I had an essay on psychogeology planned to drop this week (yeah, it’s a thing!), but two new biographies of Anthony Bourdain have provoked me to the point of making a last-minute swap. Extracts from the biographies are making the rounds, their authors giving interviews.
Bourdain had a large fan base to which I subscribed. Kitchen Confidential was an irreverent exposé of restaurant kitchen culture; a raucous reveal behind the twin swing doors. He reveled in shining a light on the soiled underbelly of something carefully manicured and disneyfied. Bourdain was the essence of punk insolence and I was punk rocker at the time. I ate it up.
Bourdain’s own brand was manicured as well: culinary rapscallion; acute observer of the absurd; globetrotting seeker of the strange and spicy; unapologetic provocateur; cool older dude with hot younger girlfriend. I can imagine that this fun stamp could be exhausting to maintain. We all evolve, sometimes to our friends’ and fans’ resistance. Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilder begat terminator begat governator. The Beatles graduated from Can’t Buy Me Love to A Day in the Life. Fans were unhappy, but the Fab Four were done with holding hands and love me do. Happiness is a warm gun. Transformation is essential for staying fascinated by ourselves.
Bourdain was reportedly excited about a new project that would be decidedly un-Bourdainian. Even pirates pull down the black flag at some point. One can imagine how liberating it would be, and befitting of his style, to shock the devotees with something unexpected and completely out of character. I spent 20 years cultivating X and now I’m Y. Trust me. Join me!
In an earlier incarnation I had a privileged life in San Francisco. It was the greed-is-good Gecko era and cred was built around possessions and title. My wife kept me grounded but every peacock loves to spread the feathers from time to time.I found my wings when I severed the strings (a lyrical couplet from the 2021 MASSIVE HIT To Say Goodbye) and moved to slow-and-sunny Provence from fast-and-foggy San Francisco. I knew that my professional repute and financial surety were about to become irreparably unwound, and was elated. For I was moving towards a more natural, authentic version of myself; correcting course towards a north star I had always seen brightly to the side and too long denied. At a certain age denial is a very unhealthy choice.
My sense is that Bourdain was a mostly authentic guy but yearning to evolve. He was an undeniable creative and creative types don’t like being boxed in. The slightest tinge of I’m starting to feel fake elicits the hives x10. Maybe he was finding it difficult to shape the shift, given the heavy momentum of his much-loved brand. Certainly his open history of substance issues and depression wouldn’t have helped, and his relationship was reportedly on the rocks. He loved her deeply (according to the new bios) and must have felt it slipping. That can push one into embarrassing behavior. I can relate more than I want to admit, and perhaps is why I felt compelled to pen this rumination.
We all need to be aware of the gravity of our brand and the effort required to escape said pull, if indeed that’s what is needed to grow and thrive. It’s a very healthy thing, mandatory I’d suggest, to question our identity regularly and tweak where needed; destroy when required. If surrounded by people who love you in a place that nurtures you then you’ll be fine. Actually, much better than fine, you’ll be alive.
Suggested Song: Happy, Pharrel Williams Suggested Drink: Virgin Mojito (Stella’s favorite drink when on the Quai in Cannes!)
I gave Stella a hug and waved goodbye, then was slightly teary on the drive home. She’s on a Paris-bound train now; boarding a flight back to Los Angeles tomorrow. My daughter decided on an impromptu visit and we had the best 10 days imaginable. A jump across the Italian border for pizza and fritto misto. Hikes in Cezanne’s mountain and along the dramatic Mediterranean cliffs. Morning coffees here, afternoon apéros there. Our favorite museums and restaurants and dishes at home. Provence perfect weather for autumn: cool nights, sunny days, breezy. Lots of laughs, lots of hugs. Lucky.
I have a close, loving family. Like their sister, the boys are happy, curious, adventurous, and astounding me daily. Everyone is healthy in body and spirit. They call or text often to say “love you Dad!” Their relationship with mom is equally tender and Alexandra remains a close friend and ally, despite our divorce. We’re a stable, supportive, cohesive unit with albums of photos and beautiful memories. Many more to come. Lucky.
I live in a historic building in a picture postcard city. The bones of my apartment – with its 17th century French doors and high beamed ceilings – envelop me in harmony. The ghosts of my kids wander its halls, laughing and arguing and studying and sharing meals. I may not own it, but after 12 years its soul is 100% Bill. I love to entertain, and this home was built for dinner parties. Friends walk through a historic neighborhood of cafés, boulangeries, monuments, and fountains to arrive at my door. These things I value greatly. Lucky.
My friends are warm, interesting people. Some are creatives, some from the worlds of business or education, some committing this moment to parenting, some figuring out who they’ll be next. All are a bit pirate. All enjoy a good laugh, a ready drink (even if non-alcoholic), and leave their hang-ups at home. I’ve been on my knees and these people have lifted me up. I’ve done the lifting a few times. We all need trusted companions. Lucky.
I do what I love. I get up early by choice, because the day ahead is inspiring. Every morning starts with a farmers market crawl, ends with a book and a cup of tea. I teach on occasion, learn constantly, create and share, and worry about the usual things like money. If I died tomorrow my kids would say, yeah he absolutely loved it there, doing that, with those friends. He was lucky.
You don’t need kids to feel lucky. You don’t need an airy flat in a charming Provence town to feel lucky. Your friends don’t need to be fascinating globetrotters or celebrated/aspiring artists to feel lucky. In fact, the lucky life is infinitely unique to each of us and boils down to 3 simple things: what you do, where you live, and whom you love. And those 3 basic, fundamental pillars of providence are entirely under your control.
Are you planning new adventures, scanning unexplored horizons, considering big life changes, or seeking a harmony that somehow, at some point mysteriously slipped away? You’ll need a bit of luck. What, where, and with whom. Start with those.
It’s August. Provence is baking, as per normal, and most likely where you are too, whether normal or not. There’s a daily regime here for the hottest weeks of summer. Open the home early to the cool dawn air. Run, market, yoga, and whatever other physical activities that demand that daily check mark get checked by mid-morning. Keep lunch copious but light. Salad, veggies, and fruits from the morning’s market crawl are perfect. Shudders close against the mid-day sun and remain so through the Saharan afternoon; windows open to any hint of circulation. Fans in every room. Nap, write, read through the day. Maybe there’s a good matinee at the dark, cool cinema. One can hope.
I sit at Le Forum with Canadian Dave and drink a cold pint of Kronenbourg. By 6 pm the sun has tempered from scorching to toasty. Tables under the large terrace parasols are at a premium. The water-misting fans feel heavenly. Kat, another two beers please.
This is the bewitching hour; dusk on the urban Serengeti. Beasts old and young emerge restless to mingle and run. Children shout and play tag, their parents order Aperol spritzes and stay in view. Gazelles nimble past in flowing white linen. Teens huddle in clumps, the boys here, the girls there, subtle (but not too subtle) glances pass between.
