ride I decided what to do with life.

I would become a well traveled international environmental consultant, and also an author.

(Curiously, I found out later that my father had taken this same train journey in the 1920’s with his father—who organized the excursion—and several New York businessmen, intent on possibly investing in a mine. They were guests of the president of Mexico and stayed at Chapultepec Palace; the mind deal never went through.)

The years have rolled by since that train trip, as have decades.

Two years after that trip I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, assigned as a water supply engineer. It was bliss. I had a motorcycle, a lovely English girlfriend also with a motorcycle (still a close friend) and material to write about. This led to 16 years of international work throughout the world managing infrastructure and environmental projects (and five years in southern California as an environmental consultant). I managed to self publish a few books along the way.

In the highlands of Guatemala, this group of indigenous women used hand looms to create beautiful shirts and tapestries. They formed a collective group of widows whose husbands had been killed by non-indigenous groups in a little known but bloody conflict that lasted years in the jungle.

Recently, for the first time in many, many years, I wondered what became of Norman Myers. I  found this interview with him in California in 1998. It is intriguing. He tells of growing up in Yorkshire without electricity, and then getting a job as a colonial administrator in Kenya when he was 22.

My backpacking trip that followed this train ride—by train, bus, truck, canoe and plane through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize—also changed life in another way. I learned a strange truth about reality that no books or classes ever hinted at. When you confidently expect to arrive at a certain destination, events and people align themselves to help you out with your journey. Yet when you fear not making it to a destination, physical and situational realities will emerge to help block your path.

That realization? Worth any course from any school.

 

What Is Success? A Few Observations…

What is success?

There are many definitions. For me, the ability to have control over time is critical—to be able to work where I want, when I want, and to do whatever I want is key, as well as to be financially solvent and to have peace of mind.

Often, contentment is simply the absence of strife.

I’ve not yet gotten there.

But, am working on it. More appropriately – cultivating it.

Internally.

For decades I’ve ingested the wisdom of self-help books, and they have been inspiring in various ways.

Here are a few lessons learned from experience during past decades.

  • An open mind and a positive attitude are key—they form about 80% of the magical juice that will allow the fabric of reality to bend to your desires.
  • There come moments in life when situations and circumstances fall into place. Pay attention to those times, and why they harmonize with your own desires.

  • Sometimes your key to success is revealed by where your enemies lie. Whether you like it or not, whether or not you are honest, tolerant and humble, there come times in life when others rabidly dislike you—through no fault of your own. You will have done nothing wrong to bring their animosity into your life. They detest you merely because you exist. Perhaps it is your very equanimity they dislike. Or your situation or status. Regardless, pay attention, and do not be afraid. For they can be like dye-markers indicating the direction you must journey toward to reach your desired situation. They are beams of light indicating the very signal strengths that, until then, you may have been unaware of possessing. They can be the springboards off which you can leap into new, bolder, newer directions. As Napoleon Hill wrote in his book The Law of Success: “Don’t be afraid of a little opposition. Remember that the “Kite” of Success generally rises AGAINST the wine of Adversity—not with it!”

  • At other times, the direction to success may be pointed to by ‘angels’ – those who wish you well. The most ludicrously beneficial advice may arrive, unexpectedly, from that individual you previously considered ludicrous. That strange dude with the twee scarf, and the drooping handlebar mustache? He may whisper advice leading to your personal fortune. On this point, trust me.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of. Be prudent in your selection of how many possessions you want in life.

  • No situation remains the same. You take a job, learn who the key supervisors are, and then, one-by-one, they will leave or be replaced and just when you learn the ropes, the rigging changes. This can provide frustration or opportunity. All situations and power structures alter with time. Often our desires arrive in life, apparently unbidden, by a few mere natural changes in circumstance.
  • Discipline—in work, exercise and thinking—is a muscle that thrives on exercise. Still, allow yourself a bit of latitude. After all, we only live once.

  • Don’t be too concerned with what other people think of you. They are usually too busy thinking of what groceries to buy tonight, or where the next gas station is to fill up their fuel tank.
  • When life throws you in a direction several times, pay attention. I once re-visited the town of Atchison in Kansas, and locked my car keys in the car THREE times in the space of two hours (police and locksmiths came to the rescue). I then slowed down to consider this bizarre situation. Perhaps, I realized, before leaving town on that day trip, I should call a friend who lived there, and who I had promised to contact. I did so. We met, had dinner and both appreciated the reunion. The car key scenario, thankfully, made me re-evaluate the selfish desire to rush out of town without fulfilling a promise made months earlier. Another time I spent six hours hitchhiking in one direction in rural Malawi, Africa. No rides. I crossed the road, hitchhiked in the other direction and got a ride within minutes (there were about the same number of cars moving in both directions). I went home, and realized that I truly had not wanted to make that planned trip to Mount Mulanje that day anyhow, and that not getting a ride worked best. This happened repeatedly in that country: whenever I truly did not want to go somewhere, cars and buses broke down or thunderstorms closed in and those journeys ceased prematurely. Whenever I truly did want to get somewhere, and cultivated a calm confidence in eventual arrival, travel opportunities appeared in abundant, often bizarre ways.

  • Move away from people who hassle you or give you a hard time or consider you their punching bag of sorts or their bemused object of perpetual competitive zeal. Breathe deep, walk into the sunshine of relief and be grateful for simply having taken yourself away from a situation you no longer deserve, one you have decided you will simply no longer tolerate.

  • Sometimes a simple single action can make an incredibly powerful difference. When cross-country skiing with a brother in Colorado while in college, my hands became painfully cold from wearing wet mittens. This pain pushed all sorts of unrelated psychological anguish into thoughts. I suddenly felt out of control. I thought my backpack was probably packed in a sloppy way, criticized myself for not having a girlfriend at the time and for getting poor grades in studying engineering and having clothes that never fit….My brother, meanwhile, pulled out an extra pair of dry wool mittens and passed them over. Once I put these on, all other worries in the world vanished. Life once again felt good. Sometimes implementing a single positive action can eliminate a dozen unnecessary worries in ways unpredictable. As an ancient eastern saying goes: When the mind is troubled, the multiplicity of life increases; when the mind has found peace, that multiplicity goes away.

  • Success? Consider what you want. Take moves, or a move, in that direction daily. Focus on the big picture. Have faith. Disregard distractions that clutter clarity.

Thanks for checking in.

I hope you will follow my Forbes posts by clicking here and pressing ‘Follow,’ or my wine blog by clicking here. And THANK YOU to all new recent followers on Twitter

Finally, a few book recommendations:

Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman – amazing stories of how cybercrime has become huge business.

The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansy – recommended by a friend; the Basque people of Spain? Their history is cryptic, their culture singular and their cuisine outstanding…who are these people? Fascinating.

Have a superb May!

 

Life Lessons from 2016

This additional End Of Year post highlights simple lessons learned during past months.

dsc_0501

Life is too short for nonsense.

  • If hard, dedicated, focused and intelligent work is unappreciated, or if supervisors try to undermine rather than support success – consider moving on. I did. Wonderful choice. Life is brief. New avenues appear when you are ready.
  • Spend time with those who appreciate and support you.

Version 2

Mes amis

  • As explained in the book The Black Swan, unusual events are not as infrequent as we might expect in life. Brexit? Trump’s election? Perhaps surprising, but actually not so unusual.
  • Home cooked food truly is better. Switch off the TV. Get dicing, slicing and buy a few liters of olive oil.

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Home cooked and ready to be devoured

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Beauty beneath corks

  • Lessons learned from history are constantly applicable. Castles had walls and countries established borders for solid reasons.
  • However, were walls built to keep others out or to keep people in? ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…’ wrote Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall.’ The dismantled Berlin wall is a physical manifestation – a potent reminder – of how insecure brutish characters tried – vainly, and ultimately in vain – to control not only the natural ebb and flow of neighbors, but their power to live freely.

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Thinking of invading? Think again.

  • Respect your local cobbler and other artisans. The culture of disposability does not yet prevail.

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Massive greenhouses heated by geothermal power boost the economy of Iceland – Very forward thinking people.

  • Establishing sensible laws takes courage in the face of massive, uneducated, emotional resistance. Each year about a thousand people are murdered in Pakistan in ‘honor killings.’ Fathers and brothers murder daughters who may have publicly displayed amorous eyes for another young man. That crime has gone unpunished, until a new law was passed this year. Bye Bye, Middle Age barbarity. Well done, Pakistan.
  • Less can be more. No lawn means – no need to mow the lawn.

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Mont Saint-Michel. No lawns here.

  • Consider quality in life.
  • The less you have, the less you have to take care of.

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Plenty of  lights to turn on and off every evening.

  • Enjoy nature. Frequently.
  • When in doubt, explore. Unwind. Tap into greater universal wisdom. And when the road bends in unknown ways, consider this a magnificent opportunity.

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Another glorious bend in the road.

Prepare for a powerful 2017…!

 

[Writing and photographs copyright Tom Mullen, 2016]

How A Dubai Poolside Afternoon Led to Living in France (Also – Advice from Authors)

1996-97-beach-in-dubai

Chicago Beach, Dubai

Almost 20 years ago I sat on the side of a swimming pool in an apartment complex where I lived in Dubai. I worked for a large American engineering corporation based in Pasadena, California, and had been saddled with a sweet assignment in the Emirates, back when Dubai was small enough that you routinely recognized friends at Thatcher’s pub or the Irish Village. We worked 6 day weeks, so the abbreviated weekend was to be cherished. I would drive over to Jumeira for a croissant and coffee breakfast, then amble through Magrudy’s Book Store before returning to the apartment to lounge poolside, and maybe chat with a group of young English women also living there.

another-building-in-dubai-uae-1996-97

Dubai 1997

On this particular sunny day – with a blue sky above – I flipped through a Time or Newsweek magazine (when these included news instead of celebrity gossip), and read an article about how author Peter Mayle’s book – A Year In Provence – had taken off. The story was so intriguing that I tore it out of the magazine and kept it.

Imagine. Living in the French countryside and writing. 

Decades passed. And, well, here I am. Lacking royalty checks and a renowned book publisher as yet, but content to be enjoying comte cheese, chocolatine croissants with almonds (flaky edible pleasure) and bottles of Fronsac and Blaye wine. The post office, bank, barber, market, two parks and several restaurants are all within a five minute walk of the front door.

