Suggested Song: The Ties that Bind, Bruce Springsteen
Suggested Drink: Domain Saint Aix rosé (hey, it’s almost summer!)

I’m back in the U.S. for 3 weeks. I always miss home when traveling, but I’m sharing fun times with people I love, mixing in a bit of work that I enjoy, getting my fix of Americana like smoked BBQ and sweet tea and friendly waitresses who say darlin’, and staying in sunny locales with good wine and lively music. No need to reach for the Kleenex just yet.

My final day before departure was a list of last-minute to-dos that mark the approach of an extended trip: the laundry and ironing and packing, and discovery that my favorite shirts weren’t washed; the inventory of passports and boarding passes and U.S. bank cards that I use stateside; and a sit at the laptop to firm up flight times and can’t wait to see you soon emails.

AixStill, there was time to for a dose of my daily routine, first stop the outdoor market for flowers and strawberries, and surprised to find a good friend back from winter travels and manning a fruit stall. After promises of a longer follow up over drinks I popped over to the roasterie for a rich brew with my morning coffee clutch. We spent an hour discussing nothing more pressing than the current glorious weather, last night’s dinner menus, and who had the best produce at the market that day. I made a pitch for Maité’s berries: unbelievable.

I was back home in time to scratch out a short note (writing letters with a quality fountain pen on heavy parchment is pure indulgence) and a meander to the post for stamps. In a moment of clarity I decided that the ripe strawberries, bought for my incoming house/cat-sitters, would pair nicely with a split of French champagne or Italian prosecco . My guests would be arriving from California after all, so midday here would mean late night there and the combination sounded like a perfect antidote to their certain jetlag. Since my go-to wine shop was en route, I stopped for a recommendation from cave manager Carl and picked up a couple of bottles of rosé for the effort. A productive start to the day indeed.

Lunch and the afternoon followed with the requisite nap, two hours at the desk putting final touches on an upcoming Interprize workshop in Charlotte, a self administered (and poorly executed) yoga session, and a half hour or so at the piano to wind things down. I was considering a dinner of leftover pasta when the invite came to an impromptu garden apéro. The evening was spent chatting with friends and enjoying pan-fried veal cutlets, a spicy simmer of spring vegetables, a simple green salad tossed in truffle oil and lemon juice, and more than a few bottles of well-matched Cotes de Rhone.

My life in Provence is deeply rich, but without the wealth. It’s colorful, luscious, intemperate, unhurried and simple, and it thrives on connection and community. I might splurge on a Saturday night feast for a dozen good friends, then go a week without paying for a meal. We share a passion for food and entertain from our kitchens, comparing recipes and debating our favorite market stalls and butcher shops and cheese guys. With local Provence produce so inexpensive eating well doesn’t break the bank, especially with meals focused more on seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and zesty Mediterranean spices, less on a dominant meat entree.

Our Aix circle is a varied mix of expats and natives, runaways and homecomers, bar browsers and homebodies, left-leaners and right-wingers, carnivores and vegetarians and pescetarians and flexitarians, hedonists and innocents and the malleable. Professionally we are a handful of struggling entrepreneurs and industry captains, writers and artists, engineers and admins and bartenders and merchants of mysterious unmentionables. In other words, all over the map in both income and accomplishment. Everyone is pursuing something purposeful but greater affluence is not the guiding principal; status not the binding glue. And this is the implicit thread that connects the group, I believe.

San Francisco1I’ll be touching down in San Francisco in the next 30 minutes and I’m excited. It’s a city of remarkable beauty, diversity, energy, and potential. It has also become a city of extremes and divisions, of unhealthy margins at both ends. The hyper-creative and hard-working tech tribe and the financial industry that funds them are driving an impress economic resurgence. They live from bonus check to options grant, dress their kitchens with high-end stoves and cookware, then eat out because, well, who has the time or energy to create in the kitchen? Mingling with the masses means chatting up the tattooed bartender or speaking broken Spanish with the housecleaner, but these folks are not getting put on the dinner invite list (which is a missed opportunity. Imagine the stories). There is a very tangible caste divide between the have-a-lots and the others in this city that cuts mostly across income and wealth.

To find the strongest currents in the deepest streams you have to move beyond surface illusions. I’m not at all adverse to money, just no longer willing to compromise my lifestyle and community for it. New possibilities open up along so many dimensions – where you live, what you do, with whom you love and commune – when you stop obsessing about the bank balance and status trajectory. I could be dead in a week. Fuck that.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested song: Woodstock, Joni Mitchell (this is the CSN&Y rendition I love)
Suggested drink: Harvest Bell Lemonade, organic vodka, lemonade, basil, lemon slice, simple syrup

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Much is written on the merits of eating locally and seasonally. I’m a fan and advocate, and adopting this practice in Provence is easy and immensely pleasurable. The benefits of adapting to seasonal changes extend well beyond an evolving dinner plate, however. Acknowledging that we’re in the month of October, not May, and cooking and eating accordingly encourages us to consider nature and our environment; it inspires respect and empathy for the earth’s bounty and limits. In the age of hyper connectivity and globalized availability – Blueberries in December? No problem! – we lose this appreciation and are the worse for it.

My adult life has been largely enjoyed in San Francisco, where there are just 2 seasons really in the city proper: chilly, foggy season A (winters and summers) and glorious, less foggy season B (springs and falls). To be fair to the larger Bay Area, 15 minutes sunflowers2outside the city in any direction and the climate dynamics are wildly different.