August is not conducive to creative, high-throughput production of any sort, at least here in Provence. Our natural cooling system labors with the challenge, the mind struggles to focus, and anyhow why insist? We all need the reset, a hard reboot. Europeans understand this and vacation en masse. France runs at half tempo. Luckily, Le Forum will keep its taps on and parasols open.
Time to fill
With free time comes options. Access to the world is as easy as a lift of the laptop screen. The BBC, New York Times, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, San Francisco Chronicle, France24, and La Provence keep me on top of all developments, from global to local, essential to superfluous, by the minute. Online media produces an astounding, unrelenting volume of news coverage.
Competition for cyber readers, viewers, and listeners is hyper intense. Alarmism and fearmongering deliver the ears and eyeballs. Fox News is the undisputed master of this Henny-Penny shuffle in America and has the numbers to prove it: more viewers than its two closest competitors combined. This summer’s bombardment from the outlets is particularly dire. Wars, weather, disease, … this just in, the sky is falling!! (and cue foreboding music).
There is a choice: plugged-in anxiety, or blissful oblivion.
In the August heat I choose to be oblivious. You should consider it as well. Conscious ignorance pairs nicely with the summer downshift, and there is little merit in agitation; it will only make you hotter. On Le Forum’s terrace one can debate China’s Taiwan invasion plans, or instead make a claim for the best market stalls or Provence rosés. Something like this:
Bandol or Palette?
For rosé? Well, yeah both excellent, but frankly I’m loyal to the Coteaux d’Aix. I’m thinking that the local strawberries are just past their peak. Have you noticed?
Definitely, but the Cavaillon melons are in full sugar. I just follow the bees to find the best stalls. Speaking of which, the Saturday market at Place Richelme is exceptional this summer.
Yeah, I guess, but the marchands at Place des Prêcheurs remain mes préférés. And anyhow, Claudia, the girl with the stall offering the amazing legumes farcis, … too cute. Now let me tell you about my new recipe for Italian bruschetta ….
Kat, 2 more beers please.
So which sounds more relaxing? Something like that, or a lengthy discourse on how to dodge Chinese space junk?
There are a few things you can control at the moment: where you shop, what you eat, with whom you share time. There are a lot of things over which you have absolutely no control this August. Here’s a short list:
An untethered Putin
An emboldened Xi
A politicized Supreme Court
Prices shooting up
The economy slowing down
A stock market in free fall
The US west in flames
The US east under water
The first wave of Monkeypox
The next wave of Covid
A falling Chinese rocket booster
The SF Giants (they are playing horribly)
This August I will focus on topics of interest within my minuscule domain of control. As for the relentlessly alarmist, 24/7 news dump I’ll choose obliviousness.
Taking the no-news pledge for a slow summer month is easy enough. Filling the free time; that’s the pickle for the news-cycle obsessive. It’s a particularly vexing cornichon for me.
It helps to have a new project, something not on the standard calendar. I’ve chosen Italy and primed my enthusiasm with a jump across the border this week. It’s a seductive country in all manner of ways: the landscape, weather, architecture, food, people, and daily rhythms to name a few. All were on full display for 2 days in the seaside town of Ospedaletti, less than a 3-hour drive from my home in Aix (how lucky is that?).
Freshly inspired, a new Italian recipe collection has been started (after the market crawl this morning I made a tomato bruschetta; simple and delicious, like the best Italian dishes). Any Italian films at the art house cinemas in Aix will get a viewing. And I’ll see what my friends at Book and Bar have in stock for authors. An Umberto Eco tome would soak up the spare hours (and days, and weeks…) nicely.
But perhaps the most fun will be a language course. Duolingo is free and fun and I’m on Lesson 3. When I tap out there I might ask Kat from Le Forum for a few lessons. She’s a native. August is looking better. I’m feeling clueless. How’s your summer winding down?
Suggested song: Leap of Faith, Bruce Springsteen Suggested drink: Paternel Rosé, AOP Côtes de Provence (any pale Provence rosé should do!)
“Make your life a lot more fucking awesome.”
I was reading an essay on Medium this morning, hovered over a bowl of Special K, muesli, and local strawberries. Nitin, a full-time programmer and part-time purveyor of millennial wisdom, was offering his 8 rules on “how to rewrite your life as you want it to be.” It was a slow news day. I was looking for distraction.
Rules 1 through 7 were the trite pulp one tends to find from the newly enlightened: honor yourself, follow a healthy diet, appreciate nature, yada yada. (Fair admission: I’m guilty of dispensing similar banal obviousness on occasion.) But Rule #8 struck a chord, and it wasn’t just the F bomb. Here’s why.
Every single one of us wants an f-ing awesome life. At 50 I was incredibly blessed and more than a little lucky to have had this: money, security, job, home, spouse, kids, grill. It was pretty damn good, but not f-ing awesome.
When my mid-life wobble met my inner narcissist there was little resistance to the axiom your life is not a dress rehearsal (so grab it). I bade my goodbyes to all above (except the kids) and went in search of my Shangri-La, El Dorado, Elysian Fields. I wanted more than money, more than stability, more than bliss. I’d trade all this and more (a great Dead Boys song, Spotify it) for a truly authentic life of deep personal meaning in an enchanting, inspiring locale: now that would be pretty f-ing awesome.
(Note that nowhere in that last sentence do you find the words affluence, comfort, or happiness.)
I found my Shangri-La in Provence, France. Yours will call too should you pursue the quest. Please trust me on this. Beyond the seductive splendor of its lavender fields, turquoise seas, and perched village cafés serving chilled rosé on hot endless days, I found my tribe in Provence. Seekers, most with impressive career and personal credentials, who will tell you that yeah that thing before was pretty damn good, but not f-ing awesome.
Sometimes we take it for granted, those of us who’ve washed up on these shores, but then a jealous friend on holiday or tourist at the next table will ask how one makes it all work. The language and legal and financial and family barriers and considerations.
You just have to figure it out.
A fellow runaway here once answered it quite simply like this: you just have to figure it out. This is what he meant: few of us here are independently wealthy; most of us have kids; all of us have/had aging parents back home; visa issues are rampant; and our language isn’t native. This further complicates already complicated things like tax regulations, wi-fi outages, parent-teacher mediations, and ordering that second rosé bottle (no, it’s not another please, it’s one more of the same!). You just have to figure it out.
My friend Dickie ran a high-stress, high-pay trading desk in Hong Kong for 10 years. These days he gives leisurely walking tours around Aix-en-Provence and fronts a local rock-n-roll band, while helping raise 3 teen daughters. Life? Yeah,pretty awesome, just figure it out.