Sometimes it takes decades for desires to be realized. So – patience.

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Cap-Ferret, Bordeaux

Mayle wrote about long French lunches. With wine. Sometimes glasses; often bottles. I gave that up during past months after it increased body weight and the need to nap. Well, almost gave it up. But now when there is an occasional long lunch with wine and friends, it’s better appreciated as sacred.

Mayle once wrote an article for a magazine defending the existence of ‘airport literature,’ saying that sales of books with low literary merit gave publishers the funds they needed to take risks on new authors. He also defended the airport genre by saying that all reading is beneficial. Truth is, today you can routinely find airport books that are cracking good reads – well thought out, carefully constructed, and with respect for the use of language.

Though I can’t find that Mayle article writtten over a decade ago, here is one that includes advice about writing – from writers (including Mayle). And here is another list of author quotes regarding the process of writing.

If that advice is no use, perhaps you should put the pen down (or put the laptop away), stand and reach for a corkscrew, bottle, and slab of cheese. If you can find someplace with sunshine…even better.

Enjoy.

Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

Here are a few quick stories about connections with writers, and lessons learned.

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My great-grandmother Patty traveled with Mark Twain to the Caribbean, as well—apparently—to a few other locales. She was his ‘traveling companion’—though the depth of that relationship remains unknown. Perhaps as a form of thanks, Twain gave her a large black and white photograph of himself—white haired and stately. He signed it: “Be good Patty, and you will be lonely.” My parents bequeathed this framed, signed image to me when they passed away. It’s in good custody at the moment. Sometimes I have to remember Twain’s advice.

I was born in the Virgin Islands on the island of Saint Thomas. A neighbor of ours was the author Herman Wouk (“The Winds of War,” “The Caine Mutiny”). I am told a cameo figure of a Chicago businessman (which my father was) is portrayed in Wouk’s subsequent book set in the Caribbean—’Don’t Stop the Carnival.’ I have to read this book to learn more.

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When I subsequently spent years growing up in Ireland as a boy, our neighbor was an 80+ year old Australian chap who golfed with my father. He had flown a canvas sopwith camel biplane during World War One, landed in a Belgian field where he found his hand spun propellor would not spin again. He ditched the plane by setting it alight, then spent the next 10 weeks escaping detection from German occupiers before crossing the border—illegally at night. During this episode he faced a pistol/bayonet confrontation (which he won). When he returned to England as a hero, King George held a private audience with him to learn the details. Fifteen years later he wrote a bestselling book about the experience. It’s a riveting read. I recently hired lawyers in London to track down the surviving relatives (which they did—to Asia and Latin America) so that I could buy the copyright and re-publish the work. They agreed. (Next step: to source crowdfunding to move this endeavor forward.)

I never met Mark Twain, of course, or Herman Wouk. I only learned later that our neighbor in Ireland had been a best selling author.

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Recently I considered all three characters, their writings, and their effects on changing the world.

Why?

Mark Twain (which is a nautical term which he adopted as a pseudonym; his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wrote about his time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Learning to pilot the river—navigating eddies, turns and shallows—was a challenge that kept his mind energized, hungry, focused. Yet after he learned to navigate those challenges with ease—he wrote about how the river no longer interested him.

This is a lesson of value: once we master tasks we set ourselves at, we will be ready to move on. Why is this important? Because we should consider not only upcoming challenges, but what comes after they are achieved.

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Wouk’s lesson was more subtle. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi years ago I read and enjoyed a few of his books (which my parents had mailed to me): The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. One evening while I visited the capital city of Lilongwe, the Peace Corps nurse invited a few of us to her house in the evening to watch a mini-series adaptation of The Winds of War. I went with my fellow volunteer, a Californian named Sam Abbey, and watched a few episodes. The book came alive on screen, and suddenly I heard the rather posh voice of a young British woman named Pamela Tudsbury—a huge character in the book. Yet associated with Pamela and a story of romance, there was a plot twist that was unexpected and refreshing.

So, too, with life: sometimes it will blow us away by twisting unexpectedly. The lesson? Set a course, but be prepared to change when forces of nature require adaptation.

From our World War One aviator pilot friend, I was reminded how strangely serendipity can plop into life. Twice during his escape he fortuitously met characters who helped hide and protect him—both times at the very moment when he was on the verge of being captured, or running out of food and shelter. The lesson? Keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and the very fabric of reality may bend to assist you in ways unforseen.

Thanks for tuning in.

^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes posts are here. They include pieces about a jazz musician in Dubai, the difference between Pinot and Pineau, and the reason Loire Valley wines may well become the rage.

(The first photograph above was taken at a sailing club in Cartagena, Colombia, several years ago. The 2nd and 4th were taken during these past months here in France. The third was taken in Belgium last year—and shows the ground over which our pilot friend had to move in winter—in a horse and buggy, or by foot.)

 

 

 

 

 

37 Boxes … What We Value Most

Last December my storage unit in Albuquerque was burgled. Having been out of the country, I was unable to visit and discern the damage until this month. Beside making a mess and heisting heirloom jewelry (as well as a never-worn pair of Timberline boots – (?), the thieves left my journals, photographs, few pieces of kitchenware and books intact. They even left Waterford Crystal glasses (a present from decades ago) untouched in padded boxes. I ended up rooting through the plunder, tossing away old clothing, DOS computer manuals, golf balls (?) and then loading the remainder into a U-Haul truck and driving it to another locale. In all, there were 37 boxes – plastic containers from Wal-Mart, trunks and a few cardboard crates.

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37 boxes. Possessions of life distilled. With more time, I could have reduced that number to 5, and with a scanner and some weeks, condensed most of the balance to images and files on a single flash drive.

During a stop for a night  in the mountains, I sat on a deck at sunset, cracked open a beer in celebration of having hauled away the materials – then put on warm clothes. What to wear? I opened random boxes and pulled out options. I soon wore a pile jacket from ski patrol days in Colorado decades ago, as well as a desert camouflage floppy hat given by a brother from his weeks in Operation Desert Storm. When it grew colder there were more options for alternate head ware – the wool balaclava hat bought at an open air market in Marrakech decades ago, or the Russian cap (complete with authentic hammer and sickle badge) given as a gift by Russian friend Vladimir in the UK eight years ago.

Along with this dress change in a remote region (as starlight sparked above) came memories of times and people. With these came the forgotten realization that although things are important (wool hats do keep us warm), it is our interactions with others that is most fleeting and precious. Time flies, jobs demand attention, tasks keep us scurrying. Yet we need to stop, frequently, and laugh and enjoy the company we have. Decades ago, ski patrol friends in Colorado always seemed aways laughing, filled with levity and enjoying each moment. The friend I visited in Marrakech rode a motorcycle around rural villages and laughed and spoke Arabic to locals as he fixed their water supply windmills. Witnessing this, and his calm fluidity in an alien culture, changed my perceptions about life, and living. (One evening we made a pizza, then walked to the village stone oven to get it cooked. How unexpected and wonderful.) And Vladimir once took me on a long walk to a distant lighthouse on some shore of northeast England. When I asked him why we were going there, he said, “why not?”

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Life is filled with change and surprise and the constant realignment of perceptions regarding what is important. Whether or not I keep the contents of those 37 boxes, rooting through them was a reminder of how important it is to appreciate our situations in life. Like it or not, the flow of change incessantly alters reality. Sometimes slow, sometimes rapid. We cannot hoard our friendship or laughter for another day or more ideal conditions. Life flows. We change. If you feel the sudden urge to walk for hours to a distant and mysterious lighthouse – go for it.

Why not?

 

 

Luck, Success and the Bizarre Fortunes of Chef Marco Pierre White

After reading the book written by Marco Pierre White titled The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef I wanted to learn more, so found a YouTube video of him speaking to the Oxford Union Society. What an amazing speaker! The interview is about an hour long (though it passes rapidly because of the quality of White’s storytelling abilities), but if you are limited with time, then watching even part of it is worthwhile.

White spins a compelling story when talking about his youth and his transition to the world of cooking. What is clear in his book, and is amplified in this video, is the role that luck played in his life.

For example, after some years of working in kitchens he wanted to work at the renowned La Gavroche Restaurant in London. He wrote them, and they replied with an application – in French. Not knowing the language he tore it up in frustration, then traveled to London and onward to another city for a kitchen job interview. They asked him to be a pastry chef, which he didn’t want to do. He told them he’d think about it. He returned to London, crossed the city to Victoria station and found the last coach bus that would take him home had already departed. He knew that he had to spend the night walking around the city to catch the morning bus, not having the money to afford a hotel. He walked somewhat randomly, saw the windows of a beautiful restaurant with guests inside toasting glasses and enjoying life, then moved back to see the restaurant’s name: La Gavroche. He decided this was somewhat of a sign, and in the morning knocked on the door, explained his situation, and landed a job.

Luck, White says, led him to success. Yet when luck arrives, he emphasized to the listeners, you must seize it.

He says:

It’s all been about luck. Success is born out of luck. It’s awareness of mind that takes advantage of that opportunity. You will all be confronted with opportunity. You must take advantage of it, ’cause if you don’t take advantage of your opportunity, you’ll never realize your dreams. Whether you want them or not, it’s an irrelevance; you don’t know that until you achieve it.”

His story is inspirational.

&   &   &

Anthony Bourdain gives a great explanation of why any writer getting paid money should not be whining. It’s a long video interview set in Australia, but the first 10 minutes are enough to get the gist…although if you have the time, it’s worth listening to all.

“Writer’s Block?” Forget it.

Bourdain gives reasons how having previously been a heroine junkie (from which he recovered) oddly prepared him for Hollywood. Because in Hollywood, he said, many people are not telling the full story. It was the years of dealing with backroad junkies in New York city that tuned his inner radar into who was reliable and who was not. He had to tune that ability if he didn’t want to die. He also makes the excellent observation that some people in life promise and deliver, and some people promise and don’t.

Originality, Power Morning Minutes, Fresh Bread, and Words from Gurus

First – all Roundwood Press books have been reduced to $2.99 apiece (at most) for the finale to summertime.