Getting back to a full climate cycle was one of the many attractions I anticipated when moving to Provence. The changing seasons define life here beyond just weather, but also in ways edible, social, visual, and cultural. Provence is colored by brilliant summer yellows, somber winter greys, by fresh spring greens and fading autumn browns in all shades from blossom to decay. It is a cycle that keeps things in flow and evolving, changing in predictable patterns that echo previous seasons but never truly repeat. This cycle also ties us to our surrounds in ways more natural and organic, less artificial and technologic. And this is a very healthy thing: enriching, humbling, authenticating.

strawberries2Placed between the Alps and Mediterranean, Provence swings from bone chilling Januaries to sweltering Julys. This change stimulates a vast range of local fruits and vegetables, flowers and herbs, wines and oils and nuts. Local Gariguette strawberries and Charantais melons fill the market stalls with shades of orange and red – and pesky honeybees – through the warm summer days. The fields are ablaze with sunflowers and lavender. The aromas are inviting, seductive. During the darker months gourdes of every odd shape and size, and middle earth root vegetables like turnips and rutabagas inspire child-terrorizing recipes. Cool salad plates yield to steaming soup bowls. Sweet red and black raspberries give way to cepe mushrooms and the savage black truffle: formidable king of all French fungi.

roseOther selections on the Provence menu are seasonal as well. The café scene is vibrant year around, but the outdoor terrace reigns supreme for coffee and drinks in summer. Without outdoor seating your restaurant business is somewhere between anemic to 100 percent dead. Socializing with a cool glass of rosé or pastis in the early evenings under a warm Mediterranean sun is pure bliss. A light dinner of shared charcuterie, cheese and bread is plenty when the weather is still balmy at 10 p.m. And with the elegant baroque setting of Aix and beautiful pageantry on display why stay home, and when out why be inside?

The out/in seating bias evolves gradually to a complete 180° flip by year end, with those same terraces now the exclusive domain of a few weather-defiant smokers, bundled up for a shivering fix in heavy winter coats while the rest of us crowd into cozy, packed interiors, warmed by wood fired ovens, calming aperitifs, and simmering plates of delicious this or that. Summer nibbles and pale rosés give way to hearty menus and full-bodied reds. The winter din is unique to the season, the chatter amplified by the tight enclosed quarters, the espresso machines hissing, the waiters barking, the clatter of coffee cups and wine glasses and silverware being served or collected.

As the daylight hours dwindle and temperatures drop we start to entertain more at home and indoors. I struggle to find my Escoffier toque when the thought of sweating before a hot stove top in midsummer is the reward. By October there is no place I’d rather be. The changes in local produce at the outdoor markets give us a chance to mix up the dinner menu, the entrees, the wine selection and cocktail starters. What an opportunity to find harmony with the sun, moon, rain, wind, and dirt; with the terroir as they say in France. Respect for and adaption to our climate cycles is a sign of humility, a deference that is critical in this period of extreme climate events that reveals a nature mother aggravated by our false sense of control and hubris.

earthWe can choose to insulate ourselves from the natural world or embrace its messy chaos and diversity. We’re brimming with modern technologies that enable sterile, inert lives largely impervious to the seasons. Increasingly we encapsulate ourselves in the great digital bubble, plugged in to an endless and fascinating online universe that gives no hints of the natural world, the real world. And that’s our collective loss.

Our climate has become unhinged thanks to a global appetite for better lives, bigger homes, a car or 2 in the garage, and more stuff – in essence the “good life” – with ignorance (initially) and disregard (ultimately) for the ugly environmental impact of this pursuit. Isolating ourselves from the natural elements only widens the disconnect and exacerbates the problem. What’s on your menu tonight?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochrain
Suggested Drink: Any chilled rosé, such as the 2011 Chateau La Coste cooling nicely in my fridge

I am offering an abridged blog this month. Your reading time is likely limited and I’ve copied links to 2 op-eds published by the New York Times this past week on privacy and connectivity, both digital and personal. You may enjoy, and all in it should be just enough content for that cool glass of wine.

If the French have agreed on anything this year, it’s that the weather has sucked. From all points on the hexagon this universal comment reigned: where the hell is the summer? It had been the coldest, longest spring since 1987, leaving the Frogs (of which I now qualify) with a permanent case of the wet shivers. If there is a bright side, it played in nicely with the sport of competitive complaining, at which I do believe the French compete well.

Poppies in provenceThe Provence temps suddenly turned warmer last week, and in spectacular fashion. It happened overnight, falling asleep to the sound of a cool drizzle and waking to a warm bath of morning sun. Our nature mother has not looked back. Relief is heard in the market chatter, is seen on the faces of all who rely on the outdoor lifestyle: the cafés and ice cream shops and restaurants and bars who double their seating with tables alfresco, …and those of us who use them.

The lavender bloom is still a 2-3 weeks away, but the Aix countryside is full of red poppies now, splashed chaotically across fields of green and yellow mustard like a Jason Pollock canvas. The smells are earthy and colors stunning. Provence in early summer is a preview of heaven.

The tourist season is in full swing, with packs of sightseekers guided in waves down elegant Cours Mirabeau and through the charming alleys of Aix, snapping photos and sampling calissons, then rushed back to their massive busses and off to Nice, Avignon, or other points beyond.

Carnival floatThe annual Carnival celebration held last weekend was beyond description. Three separate evening parades snaked through town and converged at the large central fountain. It included opera singers in hoop dresses two stories high, giant skeletons, surreal floats from the imaginations of Jules Verne and Mad Max, and members of an orchestra suspended 200 feet in air. For a colorful video of the Carnival parade and the hovering Concerto Celeste click here.

For those of you who found my May essay Never Far From Home interesting, two op-eds were published by the NYT this week that warrant your time and a cup of warm tea (or cool rosé). Columnist Ross Douthat writes about the collision of technology innovation, national security and privacy intrusion (click here to read), a topic front and center since the recent disclosures about NSA snooping. And Jonathan Safran Foer offers a touching essay on the loss of personal connection with the gain of digital connectivity (click here to read). Enjoy!

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested song: All I Want is More, Reel Big Fish
Suggested drink: Bigger Better Blue Lagoon: coconut rum, peach schnapps, apple juice, blue curacao, 1 cherry

The happiest people don’t have the best of everything;
they just make the best of everything
. – Unknown

Horror of horrors, Pagni is gone! For the past 3 years I’ve been buying the best beef in the world from this boisterous butcher, operating from his white step van at the edge of the outdoor market in Aix. He has single handedly destroyed all attempts at eliminating red meat from my diet, much as I’ve tried. My kids were equally swayed by his product and charm, prodding me with instructions to visit Pagni on my morning marché rounds to get his ground beef for the occasional lunchtime burgers.

horse photoLast summer I noticed the segmented outline of a horse by his service counter and asked him to translate the word Chevaline, framed in an official-looking certificate by the image. At that instructive moment of clarity all pieces converged, and I realized why his product tasted different, was so much richer in flavor and deeper in color.