Tilly was a BBC producer in London traveling across the globe to film nature documentaries. Now she’s at home in her small Aix workshop, turning out beautifully delicate ceramic bowls and creative pieces of jewelry. That’s when she’s not parked by the sea in the vintage family travel trailer, book in hand and watching her daughter paddle board across the placid Mediterranean blue. Life? Yeah,pretty awesome, just figure it out.
I abandoned my profession, divorced my wife (and closest ally, still), and moved to France in 2010. I had no real plan and no backup. A Wallenda moment. A part-time teaching job and a bit of advisory work helped, and I found, finally, the time and energy to develop my real passions: workshops on life change, a book, an album, and a musical.
Don’t expect all confetti and champagne in your pursuit of a life that is pretty f-ing awesome. It’s not the goal. My financial plan was never sustainable and remains tenuous. My creative projects have gone largely unnoticed, some have failed. Face plants can be humiliating. You soldier on. No regrets.
I’ve been scolded for the irresponsibility, most heatedly by myself. I’ve worried about the impact on my kids: a year or 2 with dad in French lycées, then back to mom and San Francisco schools, and then back to dad. But, 12 years later I’m where I belong. And each of my 3 little bumpkins have grown into fascinating, multicultural young adults of amazing potential. Life? Pretty awesome, just figure it out.
Here is the takeaway.
Your life now is indeed not a dress rehearsal. Forget all that stuff about heavens and reincarnations and molecular transmogrifications into other forms of pixie dust existence. It’s all wishful hooey. This is it, your one single shot.
You can do at least one thing better than any other individual on this planet.
So, to do what? Well, you can do at least one thing better than any other individual on this planet. This nonpareil gift is enabled simply by that unique blend of genes, upbringing, education, friends, and experiences that make you you. Finding your Shangri-La – geographically and emotionally – will help release the potential.
If you can pair that unique mastery with your deepest passions, then we all gain in your amazing gift. And you get to live a life that is pretty f-ing awesome. Now go grab it.
Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway. – Mother Teresa
June is Gay Pride month. The San Francisco parade has been cancelled this year and that’s a shame. I have colorful memories of that brilliant cavalcade: the vibrant floats and flamboyant dance troupes and butch bikers tattooed up in black leather and blue denim. Loud and proud.
I was called into a group-wide meeting one morning while working at Livermore Labs back in the 80s. Our area supervisor announced (paraphrasing) that from this point forward John should be addressed as Joanne and will be dressing accordingly. Expect female attire and makeup. She’ll also be using the ladies’ toilets. Any questions?
This coming out was one of the most startling and bravest things I’d ever seen. The John I had known was a burly guy’s guy and husband with kids. To be considered for reassignment surgery he first needed to live full time for a year as Joanne. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to share that decision with family, friends, and now coworkers.
We all have our closets. We perform on an open stage and let our hair down with the cast and crew when the curtain falls. A very few good friends get invited back to the dressing room, but then there is the closet. I’m hoping that I’m not the only one with a scary closet.
There are few resentments worse than feeling like a fraud, of being inauthentic. Real honesty requires a precarious journey from closet to stage in full drag, and that can be a tough walk. The good news is that as we get older this gets easier. A certain “let the chips fall where they may” settles in with age. The urgencies that guided our earlier years – career and vows and status – become the lesser priorities to authenticity; leaving this world with a history that reflects our truest selves.
Martin Whatson: Behind the Curtain
Being honest with oneself is of course step one, and often the most difficult of conversations. I lived most of my adult years in San Francisco and didn’t bat an eye (or even a heavily mascaraed lash extension!) at people being true to their sexual and gender orientations. But professional orientation was a different beast altogether. It is convenient to suppress misgivings over career choices when those positions are filling the bank account and feeding the ego. Damn I’m special! I was front and center of that line but in good company, particularly in the investment banking and venture capital industries.
There’s no shame in pursuing pay over passion when young and in one’s prime income-generating years (I’m happy to debate this over a glass of rosé). There’s great dishonor when continuing to shelter in the closet post mid-life, to oneself primarily. What you do, where you live, and whom you love. The legacy you leave. Are you getting these right? Are the what, where, and with whom choices you are making now reflect the most authentic and beautiful you? Will your eulogy be delivered by people whom loved you most, reflecting on things for which you wanted to be celebrated, in a setting that defined your spirit?
That is a lot to consider.
A final note. I founded the Interprize Group in 2013 to help people, mostly at 50 plus, pursue grand life ambitions of deep personal meaning. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit to using these workshops as much for self-discovery as for guiding others. Authenticity and purpose are 2 topics that get a lot of attention in these workshops. For the past 3 years I’ve been focused on a grand ambition of my own and the workshops have been on hold. We are offering a new and completely redesigned Life Leap Workshop this October in Provence. You can find more information here. If you are curious to know more please get in touch and we’ll set up a time to chat. Let’s get you out of the closet.
It’s mid-May and those touchstones of our pre-Covid quotidian are reemerging from this long winter of lethargy and isolation. Cafés are hosing down their terrace tables, the boys of summer are taking the field, pétanque parties are back on the Provence calendar (bring your rosé passport), and one feels encouraged to consider summer travel plans, maybe. We’re not yet back to the bis(ous) in France, but air kisses are pollinating the breeze.
Everyone is ready for the world to turn again, but part of me is suffering a post-pandemic partum blues. New rituals and routines were grudgingly adopted, and now, to my surprise, I’m resisting their repeal. How about you?
Most of us entered wartime kicking and complaining. The masks and curfews and comatose streets where a tiresome affront. Then something unexpected unfurled: my adaption slowly evolved from noisy surrender to covert embrace.
Four things in particular have grown on me: hygiene hysteria, hermitude, travel restrictions, and a damn good cocktail. Let’s take a closer look.
I’ve gained a new appreciation of protection against bugs, adopting a certain compulsive prophylaxis. Start with the mask.
I hated the mask at first. The fogged-up sunglasses; the hindered breathing; the constant “damn it, forgot my mask again.” Then a realization: that cloth cover was the best antiaging solution in my arsenal! The sags and the creases and the two-tone lifetime tan, all beautifully concealed, at least for that brief walk about town or trip to the grocery. I lose 10 years when masked up and love it.
I also appreciate that layer of discretion when slipping through the back alleys of Aix avoiding the predictable paths of this person or that. We all have those days, right? One gains an appreciation of the burka. There are days when I wouldn’t mind having a big black sack hanging in the closet. The Covid mask/sunglasses/wide-brimmed hat combo: perfect for a Howard Hughes steal through town.