Second – am now reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant (2016, Penguin Random House, New York). It’s a good read, and recommended. The gist is that many individuals whose actions changed the world were normal people who held onto their day jobs even when they plunged into a business venture, uncertain of whether their notion would work or not.

Third – also recommended – a quick video where Oprah speaks to Anthony Robbins, and he gives a hint about a ten minute ritual each morning that can change your life.

Fourth – here are sage words about food, life, and respect for locality – from a powerful Scandinavian character I may soon have the fortune to meet (yes, will keep you informed):

 

Fifth – Here are some quotes  about life, and living, from some ‘success gurus.’

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The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Lifeby Deepak Chopra M.D.

“If it weren’t for the enormous effort we put into denial, repression, and doubt, each life would be a constant revelation.”

“Ever since you and I were born, we’ve had a constant stream of clues hinting at another world inside ourselves.”

“Clinging to old behavior is not an option.”

“Thus we arrive at the second spiritual secret: You are not in the world; the world is in you.”

“Violence is built into the opposition of us versus them. “They” never go away and “they” never give up. They will always fight to protect their stake in the world. As long as you and I have a separate stake in the world, the cycle of violence will remain permanent.”

“Now step into your social world. When you are with your family or friends, listen with your inner ear to what is going on. Ask yourself: Do I hear happiness? Does being with these people make me feel alive, alert? Is there an undertone of fatigue? Is this just a familiar routine, or are these people really responding to each other?”

“Just by paying attention and having a desire, you flip on the switch of creation.”

“Instead of seeking outside yourself, go to the source and realize who you are.”

“So you have to give up on the idea that you must go from A to B.”

“Everyone knows how to choose; few know how to let go. But it’s only by letting go of each experience that you make room for the next. The skill of letting go can be learned; once learned, you will enjoy living much more spontaneously.”

“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision.”

“For most people, the strongest externals come down to what other people think because fitting in is the path of least resistance. But fitting in is like embracing inertia.”

“Now let’s reframe the situation in terms of the operating system programmed from wholeness, or one reality. You come to work to find that the company is downsizing, and the following implications begin to come into play: My deeper self created this situation. Whatever happens, there is a reason. I am surprised, but this change doesn’t affect who I am. My life is unfolding according to what is best and most evolutionary for me. I can’t lose what’s real. The externals will fall into place as they need to. Whatever happens, I can’t be hurt.”

“Nothing is random—my life is full of signs and symbols: I will look for patterns in my life. These patterns could be anywhere: in what others say to me, the way they treat me, the way I react to situations. I am weaving the tapestry of my world every day, and I need to know what design I am making.”

“Today is for long-term thinking about myself. What is my vision of life? How does that vision apply to me? I want my vision to unfold without struggle. Is that happening? If not, where am I putting up resistance? I will look at the beliefs that seem to hold me back the most. Am I depending on others instead of being responsible for my own evolution?”

“…a musician coming out of the Juilliard School of Music hears every note on the radio through a different nervous system from someone who has just graduated from M.I.T. as an electrical engineer.”

“The absolute break between life and death is an illusion.”

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Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

“If you would like to become a person who has the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled, it will be necessary for you to move to that higher plane of existence where you are a co-creator of your life.”

“You must begin by replacing your old set of truths with a belief in the existence of a higher self within you.”

“Your concept of yourself that includes any limitations can be revised by you, and only by you.”

“You simply no longer choose to form your identity on the basis of what you’ve been taught.”

“The greatest gift you were ever given was the gift of your imagination. Within your magical inner realm is the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled. Here in your imagination lies the greatest power you will ever know.”

“In order for something to get into this world where things exist and are proved, as Blake says, they must first be placed firmly into your imagination.”

“Be willing to dream, and imagine yourself becoming all that you wish to be.”

“Highly functioning self-actualized people simply never imagine what it is that they don’t wish to have as their reality.”

“Do not let your imagination be restricted to the current conditions of your life…”

“In your imagination, you can replace the thought of I will one day be in a better place, with I am already in my mind where I intend to be.”

“Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.”

“Let go of all doubt, forget about the when.”

“It is absolutely imperative to learn how to assume, in your imagination, the feeling of already having and being what you desire.”

“You want to decide to live from the end you’re wishing for—not toward an end that others have decided for you.”

“As William Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors.” Anyone or anything trying to diminish your inner feelings with doubt is a traitor to be banished.”

“I always loved the words of Michelangelo regarding this subject: “The greater danger is not that our hopes are too high and we fail to reach them, it’s that they are too low, and we do.” ”

“My story concerning the manifestation of abundance throughout my life is never allowing anyone, no matter how persuasive, to infiltrate my imagination, which feels prosperous and able to attract unlimited abundance.”

“State your intention to live a happy, contented life…”

 

Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

There are reasons we choose where we live. Perhaps proximity to work, family, or historical roots.

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Yet our genetic memory knows the truth that we evolved as nomads, craving motion. Our migrating psyches aligned with taciturn and cyclical moods and whims of this planet; like rivers, scudding clouds, or streams of migrating wildebeest, we crave, yearn, and are predisposed to movement.

We fornicate, pray, and test ourselves on psychedelic drugs as a means of seeking higher planes – pleasure, aspiration to revelation from gods, or moving our minds away from what is routine and known to search for greater personal power.

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Another way of doing this is to travel. This can be like a drug taken to shift thought patterns. Like the short-term version of moving to a new location far away.

It is what we do. We cannot stop.

As South African author Laurens Van der Post wrote:

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the faded desert spoor of his lost self; and so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”

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I filled storage areas with junk soon forgotten about, then threw it all away. Life is transient. So are possessions and tools. In college I moved into a darling Colorado home with a woman who owned ample, ornate furniture, and an arboretum of plants. I soon learned that the more we have, the more we must take care of.

Which detracts from time to explore and ramble. As Bilbo Baggins and his comrades learned from their unearthly whirlpool of forays – traipsing, paddling, battling dark and ancient magic – after being uprooted and exposed to the pregnant beauty of Earth, and this hectic adventure called Life, we can’t return to the Shire.

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Before buying that flat screen, or S class Benz, consider exploring volcanoes in Iceland, checking out a fishing community in New England, or joining some funky-ass Zen meditation project deep in the Mojave desert.

Because eventually, you will die. That’s for certain. The remnants of your psyche may then travel to luminous reaches far beyond the corner store. Before then, perhaps you’ll want to practice breaking habits by embracing new environments during this life, so that when you plunge into the next plane of ethereal abstraction, you might maintain residual memory – not of stuffy religious texts – but of embracing fiery, frenetic, changes, and having at least an occasional wild disregard for rules. You might even learn to embrace faith that all will work out, perhaps even magnificently.

As young wizard Harry Potter once said, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

(Not that I plan on taking that trip for quite some time, mind you.)

Many have already taken that trip. For some, we have Memorial Day. We remember sacrifices they made to ensure a better world – for all of us.

 

Life Lessons – Revealed by Rivers

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Rivers alter course over time – The fabric of reality is pliable

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Tributaries join primary currents – Smaller objectives are achieved in the wake of pursuing larger goals

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A river’s true power is hidden from view – Personal power can be inconspicuous

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A river needs a flow path – To enter a new reality, first imagine it

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Rivers meander to balance their flow – Misfortune can swing us toward fortune

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Steeper flows have fewer meanders – Challenging goals provide fewer distractions

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Da Vinci’s lesson:

A River which has to be diverted from one place to another ought to be coaxed and not coerced with violence – It may be better to work with the flow of times and temperament of personalities rather than defy them

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Machiavelli’s lesson:

Fortune is a river – Fortune floods into life

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Great rivers grow from many small tributaries – True success comes from helping others succeed

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Faith flows like a river; fear looms like a dam – Faith floats us toward our desires; fear generates obstructions

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The river of today is not that of tomorrow – Seize opportunities that may not reappear

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Rivers find their own confluence – Personalities modify journeys

 

Images and text* © T. Mullen. Text from the book River of Tuscany.

(*Except for Leonardo’s and Machiavelli’s sage words, of course.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Power of Small Changes

It’s surprising how many people cling to well known routes through life. Yet stepping out of that mode takes only a few minutes, and little effort.

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Years ago I drove across the western United States to explore how massive rivers, including the Missouri and Columbia, had been damned, channeled, and altered from their natural configuration. But first, I had to get to those rivers.

I drove from New Mexico northeast to St. Louis, in the state of Missouri, to reach the Missouri River. Along the way, I pulled off the interstate highway to explore the remnant of what had once been the famed ‘Route 66’ highway. It ran parallel to the highway, yet was scenic, quiet, and virtually devoid of traffic. I learned that is generally true of life: colorful, less-traveled, surprising, often hospitable trails often lie just yards away from the beaten track where masses of people flow. Yet few people make the effort to visit them.

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Each year, 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Some 95 percent never venture away from the known and paved trails and visitor centers – which constitute a minuscule portion of the park’s territory. The park is almost 3,500 square miles (almost 9,000 square kilometers) in size, leaving plenty of uncrowded space to explore. Yet few venture away from the presence of other humans.

Why? There is ample beauty far from parking lots, restaurants and motels.

We often find if difficult to leave what is routine, commonplace and filled with other humans – whose presence we find comforting. There’s nothing wrong with that. Yet there is merit in leaving routines, ditching norms, exposing ourselves to situations, and geographies, that are alien.

Here’s why.

Whether it’s looking at starlight from Angel Pass in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, or listening to Latin American music played in an Asian city by a band you never heard of before, the experience differs from what is known and usual. The experience causes your thinking, and awareness, to shift. It creates new neural pathways in your brain. As you explore new physical territory, the neural synapses in your cerebral cortex begin their own exploration – forging into novel brain terrain, creating new chemical/electrical pathways, and pushing you to change as a person.

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What does this have to do with books, or publishing, or reading?

Bill Gates told how he read news magazines cover to cover, not just stories he thought might be of interest. This helped expand his awareness of topics, subjects, situations and news of which he knew little.

It is the same with reading. It can change our thinking, and perspective.

For example, I’m now reading two books, both of which unexpectedly changed my understanding of the surrounding world.