Yes, the rewards of ignorance can sometimes be a naive bliss. Some of us cringe at the thought of equine burgers, but the other red meat is making a comeback in France. Compared to cow, it has twice the iron content and about 17 times the level of omega-3 fatty acids in a standard strip steak. It’s also easier on the planet to produce. I’ll miss my chevaline ami but confident that he’s bringing a bit of fun and enrichment to the tables of others.

“I live in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall.
I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes.
When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table.
I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.”

So starts a recent opinion piece by Graham Hill in the New York Times (to read the article, click here). His life journey circles from small by necessity to large by possibility, then back to minimal by choice. He sold an internet start-up in the late 1990s, which blessed him with that hallowed status to which we all aspire: independently wealthy (and then some, in his case). In unsurprising fashion, Hill immersed himself in a frenzy of unbridled consumption: big home, fast car, cool gadgets and expensive apparel. His appetite unabated, he hired a “personal shopper” to shovel more onto his heaping pile of possessions when too distracted with work to spend. Getting tougher to release those euphoric endorphins? Nothing that a bigger straw can’t solve!

Hill touches on themes in the NYT piece on which our Postcards have reflected before. That affluence enables the accumulation of stuff that can ends up consuming us, not the reverse. I use a sailing analogy in my Intérprize workshops, that everything in the immediate sphere of one’s life is either an anchor or a sail, there is little wiggle room in between. Anchors hold us back, sails propel us forward, and it’s healthy to take an honest inventory of both on a regular basis: home, car, job, hobbies, boss, spouse, lover, kids (wiggle room here), wine collection, gadgets, toys, etc., ….anchor or a sail?

anchors sailsThe dimensions of my habitats have spanned a wide range over the years. I once spent 3 frigid winter months in a 20 foot camper trailer in the hills of Pennsylvania, surviving on teenage love and part-time work at the local ARCO station. Twenty years and a few careers later, my wife and I would stroll the sidewalks of St. Francis Wood in San Francisco and imagine a grand life in one of those immense Mediterranean style mansions. Reality was a more moderate family home in the neighboring Lakeside district. In between were all sizes and flavors of apartments, houses, duplexes, triplexes, wigwams (kidding on that one) and the occasional few days out of my car when between accommodations. (The cramped back seat of a ’67 Firebird is no excuse for a bed.)

This I believe: the size of one’s home correlates poorly to sustained happiness, once Maslow’s basic needs are met and the teens get some privacy. My own contentment is driven more by where I live than under what scale. It’s not the size that matters; it’s how you enjoy it. The flat I share with my son in Aix is a modest two bedroom, one bath. It’s one-third the size of our San Francisco home, but what more is needed? The compromise of dimension to location allows us to live in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, just steps from fabulous outdoor markets, theatres, cafes and restaurants, from dozens of bubbling fountains and mysterious winding alleys laid out by the Romans centuries ago. Trade this for a McMansion in the tumbleweed suburbs?

This I will admit: I still secretly admire volume in some homes. My brother owns a french palace – his street address is actually Le Palais – in his village in central France. But he and his wife have reconditioned this home from the bottom up, busting down walls, pulling out windows, plastering and painting and getting enough splinters and pains through the process that Le Palais is now a true extension of themselves. And if I could afford a grand villa in St. Francis Wood I could possibly be swayed. I still meander through that neighborhood with my children when in San Francisco and we each select our personal favorites, our dream homes. Does this make me a hypocrite? Is my rant about the sins of size simply a self-rationalization of my disinterest in generating more income, hence buying a larger home? I don’t know. I hope not. Do you harbor the same ambivalence?

Back to Hill, there are some interesting statistics cited in his piece:

  • The average size of a new American home has ballooned to 2,480 square feet in 2011, a 2.5 fold increase over the average in 1950. And because these larger homes house fewer people on average – 2.6 heads per home in 2011 versus 3.4 in 1950 – Americans are now taking up 3 times the space per head than they did then.
  • We spend $22 billion on personal storage now. Even these massive homes aren’t sufficient for our love affair with buying.

If there is a silver lining in our fascination with size it’s that Americans are at least enjoying more leisure time in their swelling estates. According to a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, the average US worker is laboring 100 few hours, down to just 1,700 per year now, than in 1970. Of course the French, who’s productivity gains have outpaced the Americans during that time, have cut 500 hours from their work year, but preferring more time off (they get 6 weeks by law) to a fatter paycheck that buys more things to stuff in a bigger home. On to something or just lazy? (Despite their continued appetite for tobacco, they rank #14 in the world in life expectancy; the US comes in at #51.)

To finish off on a note of hope, perhaps the younger generations are not sold on that porn film maxim that size equals status. One of the hottest startups of the moment is Airbnb, a website connecting homeowners (with a room or sofa to let) with travelers (looking for a room or sofa to let). The company is carrying a valuation of $2.5 billion but the CEO is still living under the roofs of his clients. In his extreme opinion, homes have “become irrelevant.” How’s that for horse sense?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Song Suggestion: Teach Your Children, Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Drink Suggestion: Italian Soda with caramel syrup (my daughter’s favorite)

I am in San Francisco for two weeks, picking up my twins who will spend the summer in Aix-en-Provence. It is wonderful to be back in Bagdad by the Bay, as coined by the late, great SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. The impossibly steep hills and colorfully painted Victorian homes, the vintage street cars rumbling down Market Street and Rice-a-Roni cable cars (“a San Francisco treat!”) being pulled up Powell, all cloaked in the mystery of a cool Pacific fog. Sitting at the Lone Palm in the Mission last Saturday night, I crossed paths with a reformed venture capitalist now placing social investments in Ghana. His girlfriend showed us her magnificent new dragon tattoo that stretched from hip to knee cap with great pride. Another round please. San Francisco is like that.

My kids will have great memories of their San Francisco youth. They take the underground metro each morning to the Powell Street station, lug their backpacks past the Union Square shops and through the heart of Chinatown before arriving at their campus on Pine. Some days they jump on a cable car leaving the turnaround on Market, gliding up Nob Hill to the clang of the conductor’s bell. All just a bit more exciting than the rural school bus rides I endured as a boy in Pennsylvania.