Antiseptic hands are another new thing. I was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and my childhood hands were perennially dirty; my bare Huck Finn feet even worse. Chasing salamanders along muddy creeks is blissfully messy. I’ve never given much thought to the germ history of stuff I was touching. Jostling with strangers on the Paris metro or forwarding hotdogs on down the row at the ballpark? Never a problem. I was firmly in the camp of it’s all good, I’m boosting my immunity. Now I travel with a small gel bottle, head to the sink after outings, and am setting perimeter strategies for the café life after Covid. I didn’t see that coming but accept that it’s just good practice, pandemic or no pandemic. Old dog, new tricks.
Covid put a serious dent into our social lives. The indoor seatings were taped off, then the terrace tables pulled up. We resumed in our homes until gatherings over 6 were banned. Okay, surrender.
And then, … I didn’t really miss it. The raucous dinner parties and late-into-the-evening drink ups, the restaurant tabs, the home turned upside down and head inside out while washing dishes at 3 am. I was happy to give all of that a break.
This reversal had mostly to do with the temporary nature of confinement. I knew that we’d be sitting along a leafy boulevard lined with sycamores in Aix sipping rosé or flocking to this home or that beach soon enough again. So, I decided to embrace the hermitude and to quote Katy Perry, I liked it.
There’s a Lebowski appeal to stained sweatpants and frayed sweaters, dusty homes, hair gone to seed, sole control of the playlist (Siri, play the Bay City Rollers again), pedestrian wine in 5 liter boxes, locked in by dusk, books in bed by 9, lights out by 10. There was time for curiously odd things like tarot readings and kimchi canning; activities and a comportment that I wouldn’t entertain should others be visiting regularly. Serene solitary confinement.
The travel ban is winding down and curfew rolling back in France. The apéro season is upon us. Confinement is ending, and I’m mostly ready. But the hermit has had run of this place for over a year now and not going back in the bottle graciously.
The air travel experience has become insufferable. We all put up with it but who enjoys it? Some people apparently. Airlines were offering trips to nowhere during lockdowns; the flights were popular.
When it comes to finding points unknown (or known) I love being there, just not going there. A road trip is the exception. Lockdowns and quarantines provided a convenient excuse for avoiding that entire cattle call experience: boarding pass and ID here, now this slow queue, shoes off and everything in that bucket (“c’mon people let’s keep it moving!”), another line and more ID, the duty free mall and overpriced food, then a long sit at the crowded terminal, another cattle chute at the gate, boarding pass and ID again, buckle up and elbows in for the next few hours, try not to pee, … then it starts again at arrival.
No excuses were needed for avoiding travel these past many months. I missed people a lot, particularly my kids in faraway San Francisco, but not the process of getting there. I’m stepping back in the wading pool tepidly with a train trip to Paris in June and then we’ll see. I’m bribing the kids to visit me in Aix. As to that deep dive into a wide body across the the big blue sea? It’ll happen, don’t rush me.
And now to a damn good cocktail
Curfews and lockdowns force a reconsideration of one’s attitude on personal temperance. Some of us find all of that alone time a caution to curtail the evening tipple(s). Others find it an excuse to widen the guard rails.
I considered the abstemious option and locking the wine cave at first but was advised against it by a sage friend. A third option was to explore new directions, reasoning that the intake was neither more nor less, just different.
Hence, cocktails entered the equation. The art of preparing a good cocktail is no different than the secret to kitchen confidence: quality ingredients prepared with good tools and a lot of love for those whose company you most enjoy. Staying in season is key to both. The cold winter greys inspire Russian vodka creations comrade; the fresh spring greens calls for British gin old bean.
So, Moscow Mules have yielded stubbornly (it’s the mule) to strawberry gin and tonics (recipe here) as the weather warms and local berries fill the market stalls in Provence. Strawberries are in particular abundance and cheap at the moment, their perfume an irresistible siren seduction that demands purchase. My limes come from Maïtaï, who mans (womans?) a produce table at the Place de Richelme on Tuesdays. Anything she touches is as blessed as her sunny smile. The final key for me is the cocktail shaker from C&D Tools: an heirloom American-made bar tool offered as a gift from Kris, the company’s founder. How I became friends with this American diplomat stationed in Kinshasa, DRC is another strange tail for a future essay.
This is the time to consider your own permanent adoptions after a season of compulsory adaptation. Good luck with reentry. It’ll be fine, get out there!
Play this Song: This is the End, The Doors
Make this Drink: Negroni (to my friends suffering in Italy): Campari, vermouth, gin.
When traveling to intriguing places I enjoy writing real-time observations of the trip in short dispatches. My much-loved San Francisco is a guaranteed source of fascinating discoveries – always – and I’ve recorded them often in my Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom. When in Beirut last October I chronicled the fall of a government and pulse of the streets with a short series.
For this journey I’m at home – for an extended lockdown in France – and again facing an intriguing moment. We’re all facing moments of the unknown now. I am writing observations on a frequent basis for the next few weeks, mostly short, to provoke readers to share your own experiences. It is a healthy outlet in an unhealthy situation. … And if I don’t find something creative to vent my energy things could soon get ugly for the cat.
I’m posting these dispatches in a bubble-down system, latest essays posted at the top.
spring has sprung on me and it’s sweeping me off my feet
I saw my first oriole of the spring one sunny morning last week. Koiche Kunibe was standing in the center of a very deserted Place de Richelme enjoying a cigarette. He is the chef and owner of Naruto – my favorite Japanese restaurant in town – and let me know he’d be opening the doors for take-out the following day. Hallelujah.
In the past week an increasing number of shop owners in Aix have been getting creative and offering services without violating the lockdown. Limited hours and doorway exchanges perhaps, but it’s a welcome sign of thaw in the winter ice. Wine caves and cheese shops, bookstores and magazine kiosks, fruit and vegetable stands, and a few restaurants like Naruto are back in limited business. My good friend Hervé had his butcher shop on rue d’Italie humming this morning for the first time in 5 weeks and a line was forming.
If you grew up in a cold weather climate then you understand the deep stir of spring fever, particularly as a teen. Euphoria is the word. The mercury breaks 60°, the coats come off, car windows down, radios on, girls on the street, the boys of summer in spring training. You spot that first red breasted oriole swooping through the yard. The build up of anticipation after a long winter freeze is overwhelming.
The shelter-in-place lockdown France lifts on May 11 and it’s easing elsewhere as well. Time will tell if the timing was right or wrong. But with temperatures climbing and the trees turning green, the pressure to be outside and enjoying some level of social reconnection is swelling.
My 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun was a paean to the ache for personal release. The song Come With Me, in particular, slipped off the winter shackles. The burning to do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. The fact is we all accept obligations and compromises, like lockdowns when plagues roam the land. But the freeze is melting, trickle by trickle, and we’ll be sharing a glass with friends over a socially-distanced table soon. Hang in there.
Be safe, be well. April 30, 2020
Where Were You?
About a third of the world’s population is in some degree of lockdown because of the coronavirus. We are experiencing it globally through the news and locally through our various hellos to neighbors and friends. How we see it now, and how we remember it in the future will differ. While we are all impatient for a return to normalcy – whatever that means going forward – we’ll look back at this moment with selective memories of fondness and connection.