Weeks ago in France, a bookseller reached under the counter and pulled out – shhhh! – a book he also published in English – about a winemaker. I bought it. This renowned winemaker – Denis Dubourdieu – told how great wine did not simply come from regions bestowed with beneficial natural geography – wonderful terroir – but also depended on the pluck, invention and hard work of winemakers. The Champagne region produces crappy wine, but changing it into sparkling wine made the region famous. The oddly humid climate of Sauternes results in the stability of a fungus, which, when harnessed by vine growers, produces beautiful sweet wines. The famed Medoc region of Bordeaux was a swamp, until being drained and cultivated and tended by hard working winemakers. And those sizzlingly tasteful Burgundies? Monks tended that land for centuries, working the soil and discerning the best plots of land, best types of grape, and best land management techniques needed to produce great wines. Reading this was a revelation: the manipulation of land and vinification methods – often through brutal physical techniques – is as essential to produce great wines as ideal geography.

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Another book I am reading is the true story of a World War One pilot whose aircraft was downed over Belgium. He hid for weeks until managing to flee this territory held by Germans. Get this – back in 1917 the occupiers had managed to construct an electric fence that ran the length of the Belgium/Netherlands border, preventing escape by Belgians. Back in an age before rural electrification delivered lights to any towns in the United States, before commercial television existed, at a time when radio was in infancy – the occupiers of Belgium furiously constructed a 125 mile, 8,000 volt, ‘Wire of Death’ to help impose their rule. The truth that such organized and efficient engineering was cleverly managed to control lives via electricity – a less than common feature in life back then – came as a surprise, and a lesson in how rapidly repressive regimes can utilize new technologies to impose their subordination.

The fact that we can often choose whether or not to move off the beaten trail, or open our minds and learn new truths about reality, is a gift. Whether we choose to use it or not, we should appreciate that it exists for many (not all) of us. If you have doubts – consider this story regarding a person who fled the totalitarian, repressive region of North Korea.

Or read this engaging, lively, brief piece of how growing up in a poor French farmhouse positively influenced a now renowned, wealthy owner of multiple restaurant chains.

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In a nice twist of serendipity, hours after writing the above words I found this appropriate TED talk video on – what makes a good TED talk. It’s about ideas push neurons to configure our world view.

So, why is it beneficial to take our thought patterns out for a walk now and then? Why should we care whether we change our world view or not? In my book The Synchronous Trail, I explained what would occur if humans began accepting a reality that no longer discarded coincidental events as necessarily being random. I wrote about the importance of changing our world view, or paradigm. I wrote –

“Most ‘truths’ that people believe in are nurtured by their societies and reflect paradigms accepted by those societies. A paradigm is powerful model that defines an angle from which humans view their world…Like a model railway scene that shows how platform, passengers, and rail cars sit in relation to each other, a paradigm provides us with a mental picture of how our reality is ordered. Throughout our lives, depending on new information that we absorb and accept, we are given opportunities to modify the fundamental paradigms we subscribe to.

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“As a child I believed that the earth was a hollow sphere and that we all lived on its inner surface. I thought our view of sunlight, clouds and starlight streamed in through a huge hole in this globe…Yet after I accepted the model of living on the earth’s exterior…this change in paradigm changed my attitude and actions. This big little truth gives paradigms such power: they can alter our behavior.

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“Societies create collective paradigms to help explain how the universe is ordered. This is convenient because it lets us avoid the homework of having to create personal models of how the universe ticks. It can also be dangerous: by accepting paradigms wholesale, we avoid questioning their validity…This impacts your behavior. Believing the earth is flat will reduce any chance of you packing bags and sallying off on some rollicking ship to explore the ocean…It would be better to stay at home and read a book.”

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There is value to exploring new and unfamiliar routes.

There are other coffee outlets beside Starbucks; big brand clothing is not always the trendiest or most economical to purchase, and the most intriguing distance between two points is not a straight line.

Take a chance. Make a change. Accept an invitation to an event you would not otherwise have considered. It could alter your thinking, your situation, and maybe your own personal trajectory through life.

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Roughest Town in the West

A television mini-series titled Blood and Oil includes Don Johnson (think Miami Vice from long ago) and takes place in a western US boom town named Rock Springs, North Dakota. Scenes revolve around the oil bonanza exploding there in recent years. ‘Rock Springs’ is a fictional location based on the real town of Williston. There, the influx of wild workers, astronomical rental prices, and general mayhem hits a town undersized to handle the influx of thousands of people seeking their riches.

Fifteen years ago – long before this oil boom – I visited Williston. I was researching and writing my nonfiction book titled Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

The visit to Williston made for an intriguing episode.

Here is the chapter:

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Town streets in Williston, North Dakota looked sinister and immutable, as though frozen in time. The brown brick walls of J.C. Penney and the New Grand Cinema (Our Screen Talks) came from another era.

In a corner bar I spoke to a forty-year-old man who acted twenty-five. He had blue eyes, a red face and a silver necklace. He ordered a dollar bottle of Bud.

“Buildings around here look preserved,” I said.

“Founding fathers don’t want to change things,” he explained. “They own the buildings. Want to keep everything the same. Keep new people out. That’s what I think. You passin’ through?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good thing it’s not winter. It gets too cold here. Thirty below for five days at a time. I have to chain up to drive out to the oil rigs to work. The older I get, the harder time I have with it.”

A lean man with deep eyes entered the bar. He was a darkly handsome fellow who looked toughened up from living in a town governed by the fist. He inserted himself on a stool next to me, with the stealth of a bobcat. He looked in his early thirties.

“Hello sir,” he said.

“Hi.”

He eyed me like prey. In turn, I swigged down my beer and asked him about camping.

“Going upriver? Doin’ the Lewis and Clark stuff? Don’t camp on that reservation. Don’t do that. All alone? They’ll kill your ass. You pull over for the night and somebody’ll slit your throat. Don’t go up there. They kill ya’ unless you got local blood. Like me. My name’s Winston. I went to school in Missoula, Montana, then came back to the rez.”

I decided that for that night, I would pull into a town parking lot to sleep.

“You want to learn about the river? Then you need to talk to tribal elders,” he said. “Always bring tobacco if you visit. If they’re sixty or seventy years old, take unfiltered cigarettes. Remember, when an elder comes into the room, stand and offer your chair, even if there are a hundred empty seats. And don’t speak or interrupt. Just listen.”

I nodded.

“Another thing. If you go into a room and get a bad feeling, step outside. If it’s quiet out there, if there’s no sign of birds, squirrels – or any animals, then get out. Fast.”

We talked for an hour. After he stepped away another man staggered in. He scratched his crotch and shook a shank of black hair as though he were a teenager in a shampoo commercial. A mashed green X was tattooed on his lower neck. He sat close. He gave a vicious scoff at a half-heard joke and managed to convince the stranger — me — to buy him a drink. I asked for a beer and he changed the order to a shot of whisky. He gripped his glass with fingers resembling talons. This accentuated his image as a thankless harpy.

The conversation turned black. Fast.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Passing through. Researching the river.”

“You strangers built that dam,” he snarled. “Maybe tonight, maybe I kill a stranger. So, eh, buy me another drink,” he demanded.

His jabbering was a nuisance. Yet eager to avoid confrontation thousands of miles away from any known face, I complied.

He eyed my notes.

“Journalist?” he asked.

“Engineer,” I said before realizing that was worse — my ilk had erected dams.

“Where you stay?”

“Camper.”

“That one outside? You keep notes, tapes? What if something happens to your camper? Maybe it burns up,” he said, and smiled a row of serrated brown teeth.

“Let me see these,” he said, and grabbed the papers from my hands.

“Hey!”

“Gonna see what you’re writing,” he blurted, “Else maybe you don’t leave this town. Not alive.”

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Lovely, I thought. Though I wanted out, timing was critical.

He opened the papers and read. His face oozed with enmity.

“You write like a doctor. But I can read it,” he said.

He lied. No one could read my scribble.

“Write this down,” he demanded.

Considering the pen-mightier-than-the-sword option as a peaceful exit to an asinine situation, I wrote down what he dictated.

“This was a life of a friend that I met in a bar talking about Williston. Name unknown, but he was a good friend. Thank you.”

After I wrote this he thrust the papers back and slithered off to the bathroom. When he disappeared from sight I breezed outside through a corner door. Under starlight I looked sideways, then listened. There was no sound of bird, squirrel or any wildlife. Winston was right. It was time to leave.

Fast.

 

A Strange Failure in Success

Six years ago I was studying in northern England.

We took a trip south to London’s Royal Albert Hall. There, we listened to speakers from the Institute of Directors. These included the mayor of London – Boris Johnson, Olympic gold medalist (and organizer of the London 2008 Olympics) – Sebastian Coe, and computer company founder – Michael Dell. Another speaker was Tim Smitt. He had founded the Eden Project in Cornwall. This is a rainforest housed in domes inside an abandoned quarry, now one of the UK’s top ten visitor attractions. Before beginning that project, he had been a young musician.

He told his story.

“In 1981 I had the good fortune to have a Number One hit record in France called Midnight Blue. I was in a chauffeur-driven limo going down the Champs Élysées and the record was playing on the car stereo. It was the biggest selling record in French history at that time, and the record that was going to knock it off the top spot was also written by me, which was tough – and I burst into tears. I had never felt so miserable in my entire life, and I decided I would give up the music industry, because what I want to say to you is that very often people make a terrible mistake in their life, that they have a vision of what success is for them, and it is the weirdest thing that you suddenly have this success and you are wondering…Why does it not feel great? Why do I not feel changed? It felt like ashes, it felt meaningless.”

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Sometimes the light just arrives

Sometime after that, Tim began working on creating the Eden Project, which gave value to his life. He also learned to be honest with himself. As he said:

“I believe in Tinkerbell theory. I really do. If you get three or four people to believe in something, it will happen. I believe in last man standing, which is that if you have a certain amount of charm and people know you will not go away, they will eventually pay you large sums of money to do so. I also believe that you should not pretend to know what you do not know, because people are fantastically generous if you admit your ignorance, and they love pricking your bubble if you pretend to know more than you do.”

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The Blue Skies of Letting Go

Sage words from a down-to-earth visionary.

 

 

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The book Visual Magic includes similar stories about unusual ways to take control in life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Strangely Simple Rules of Life

Here are a few lessons I have learned from life.