Like all parents I often question if I am a good parent. What matters most? Who is the gold standard? How do I make an impression? What is the level of personal investment, support and sacrifice truly required? Do I have boundaries? Am I a bad parent for asking these questions?

Of this I am certain: there is no proven recipe for successful parenting; it cannot be reduced to 7 sacred steps (but wouldn’t that be wonderful?). Each child comes with a unique basket of gifts and challenges, as do we, the parents. Each challenge and every gift must be attended and nurtured in a manner that resonates most effectively, and finding that host of frequencies (which are unique to each kid and change with age) is an exercise in trial and error. Overcoming our own deficiencies is equally exciting.

Of this I suspect: to lead by example is the low hanging fruit. We are all born naked and wrap ourselves in the fashion of conduct and beliefs that mimics our most inspiring idols. These would be our parents, …until the teen-age years of course. And at this phase, when the great distinction between passive hearing and active listening is most truly crystalized, the examples we set become perhaps the sharpest tools in our parenting kit.

Of this I believe: we do a great disservice to our kids by emphasizing the limitless sacrifices we are prepared to make on their behalf. Their own futures are without bound, the possibilities without limit, gated only by individual levels of ambition. All parents must surely feel this way. I want each of my 3 kids to fully explore and realize their personal genius – to “put a dent in the universe,” to quote Steve Jobs – and will be frustrated in the extreme to see their dreams surrendered to self-imposed constraints, for there will be plenty enough outside the voluntary sphere.

Women face the most challenge, equally from external gender bias and their own skew to self-sacrifice. For those of you with a determined young daughter, would you be happy to hear that all has been shelved to support her husband’s journey or raise kids? Being a spouse and mom is rewarding and demands compromise. But, to what level, this is the issue. This will be her personal decision; one influenced heavily by the examples you as mom are setting now. So, is this a good lesson: my talented mother sacrificed all for me so that I could flourish in the world; I sacrificed that for you, my child, so you could flourish in the world; you should be prepared to sacrifice that for your children so they can flourish in the world, ad infinitum? Who the hell gets to actually flourish in the world under this model? Is this a better lesson: my mother was a remarkable success (or at least gave it a damn good try) who inspired me every day to reach for the stars without limit; I am working hard to be a remarkable success and role model who inspires you to reach for the stars without limit (and yes some nights we eat Rice-a-Roni because I just don’t have time to do better, deal with it), and you can hand this lesson down to your own children, ad infinitum. By the way, did I tell you today that I love you?

For parents (moms or dads) whose principal sense of worth and pleasure is based on their children’s fulfillment, god bless. You are a good worker bee, teaching your kids who can teach their kids to also become good worker bees, focused on the spawn and filling a virtuous role. But amongst you and your daughters there may well be a Marie Curie or Joni Mitchell, Amelia Earhart or Julia Child toiling indistinguishable from the rest in the hive. And at this challenged moment in time – environmentally, artistically, economically, politically – do we need more convention or inspired disruption? Is it better to be less the dutiful parent or spouse, more the accomplished individual? Would we prefer that Marie or Joni, both moms of questionable parenting repute, had just stayed the hell home?

There is a wide blur between selfish and selfless, particularly in the parenting domain, and both are unhealthy at the extremes. I struggle to find the optimum balance point, and for many other parents committed to self-discovery and fulfillment this is an ongoing struggle. Of this I know: I am a more complete man for having had children, and for this I am grateful, as self-discovery has become a central preoccupation to my middle age. But I think it is too easy to temper our ambitions, to bound what is possible with kids as the pretext. Frankly, we get tired (dare I say lazy?) and they become an easy out. Our society is biased towards family obligation over individual rebellion, which makes it all the more easy. All for the hive! Shall we leave that to the bees?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Song suggestion: Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
Drink suggestion: Creative Cocktails, from Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen

Creativity is the residue of time wasted. – Albert Einstein

He was sick of writing music, sick of playing music, sick of the whole music scene with the worshiping fans and hangers-on, sick of being the wise oracle and rambling troubadour of a generation, sick of everything and everyone associated with Bob Dylan, most of all sick of himself. After a grueling tour that ended in total burnout, he walked away from it all to become an author. He would be the secluded Emerson and Woodstock would be his Walden; a hermitage away from the chaotic and demanding world.

The irony behind Dylan’s nomadic escape in 1965 to his idyllic hide-away has been well documented: in this period of extreme fatigue and retreat from his craft the star composes his all-time biggest hit almost against his will. Dylan claimed to have vomited it out, that in his solitude at Woodstock he simply picked up the pen and wrote page after page for hours straight. It was if a ghost was guiding his hand. He didn’t care what it said and he didn’t care what it meant, he just wrote. Like a Rolling Stone was recorded a few weeks later and quickly broke the charts worldwide.

How does this happen? Why does this artist’s greatest inspiration erupt at the moment he’s trying hardest to avoid it? There are many similar cases explained in a new book titled “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. According to Lehrer, there is indeed a biochemical explanation for Dylan’s creative outburst. I will spare us both the deep dive, but it involves alpha waves swarming the right hemisphere of the brain. When these waves flow more actively we tend to be more creative.  This has been observed and documented exhaustively through brain scans and creativity tests of all sorts, and the book lays them out in detail. It is a great read for those of you wanting a more thorough explanation.

So how do we stimulate our alpha waves? Surprisingly enough, it comes most organically by not trying hard, by removing ourselves from the stresses and excesses of deadlines and obligations. And this helps explain Dylan’s flash of inspiration. Out of the public lens and away from the demands of his agent and record company, he felt free for the first time in years to do absolutely nothing. In his calm the lyrics just burst out. This is not to diminish the role of deadlines, just don’t expect a flash of genius when laboring under them. When we are relaxed and our minds are free to wander we tend to have our most profound breakthroughs. Is this not true? Do your eureka moments come at the sterile office desk or under a warm shower head?

Lehrer goes on to explain that as a rule people are twice as creative in blue rooms versus red. Why the color effect? The going theory is that we associate red with danger, which makes us more alert and adept at attention to detail and accuracy, which is useful for solving math problems and finding spelling mistakes. On the other hand, blue recalls the expansive sky and ocean and opens up our imagination. Our minds unwind and we daydream more effortlessly. An increase in alpha wave activity can be observed when we think about calming scenes like passing clouds or a sandy beach, and as mentioned above, alpha waves are manna for our imagination.