I’ve been through two natural catastrophes that upended life for days to weeks. In both cases the sights, sounds, and smells remain vivid, and the passion to share these memories with others who were there, then endures. Where were you?
Hurricane Agnes swept through the eastern seaboard of the US in 1972, killing 128 people and wreaking its heaviest damage in Pennsylvania, mostly through flooding. My hometown Newport, which slopes down to the normally languid Juniata River, experienced water levels into the second stories of houses. Carp and catfish were swimming through the windows and rotting days later on many a muddy living room carpet. It was a mess.
A few families took up residence in our large farmhouse, safe and dry on a ridge above the town. Dinners for 20 or more were common and I can still hear the kitchen full of moms making flood pudding and anything else delicious they could scrape together for this temporary encampment of Agnes refugees. Sharing their stories of escape. Troubled about what they were returning to.
Seventeen years later I was sitting in our apartment in San Francisco when my chair started to vibrate queerly, and then the building frame began to heave and rumble. The roar of an entire city in geophysical convulsion was deafening. From my 3rd story perch above Noe Valley the seismic waves rolling through town could be seen. Unnerving. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left 63 dead and caused $10 billion in damage.
San Francisco was out of power for a few days, which meant cold meals, candle-lit nights, and a transistor radio. I had made a large batch of chili the day before, so at least my girlfriend (and later wife) Alexandra and I had plenty to eat, that with cold canned soup. The Dubliner Bar on 24th Street was open that first evening, the owner Vince Hogan making approximate change with cash out of a cigar box, and everyone eager to be with others and share their stories. Where were you?
With both disasters lives were disrupted for extended periods. Those hallmarks and comforts of daily life were thrown into serious disarray, and after the first few days of novelty people were eager to get back to normal routines. Irritations emerged, and longing for the way things had been before the big event.
I think back to those moments with fondness now. Conversations between long time residents of San Francisco often turn to, “were you here in ’89?” It creates a bond. Strangers love to share recollections of disastrous communal experiences like old warriors comparing battle scars.
I don’t want to minimize the scale of the Covid-19 epidemic and horrible impact it’s having on us all. Each day brings a new celebrity infirmity into the headlines and many of us know someone struggling with a positive diagnosis, or worse. But we will get through this. It will mark us. Each of us will be changed by this moment in ways big and small, expressed and suppressed. And for the rest of our lives we’ll be sharing our stories and eager to hear those of others. They will connect us; brothers and sisters in arms. Where were you?
Be safe, be well. April 18, 2020
Witness to a Punctuated Equilibrium
(or How 1 Simple Virus Changed 1 Big World Forever)
A landmark study on evolutionary biology was published in 1972 positing that Darwin was wrong about 1 big thing: Many species – particularly those in isolation – do not evolve slowly and gradually over long evolutionary periods. Rather, many species attain an order of invariable statis that extends over many eons until a single climatic event forces rapid transformations in their biological properties. This theory was called punctuated equilibrium.
We may bear witness to a period of punctuated equilibrium now; not biological, but behavioral. The catalytic event, of course, is the coronavirus.
If you were born in the 20th century you mostly likely adhere to the concepts of self-reliance, consumerism, egoism, and the pursuit of economic prosperity. One could argue that these traits are uniquely American. I would reflect that while they are truly American, most societies have tilted in the direction of open markets, wealth, and consumption as the enabler and primary measures of success (and happiness) in life. Capitalism won, communism lost, now go live it up.
Ideas and products and messages and behaviors
spread like viruses do. Malcolm Gladwell, from “The Tipping Point”
Covid-19 is a climactic event causing sudden changes in our routines and habits. We can’t work, can’t spend, are asked to consider the welfare of others, and now rely on government direction and support. Will it also portend a sea change in our lifestyles and measures of happiness?
Prophesies (getting back to my biblical theme) are the works of wiser women and men than me, but this I have seen in the past 3 weeks:
Family and friends are getting more of our personal time. We are more aware of those relationships that truly matter (but too often consigned to when-I-get-the-time status) and connecting with Zoom calls regularly. The focus is a bit less on me, a bit more on us. That is a good thing.
Work is going virtual. My teaching at INSEAD and the IAU has gone online, and the many of us that can continue to work are getting it done outside the office. This trend is causing a stronger adoption of collaborative tools and investor interest in the companies that invent them. Better work-life balance and fewer cars on the road, and I believe a higher productivity per hour. These are good things.
Artists are creating content and sharing freely. Musicians –
megastars and the lesser known – are holding concerts from their living rooms (check out the NPR list), painters and photographers are giving tips from their home ateliers, and everyone is taking a break from monetizing their art (which is the great destroyer of brave origination). This is a good thing.
The air is clearer. Cars are parked and planes are grounded. Mother earth is getting a sudden reprieve from the CO2 infusion. There is a growing awareness that at least from an ecological perspective, … this is a good thing.
Are these observations sustainable trends or temporary anomalies in our practices and priorities? It is too early to tell, but I’m rooting for possibility #1. I’d love to hear about the positive changes you are adopting or observing in your part of the quarantined world.
As always, stay healthy. April 4, 2020
People Get Ready
People get ready There’s a train a comin’ You don’t need no baggage You just get on board
There is little good news out there. The fever seems to have broken in certain parts of Asia, but everyone is holding their collective breath. Italy continues its descent into hell, with Spain at its deadly heels. The rest of Europe is existing along a spectrum from the unnerving quiet-before-the-storm (Sweden) to full-on war footing (France). The US appears to be gliding along a rudderless spectrum of its own frightening path.
So what to do?
These days of plagues and pestilence have the feel of a biblical moment, whether your book is the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Mother Jones. I’d like to think that there’s a train a coming, rather than the death cart from the Black Plague. You’re probably going to be fine, … but just in case there is something to this rapture stuff, it might be wise to get your books in order, regardless of whether there is a golden ticket with your name on it or not.
There are the obvious steps, like preparing a will and naming an executor. But that’s a morose undertaking for times that are already plenty dark. I will suggest 5 more rewarding, but equally important, assignments that you can start while quarantined at home:
Prepare your top 10 list. These are the songs you want played at your funeral, wake, or rapture. My kids think I’m out of my mind when I bring this up. But are you ready to accept someone else choosing the music that will frame your life and set the tone for your remembrance? I sure as hell don’t and always keep my list updated. It’s a fun reminder of the artists I loved and the music that has so moved me. I won’t share my list here, but the drum cadence that kicks off the party when the doors close and the pews are full will be Don’t Worry Baby, the Beach Boys. Get your list together now.