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1.  There are no rules.

2.  The more you cling to security, the less free you are to soar toward newer, higher, horizons.

3.  An open mind and a positive attitude open most doors.

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4. There will always be people who dislike you, not because of anything you have done, but because you exist. Disregard them.

5.  If you can’t disregard them, close your eyes, see them vanishing as a presence, exhale, relax, and move on.

6.  Disrespect no person. Everyone has a role.

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7.  Clinging incessantly to working is a form of insecurity. Get over it.

8.  There’s inspiration and energy in nature. Take a walk. Watch a sunrise.

9.  Ignore those who spend energy trying to diminish others. Praise and reward others for excellence, and watch how this enriches your own life.

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10.  Reality is pliable. But it responds best to suggestion, not force.

11.  Variety is enriching. Take a trip or a hike or a class.

12.  Aim for a single, challenging, focused goal. Strangely, your lesser goals will begin to be accomplished in unforeseen ways.

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13.  Courtesy counts.

14.  Give. You truly will receive.

15.  Talk is cheap, though often of value.

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16. Relax. The universe appreciates calmness.

17.  Time matters. But not too much.

18.  Time, also, is pliable. Tranquility slows any clock.

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19.  Pay attention to whether people talk about themselves, or ask about you. Remember the importance of balance.

20.  The eight hour work week is an artificial construct. The Romans worked six hour days.

21.  Associate with inspiration, not deprecation.

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22.  Give yourself extra time to take scenic routes.

23.  After you fail – you will be given another chance to win the same, or an even greater, prize. Yet you won’t succeed until you learn the lesson(s) from your previous failure.

24.  Sometimes marvelous things just happen. Be appreciative and give thanks.

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25.  It’s often more advantageous to know the janitor, the driver, or the photocopy clerk than the CEO. Trust me.

26.  A little planning goes a long way.

27.  When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry. Really.

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28.  Begin at the end. Trust the universe to sort out the route.

29.  With time and desire, much is possible.

30.  Pay attention to rhythm. You’ll expend less energy and accomplish more.

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31.  Racism and sexism are, ultimately, boring. If you indulge in either, get a life.

32.  There is always history to greatness. Think the Romans were impressive?  Read about the Etruscans.

33.  Respect the power of logic. It put an SUV on Mars.

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34.  When all else fails, yield to faith.

35.  Laugh, love, and smell the flowers.

36.  There will always be people eager to tell you a crisis is imminent. Remain skeptical.

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37.  Take time to appreciate running water and laughing children.

38.  The chance that events result from a grand, complex, governmental conspiracy is unlikely. Consider the hassle it is just getting a driving license.

39.  We live in a copy and paste world. Respect originality.

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40.  North is at the top of the map. That does not mean it is so.

41.  Reconsider motives for wanting to read Ulysses. Who are you trying to impress?

42.  Living yeast makes wine so wonderful.

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43.  It’s okay to have it explained as though you were a child. In fact, it’s okay to be childish.

44.  Sometimes you just have to do it.

45.  Other times it pays to plan in advance. But you still have to do it.

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46.  You can return to old friendships after decades. The time will appear to have been days.

47.  Pay attention to intuition. It’s plugged into quite a mighty universal battery.

48.  None of us gets out of here alive. So chill out and consider the bigger picture.

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49.  Charm, even without action or substance, has a role.

50.  Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.

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More insights are in some of my books, including:

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Visual Magic

 

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Synchronicity as Signpost

 

  

  

 

 

 

 

Lost in Canyonlands

A brother recently wrote. He asked what books were most influential in life.

I admitted that Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was one.

He asked why.

Because it was the first time that writing actually gave a taste of the wilds, the feel of the wilds, the impact and emotions of being in the desert – or being in raw wilderness.

Decades ago, after reading that book, I visited Canyonlands with my brother’s wife’s younger sister (got that?). What happened next was, well, memorable. More than fifteen years ago or more, based on recollections, I wrote about the event. This is a brief story about where pride knocks against wild lands.

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Canyonlands 

“Let’s stay here,” said Robyn. She dropped her backpack into the shade of a rock overhang. “There’s plenty of shade.”

“Umm,” I mumbled. “What about water?”

“We’ve got water,” she said and pulled a plastic half-gallon bottle from her backpack. She twisted the mouth open and slugged back two cheekfulls.

“Not enough,” I said.

“ ‘S enough. We don’t have any more. We’ll stay here in the shade until it cools down this afternoon. Then we can hike back to the car.”

At 10:35 am, it was 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Need more water,” I said.

Robyn shook her head, bewildered.

“From where?”

“Down there. The Colorado river.”

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‘Down there’ was a several hundred foot vertical drop to the Confluence, the nexus where the Colorado and Green rivers join, splitting Utah’s Canyonlands National Park into three distinct wedges: Needles, Island in the Sky, and The Maze. This was true desert, loved and lambasted by author Edward Abbey in his books The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire – a collection of reflections on an arid land. Canyonlands provides a full yet somehow transparent vista that is checkered with orange buttes and white spires, slickrock, grabens, cryptobiotic crusts and Utah Juniper trees. The Needles stand like a phalanx of sentinels poised to menace the timid. This is a place of “ten thousand strangely carved forms” and “mountains blending into clouds” marveled at by John Wesley Powell, explorer of the west and one-armed Civil War veteran. In 1869 Powell and his men passed the confluence in four boats during their boat trip – the first ever – through the Grand Canyon.

A point hundreds of meters away stood overlooking the confluence: a Y junction of steep canyon walls that was lined with trees in its crotch. Earlier we had stood there and peered down to see a brisk green flow slam into a muddy brown current, like a jet of cooking oil poured in a pot of beef stew. Fractal patterns chewed at the midstream, the literal confluence of two rivers.

“I’m going,” I said.

“Think about it,” said Robyn.

“I have. Stay here.”

“Me? Where else would I go?”

“I’ll come back.”

The last comment stunned her. There was a chance I would not return?

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Off I began, bold and light-footed: a desert action-man scouting for water to aid his young blonde compatriot huddled under thin shade. Clutching a thick plastic bag I aimed alone down a steep scree slope, an arid-land Prometheus out to snatch water instead of fire. I had to go. Primal instinct: man forages for sustenance while woman tends shaded cave.

I checked the map to find a chasm where I could descend past tamarisk and sage toward foaming, distant waters. I sweated hard and breathed deep and stomped over orange rocks, then halted in the shade of a massive boulder. Dehydration was nigh. Walloped by the searing, puckering thermal intensity, I decided to wait in the shade until the temperature dimmed.

On a map I inspected the Needles region and fingered the names of locations: Devils Pocket, Devils Lane, Devils Kitchen Junction, – was this some hint about temperature?

img005 (1)Four hours passed and I started onward again, further from Robyn and sanctuary and fully committed to this folly of seeking water in a desert. Three lenticular clouds sat far and high above. I pulled the plastic bag out of my pocket and stared at it. It would hold one quart. Maybe a quart and a half. What about the return trip? After scooping up river water I had to scale this same desert gully. For that uphill haul I needed at least a quart to slake thirst. What about microbes in the river water: giardia lamblia protozoans ready to infest my gut and plague future weeks with sulfur burps and explosive diarrhea? Maybe I should have thought about this. Perhaps Robyn was right.

What was I doing?

Crumbled rocks slipped underfoot. A lizard darted from the shade and the gully turned ratty. I looked down toward the distant river.

Decision time.

It was time to return to the overhanging boulder and to Robyn and to the security of what was known, time to move away from macho heroics.

I turned and started back.

The desert turned moody. When the light shifted, the land changed texture and left me lost. Uphill, I knew. I scrambled as though drugged up an inclined ramp. The temperature fell and dusk churned out crimson. A single star gawked through a purple sky. Once back on flat earth I plodded past boulders and arid rubble, disoriented. Darkness blew in. I moved forward, trying to intersect a footpath. Was I doomed to wander for days before withering like a desiccated prune?

I found the path and whooped in triumph. Salvation! I crawled under a bush, opened my backpack, shoved both my legs and waist inside and snoozed beneath a sky pregnant with starlight.

I woke early the next morning, hiked miles to the ranger station, filled my stomach and plastic bag with water and returned to the Confluence to seek out Robyn, ready to deliver solace that – never fear – her misguided troubadour was alive and healthy.

There was no sign of Robyn. I started back along the trail. A jeep chugged forward in four wheel drive and crunched to a stop. Two men and a woman clutched sweating beers inside. The driver invited me in.

“Found your friend,” he said.

Robyn sat inside with her arms folded. She did not smile.

“Funny thing,” he continued. “Yesterday afternoon we decided to drive down here to watch the sunset. Fortunately we met your friend. She was worried and hungry so we told her to come and camp with us for the night.”

The driver described how he and the woman next to him were divorced. She had married his best friend – now seated next to me and smiling below a skinny mustache.

“Hell! We’re all buddies now,” he said.

Swept up by their optimism, I smiled at Robyn. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” she replied. Her voice was flat. “We have to talk,” she added.

Later, we talked. I couldn’t understand her big concern. I made a quick dash down a canyon to grab a little water and got lost and delayed. We were both safe, right? Was that a problem?

Huge.

After the trip ended Robyn and I parted in a Denver suburb. It’s not true that we never spoke again; we just didn’t talk for seven years.

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The desert refuses to dilute the truth. It gives no fake appointments to hide behind, no imaginary flat tires to blame for delays, no office duties to yield as a shield. The desert distills life down to its basic elements: personality, time, character. Truth blazes under a dry sun and we take on, like chameleons, the most salient trait of the desert: transparency. At that juncture in life – that personal confluence – I was still a boy who wanted to hunt for water rather than to risk intimacy; foraging alone for an inanimate goal provided fewer unknowns than sharing time with someone new. With a map in my hand I plunged deep into a hot canyon of self-interest. When the desert sensed vanity it scoffed and spat me out and told me to grow up.

Robyn still shakes her head when we talk about the trip. But a decade later we get along fabulously.

The desert may be frugal, but she’s also wise.

 

Hearing the Past

In the year 2001 I quit my job and bought a pickup truck and small camper. I spent five months traveling along the Missouri and Colombia rivers in the US. I then wrote a book (Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark) about the people I had met, and how changes to these rivers had impacted their lives.