Tech giants rely on a constant churn of creative new ideas to remain competitive (scratch that, to remain in business), and the most progressive amongst them architect “fun” campuses surrounded by trees, ponds, gardens; areas to wander and escape if only for an hour.  Ping pong tables and open air cafes abound. Just take a tour of Silicon Valley. When Salesforce.com decided to build a new campus in San Francisco, the CEO announced that it would feature “fountains and pools, and large outdoor art pieces, (which are) intended to give physical evidence of Salesforce.com’s philosophy of innovation.” Notice that he didn’t mention infinite rows of cubicles and free green eyeshades. Google employees have a 20% rule – 20% of one’s work week should be directed towards personal projects – and it’s hard to argue against Google’s creative output.

But greater invention through encouraged diversion was not a Google innovation. 3M has been pushing employees to not only think outside the box but get outside their heads since William McKnight took the helm back in the Depression Era. A company that generates a third of its revenues each year from new products needs A LOT of creative ideas. It was the first to mandate a daily “bootleg hour” for free thinking, and 3Mers are encouraged to remove themselves from their work, take walks on the Minneapolis campus, sit by a sunny window, daydream, play pinball, find escape. A list of their gifts to the world is astounding –scotch tape and post-it notes barely scratch the surface – and a fascinating read on the company and how it fosters creativity can be found here.

Why care about maximizing our creativity? For those of us passing through a re-invention phase at mid-life, creative thinking is required. That was then, what is next? Often, “next” is simply an extension of “then” with a new paint job and speed limiter on the throttle. Not a problem. But if Dylan’s loathing for the acoustic troubadour finds some resonance with your own situation, if you seek a more fundamental redesign and new ambitious tangent, then creative thinking without limitation is Step 1. Lehrer’s book provides a variety of insights on how to spark our creative sides, built on his mountain of research and observations. When aligning these with my own interest in personal development, I boiled the list down to 5 key dynamics:

  1. Setting. To increase alpha wave flow and boost creativity one needs to relax and release the tensions; this is known. Corporations who profit from creative ideas know that inspiration strikes more commonly while employees are on a long walk, relaxing by a pond, or perhaps getting a massage. My home town of Aix-en-Provence is a perfect location for finding zen. When I’m stumped and the gears won’t engage, a stroll down the broad Cours Mirabeau, under the leafy elms and past the cafes, often helps get past the block. I find that an early morning jog, before the city awakes and while the neighborhoods are still quite, is also helpful. I hear little and feel only the rhythm of my breathing, the tempo of my pace. The mind is calm and I can think clearly.
  2. Color. Work in a room with cooler colors, or better yet under the grand expanse of the sky. Blue has a positive correlation with enhanced creativity and helpful for establishing the relaxed setting mentioned in the previous bullet. Again I am lucky. Provence has over 300 days of sunshine per year on average. Lots of blue sky. How about you? Need a change of venue?
  3. Attitude. Fear of failure binds the imagination and limits our creativity. Indifference to criticism permits us to push into new and unknown territory.  To get their creative juices flowing, actors at Second City – the famous American comedy troupe – engage in a pre-performance ritual that involves humiliation in front of the other troupe members (they make loud burp and farting sounds, admit to intimate and embarrassing recent situations) to remove any inhibitions before going on stage. They claim that it removes the limitations that could hamper their ability to improvise and create effectively.
    Lehrer discusses “outsider status” as a particular fear for many of us. But newcomers to a field often bring its most disruptive ideas, whether it is in art, science, food, or other. Why are young people the most prolific inventors and groundbreakers? Because they know the least and tend to be the most fearless. Getting older doesn’t preclude us from imagining quixotic adventures, for pursuing our true passions, but it takes a greater effort to get through our learned limitations.
  4. Escape: We can escape both into ourselves and out to the wider world. And both are effective at stoking the creative flame according to Lehrer. Daydreaming is particularly good at letting our minds drift without bound. Certain parts of the brain interact directly only during daydreams, and in parallel with an increase in alpha wave activity. Disciplined daydreaming (that term almost takes the fun out of it) requires setting aside time for zen-like moments each day. By the way, I was encouraged to read that having a drink at the end of the day is an excellent way to induce mind-wandering!
    Likewise, being thrown into new environments is a challenge that forces us to think resourcefully. People who live abroad are better at solving creative problems (based on 2009 study by INSEAD and Kellogg School of Management). The assumed reason is that living abroad forces one to be flexible and think with an open mind, which transfers to other tasks and challenges as well. Even if a move is not possible, a stay beyond the typical 1-2 week holiday span is suggested.
  5. Emotion: Get happy, because as with the color blue, happiness and creativity are closely linked (interestingly enough, depression is also shown to stimulate the imagination, but I will not condone being miserable). Getting happy is easy to suggest of course, not always easy to realize. The other 4 recommendations on the list help establish positive emotion: finding a relaxing setting with calm colors, agreeing not to be bowed by others’ judgments (or our own), giving ourselves permission to “waste” time with daydreams, and challenging ourselves to thrive in new environments. I find that living in Aix-en-Provence doesn’t hurt.

I am always interested in readers’ comments about the themes explored in these postcards. If you have developed ways of getting the creative juices flowing I would love to hear about them.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Song suggestion: Under My Wheels, Alice Cooper
Drink suggestion: Domain de Saint Hilaire rosé, Coteaux d’Aix

It has been a year now since I published my first postcard.  A year of exploring, testing, learning, of savoring a few small victories and suffering a few (and then some) humbling failures. Did someone say, “if we aren’t failing we aren’t learning,” or did I just imagine that? Either way, I am getting an Ivy League education here in the south of France.

My infatuation with Aix-en-Provence has matured into a deep appreciation over this past year. I continue to marvel at the splendors of this Roman city, with its 101 fountains, its bountiful outdoor markets, its elegant 18th century architecture cast in the soft pastels of the Provence sun, and its easy Mediterranean character. A warm breeze at twilight, café chatter and a chilled glass of rosé with friends, and in a moment of wonder you try to recall the shooting star, rabbit’s foot, 4-leaf clover, or incredibly selfless deed that brought you all of this good fortune. It is like that.