Read great books. Most of us love to read and find so little time to do it. When I review lists of the best writers or top literature, I’m amazed at how poorly read I am. Blame it on the American public education system. French teens are pouring through Flaubert and Zola. In the past 2 years I’ve started a new regime of mixing one piece of respected literature for each piece of pulp I find entertaining. I like this list compiled by the New York Times, but google around and you’ll find plenty of other rankings. Start reading now.
Listen to great music. When it comes to music, ditto to the previous bullet. How many times has someone mentioned a band or song and you think, now I haven’t listened to them or that album in a long, long time? There are some artists that need to be heard or your life isn’t complete. Right? Can you pass through the pearlies without having been haunted by Schubert’s Ave Maria or mystified by the Beatles A Day in the Life? Your list will depend on what you love, be it the classics, or jazz, or perhaps African funk or rap. Spotify makes it effortless. If rock is your thing then a good place to start is Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a bit dated (2003), so you can throw in your own favorites from the past few years. Start listening now.
Plan your travel. With the beast at our doorsteps, our days, months, or years left to explore may be more limited than previously assumed. Review your bucket list of destinations now, while sitting at home bored, and make a loose calendar of when and where to go. Maybe your interests are international and exotic, or perhaps more local or regional. There is no magic list. When prodded about taking a trip to some far off destination my dad used to respond, why would I want to go there when I haven’t been out to the western corner of Perry County in years? Everyone has their own horizons. Start planning yours now.
Cover your love list. Most of us are negligent at letting our loved ones know that they fall into that category. We often put off telling those people most important in our lives that we love them until it’s too late. It’s a good time to make calls or write letters. Sorry, but emails don’t pass the emotional grade. If you are uneasy with being emotionally open it is enough to just get in touch. They will appreciate the effort and know that is comes from a very warm place. Who’s on your list? Make it now and get started.
Okay, these should keep you busy as the next wine bottle is popped. As always, stay healthy. March 25, 2020
We are the Corona Generation
If you are reading this post then you are officially part of the Corona Generation. It will impact how you comport yourself and mingle with others for the rest of your life. It will help define us as a global cohort for future historians, although that definition – what it means to be part of Generation C – won’t be fully etched and understood for years to come.
My parents were part of the Great Depression Generation and it marked them for life. They weren’t miserly, but clearly tight and selective with their spending.
As an example, our summer family vacation was spent in Ocean City, Maryland each July. One of my most pleasurable and vivid life memories is that drive down Highway 50 leading to the Atlantic seaboard. The roused anticipation at the first sight of billboards advertising beachside hotels and seafood restaurants. The briny smell of the ocean wafting through the rolled-down car windows as we got within perhaps 20-30 miles of town.
We always stayed at the Surfside 8 Motel on 8th Street. It was a fantastic central location for kids: turn left out of the parking lot and it was 3 flipflop blocks to the amazing boardwalk and beach. Two blocks to the right led to the 9th Street pier on the bay, where I would fish every afternoon with a bait box full of frozen squid or blood worms.
Our small efficiency apartment at the motel had a single bedroom with 2 queen beds, so my 3 sisters and mother commandeered that luxury space. My brother and dad took the pullout sofa and I, being the youngest and smallest, camped out on a rollaway cot. The official room limit was 6, so upon arriving in town I would be booted from the car about a block short of the parking lot and told to generally loiter for 30 minutes. And then I could meander confidently onto the property and someone on the balcony would discretely wave me in.
See what I mean? Tight.
How will the Corona Generation be marked by our common experience? Who knows truly? Obviously, a heightened attention to hygiene is being instilled into everyone now. Wash those hands and wipe down the counters. If this scare passed in a month or two it wouldn’t have time to take root in our psyche, but it’s not going to pass quickly and its going to take a toll on people we know and deeply care about. A vaccine is at least a year out and even if effective treatments are uncovered before then, it’s ability to turn lives upside down is going to keep us on edge and vigilant for a long, long time.
I’m an eternal optimist – please forgive me that – but I believe that the social distancing being forced on us now will bring us closer in the end. Board games may make a comeback, a return to touchstones of deep connection like letter writing and regular telephone calls, and we’ll be looking in on our neighbors and loved ones more regularly.
What changes to our routines and behaviours do you imagine – good or bad – as a result of this extended homebound interlude? The Great Depression was a horrific nightmare for families who struggled through, but left most of them stronger and more appreciative of authentic happiness as a result. This is our challenge now.
Stay healthy. March 21, 2020
A Bit of Context, Please
“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. … Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.” – Alia, 7 years old, on fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria.(Source: the Italian NGO Gruppo Aleimar.)
“They killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. They kidnapped nearly all of us (in my village), and killed all but 16 men. Children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes (to be trained for fighting) and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas, Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed. – Rozina, a 22 year old Yazidi woman, recounting her escape from ISIS captivity after her mother, father, and 2 brothers were killed. (Source: Global Fund for Women.)
I made my escape down 7 rue Manuel this morning to the open air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Subdued would be a good word for the pulse of the plaza, with about half of the merchant stalls typically crammed into beautiful Place des Prêcheurs on a Thursday morning missing. But I was still in a land of plenty as I made my rounds, picking up green olives in garlic and basil and a beautiful block of aged cows milk cheese for my apéro late afternoon, 2 pork chops and a dozen spears of fresh asparagus for dinner (just coming into season now). The vegetable and fruits options remained bountiful, bronze chickens were crackling on their roasting racks, the poissonnieres still offering life from the sea of every sort and size.
I’ve never been so happy to linger in a line, soaking up the Provence sun and enjoying a short moment of a beautiful day that will be enjoyed mostly from my apartment window, in my airy 17th century flat with its impossibly high ceilings and terra cotta floor tiles colored in the sun burnt ocre of Provence clay. The internet is working, Netflix options are endless, my piano and guitars at the ready to ward off boredom. When I turn the tap I get fresh potable water, and hot when I want it to be. The fridge is keeping things cold. My bed is comfortable and the comforter clean and warm.
This virus is disrupting our lives and may get really frightening. Some of us will get sick and people we know may die. But let’s try to keep it all in context, okay?
Stay healthy, stay safe. – March 19, 2020
One Sure Bet
(or, Where to Invest in Days of Plagues and Pestilence)
Before him went the pestilence,
and burning fever went forth at his feet. Habakkuk 3:5
It’s mid-March and Covid-19 is sweeping the globe like a ravenous swarm of desert locusts. In the Horn of Africa billions of the real thing are turning day into night and leaving a trail of destruction unseen since the days of Moses.
Just across the Red Sea the world of oil is going bonkers as Saudi Arabia and Russia get into a Mexican standoff over production limits. Crude oil prices fell 30% in the course of just one morning recently, and are at their lowest levels in almost 20 years.
We still have the fire season to look forward and the US just experienced its warmest winter months since 1895. All this and more, to quote a 1977 punk epic from the Dead Boys.