One of the stories I collected and wrote about is below. It was not included in the book because it’s not about Kansas or Missouri or rivers.

It’s about Ireland.

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Dusk on the dunes in western Ireland

 

Hearing the Past

While traveling alongside the Missouri River, I stepped into the Benedictine college library in Atchison, Kansas. I was curious about how monks had first arrived there.

“Speak to Miriam,” the sleek attendant at the front desk whispered. “She’s in charge of rare books.”

Miriam looked trim and cautious. She was light, buoyant, and articulate – a woman enraptured with caring for such volumes as the library’s 1538 Speculum Monachorum – or Mirror for Monks. She led me upstairs past white cinder blocks and a poster of Pope John Paul. I sat down at a table surrounded by tall bookshelves inside a sort of literary kennel. She vanished, then reappeared a minute later. She laid down a copy of the book Kansas Monks before me.

“Did you grow up near here?” she asked, prying to learn what I knew of local history. Like her long dress, Miriam’s voice flowed.

“No. Chicago, then Ireland,” I told her.

The last word charmed her.

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“We have this son,” she sighed. Stiffness disappeared from her shoulders. I noticed her shake of head and tweak of dimples and recognized the signs: another river was opening up.

I pushed Kansas Monks aside.

Beside the Missouri River there were other flowstreams along my route, meandering creeks of history and anecdote that opened of their own volition. Some stories spilled with convoluted, often brilliant connections. Inside this college library one of these now flowed from Miriam, a tale that made me wonder whether humans can, at times, hear their ancestry.

“Our son heard the bagpipes and Irish flutes when he was fifteen,” she began. “He got it into his head that that’s what he had to do. How would you say, he just ‘had it in him.’ Course someone had to make a set of bagpipes for him which cost us thousands of dollars – which was supposed to be his college tuition.”

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Her smile broadened.

“But he was driven. He was also good at languages. He went to Lebanon to study Arabic for six months. When he came home he went to New York and met a fiddler who invited him to his house in western Ireland. The fellow probably didn’t expect him, but one day Ciaran showed up at his doorstep. Stayed a few weeks and hitchhiked all over County Clare. Ciaran now says that his two favorite places in the world are Doolin Bay and Corrofin.

“He returned to study Arabic at Georgetown. Course the east coast of the U.S. had Irish music. Maybe that influenced his choice. But they closed the Arabic program down during the Gulf War. So Ciaran went to study at Trinity College in Dublin and continued with music. Now he plays professionally. Has a fiancé. She’s a fiddler and he’s a piper. But it’s not an easy life – feast or famine.”

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Looking west across the Atlantic

She sighed, then asked about my trip.

I yakked on about Nicholas Biddle’s map and Manuel Lisa’s fort and how axe-swinging hoards of settlers had moved up this continent’s rivers to crisscross yellow rimrock, sloppy geysers, and wilting sagebrush – a route I had chosen to follow.

“Everyone’s dream,” she said. “Get up and go.”

Her words formed a poultice. Recent rains, a leaking camper and nail biting slumps of loneliness had thrashed at my days, invoking doubts about the value of this solo excursion. Already I had reached a discreet state of mental exhaustion. Yet Miriam’s simple phrase banished so many clawing uncertainties that day. Refreshed, I reignited the subject of Ireland and told her of having published a short story about bicycling through County Clare. This admission kindled a curious response.

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“There’s an odd quirk to this whole piping thing,” she added. “Ciaran went to County Clare in 1987, when he was sixteen. A very young sixteen. He played pipes in his room at first, then got out and played with others. When he told us we decided to visit. My husband Mike’s great grandfather was born in 1841 and came over from Ireland. Before our trip to Ireland we got interested in family history and searched for the gravestone at a cemetery in south east Kansas. It was an Irish cemetery, surrounded by a wall. The gravestones had Celtic crosses. We found the headstone. The spelling of the name had changed, but it told where he was born, which we never knew.”

Miriam smiled.

I knew what was coming.

“County Clare,” she said.

Leaving France

I’m leaving France.

For now. I’ll be back in a few months.

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Here are things I’ve learned:

1. There should always be time for lunch. A relatively long lunch. Sometimes with wine. Usually with conversation.

2. Beauty is in details. Often details thoughtfully provided by others. Details mass media rarely exposes you to.

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3. It’s okay to stay up late and drink coffee with friends if they call you and want to visit. I mean, it’s really okay.

4. Fresh oysters and wine at 11 am on a Sunday morning? Not a problem.

5. Nude bathing is (apparently) good for community spirit.

6. Drama, in small and energetic doses, can be invigorating. Argument at the cafe? Altercation in the local square? Police raid in the neighboring town? As long as no violence is involved, this can be fun, and will provoke endless dinner conversation.

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7. Stores are not always open. Period. Do something else.

8. Without bonjour and au revoir, forget about getting to know the locals.

9. Winemakers wake at 8.30 am. Sometimes 9.00 am. And you thought they were always up with the dawn? Forget it.

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10. Watching women adroitly, elegantly, ride their bicycles through the busy traffic of Bordeaux city while they wear short skirts and haut couture apparel is a sight at least as amazing as seeing the Eiffel Tower. Seriously.

11. The Latin American ideal of  being ‘fashionably late’ to dinner or a party by two to three hours does not cut it here in France. Fifteen minutes is okay. Thirty max.

12. If you get invited to a dinner at someone’s house, it will likely last until 1.30 am. Pace yourself. Bring a bottle (but don’t expect ever to see it again).

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13. Don’t worry too much about your visa stamp. Immigration officers apparently don’t. (But I never said that, and – yes – I have a visa.)

14. Horse races are rigged. Everyone knows it, though few bother figuring out how it works.

15. There’s always time to greet friends.

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How does this relate to publishing?

I recently wrote this article for International Living Magazine about living in offbeat, rural Bordeaux. This is just added information.

 

 

 

 

Coincidental Trails

Roam well. Roam wisely.

That’s our philosophy at Roundwood Press. We believe that creating a unique path through life can provide personal satisfaction.

Our message here is simple: choose your own path, and then change your thoughts to change reality. We believe that a fresh vision, combined with a positive attitude and open mind, can cause the world to expand, and opportunities to multiply.

Sometimes when we focus on the positive and expect the best, oddly coincidental – or ‘synchronous’ – events can help point us toward desired outcomes.

Here are a few stories about well timed reminders.

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Blue skies over Colorado

Belief

Ten years ago I was writing stories and books outside of work hours. I suddenly became disheartened. Why put in this effort? Would this writing eventually find an audience? I wrote down the following in a journal about the first of three events that occurred one day:

“At work today, I ‘remembered’ again how to bring good things into life – how we picture what we want in our mind – sometimes fuzzy, sometimes sharp – but we know the key elements we desire – maybe a home, a better vehicle, or a fun partner – a few specific desires. Then we cultivate the expectation – the belief – that we are going there. We don’t know how. We don’t know the details. But we’ve decided we’re going to move into that bubble of imagination. We relax and do things daily to help move us toward that place, because we’ve decided on the destination. We know that with time and desire, all things are possible. One step at a time. We create that bubble of desire and slowly, patiently, move in that direction.”

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New day, fresh opportunties.

Later that day I pulled a package from my mail box in Laguna Beach. I then walked around the corner to Hapi Sushi restaurant to drink a beer and eat California rolls. Inside the envelope was a wrapped present. I decided not to open it until Christmas. But the card had one word written on it:

Believe.

At home that evening I cleaned up – throwing away papers, sorting bills, filing papers, doing laundry. I picked up a card recently sent from friends in Ohio and was about to toss it away, but decided to open and read it again. The words at the bottom read:

…He who believes has everlasting life

This combination of recalling the power of belief and then reading two cards mentioning ‘belief’ (on the same day) provided the needed incentive to help me believe in, and stay focused on, specific writing goals at that time.

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Life’s terrain is not always smooth

Faith

One April a few years ago I flew from Islamabad to Chicago, then to Kansas City, to attend the wedding of friends. After getting off the flight from Chicago to Kansas City I realized my passport was lost.

Replacing the passport took only a few days. However, obtaining a replacement visa to re-enter Pakistan – where I worked on a contract basis – took two months. At first I became frustrated at not having work or income and not knowing when, or if, a replacement visa would be issued. A friend from England who had also attended the wedding mentioned that this delay in returning to work was likely for the better; that I would be immensely grateful for this unexpected time off. He implied I needed to have faith to realize this unexpected ‘problem’ was actually beneficial.

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You can never be certain what’s around the corner

Within days my friend Lisa and I stayed in Glen Ellen, fifteen minutes north of Sonoma, California. On the first evening we attended a wine and appetizer gathering in the front lobby. There, we met a woman and her husband and parents. I spoke to the mother, who looked to be in her early forties but told me she was sixty years old. When I asked the secret to looking so lively, she said, “You live one day at a time.” She then added, “It’s also important to have faith.”

The next day Lisa suggested that we g0 to a movie. We drove into the city of Davis, then walked to the theater. The next movie playing was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. We had never heard of it, but paid and entered. The story revolves around a Yemeni sheik teaching a doubting fish expert – Ewan McGregor – the importance of faith.

Days later I was at a Holiday Inn in New Mexico where a young lady at the bar was having an animated conversation with a friend. She invited me to join the conversation, and described how she was flying to India the next day to spend months at a spiritual center. She spoke with high energy about the importance of having faith.

During these unpaid months while waiting for the visa, I had time to organize and launch this Roundwood Press website, and to clean and scan hundreds of color slides now included in books sold at this site. My friend from England was right – losing the passport turned out to be a gift. The coincidental reappearance of the word ‘faith’ several times within a few days of this happening also nudged me toward relaxing, accepting the situation, and believing that all would work out for the better. Which it did.

Coincidence

About a year after that last event, my brother phoned me while he was shopping at Costco in California. He said he had picked up a book in the store by Robert Ludlum and flipped through it randomly (I’ve since figured out that the book title was The Lazarus Vendetta, though I’ve not read it). He told me that one chapter included a scene set in Zurich; another chapter was about a scene taking place in Albuquerque International Airport. He encouraged me to write this type of fictional book, based on my own travel experiences.

