Music suggestion: (Out on the road to) Shambala, Three Dog Night
Drink suggestion: Sam Adams Utopias beer

Wealth is what we reserve for ourselves, worth is what we offer to the world.

What are you worth? This question typically evokes a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation involving the sum of our home equity, bank accounts, retirement funds, stock portfolio, a few expensive items that might attract buyers in a pinch, minus our financial obligations. But this is wealth, not worth, which in all other cases is a reflection of value to others.

Why is Apple Inc. worth over $360 billion? Because its unique products (and the hip lifestyle they imply) are desired by millions (billions?) of consumers worldwide. The price of an iPad reflects little on its costs of components and assembly, lots on what the market will bear. Similarly, the price of a renovated apartment in Paris’s 16th arrondissement or a reconditioned 1963 Corvette says little about the materials and hours involved in their construction and restorations, and everything about their perceived value to interested buyers (many) and availability (few).

The San Francisco Chronicle heralded (remember that word) the Bay Area’s 25 richest individuals recently, and the list was heavily populated by founders of technology companies: Larry Ellison, Gordon Moore, and Steve Jobs to highlight a few household names. Most on the list could be labeled fairly as both worthy and wealthy, if just for the numbers their companies’ employ and positive impact to economic growth through the years enabled by their ingenuity and hard work.

But, one doesn’t have to be wealthy to demonstrate incredible worth. First responders on 9/11 come to mind. So does Margaret Finley. She fostered our 3 children and thousands of others as the principal of our neighborhood primary/middle school in San Francisco.

When I first met Margaret on a gottafindmykidsagreatschoolinSF_shitisitpossible expedition in 2005 she of course extoled the virtues of her West Portal Lutheran School – imagine wholesome and freckled, God-fearing University of Wisconsin graduates [just off the boat and wondering what the heck brought them to this Gomorrah-by-they-Bay] teaching over-coddled, wound-up Chinese kids [2nd generation and wondering why the hell mom keeps packing their lunch bags with sautéed bok choy in egg noodles and not PBJ sandwiches]) in San Francisco’s outer fog belt – Margaret spent 30 minutes with me describing other private schools in the area that she admired and went so far as to provide their brochures and school rankings (something she admitted her employer frowned upon) so that I could find truly the best match for my 3. Wow, sold!

Margaret wasn’t just any school administrator. She had an incredible talent for connection – with students and parents alike – and a kind-but-competent leadership style that would have inspired the best business barons of Silicon Valley (including the vaunted names above). Each morning that my kids left for the school campus I felt an invaluable relief that at least this part of my parenting job – getting them a great education – was covered for now. Any parent understands what this is worth. Somewhere in that ethereal space in space where star dust swirls and babies are imagined, Margaret’s god was holding her destiny wand and watching the assembly belt of passing souls-to-be: hmm not sure, nope not clear on that one either, darn it no freaking clue,  …oh my, now for this one I have some very special plans.

Of course for every Margaret Finley there is a Snooky, Kardashian (pick any K) or Hilton: individuals with immense wealth and no discernible worth.  Spend 5 minutes on TMZ to get many more fine examples of this privileged breed. At least Barney Gumble, daily denizen of Moe’s and Homer Simpson’s burping bar buddy, is not confused about his true value to the world.

This topic brings out the old crank in me, I admit it, probably more so since moving to France, where the discussion of one’s wealth or income is considered vulgar to the extreme. Dinner conversations don’t revolve around investments or the price of that BMW in the driveway, but rather the butcher shop that sold you this wonderful lamb, ….and how was it prepared, …and oh that is fascinating, let me tell you MY recipe. You won’t be reading an article in Le Monde heralding (there’s that word again) the 25 richest people in Paris, unless guillotines are being sharpened. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a list of the 25 worthiest people in the Bay Area? What are the chances?

I’ve distanced myself from the school of happiness-through-wealth since turning 50 and because of this I am more comfortable discussing recipes and butcher shops, not home values or anything preceded by a dollar sign. Perhaps I feel inadequate in this topical area now, I am not sure honestly, but there is less pressure to impress with intangibles such as wealth and more interest in exploring authentic worth. I think this is healthy; I know it is more interesting.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s just rewards, but we have become a nation so obsessed with money – amassing it, displaying it, and defining ourselves through it – that the definitions of worth and wealth have become intractably entangled. If there is reason for hope it is with our young, many of whom are showing a greater interest in altruism and less obsession with affluence than did my generation. (I just read a fascinating article to this effect but cannot find the source. If you happen to come across similar articles, please share.) We are a leaving them a world of rising temperatures and falling employment. Perhaps they realize that the toll road to Shambala is paid not with flaunted wealth but with valued worth. What do you think?

A quick word on a different topic. Maurice Sendak – Where the Wild Things Are – was interview this week by Terry Gross on her NPR program, Fresh Air. Sendak is in his 80s now and not in great health, and he provided a fascinating conversation about his work, the value of relationships, and his thoughts on life. To Terry’s question on what really matters, he responded simply, “be in love with the world.” This reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation that miracles are not found in magic men walking on water, but in ourselves walking on earth.