Stock markets hate nothing more than uncertainty. It’s no surprise then that the indexes are lurching severely, plunging down one day and roaring back the next, sometimes over 10% in a single session. So where does one invest in times of plagues and pestilence, when all that is certain is that uncertainty will reign?
You are the best investment to be made in times of uncertainty. The asset of YOU (not a bad market ticker) and its condition are 100% under your control, and you suddenly have a lot of time to focus on enhancements. For starters think about your health, and that comes in 2 flavors. So here are some tips from Bill.
Work out. Find a regime today that fits your interest and home situation and do it regularly. I have a small apartment so a mix of yoga, an exercise wheel, and 2 dumbbells are all that’s possible but needed really to keep me in form, .. despite my beer tab. Toss in a daily walk or run if allowed out of the building. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
Eat well. With restaurants shut down it’s a great time to brush up on your kitchen confidence. Focus on seasonal recipes with locally-sourced ingredients and you can’t go wrong health-wise. And the cooking sacrament is a great stress reliever, so excellent for your mental health as well.
Write: Few things feed the soul better than a letter written tenderly to someone you love or greatly appreciate. It’s even more enjoyable with a good fountain pen in hand, scribbling on high quality parchment paper. I’m blessed to be in France, where boutiques – papeteries – focus exclusively on the materials for this dying art. It’s all on Amazon as well.
Read: Now is the time to tackle that book stack that’s been growing by your bedside, or start building a new one. By the fireplace or propped against your pillows, is there anything more relaxing, … and more nourishing? I’m a supporter of the local bookstore, but in a crunch you have online options.
Pamper: Your budget has suddenly eased up on luxuries like restaurant tabs, bar bills, and travel reservations. Why not divulge in a few guilty pleasures with that new found trove? Go on, before the world collapses around us. High-end chocolate and a good bottle of wine are the low-hanging fruit for me. I’m sure you won’t have to think too hard about it.
Create: Art is a healthy release valve when bored or feeling anxious. Music, painting, drawing, writing: these are just the obvious possibilities. So many more options exist as well. Lost as to where to find inspiration? Just Google around; the options are endless.
Travel: Wait, what? You probably can’t leave town or even your apartment, but you can still explore the world through films, podcasts, and websites. There is an endless array of travel documentaries on Netflix and other streaming media, and this link to museums online has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Go exploring.
Meditate: It’s proven to calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Again, there are plenty of resources online if you don’t know where to start. Find a zen ritual that is natural for you, and 5-10 minute sessions are enough to get you quickly addicted.
I’m off to the grocery. At least that’s what I’ll tell the gendarmes should I be stopped. The truth is I’m just dying to get out for a bit. Stay healthy and add your own tips for staying sane. À bientôt.
Suggested Song: Let It Be, The Beatles.
Suggested Drink: Champagne, your choice (it’s almost New Years!)
A brief aside
Few cities are more beautiful than Paris, and fewer still more magical than Paris during the winter holidays. I’m in Paris this week, with the Champs Elysees ablaze in holiday lights, the winding sidewalks through Montmartre strangely clear, tables at the trendy Marais restaurants available, and museum lines, … well there are no museum lines. Merci grévistes!
We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Conrad
I skated a lot as a kid on the lakes and streams of chilly Pennsylvania. My friends and I loved to play crack the whip out on the ice, forming a chain glove to glove and pulling a wide arc, the person on the far end holding on for dear life as the sweep of the line grew taut and picked up speed. To stay up on 2 blades as you careened around that bumpy winter glass took every bit of energy and concentration, slipping and scraping and fighting to keep your balance core. Exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.
I left some blood on the ice once, getting spun over a small damn on a frozen creek near home. You have to know when to let go and I held on just a moment too long. Six green stitches to the chin and I was lacing up the skates the next day after school.
I’ve had jobs that paid too much, girlfriends who looked too hot, and vices that felt too good to let go. They fed the ego and enabled myths about who I was and what I deserved. And then would come the realization that this brilliant sun around which I spun was instead an all-consuming black hole, and that great sucking sound was my authentic self being perverted by its massive gravity. More blood on the ice and stitches to the chin.
I find consolation in good company. Many of us suffer from this stubborn reluctance to let go of reckless situations. We know when we’re getting too far over our skates but don’t want the ride to end. As the sweep around whatever dark star is keeping us in orbit picks up speed and the inertial force pulls harder, we hold on even tighter. Ride ‘em cowboy.
The bad news is that we are ego-driven creatures prone to peril, if said ego gets a little tickle. It’s wholly unfair to blame the source: the situation, person, or vice that is wrenching us around. We step in harm’s way and convince ourselves that all is cool. Why the hell did you spin me so close to the dam god dammit? Well why the hell didn’t you just let go?
Exactly. The good news is that we’re not buckled in, we’re holding on. The moment we let go we spin off on a new trajectory of our own making, and it’s 100% up to us to decide when to release the grip. We are in total control of our next moment, next day, next year. Just … let … go.
When a lot of wild coiled up inertial energy is released into straight-line momentum, you are a radiant shooting star on a thrilling new direction. You are at the wheel, no one and nothing is tugging your chain, and a new bearing is completely in your hands. Few things in life are more invigorating than that realization.
So as the new year approaches let me ask you this: is that center of mass that keeps your life in orbit a bright shining star that lights the way and warms your heart, or something more troubling and ominous? If it’s #1 you are truly blessed and if it’s #2, .. well it’s time to let go. Just a little blood on the ice, nothing that a few stitches can’t heal.
If you don’t engage with nature can you care about the environment?
If you don’t engage with people can you care about humanity? Is the self-command of masturbation better than the uncontrolled abandon of sex? (Wait, what?)
Disengaging From Nature
I’m a runner. It serves as equal parts fitness, therapy, and meditation, and my most profound breakthroughs arrive while under the morning skies, putting a few short kilometers on the Nikes. Out early in the world.
Our wild environment – rural or urban – is great inspiration for the creative mind. Sites, sounds, smells, the touch; these things all get our neurons firing, and an engaged brain is a powerful thing.
Distractions are the enemy, particularly of the digital variety. Ear buds and Spotify provide a comforting exile against the natural, unruly world when out in it. Zen epiphanies are blasted off the creative neurons when rock n roll is ringing the ears, as much as I love rock n roll. The lungs at work, a flock of birds against a pale dawn sky, the crunch of autumn leaves under foot, the smell of baking bread before opening hours at the boulangerie. This is real, this is analog, these sensations are stimulating and blissfully out of one’s control.
That we are losing the war against global warming should come as no surprise. Most of us would rather plug in and insulate against the unruly world than soak in its beauty, to fully immerse. When on my run this morning I kept a tally of the ear-budded versus unplugged; the other runners I encountered en route: 4 to 1. The pluggers rule the day; masturbation on the move preferred to a rolling intercourse with nature. And the less we truly appreciate something, the less motivated we are to preserve it.