We hung up.

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Street cars of Zurich

Five minutes later I called him back, having realized something surprising: a month earlier I had finished writing a fictional book titled Trailing Tara (which he knew nothing about) where one scene takes place in Zurich, and another scene takes place within Albuquerque International Airport.

Seriously. I could not make this up. How many authors write scenes set in Albuquerque airport and Zurich in the same book? This synchronous event encouraged me to keep writing.

Synchronous events often remind us of topics that interest us, or hint at topics or persons about to enter our lives, or provide catharsis to overcome past pain (as psychologist Carl Jung – who created the term ‘synchronicity’ – learned).

The events described above encouraged me to stick with writing and publishing.

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Hindsight often provides clarity

These events also reminded me that life is rarely a neat package. Sometimes it’s a series of waves to be rolled with, or a mountain trail to be climbed. When we believe in ourselves and keep faithful toward our genuine interests, unusual events often conspire to remind us of, and point us toward, the direction where we really want to go.

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(Books I’ve written about coincidental events and travel include Synchronictiy as Signpost, and The Synchronous Trail).

 

 

 

New Book – And Background

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Roundwood Press will soon publish a new book. It’s only ten pages long. It was written long ago by my mother, and is a powerful piece of writing. It’s titled:

I See – Believe and Achieve.

All proceeds of the book will be donated to the Austin Special School in Chicago.

What is so special about this book, and why will the proceeds be donated to a school in Chicago?

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My parents established and owned a business in Chicago. The eventual freedom this provided them with did not come out of the blue.

When growing up, my mother lived in a small apartment in Chicago. When she looked out the window, she saw a brick wall a few feet away that belonged to the neighboring apartment building. She read books voraciously, and was determined to travel the world at a young age. My father grew up with relatively affluent parents in Buffalo, New York (where both a school and a street are named ‘Mullen’ after my grandfather). However, his parents lost their money when he was young. My father was able to find various jobs – beginning during the Great Depression. At one point when he was struggling as a truck driver, he was determined to improve his life.

My parents met and began their business in Chicago. Basically, they imported European technology and sold the first photocopiers in the United States. Customers were mystified – what was a photocopier, and why would anyone want one? Yet they persevered.

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Eventually, their business thrived. But before it did, a pivotal event occurred that taught my mother the value of giving. She recounted the event to me over ten years ago before she passed away, and I afterwards I wrote it down verbatim. The story is recalled in my book titled Visual Magic – Seeing and Believing: 

“It was 1955 and our daughter was one year old. There was an article in the Chicago Daily News written by a columnist who used to be a professor of mine at Northwestern. The article was about how the Austin Special School, in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, needed $3,400 for the final payment for their building. The school was for mentally and physically challenged people.

“I told your father about it. He said ´go for it.’ We sent in a check for the entire amount – anonymously.

“It was really strange. The very next day we received a check for about $3,400 from Agfa Gevaert for a billing error they had made.”

Soon after this event, their business began booming. From this event my mother learned the power of giving.

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The book ‘I See’ is a brief compilation of notes my mother made about what she considered to be secrets toward improving life and gaining greater financial control. Although my parents were not overtly religious, the work mentions Biblical quotes. For me, the value of the book is that it highlights the occasional need to drop the ego and your sense of control, and surrender to greater powers.

The book cover is being prepared, and the book will be on sale within weeks.

 

 

Life Scoring

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There can be beauty in adjusting our focus in life

Today is the second anniversary of the online version of Roundwood Press. Thanks for your readership, and your business. Truly. The most popular title remains Water and Witchcraft, though The Deep Sand of Damaraland and Synchronicity as Signpost follow closely behind.

Putting this online publishing company together has been fun, though much work remains. I still work my ‘day job’ as a contracted consulting manager and engineer for infrastructure projects located throughout the world. Balancing writing, consulting, and moving to a new home (Bordeaux, France) has been a mind spinning experience.

And…when the mind spins because of change, we need to remember our overall priorities to move in the direction of our dreams. Sometimes it helps to have a tool, a method, or a reminder of how to keep ‘on track.’ Fortunately, I recently discovered one that is simple, but powerful.

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Thoughts are like sheep – sometimes they wander, sometimes you herd them in one direction

During a recent drive across huge, open spaces between the cities of Las Vegas and Albuquerque in the USA, I had hours of free time to think.

This occurred during a major transition time in my life – including deciding on ‘the next phase.’  These free hours on the road provided time to mentally ‘clear the clouds.’

But how? Multiple aspects of life swirled through my thoughts like clouds shifting in cross winds.

During those hours, I invented a potent method for clarifying thoughts and identifying priorities.

I’ll share this because it rapidly put me on a clearer path regarding where to focus in life, and what to prioritize.

First, I decided to identify all ‘loose ends’ and ‘major items’ in life that appeared important to address. Identifying these was like herding sheep into a corral. Once they were distinctly in one place, I could better organize them.

I soon identified 13 aspects of life that needed to be looked at. These included what to do with a chunk of property I own, how to assess current finances, why certain relationships were working or not working or bothersome, and what next steps to take after I moved to a new country.

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Open space – beautiful for clearing thoughts

[Without a tape recorder and not being able to write while driving, I remembered these 13 concerns by creating mental images, then assembling these into a larger, memorable, scenario. This ‘mnemonic’ or mental trick for remembering lists, is simple and powerful. To learn more, I suggest reading Moonwalking with Einstein to learn the techniques, as well as to learn about the intriguing world of competitive memory championships].

Completing this first step was huge. While cruising at 85 miles per hour through raw, desert beauty, I was mentally able to quickly identify which items in life needed to be considered, addressed, and perhaps resolved.

It was now time for step two. Perhaps it’s because I recently developed a method for scoring wine values that I decided to somehow ‘score’ which of these 13 items were most important to deal with.

To come up with a balanced solution, and to keep both halves of the brain happy, I assigned a priority score for each item – the corralled sheep – in two ways. Here’s what to do. Based on analytical thinking (cold, emotionless, focused intelligent brain power), assign a value score (from, say, 1 to 10) to prioritize which items are most important to deal with. Second, based on emotions, what score would you give each item based on how strongly it impacts your feelings? For example, from an analytical point of view (and a need to pay bills) reviewing personal finances naturally scored high. Yet it also scored reasonably high from an emotional point of view because I’ve learned that decent finances provide potential freedom to increase travel time and writing time, and because I also remembered certain strong emotions (ones I wanted to avoid) attached to past times when income was tight.

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Priorities may include making time for your friends

That was easy. There would be two scores. I’d simply take the average of the two.

I then decided to do more. For BOTH the analytical and emotional scores – I would give scores for three different time periods: the coming month, the coming year, and the coming five years.

It was time to pull over to eat lunch. I brought a laptop computer inside a highway restaurant and entered scores in a spreadsheet.

This simple scoring process will likely bring you key realizations:

1. Prioritizing for a month or a year can be straightforward. But for five years? Some items will either get a very high score, or a very low score – depending on whether you are going to dedicate yourself to them for the next five years. So many of the five year scores have two numbers. For example, let’s say one item of concern is building a new website. Will you really put in the constant effort to maintain that website for five years? If the answer is a definite YES, it may score 9.5 for priority. But if you’re unsure and may not dedicate effort for more than a year, then the long term – five year – priority value may fall to 2 out of 10.

You suddenly realize you have decisions to make. What will your highest priorities be for the next five years?

2. This process can also help you realize your values. For me, the aspects of continually learning, of meditating/visualizing on a routine basis, and of maintaining sound relationships with friends and co-workers all scored highly – analytically and emotionally – for all time periods.

3. This process can also dramatically reduce uncertainties in your life.

I began with a list of 13 uncertainties – major aspects of life which I was unsure of how to prioritize to address. By the end of this process I realized only four were immediately critical. These four could be bunched into two groups of two. There were now only two major uncertainties regarding life priorities. Because these two groups were similar – from a professional standpoint – I merged them together to become one larger item.  Those four items were really part of one concern – about dedicating myself to a professional avenue.

By the time I was driving on the highway again, less than forty minutes had passed since this I began this identification and ‘scoring’ process. Already the nebulous cloud of uncertainties in life – the field of wandering sheep – had been reduced in size from 13 to one.

Wow.

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Priorities may include being grateful for what you have

4. The process may make you realize certain priorities you never even knew existed.

For example, one item to address was whether I should keep a certain piece of property or not. From an analytical point of view, this seems to be a good investment because it requires  little money to maintain. From an emotional point of view, I love visiting this location, even if only for a few days a year. Considering both analytical and emotional priority ‘scores,’ it made sense to hold onto this property for the next year. But for five years? The decision of whether or not to sell the property would depend on whether I needed to gain money to buy a house.

A house? Wow. I had not even considered that before.

In other words, this scoring exercise was not only useful, but illuminating. My final decision was to keep the property for at least a year, but be flexible in the long term regarding selling it. That was it. There was no further need to consider that aspect of life for now.

Below is a table based on what I used. I’ve included some representative examples of ‘loose ends.’ Everyone will have different items they need to consider and prioritize. The entire process takes less than an hour – but is powerful.

Item Intellectual/Analytical Scoring Emotional Scoring
1 month 1 year 5 years –a 5 years – b 1 month 1 year 5 years – a 5 years – b
Sell owned property? 7 7 7 2 9 8.5 7.5 5
Take additional courses 9.3 9.3 9.3 9.5 9.8 9.8
Visualize/meditate regularly 10 10 10 10 10 10
Whether to purchase additional property 8.5 7.5 6 8.5 7 9.5
Take a workshop in Europe 8 7.5 9.5 2 8.5 8.5 9 2
Arrange visit with friends 9.5 9.5 9.5 5 9.9 9 9.5 2
Create a new publishing imprint? 8.8 8.8 9.5 7.5 9 9 9
Move to new location? 8.5 8 8.5 5 9.8 9.6 9.4 4
Begin research on new book? 8.7 8.7 9.5 5 9.95 9.95 9 5
Assess financial situation 8 8.8 9.9 9 9.9 9.9
Interactions with friends/co-workers 8.7 9.4 9.8 9.9 9.75 9.9
Seek new contract work 9.5 9.7 8.7 9.4 9.7 8.5
Start a new consulting company 9 8.5 9.5 3 9.9 9.7 9.8 2

Once you have identified priorities, remember that you can ‘begin at the end’ to resolve them. I’ve written about the process in my short book titled Visual Magic.