My life is simpler here. This I value and this I have learned: simple is better. It is hard to find simplicity in a life bounded by possessions and fueled with a heavy dose of consumption. We are remembered for what we create, not what we consume; what we share, not what we possess. The centrifuge of stuff spinning around our daily lives is exhausting to maintain and distracting to manage. Do you ever feel like a whirling hammer thrower in the Olympics? Well let that hammer go. It is one hell of a release.

If you share my suspicions of consumerism as a hobby consider pairing back to the essentials. Feed the desires that bring you sustainable joy and personal definition, or perhaps defined you many years ago, and let the rest go. Our apartment in Aix is not monastic but certainly basic. The few furnishings we have are nice, but there aren’t many. I’ve invested happily in those essentials that feed the soul: for me, things like great pots and pans, an antique desk at which to write, a good stereo system, a new guitar and a decent piano. My 16 year old son has a great guitar as well, a gift from his generous uncle, and the usual teenage kit: cell phone, iPod, laptop, PS3 system for gaming. I got my soul, he’s got his soul. We’re all good.

One decision that I don’t regret was to become carless. I’ve had my own wheels since the dented and scraped Opel station-wagon I bought for $50 in 1975, and quite often I have had 2 money sinks sitting in the driveway. An encyclopedia of American muscle cars has pole position on my living room table and I still love checking out beautiful automobiles, almost as much as watching the les belles femmes d’Aix glide along Cours Mirabeau in their light summer dresses (but I digress). Yes, I am a serious car guy, but I don’t miss owning one.

There is a good public transport system in much of France (your eyes are rolling), and the network of busses and trains around Aix is truly impressive. Why drive to Marseille, for example, when a bus leaves every 10 minutes, makes 2 quick stops en route, then takes the same auto route that you would be following in your car? There are no worries about finding parking, getting lost, having an accident, or pairing that lunch with a nice glass of wine.

When public transportation doesn’t work I take a taxi. If I really need a car for a day or a week then there is an Avis center 3 blocks from home. When I get out of the cab or turn in the car, I am done. Imagine not having to deal with registration fees, emissions tests, insurance premiums, gas prices, accidents, recalls, repairs, monthly payments, oil changes, dot dot dot. Is there any single possession – other than a home, perhaps – that consumes more of our energy?

There are 2 tradeoffs to a life without wheels: it’s an urban life and it’s a life amongst the masses (as in mass transportation). If you are a city person like me then #1 won’t be a problem. #2 is a thornier challenge. We are conditioned to avoid exposure to people beyond our safe bubble of friends and family and the automobile is the perfect cocoon; our own little isolation tank on wheels. We get all the creature comforts of home – leather seats, 6 speaker stereo with an iPod port, telephone and even internet hookups – and with the finely filtered climate control systems that keep us at a perfect 72° F (22° C [295° K  {inside joke, see my last blog}]), we don’t even share air with the grubby multitudes around us. Love it!

Actually, I don’t love it. I am bored by it. Try the bus or the train. People are fascinating, people of all color, age and stripe, not just the antiseptic middle and upper classes with whom you and I mostly associate. I am no Mother Theresa. I’ve had to change seats more than once when a soap-challenged bus passenger plants nearby. But we humans are endlessly curious creatures, intriguing to watch and titillating to eavesdrop on.  Why isolate oneself from all of this fascinating diversity? To listen to the mono-dimensions of Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern? Personally, I love NPR’s Terry Gross, and with my archaic gen 1 iPod in hand (worth about what I paid for that Opel wagon in 1975) there is no need for a $30,000 car radio to get my Fresh Air fix.

The blind ache to see a human face, the deaf ache to hear a human voice, and the dying don’t want to die alone. When faced with the loss of human connection, we value nothing more. Why then do we try so hard and spend so much to avoid it?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Song Suggestion: Disco Inferno, Trammps
Drink Suggestion: Greek Revolution (ouzo, grenadine, galliano)

It’s been a cold February in Provence, damn cold. The famous fountains of Aix are dripping in icicles, school bus routes have been suspended, and if the mercury cracks above 273° kelvin it is for just a few blessed hours. What the hell is all this nonsense about a warming globe?

With the weather as inspiration I prepared a tartiflette for friends on Saturday evening. This casserole comes from the French Alps region and is in a word, hearty. Potatoes, onion, bacon and cheese are the foundation of a great winter meal no matter how they are combined or prepared. In a tartiflette recipe they are pure magic. Looking to stick some skin on your bones, you won’t go wrong with a tartiflette.

The marché crowd in Aix on Saturday morning was thin, no doubt intimidated by the weather. The merchants were using long plastic sheets to protect their fruits and vegetables from the chill. Many were in fingerless gloves and rocking on their heels to keep the blood flowing, but in good humor.  “C’est l’hiver, c’est normal!” (Google translator) was the prevailing attitude. I have a favorite fish guy at the market and for the first time this winter he admitted to cold fingers. Gutting, scaling, and rinsing slippery poisson in sub-freezing weather cannot be fun. He was smiling, but it looked like an effort.

It’s been a relief to feel the chill. I was starting to worry that Al Gore was on to something, with his fear-mongering about CO2 levels on the rise and melting ice shelves. But he’s gone underground now, Al and his gaggle of grant-seeking science conspirators. There’s been little noise about climate concerns over the past many months, not in the press (makes for boring copy), not from my brethren in the investment community (makes for poor returns), and not from the megaphone of presidential candidates, be they here in France or there in the US.

White House hopefuls are framing the national issues of relevance at the moment, with their state-to-state Republican pub crawl in full bloom. In the sacred well of righteous intentions – compassion, equality, and the right to self-determination – they have taken a death-defying, gloves-off, teeth-bared slither to the bottom. Truly stirring. I give the democrats fewer points for expressing callousness in prime time, but am impressed with their ability to avoid the gaze of Helios, Greek god of the sun (well technically he was a Titan, but let’s not split hairs here) and solder forward with more pressing concerns than saving the planet for all mankind. Oh, I almost forgot, that stuff about polar bear extinctions and Manhattan under water was all made up.