Bill Magill

Music suggestion: Lotus, R.E.M.
Drink suggestion: Lemon balm tea (considered good for stress relief)

I’m a napper. I need them and I don’t mean hyperbrief power naps. I love lazy uninterrupted afternoon snoozes, best served immediately post lunch. If an hour is too long, 15 minutes is too short. Your dark bedroom is too insular, the public park too exposed. No place is better than the living room sofa, so soft and familiar, yet lumpy enough to discourage a slumber overdose.  After 30 years of professional life and creative napping “sur place” I have become adept at the Herman Miller Aeron siesta as well, tucked into some discrete corner of my office that offers the fewest views from curious passers-by.  My various great assistants over the years, and I have been blessed with the absolute best, knew not to knock between 1:00 and 2:00. Bill is busy.

Today was a perfect nap day. My liver cried uncle after a weekend of wine infusion and a restorative late Sunday afternoon kip was self-prescribed. Friday night started mid-day with a guided afternoon tour of two premier Provence wineries. Along for the outing was my sister Cathy, our expert guide, and a couple from New York who on this warm day shared our preference for dark, cool wine cellars to the white hot Provence sun. The pours were generous and at some point I felt inspired to prepare dinner for our new friends, just married and honeymooning in Europe. I recall plenty of newlywed toasts, a long meal, great conversation and lots of wine. Today there was a Sunday foire aux vins with dozens of the Provence’s best vignobles pouring their top vintages along Aix’s central promenade, Cours Mirabeau. Three euros bought a commemorative glass and all the grape one can endure on a shimmering summer afternoon, strolling under the esplanade’s leafy sycamore trees, fanned by an easy Mediterranean breeze. I found the shade-tree-and-breeze setting particularly inspiring for an afternoon indulgence, and consequent nap. Now I write.

Thich Nhat Hanh argues that naps aren’t particularly restive; one’s mind isn’t calm and the body is twisting and turning. What does he know? Okay, so he may be considered one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of our time, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, heralded champion of rights for post-war Vietnamese peasants, best-selling author on engaged Buddhism and meditation (I could go on and on and on), but couch surfer? Unlikely.  Send him to the old Magill family farm for one of our traditional Thanksgiving-feast-then-college-football-afternoons and he’ll be claiming first dibs on one of the precious well-worn sofas for a late day nap; at least that’s my bet.

I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic The Miracle of Mindfulness for tips on meditation. I am by nature a low stress person, but even the most zen amongst us thump into the occasional pothole. My much beloved afternoon nap can help recharge the mental battery, but I will concede to Master Hanh on this point: the nap lift decays quickly in the face of a persistent source of tension. Sometimes what we really need is a lower idle rate.

There is no shortage of stresses nipping at the heels for many of us this summer.  Beyond the baseline concerns over parents and children and how the local ball team is playing, the job front is moving from weak to weaker, the outlooks for our retirement accounts are slipping from a concern to anxiety, and our leaders, both political and professional, have become pathetically ineffective and frighteningly disinterested in shielding us from “the worst that can happen.”

If you are unfamiliar with but curious about mediation, like me, here are a few simple steps from The Miracle of Mindfulness:

  • Sit upright, either in the lotus or half-lotus position (feet placed on opposing thighs), or Japanese position (knees bent and resting on their two legs). Use pillows as necessary to be comfortable and stable.
  • Keep your back straight and your head and neck aligned with your spinal column.
  • Focus your eyes one to two yards ahead of you and maintain a half smile, which will allow the facial muscles to relax.
  • Concentrate on your breathing. Take in a slow long breath, then let out all of the breath from your lungs deeply. Repeat and concentrate on the breaths, being quiet with and mindful of each one.
  • Place your left hand palm-side up in your right palm and let all of your muscles relax. “Be like the water-plants which flow with the current, while beneath the surface the riverbed remains motionless.” Another image he mentions as useful is a pebble tossed into a river, falling slowly to the bottom.
  • For beginners, you may want to limit yourself in this position to 20-30 minutes.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that within 15 minutes one should be able to attain a deep quiet if focused on watching one’s breath, keeping the posture, and letting everything else go. He adds that relaxation from meditation is simply the point of departure for a deeper tranquility and a clearer mind.

I realize that with age the practices that allow an effective charge and discharge, both physically and mentally, must evolve. Running has been my main workout for the past 30 years and an excellent way to clear the head. But these 53 year-old knees are now imploring me to adopt a lower impact workout like yoga, and my early experiments with meditation have been promising for the stress relief. If any of you have other suggestions to improve mental and physical health please share them. I remain open to all. Just don’t suggest I give up my nap.

On a completely different note, you may find this recent David Brooks column in the NY Times interesting. He writes about the lifestyle and priorities of septuagenarian Philip Leakey (yes, those Leakeys) and his wife Katy, driven by what Brooks calls a “compulsive curiosity.”

Bill Magill