Irish Inspiration

 

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“Life assumes meaning and purpose when we accompany others in the ordinary events of life.” [Tom Whelan]

I’ve been in Ireland these past days – visiting friends known since we were teenagers. One mentioned how fortunate we were as children – free to wander and do as we liked. One benefit is that we could take a bus or a quick drive to the countryside to take walks. I took these photos below this past Saturday and Sunday during cold, clear, winter afternoons with low light in the Wicklow Hills. This was the outdoor playground where we rambled as kids. This is the wonder we still explore as adults.

At a local retailer in County Wicklow – The Village Bookshop – I found the book titled Saol – Thoughts from Ireland on Life and Living, edited by Catherine Conlon. Saol means ‘life’ in the Gaelic language. This book includes quotes from seventy individuals – Irish, or living in Ireland. Snippets from a few are included below. These may be appropriate as we make the transition from 2014 to 2015, with free hours, to consider the ‘bigger picture’ of life. The book was published in 2014 by The Collins Press in Wilton, Cork. All quotes are partial, taken from fully copyrighted works by the authors mentioned in this post.

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“I had always believed all art to be just that – storytelling.” [Noelle Campbell-Sharp]

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“Over the years, I have come to see the importance of ‘living’ a life, rather than ‘postponing’ a life…The fact is that if you want to make changes to your life, or to do something you’re passionate about, you have to seize the moment and do it now.” [Eleanor McEvoy]

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“When I was younger I never thought much about chance. Now I do, constantly.” [Carlo Gébler]

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“As I’ve gotten older I have learnt to stop, to enjoy silence and to reflect a lot more, enjoy nature, sharing time, to be more spiritual in essence.” [Fidelma Healy-Eames]

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“Coincidence is God’s way of prompting while remaining anonymous…when something does happen three times I take it as a gentle hint that I am to do something about it.” [Mark Patrick Hederman]

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“Whenever such support comes our way, it is invaluable: a bonus to be cherished. For our own part, if we make a habit of granting goodwill, it will spread like rings on water.” [Ann Henning Jocelyn]

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“Four billion years of life on earth, just so we can answer emails? I hope not.” [Arminta Wallace]

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“…as I grow older the mystery of life and death deepens rather than becomes clearer…part of the mystery is discovering that what appears to be tragedy can often turn out to contain within it a great blessing, a new growth, a new direction, maybe a new understanding.” [Tony Flannery]

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“Grammar is one of the great evolutionary wonders of the world. People have a profound need to communicate. We should chat with each other. It is a comfort.” [Colm Keena]

 

Books about the Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan

The country of Bhutan issues stickers showing an orange dragon, with the words – Land of the Peaceful Dragon. Truth is, Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The problem is that a ‘thunder dragon’ is sometimes construed as male reproductive hardware, and that the renowned historical, perhaps apocryphal, hero known as The Divine Mad Man used his own thunder dragon to subdue evil spirits after one of them transformed into a dog. I’m not going to speculate on the imagery of what took place, but I can see why the tourist board might want to avoid detailed questions regarding that story.

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Land of multiple monasteries

 

Before venturing to Bhutan, I read a few books about the country. Even if you don’t plan to visit, these are good armchair travel reads about a small nation that will likely grow in international renown, and soon. First, Bhutan has the fourth fastest growing economy in the world; second, the King’s casual comment at a summit in India in 1979 that he was not interested in gross national product, but in gross national happiness, has been latched onto by philosophers, economists, development experts, and politicians as an alternative way of viewing economic progress as most nations currently regard it.

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Happy? Seems that way.

 

Third, in about four years from now, the 22 year old Rimpoche will be inaugurated as the spiritual leader of Bhutan. Why is this important? Because he is the seventh reincarnation of the 17th century Guru Rimpoche, who transformed to a flying tiger and instigated construction of the country’s most spectacular cliff-hanging monastery. But apparently several reincarnations were never discovered, and in their place the spiritual leaders of Bhutan were appointed. So, this rather unique Rimpoche may, in a few years, begin occupying a niche with a level of international reverence approaching that now shown to the Dalai Lama.

Stay tuned.

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Easygoing, though devout and dedicated Bhutanese monks

 

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Ornate clocktower in sleepy, downtown Thimphu

 

The book Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli is a tale of surprise; imagine one day that your relatively humdrum Southern California existence is shaken when you are invited to move to Bhutan for more than a month and help establish a radio station in the capital city. Lisa describes both frustrations and joys: the camaraderie and kindness of coworkers as well as the frustrations of befriending a Bhutanese woman who ‘visits’ her in the United States, but really only moved there to stay and find work. Lisa works in Bhutan, leaves, and then returns only to discover, surprising and abruptly, that the city of Thimphu is not really a place she can call home. This is the rawest revelation in the book; that the romance has ended, and she realizes that her own roots and home are elsewhere.

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Plenty of mountains and valleys; just need some road improvements.

 

Married to Bhutan – How One Woman Got Lost, Said ‘I Do,’ and Found Bliss by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming eases herself into the culture of Bhutan, and then plunges in by marrying a local man. Her insights into the culture are, from this relationship, direct and honest. At times she finds herself mystified by the culture and the people, regardless of how close she wants to become to the Bhutanese. The book is also a paean to the strength and benefit of a good marriage between two people dedicated to working hard to make the union solid and lasting. Her descriptions of spending winter nights in unheated, or poorly heated buildings, brings home the reality that Linda has shucked the habits of visitors, embraced the ways of locals, and moved on from any soft living she may have enjoyed before moving to Bhutan. As with all books about Bhutan, there are plenty of scenes about one of the most common events in the country – sitting down, chatting, and drinking tea.

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Anytime is tea time

 

 

Finding Home in Burgundy

Two years ago my friend Robin and I spent five days at a house in the village of Magny-les-Villers in Burgundy – surrounded by vineyards and rolling countryside. On arrival at such a quiet location, Robin wondered aloud whether we would find things to do for five days. On leaving, we both wished we could stay for weeks longer.

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Peaceful Magny-les-Villers

I found this new book about Magny-les-Villers online. Turns out it was written by Laura Bradbury who (together with her husband Franck) rented us the house where we stayed. Titled My Grape Escape, this book is all about finding and renovating that property. It is about camaraderie with friends, family, and workers who help inject sanity and levity into the daunting task of completing renovations before the first paying guests arrive.

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Colorful entry way from an inner courtyard

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View of the local church steeple

The genre is that of foreigner buys property in France, undertakes renovations, and in doing so learns to slow down and appreciate the quality of day to day life. It also documents the transformation of a person as well as a property. Laura was in her twenties when she and Franck purchased this property. Her years of studying law at Oxford convinced her that time spent in non-productive tasks was almost abhorrent, something to feel guilty about. But her husband Franck helped demonstrate otherwise.

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One of many cellars within walking distance

When they set off to spend a day buying a second hand car, they instead enjoyed long hours with friends eating breakfast and lunch, and drinking wine and coffee, and buying – unexpectedly – all required kitchenware for their home at a bargain price. Their failure to find a car was alleviated within days when they found one to purchase elsewhere. The book is filled with these scenes – which expand Laura’s comfort in letting go of control. As Franck asks her about events in life: “…why don’t you try to believe that they will turn out just fine – no matter what we do or don’t do?”

One day when Laura and Franck part from their friend René, he leans in the open car window to tell her, “…never confuse what is urgent with what is truly important.”

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We found a tiny wine outlet…

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…selling some cracking good burgundy

 

Laura lets go of her plans and realizes that working long hours in a law firm might damage her precious marriage. She also begins to enjoy herself more. Opportunities to learn abound around Magny-les-Villers. “I had never met anyone who was more gifted for capitalizing on a moment of celebration than Burgundians,” she writes.

 

 

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Whether you want the renowned Montrachet….

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….or a famed Clos du Veugeot…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….or just a simple wine for lunch – Burgundy has it all

On visiting a physician to get a prescription for pills to reduce anxiety, Laura hears her husband Franck ask whether his wife can still drink wine while on medication.

“Only good wine,” Doctor Dupont answered. “I would highly recommend around two glasses at lunch and dinner. Something fortifying. A Pommard or a Vosne-Romanée would be perfect, though I would also consider a solid Savigny. I would, however, advise you to stay away from the whites at the moment, Madame Germain. They tend to have an agitating effect.”

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Voila! What the doctor ordered – Vosne-Romanee

IMG_0460a - PS2The book is riddled with colors, scents, and images of good food and wine. There are blue-footed chickens from Louhands, yellow wine from the Jura region, cherry red ramekins, lime green pie plates, as well as stewed rabbits and prunes in white wine sauce, smoked morteau sausages and potatoes with crème fraiche and freshly chopped parsley, and bottles of bubbly crémant, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, and Savigny-les-Beaune Les Guettes.

The home they are renovating comes with historical intrigue. Built in the year of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille – 1789 – it was also used to house a billeted German soldier during the Second World War.

It was a pleasure to read this story of how the property we stayed in was first renovated. Though I never met Laura and Franck personally because they were in Canada at the time, the attention to detail they put into each communication, and their rapid responsiveness to our queries were both informative and helpful. The brightly painted home was a joy to stay in. On more than one morning while there, we woke, drank coffee, sliced a baguette for breakfast, then simply opened the door to wander by foot around some of the most sublime and precious wine properties of the Cote D’Or.

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Burgundy terrain – producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

This book brings alive the quirky joys of living in the French countryside, and will make you reconsider what you truly consider important in life.

Check out more about Laura and Franck’s properties in France, here, or Laura’s book My Grape Escape, here for the Kindle version, and here for the paperback.

Where to go?

Laura and Franck can recommend some of the best places to visit. Two local wineries recommended by Franck are the following:

Domaine Naudin-Ferrand

In Magny-les-Villers; 03 80 62 91 50; info@naudin-ferrand.com

Domaine Maillard-Lobreau

In nearby Savigny lès Beaune; 03 80 21 53 42; maillard-lobreau.gerard@wanadoo.fr