So what is going on here? Why all the fuss about climate change just a few short years ago (An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006), and now a sudden black hole in the national dialog? Perhaps we can blame it on the gods (yes, Santorum cowers to an inquisition-inspired deity, but I figure it’s safer to cover one’s bets through the Greek committee system; taking it way back here folks). On modern day Mount Olympus (not up on your Greek mythology? click here) Ares (Mars to the Romans) has controlled the floor since 9/11, sharing more recently with Hermes (god of commerce; love those fantastic winged sandals) and his take on the floundering economy. But Helios (great crown, no wings) and Artemis (goddess of nature with some wicked arrows; no crowns, no wings) have been shut out of the conversation, and why shouldn’t they be, when more urgent fears demand our gods’ attentions.

How urgent you ask? Well, over $3.5 trillion dollars urgent (a Brown University report actually puts the estimate at $3.7 trillion), invested wisely in Iraq and Afghanistan. And look at the hearts and minds we’ve gained in return. This is probably a tough pill for Hermes in particular to swallow. After all, a few trillion could have put a dent in the current housing crisis, which is definitely his domain. According to a recent Bloomberg article 35% of all US homes sold in January were under distressed conditions (at a price below the mortgage balance or in complete foreclosure). Consider that for a moment; over 1/3 of all homes sold. Do you think that a $30,000 check tax free to every American household (115 million at last count) may have saved a few struggling families from distress?  I imagine so, but priorities, priorities.

$3.5 trillion might have also done some good for the planet. But, why solve the riddle to a  cheaper solar panel, develop a killer battery for electric vehicles, or modernize America’s antiquated electric grid (a Sinatra era relic) when 225,000 deaths and 7.8 million refugees are attainable  (Brown University’s estimates of the human impact of the 2 wars). Helios and Atermis would surely pitch the benefits of competing with the Chinese in clean energy markets like solar (that will generate tens of millions of jobs for their citizens over next few decades) while helping the planet, but again, they don’t have the floor right now. The Chinese have missed the boat on this one big time, investing billions upon billions in new university programs (committing at least 1.5% of its GDP by this Yale University estimate) and core R&D to develop long-term domestic growth built on emerging industries, rather than shock-and-awe nation building in desert lands 7 thousand miles away. What in god’s name are they thinking?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

For more on Al Gore’s recent activities visit:

http://www.climatecrisis.net/
http://www.algore.com/ 

Song Suggestion: Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen (I prefer this Jeff Buckley version)
Drink Suggestion: warm Christmas mulled wine

Hallelujah, my computer has died. I got the dreaded blue screen of death yesterday and after spending too many precious holiday hours since then seeking out a simple fix, have surrendered and called a tech.

Meanwhile, I am typing this postcard on my ancient Dell, weighing in at two tons and sporting a busted screen hinge, lazy processor, and without a wifi adapter. It hasn’t seen the light of day for at least 2 years and perhaps thrilled to feel the electrons surge through the gates once again, but showing its considerable age. I have now joined the ranks of the unconnected.

I am grateful that my laptop died frankly, grateful to lose the distraction while my kids are here for the holiday break. The pull of the internet is addictive, even (or especially) during our supposed down time. Patterns set in that any smoker would recognize, the just out of bed fix, then just after breakfast, right before preparing lunch, and on and on through the day. And each dose can linger indefinitely, depending on the fascinating news items to be found. What, Snooki lost 10 pounds on the cookie diet? The cigarette habit is hard to break because the association of a lit smoke with those recurring moments of our daily routines is a constant reminder of the craving. I find the call of the internet equally difficult to refuse.

The internet has changed Christmas forever, particularly the shopping part. Who wants to stand in line with the masses? It is infinitely easier to browse the web looking for just the right gift, and now even possible from the mobile phone. Add credit card number and shipping address, and in a relaxing hour or two on a slow night (and with a glass or 3 of warm mulled wine for inspiration), voila, Santa’s bag is full.

Yes, it is certainly easier to make our gift selections through Amazon, iTunes and other digital storefronts, but it also makes gift buying less genuine, more perfunctory. I wonder if our great grandparents made similar remarks in years past, when handmade gifts yielded to department store buying. Papa spends 2 months in the shed cutting, shaping, sanding, gluing, nailing, painting, and accessorizing junior’s hobby horse, only to see his kid pine for the more polished factory-assembled horse in Macy’s Christmas display window. Dammit!

New Years is just at the corner so it’s time to consider resolutions. Mine come in the perennial and annual varieties. A recurring pledge involves running (doing more of it) and drinking (doing less of it). Success varies. Last year I also resolved to start a blog where I could publish essays on the art of thriving post-50, personal happiness, and life in my much-loved Aix-en-Provence. This last entry for 2011 marks my 16th postcard for the year. I hope that you have enjoyed them, perhaps even found some nuggets of value in them.

For 2012 I am targeting music, of getting back to songwriting and recording. The postcards will continue but alternate with a new posted recording monthly; at least this is the resolution. I also want to be more diligent with my gratitude journal this year and ask my kids for the same. It is an effective daily ritual for celebrating our good fortunes, not commiserating our misfortunes. If you have rituals for addressing the promise of a new year I would love to hear about them. The possibility of transformation is a key element of happiness and I am interested in different approaches to personal reinvention. The good lord knows well the work remaining at my end. Perhaps I will be her personal project for the year!

Postscript:

Some of you may know that music has played a major role throughout my life, involving bands and songwriting, and culminating in a CD in the mid-90s called Eskimo in the Sun. As mentioned in the blog, I am working on a new collection of demos – working title: Balm of Gilead – that will be rolled out through 2012 (better late than never, right?). These are being recorded at Mirabeau Studios, also known as my living room in Aix, and can be accessed at cool site called SoundCloud. What they may lack in professional studio sound quality will hopefully be compensated for in grit, heart and soul. Should you like what you hear, please feel free to share them with friends. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, …. well you know the phrase.

A first song has been uploaded. It is called How Hard and is meant to be played in sequence as a pair of 2 very different arrangements, the second called B Side.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Music suggestion: Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue), Neil Young
Drink suggestion: Beaujolais Nouveau

Get your glass, play the song, now read.