Disengaging From People
I’m a talker. When I’m at a café and someone intriguing is at the next table I’ll feel an itch to engage. There have been awkward moments but mostly not. My antennae are pretty good at sensing who will welcome a question about that book in their hands or suggestion for a city I’ve overhead them discussing.
Chatty barflies like me are becoming a rarer breed. Heck, friends don’t even talk to the friends at their elbow any more. They busy themselves instead with Instagram photos and Facebook notifications. I’d like to blame the young, and they are the biggest violators of non-engagement, but this social virus has spread to all generations, sadly.
Witness cinema attendance. It’s down 9 percent to this point in 2019 over the same period last year (which was already at a 20+ year low) and Hollywood is hurting. The appeal of Netflix from the sofa is understandable, but the art of àpres-theater debates with friends is being lost. In my hometown of Aix-en-Provence there are a row of lively brasseries just across the large boulevard fronting the Renoir theatre. Le Grillon, La Belle Epoque, Nino’s Café, Les Deux Garçons. All are great options for a glass of wine and the so what did you think? kickoff. I can’t imagine enjoying a fascinating film without that follow-up.
It breaks my heart, this preference for human isolation, for social masturbation. The less we truly value something, the less motivated we are to preserve it. Recent articles in the Atlantic and elsewhere are confirming that interest in sex has fallen sharply amongst the young, in America and most everywhere the Internet is widely available. When we no longer prize intimate engagement, when a Facebook Story on a 5” screen is more satisfying than adventures shared over a couple of pints, when the sofa and remote have replaced a cinema seat and popcorn, … sex, like with someone else?
The downsides of disengagement can be best witnessed through the current leadership in Washington: Trump, Twiddler-in-Chief. He engages the world alone, through a controlled bubble that leaves him oblivious and dangerous. Nature is enjoyed through a limousine window and global warming a hoax. Friends and allies are dispensable and critical alliances dismissed with a midnight tweet. Sex is to be grabbed between the legs (“they let you do it!”), but it’s even better to master your own domain. Okay, he might not believe that, but my gut says he’s not seeing much of Melania in the president’s chamber these days. “Go grab your own thing, Donald.”
As president, Trump leads by example and a depressingly high number of Americans are still happy to follow. Twiddle Nation and isolation. What could possibly go wrong?
When the moon is in the seventh house And Jupiter aligns with Mars
I bought tarot cards while in San Francisco recently. It was an undisciplined move for this disciple of science, but not an impulse buy. I was feeling blocked and sought a shift beyond the unusual to break through. The esoteric arts seemed just crazy enough, and the tarot was an option high on the wackiness scale. I found cards in the Haight (naturally), studied a few books over coffees or beer, started laying out simple readings at the kitchen table, and became enchanted. Here’s why.
I’m not naturally drawn to the mystical arts. I pursued physics in college and studied the theories of giants like Foucault, Einstein, and Bohr. I believe in the scientific method: imagination, observation, and verification built on empirical evidence. Yeah that sounds reasonable, now prove it.
Science does a pretty good job of explaining how things behave; tiny things like quirks and massive things like black holes. The arc of an arrow or locus of a sub-atomic particle? We got that, even when said particle is (almost mystically) in 2 places at once.
What do we do with this knowledge? A lot of good things and a few unimaginably horrible things that counter all best intentions. We heat the winters and cool the summers and tame nature at home while venturing beyond our garden of eden to uninhabitable worlds. We put men on a barren grey moon while burning our own blue paradise to a crisp. We develop an unlimited source of renewable energy and then commit its stockpiles to assuring our own mutual destruction.
So the breathtaking sweep of scientific evolution, from the earliest mathematical foundations of Babylon and Maya to their extrapolations for modelling motion and mass by Newton and Galileo, and through Einstein’s impossibly elegant mathematical reduction that relates that mass to energy through the inviolable speed of light (in a vacuum) has led us to this: perhaps two generations remain before the planet is reduced to a bleached cliff notes version of its former verdant splendor, or we blow ourselves to smithereens first.
So what is science worth if through its application we ominously degrade the quality of our existence or threaten that very existence itself? It’s a question worth considering.
Science: an astounding, evolving compendium of knowledge fundamental to making sense of the many mystifying dimensions of the world micro to massive: physical, chemical, and biological. As for providing the common sense and tools needed to harness this knowledge for the greatest benefit of everyone? Not so good. Some people lose their faith in the preeminence of religion. I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of science.
Unlike science, the mystic arts provide zero utility in understanding the physical world beyond; whether just beyond our touch or light years beyond our sight. They provide an interesting option to understanding the world within, however. Useless at explaining how things behave, but effective (for the open minded) for reflecting on why we behave in the crazy ways we do. And if we hold a clearer lens into our own behavior, perhaps we make better decisions about that behavior.
A stack of colorful cards is nothing more than that. In a vacuum (again with the vacuum) they offer no particular value beyond the pleasure of a game. But equipped with a good guide book, a glass of decent wine, and the help of a friendly ghost (now this is key for me) that stack of 78 cards comes alive in its many dimensions and possibilities.
The true power of the tarot is in its various facets and options for interpretation. Imagine gazing through a magic kaleidoscope that could clarify your past and foretell the future. Twisting the tube sent the many colors of varying shapes and dimensions into unpredictable spins; each shade, size, and trajectory open to interpretation. Now here’s the magic: that interpretation is unique to each viewer. There is no rigid set of scientific guidelines for analysis. Yes, there is a system to the tarot, but what you draw from the colors and spins will be different than what I draw, because our histories and expectations, and the burning questions in our lives are all wildly different.
Kings and queens, princesses and princes, knights and swords and cups and disks and wands, blues and reds and yellows and greys, fire and water, and then throw in the planets. These are just a few of the kaleidoscopic elements of the tarot that drive the meaning of the cards.
I have my own belief system and hope that you do too, … one that offers comfort and solid footing. I’ve mentioned in an earlier essay that I light a candle each evening for my sister and she is present in the moment. I fill her in on my day and invite Cathy to guide the cards that I select and lay out each evening. She has joined the conversation and I (want to) believe is giving the readings a mystical bump here and ethereal tug there, and from her side of the spiritual divide bringing order to the cards I’ve randomly pulled from the deck. If true then I’ve tapped into something powerful, and if not true than I’m just connecting with someone I miss and love. Either way it provides a fun system for pondering decisions about what’s around the corner; immediate or longer term.
Some believe that Jesus healed the blind and others that Moses parted the sea. Maybe Mohammad did split the moon and one particle can exist in two places at the same time. I believe that my sister cuts the cards. We choose our miracles. I’m good with mine. What are yours?