The Beaujolais Nouveau is in and being enjoyed across France. This seriously unserious red wine is bottled just 2 months after harvest, often with whimsical labels, and is fun, light and fruity. It’s not meant to be stored away in the cave or over discussed; should always be cheap. Serve Beaujolais Nouveau slightly chilled with a selection of cheeses, like the gloriously ripe Camembert that is currently making my kitchen in Aix smell like a wet hay bale.

Onto a slightly less cheerful topic, I am making 2 reflections on death in this postcard, and the first involves rock & roll. Stick the nails in the coffin, because we are done here. Some great music is still being made, but the fact is it doesn’t matter. The young, and it is through them solely that the brand is defined, no longer live through their favorite bands. This I know to be true, as I have 3 specimens of the teen variety.

They cannot be blamed. Key elements necessary for rock’s great seduction have disappeared: the learned radio DJs, guiding us like enthusiastic museum curators; the brilliant and committed artists, evolving with each new album; the album itself, providing the artist space to expand on a theme beyond the 3 minute single; and rock & roll magazines covering just that: rock & roll.

Who is to blame? There are plenty of culprits, but in the end the art form simply played itself out, losing its sense of freshness and rebellion, and unable to withstand the internet assault. Great rock could both impress with its creativity and worry our parents sick (think Exile on Main Street or Never Mind the Bollocks). Which album of the past 10 years has done either? I love Green Day and consider American Idiot a solid record, but having grown up with the blurred androgyny of David Bowie and the self-destructive mayhem of Iggy Pop there is little in Billy Joe’s antics, eye liner, or music that frighten me as a parent. I complain more about my kids’ time with the PS3 than their music selections, …and this is their great loss. As a pent-up and desperate 15 year-old, the fact that my folks just didn’t get it – even better HATED IT – was manna for my unruly soul.

The interest is still there, but the distractions offered to today’s youth simply cannot be countered by the current crop of predictably derivative artists. There is enough dazzle to get kids’ attention, but insufficient gravity to hold them in orbit. My 12-year olds (ah, what a great age) have just entered that rock star fascination stage; un-jaded and ripe for the musical taking. Their bedroom walls are covered with cut-out photos, their favorite songs on endless loop in the earbuds. But the infatuation will dilute by 14, pulled by the allure of Facebook banter and Call of Duty bombast.

Conversely, our bored-out-of-our-skulls teen years were spent debating the meaning of Pet Sounds or Dark Side of the Moon, of Elvis versus Jerry Lee, the Beatles versus the Stones versus the Doors, of Clapton versus Hendrix, of New York versus London punk, of how Woodie Guthrie begat Dylan begat Springsteen.

Born to Run was released in August, 1975, 2 months after my high-school graduation. In 8 brilliant songs it captured the pure essence of my teen confusion, righteous convictions and roaming imagination. And with subsequent albums we grew together, Bruce the developing artist and me the maturing adult.

Who has the genius to keep kids close for more than a moment today? Female entertainers (I wouldn’t consider them all musicians) are getting the most attention. Lady Gaga makes a lot of noise. I admire the energy, but she is a hyper-brand, not an artist (essentially Madonna 2.0, and Madonna wasn’t an artist). Amy Winehouse was the real deal – an incredible talent replete in her Ronnettes beehive and suicide girls tattoos (mom definitely wouldn’t want you bringing Amy home) – but needed mentoring from the likes of a Keith Richards on how survive the excess. The terminally cute Taylor Swift? My daughter adores her now, but unless Swift graduates from the adolescent Romeo and Juliette phase, in the way the Beatles moved from I Want to Hold Your Hand to Help!, she’s going to lose Stella in the next 12 months. Adele is the last great hope, but one bright star does not a galaxy make any more than a sole painter in Giverny prolongs the Impressionists era. At some point the masses move on.

Why do I bring this up? Because, the thought of someone else selecting the soundtrack of my life, the set list for my wake, is as troubling as a stranger writing my epitaph. This gets to my second point about death. An ongoing theme in my essays (see The Upside of Hard Times) is the right to draft one’s own life story, to decide on what bearing is true north and not deviate for others’ expectations. Our stories may be shorter than anticipated, will certainly be for some, for we all are dying, we of the mid-life crowd. All the more important, then, to realize the highlights or our lives, particularly our second lives, post-50, now. Don’t fear the reaper, just get on with it.

Day by day, year by year, we wane bit by bit. We are not supernovas, peaking to a spectacular, blinding flash. Our own sun is a better analogy, losing its mighty glow slowly but measurably, in gradual decay. We are like spinning tops, in full motion and balanced elegantly, and then the little wobbles begin.

My children grow taller, smarter, more agile and capable. They crawl, walk, run, effortlessly master challenges that require coordination and new skills. Each day they are more adept and able than the day before, …living. Our skin sags, hair falls, knees ache, shoulders slump, and certain delicate parts begin to operate erratically. Entropy takes root, rust sets in and the top starts to wobble, …dying.

The average life expectancy for the western world is 80, give or take a 12 months or so depending on one’s gender and geography. The last 5 may not be pretty, which whittles us down to 75 years of true flourish. We would all like to think differently. I’ll be in full bloom well into my 90s. Don’t count on it.

Okay enough, so where am I going with this glum theme? One, this is the time to pursue your personal passions, to put a spectacular stamp on your life story (and that is the point, right?). It will be harder tomorrow and even harder the day after that, and at some point it won’t be possible. Someone who loved you will read your eulogy and they’ll want it to be great. Make their job easy.

Two, don’t let someone else decide how to color your life musically, especially if music has played an elemental role in your life. Select those songs that you love, have always loved, and want playing in the background when the toasts are raised and stories shared.

To that end, here are my top 10:

1. Love Reign O’er Me – The Who
2. White Sandy Beach Of Hawai’i – IZ
3. Racing in the Street – Bruce Springsteen
4. One – U2
5. Tonight – Bernstein, West Side Story
6. Don’t Worry Baby – Beach Boys
7. Help! – Beatles
8. Downtown Train – Tom Waits
9. San Francisco – Scott McKensie
10. Can’t Help Falling in Love – Elvis

My post-party top 10 list is decidedly rowdier, and I am happy to share them as well if interested. I would truly love to see others’ selections. It is excruciatingly painful to cull my favorites to 10 and allow that some choices will swap in and out with time.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence