The three questions

by Lorin Michel Thursday, January 10, 2013 10:42 PM

In 1903, the acclaimed author, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a short story titled The Three Questions. The story took the form of a parable and it told the tale of a king who wanted to find the answers to what he considered the three most important questions in life.  He knew that he could never fail if he could discover the answers.

What is the best time to do each thing?

Who are the most important people to work with?

What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Many tried to answer the king’s questions but they all came to different conclusions so the king decided to ask a wise hermit who lived in a nearby village. Because the hermit would only see commoners, the king had to disguise himself as a peasant. The hermit was digging flowerbeds when the king arrived and as the king asked his questions, the hermit continued to dig rather laboriously. The king offered to dig for him for a while, and after digging, asked his questions again. But before the hermit could answer, a man emerged from the woods, bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The king, in disguise, rushed to attend the man. The next day, the wounded man was doing better but he was angry at the king. It seemed that he knew who the king was, and that the king had executed his brother and seized his property. The man had come to kill the king but the king’s guards wounded in him the stomach before he could carry out his mission. Feeling well enough to travel, the man pledged his allegiance to the king and left. The king then turned to the hermit again and asked his questions one more time. The hermit paused, watching the king closely. The king was anxious; he had to know. Finally the hermit responded that the king had just had his questions answered.

The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.

The most important person is whoever you are with.

The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

This is a story I’ve always found intriguing, so when I found a children’s book called The Three Questions, written and illustrated by Jon Muth, I couldn’t believe it. While this story uses animals to tell a similar story, the realizations are the same. In the children’s story, a young boy named Nikolai seeks the counsel of a wise old turtle named Leo. He wants to know if Leo can provide the answers to his questions. When a panda bear injures her leg in the woods, Nikolai rescues the bear and when the bear regains consciousness, she is terrified. Her child, a panda cub, is lost in the forest in a raging storm. Nikolai flies out of the cottage where he was tending the panda, desperate to find the cub. Finally, as he goes deeper and deeper into the forest, as the rain lashes all around and the wind howls, he finds the baby, cold and shivering. Nikolai sweeps her up into his arms and runs back to the cottage where he makes her warm and dry and lays her in her mother’s arms. The next day, the sun shines down warm and Nikolai asks Leo again for the answers to his questions and Leo says:

“Yesterday, if you had not stayed to help me dig my garden, you wouldn’t have heard the panda’s cries for help in the storm. Therefore, the most important time was the time you spent digging the garden. The most important one at that moment was me, and the most important thing to do was to help me with my garden.

“Later, when you found the injured panda, the most important time was the time you spent mending her leg and saving her child. The most important ones were the panda and her baby. And the most important thing to do was to take care of them and make them safe.

“Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.”

I love this story; I love this book. I love that it celebrates the now. It’s uncomplicated and true. The answers to the three questions represent something we all should embrace. Live in the present, love the ones we’re with, be good to each other. Always and every day. There is nothing more powerful, no better way to live it out loud.  

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Amid the morning chaos

by Lorin Michel Monday, January 7, 2013 10:21 PM

The last two weeks have been quiet around here, especially in the morning. All of the neighborhood kids, and there are quite a few, have been off school so the mornings have been devoid of the sound of wheeled back packs bouncing along the sidewalk as they and their owners trudge toward Red Oak Elementary at the bottom of Pesaro followed by parents anxious to drop them off so they can get back to work. For the two weeks containing Christmas and New Year’s, parents have been off work as well. Even people with dogs seemed to be running on a much later schedule. Each morning, we would get up at our usual time, around 7:30 ish, put on a bunch of clothing, leash up the dog and off we’d trudge, up and around the block for about a mile. We rarely saw a soul, human or canine.

Out on Kanan Road, which during the school year is positively teaming with cars racing up and down, dropping kids off at one school before racing to drop more kids at another school before turning and racing back up the street to turn at the light at Lindero Canyon so they can go to work, the noise is deafening. Except for the last two weeks.

We had gotten used to it, the quiet. The three of us would walk and Cooper would sniff. Occasionally we’d see another dog and he’d huff and puff a bit, but it was really just us. There weren’t even any cars. It was nice; it was also a little weird probably because we knew it would come to an end and very soon. We thought it would come to an end this morning. It did.

7:30. Up, dressed, leashed, out the door by 8. We loped down the street, the three of us, toward Hawthorne. We expected to see all kinds of dogs with their people, all manner of bogies to dodge. We didn’t see any. We didn’t even see kids pulling backpacks. We asked if maybe we had it wrong; maybe the kids were still off. Maybe they didn’t start back until Wednesday for whatever reason. Just then, a little girl dressed in blue jeans and a pink hoodie, pulling a pink backpack behind her came ‘round the corner from Savona on her way to school. Soon, we heard more voices, small crescendos of excitement and resignation, on their way. Some alone, some with other kids, some with their parents, all depending on their age.

We got to the corner of Hawthorne. Usually there are cars streaming up and down this street as well, on their way to or from Red Oak. We always cross at an angle – we call it Beverly Hills because Beverly Hills runs its street crossings diagonally – and it always takes a while to get an opening. Not today. We crossed, and started north. Still no dogs, no people. We turned right at Bowfield and walked toward the cul de sac at the top where there’s an opening in the stone wall that takes us out to Kanan.

Everything was quiet, the morning was soft. The sun was shining and the temperature was nearly 60º. Cooper was motoring along. We were looking forward to the coffee that was brewing and waiting for us when we got home.

As we walked out through the stone wall, the quiet dissipated. Kanan was roaring with traffic. The regular morning chaos had returned with a vengeance to officially kick off the New Year, a little late perhaps but given the way the calendar has fallen, perfectly logical. We didn’t talk any more; it was too noisy with all of the cars racing north and south, desperate to get to their destination, wherever it might be.

But amid the noise and the bustle, there was still a strange aura about the day. Cooper was paying absolutely no attention to the noise. He was giving us a lesson in how to find peace amid the morning chaos. Evidently it involves sniffing, licking the bushes, lifting your leg quite often and occasionally huffing at a bird or a squirrel. He was focused on the job at hand, or paw. He was out for a walk. It was his special time, and when he got home there would be breakfast followed by a nap.

If only our lives could be like that. I suspect there would be no chaos and living it out loud would be quieter.

Celebrating Monday morning in the OP. 

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live out loud

If you build it

by Lorin Michel Sunday, January 6, 2013 8:23 PM

In his book Walden and Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “They can do without architecture who have no olives nor wines in the cellar.” It’s an odd quote, one that requires a twisting of the mind. When I encounter a quote like this, one that makes me wonder, I find myself saying it out loud, as if speaking it will somehow make it instantly understandable. Sometimes it works. My simplistic understanding of this quote is that if you don’t have stuff you don’t really need a place to keep it. If you are not encumbered by the accumulations of life, an elaborate dwelling, or any dwelling at all, is not necessary.

I have both olives in the pantry and wine in the cellar so I cannot really do without architecture. I also happen to be a very big fan of architecture, especially as it relates to homes. Most homes are gentle designs. By that I mean, mostly functional, not necessarily interesting though not at all boring. They are places to live, to decorate with family photographs, favorite posters and pieces of art, to arrange furniture, to paint and wallpaper, built for their inhabitants to cluster around the dinner table or the fireplace. They provide shelter; they are a place where we love our kids, our pets, our favorite television shows, each other. They are mostly non-descript. Pretty but ordinary. They are where we people with olives and wine live. They are homes.

We live in a small tract home in Southern California. It’s cute and meets all of the criteria just described. There are at least a dozen just like it – save for the exterior color and landscaping – all around us, dotted between other homes of which there are a dozen just like. We bought it back in 1997 because the school system here is great, one of the best in the state, and because it was what we could afford. The tract home is the affordable home. They are designed by someone but they are not unique, there is little attention paid to detail. They are cookie cutter designs; lots that are exactly the same. It’s inside where they come alive.

Real architecture is done by those hired to design and build custom homes and buildings. It’s a process that is nearly as old as man. The word itself is from the Latin architectura and the Greek arkhitekton meaning chief builder/carpenter/mason. It has come to describe the process of planning, designing and construction of a building. The best buildings are thought to be cultural symbols and even works of art. Architecture can be both a generic term, or something that infers a particular style or method of design. It encompasses everything from urban design and landscaping to construction details and even furniture. Since the internet became part of our daily lives, architecture is also now used to describe information technology.

Much like what we use our architecture for today, yesterday’s building evolved from need. Shelter, security, worship. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece architecture was used as a way to engage the supernatural. Witness the pyramids and the Parthenon. Building evolved from there, building its way toward structures like the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame in Paris, the castles of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the Paris Opera. Architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Ieoh Ming Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright ushered in the era of modern architecture with their buildings like the Villa Savoye in France, the Seagram Building in New York, the controversial glass and steel pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, and Falling Water in rural Pennsylvania.

One of the worst remake movies ever filmed featured the re-teaming of Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in The Lake House. Perhaps the only decent thing about it was that Reeves’ character was an architect and at one point in this rather dull and uninspiring romp, took Bullock’s character on a walking tour of some of his favorite buildings in Chicago. With his voice-over guiding her, she discovers the history and wonder of both monumental buildings and forgotten bungalows, of walls and bridges and water fountains. It shows the scope and the power that buildings and designs have to form our lives even as we form them.

I have long been fascinated with the art of designing and building buildings. It is so precise and yet so organic, so meticulous and still completely flowing and interpretive. I love to look at the angles, the height. When I find a building I truly love, I can sit in front of it for hours and stare. It talks to me somehow; it tells me stories, sings me lullabies, makes me want to know its history, its loves and its sorrow. My dream is to someday build a building – specifically a house – that tells me all of those things, tells me stories of my life to come, and especially tells me where I can put my olives and my wine. Hopefully it will be in a wine cellar built for us and only for us.

Some day.

Some day soon. 

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The zen of sit: Observations from outside

by Lorin Michel Saturday, January 5, 2013 8:31 PM

Guest post by Squire Squirrel

The Squire here and I’m a little dizzy. It seems that things are moving very fast around here lately and it’s enough to make a squirrel’s head spin. First there was all that celebrating that went on, with too many cars and an awful lot of people. I stayed hidden for days; it was just too scary to be out there where I could go splat and you all know how Mrs. Squirrel feels about splat. I don’t feel much better about it to tell you the truth.

There were lots of lights everywhere, too. Little lights and bigger lights and some lights that were in the shape of big animals. Those scared me at first because I didn’t quite know what to make of them. It was like there was suddenly a big twinkling deer in the neighbor’s yard only it didn’t smell like what I think a deer probably smells like. Also, it never moved.

Then there were these really big shapes that swayed in the night air. During the day they were just collapsed on the grass in a mostly white heap. It looked kind of like snow only it wasn’t. Of course, a couple of nights it was cold enough to snow. Me and Mrs. Squirrel had to huddle up real close in order to keep warm. I like huddling. Not sure the missus likes it quite as much but she was a good sport.

I sat on the grass one morning, in front of one of these collapsed things and tried to talk to it. It had been so big and sort of scary the night before, but then it looked like it got attacked or something. I wanted to know what had happened so I could be on the lookout for whatever or whoever it was. I figured if it could get to something that big, it could for sure get to something small like me. But I couldn’t get that blobby white thing to talk to me so after a few barks I gave up and started back toward the house.

That’s when the red blur came by. He spotted me and immediately he lunged and growled and barked at me, too. I went half way up the tree in the front yard since he kind of startled me and then I hung there, upside down, just looking at him. He pranced and danced and then he stopped and he stood frozen, his ears forward, his body tense. He has good form, this red knight-to-be, and he’s handsome, too. Not as handsome as the first knight, my best knight. No one will ever been that handsome, but this red furred one is a good-looking dude. He’s a little wild still. As if to prove that, Hey Kevin who was with the red furred one said “Cooper, zen.” I think he followed it up with a dammit and I chuckled. It’s hard to train a new knight. I know that better than just about any squirrel.

“Hey Kevin?” I asked, safely on the tree.

“Oh, Hey Squire,” he said followed by “Sit!”

I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean me.

“What’s up with the zen?” I asked.

“Well, he’s a nut and I thought that if we could get him to understand the idea of zen then our walks wouldn’t be quite so, well, crazy.”

I thought about that for a couple of seconds, then I turned my eye toward the one they call Cooper. He was eyeing me, too. But he was sitting. He was calm even though all of his fur seemed to be electrified. If I so much as moved a whisker, I knew he’d spring forward. So zen must mean sit. Good to know.

Cause I’ve got some work to do with this one.

Brach's lullaby

by Lorin Michel Thursday, January 3, 2013 9:09 PM

There is a scene in the 2008 film The Dark Knight where the Joker, played by the estimable Heath Ledger, masquerades as a nurse. In full regalia, he visits Harvey Dent who has been hospitalized because of a two-faced incident. The Joker huffs and puffs, dances about, pounds on a detonator and finally, after an unintended delay, the hospital explodes. It was an actual building, one that had been scheduled for demolition in the grand city of Chicago. When director Christopher Nolan heard about it, he asked city officials if they would let him do something with it first. Since the building was going down anyway, the city decided no harm-no foul. Nolan and his team dressed the cement structure as Gotham General Hospital. When it came down, at the Joker’s hand, it was actually because of the demolition experts in Chicago.

The building was a candy factory, designed by architect Alfred Alschuler and it resided at the intersection of Kilpatrick, Ferdinand and the Beltline railroad tracks. It was a monumental building, owned by a German immigrant who had a dream of creating his own candy dynasty. His name was Emil Brach and he started working in Chicago in 1881. By 1904, he opened his own Palace of Sweets at the corner of North Avenue and Towne Street. His most popular sweet was his caramels, which he sold at $.20 per pound. For years he delivered candy to local department stores, dispensing his goods via horse, mail order and even by train. He started making hard candies, ice cream, chocolates and nut products, and in 1923, he opened the factory that bore his name. Inside, they produced 250 candy variations, about 4 million pounds per week.

Emil Brach died in 1947. His sons continued to produce the now famous Brach’s candies until they, too, passed away, Edwin in 1965, and Frank just five years later. Frank’s wife Helen was left in charge but she disappeared in 1977 during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, a crime that wasn’t solved until 2005 when Joe Plemmons described to police his role in her disappearance. Helen had been beaten by her lover Richard Bailey (later convicted of horse racketeering) and Plemmons, Bailey’s accomplice, had fired two shots into her body before disposing of it in the blast furnace of an active steel mill off of Interstate 65.

Sordid stuff. Brach’s, then owned by American Home Products, fell away from the public’s eye. By 2003, the factory was shuttered and crumbling, the parking lot grew cracked and overgrown with weeds. Brach’s Palace of Sweets was no more. Eventually, the candies were resurrected to be produced in Mexico. Candies like the Milk Made Royals.

These caramels, wrapped in tiny pieces of faux foil, are little rectangles of chewy goo, wrapped around flavors of chocolate, raspberry, orange, vanilla, maple and butter rum. When we were kids, our great aunts lived in a big, four-story house above the river in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, then a steel-mill town. (My Aunt Beryl lives there still, all alone now in that house above the river. She’s 93.) When we would visit, there were always bowls full of these candies on the coffee tables and we would all devour them, much to our parents chagrin no doubt. I don’t remember that. I just remember the feel of sinking my front teeth into the caramel to bite it in half, then popping the whole thing in my mouth. Caramels, especially cheap ones, stick to your teeth and after chewing, you inevitably end up sticking a finger back to your molars to dislodge some of the residual sugar. But that’s half the fun.

I’d forgotten about these treats until my sister sent us several bags for Christmas. There they were, the same candies we’d consumed as children. Still sickeningly sweet, still stick-to-your-teeth wonderful. We still have a few left, mostly chocolate. My favorites have always been the maple and butter rum (I feel the same about butter rum lifesavers, which I never, ever eat), followed by the vanilla and the orange. For some reason, the chocolate ones just seem ordinary to me, now as then.

Khris was amazed when she found them. She was walking through a store – no idea which one – not even looking for them, and there they were. It was kismet, or serendipity, or fate or something. She was thrilled, and naturally bought out the store so that she could share with me and with our brother this wonderful, cavity-inducing memory from our childhood.

Who knew that memories could be so tasty?

I’m sad about the demise of Brach’s as a company but I’m glad that this little bite of our past is still here for us to enjoy. That’s worth celebrating today and all days, or at least until the bag is empty.

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Treme in the OP

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, January 1, 2013 7:34 PM

Last night was fairly uneventful here in Oak Park. We don’t go out on New Year’s Eve, haven’t in years. We used to get together with Roy and Bobbi, especially when Justin was little. Often we’d have lobster, but that got expensive and messy, and I hated having Roy and Bobbi out driving during what is traditionally a not-good-night to drive. People are a tiny bit more responsible, perhaps, than they used to be when it comes to drinking and driving, but why put yourself in that position if you don’t need to?

For several years now, probably since Justin went away to college and maybe even before that, we all prefer to hang in our respective houses; last night was no different. Kevin and I walked Cooper early. The evening was cool, pillow-top clouds dotted the darkening sky, lit from below by the setting sun. It was just about 5 pm and the temperature was dropping. Another cold night was ahead. I thought briefly about all of the people camped along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, saving their piece of sidewalk for a perfect view of the Rose Bowl Parade in the morning. It’s a tradition, to sleep on the cement and freeze, wake up at dawn to see your breath crystallize in the air, and then have to hunt for a bathroom and an egg mcmuffin. I’ve never been to the parade; have absolutely no desire. Kevin and I don’t even watch it on television. But people come from all over the country and it’s a very big deal. Clouds or not, it wasn’t going to rain. It never rains on the Rose Bowl Parade. It simply isn’t allowed.

Cooper was his usual semi-manic self as we cruised through the neighborhood. He is wonderful in the house, gentle and mellow, but the minute we pull out his leash he turns into Crazed Puppy. We’re thinking of having a cape made. He acts like he’s never been for a walk in his life and he’s very very very excited and did he tell you how much he likes to walk and oh-boy we might see other dogs and I can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can we go go go go NOW?!!!!!

We’re exhausted by the time we leave the house. And this is actually better than he used to be. When he first came to live with us, he was … what’s the word I’m looking for? I know it; it’s right on the tip of my tongue. Horrible. That’s it. He. Was. Horrible. He pulled, he lunged, he strained his collar or his harness so much he choked himself. I called a friend of ours, a dog trainer, who lives up in Washington State. Here was our conversation:

“Deb? He’s a nut.”

Deb: “We can fix this. You won’t believe how easy it is.”

“You’re right. I won’t. Because he’s a nut-bag. A total and complete bag of nuts and when he sees another dog, he’s like a freakin’ kite. We’re walking along and suddenly the dog is airborne.”

Deb: “He’ll be fine. Let me tell you what to do.”

I listened. I took notes. I asked questions. I relayed the information to Kevin. We tried it. He was still sort of a kite, but moderately better. We finally got a pinch collar, and he’s actually a lot better. Now he at least keeps his feet, all four of them, on the ground.

We do this walking thing twice a day, and each time the reaction is the same. OMG, a walk! A walk! A WALK!

Last night, as with so many nights, by the time we started back toward the house, he had calmed down. His gait was a bit slower; there was a little slack in the leash. As we ambled down the sidewalk, under the now darker and purple clouds, we could hear music. We paused, listening. It sounded like it was outside but we couldn’t see anything or anyone and it seemed to be too cold to be playing outside. Then we saw them, on the sidewalk, just rounding out of the cul de sac near the house. A guy sitting cross-legged with his guitar; a girl with her knees bent under her so she was just above him, playing the violin.

We stopped to listen. They didn’t see us. They didn’t seem to care that there were people out, walking, seeing them, hearing them play. They were in their own world, entertaining themselves, even as they actually entertained others. The music was good, not great, but the fact that these two kids, maybe in the early stages of high school were sitting outside in the cold, in the dusk, playing live music, was astonishing.

I don’t know what the song was. It didn’t matter. As we continued on, with Kevin holding Cooper’s leash, and me walking next to my two boys, Kevin chuckled quietly:

“What?” I asked.

“It’s a little like Treme right here in the OP,” he said.

The music filled the cold night air and the sun finally dipped down. The clouds disappeared into darkness and so did the music. We went into the house to celebrate New Year’s Eve. But outside, in the OP, some live music was playing. What a spectacular way to say hello and welcome to 2013. 

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In the love

by Lorin Michel Monday, December 31, 2012 8:30 PM

I’m not going to get all gooey and slobbery here, but somehow the topic of what love is came up today and it got me to thinking. Maybe it’s because it’s New Year’s Eve; maybe it’s because I’m feeling emotional, as I often do when the old year rolls so easily into the new. I’m always amazed that there isn’t more angst, more raging about how not enough has been accomplished and how it can’t be time to start another year. Not yet, not now. It’s not ready!

Oh, wait. Maybe that’s me who’s not quite ready to roll so easily into the new, especially because I have so many things unfinished from this current year. I could dig in my heels but I doubt it would do much good. Time will pull me, even if I’m kicking and screaming the whole time. There is no stopping it. Just like there is no stopping love.

See what I did there? I made a nice rounded-curve transition back to my topic at hand.

Love happens, often when we least expect it, almost always when we’re not looking for it. That’s what happened when I met the man who would become my first husband. I picked him up hitchhiking (which wasn’t that dangerous back then, and we were in a small town and the person I was with recognized him). I was 18 and he was tan. Funny how what you think love is when you’re 18 isn’t what love is at all.

It happened again when I met Kevin for a drink that one fateful March 22. I already knew him so love was the farthest thing from my mind. I remember well getting the phone call from Bobbi asking me what I thought of Kevin Michel. I believe my answer was “not much.” Ha. Little did I know that love would follow within a few short weeks. I rolled easily from being single into being “in a relationship,” and never looked back.

Love is realizing you’ve met the one person who truly gets you, who has a similar sense of humor and sarcasm. Love is what happens when you’re mature enough to realize what love is. 

Love is a beautiful puppy who gave himself the name Maguire when he put his tiny black nose into the center console of our car on the drive home from the shelter, and pulled out a dollar bill. I had never raised a dog before and this one changed my life. Love is discovering you’re a dog person.

Maguire broke our hearts when he died in March after he suffered massive and irreparable seizures. Love is having the strength to say good-bye.

Love is a red-headed step-son who has always been more of the latter and none of the former. It’s meeting a four-year old and helping raise him, going through the tough times of high school, and seeing him become a wonderful young man. Love is not labeling him anything but what he is: my kid.

Love is re-discovered friends who have grown along with you even if you haven’t seen them for decades. Love is knowing they were there, and finding out they still are.

Love is friendship that is easy and joyous, through laughter and tears and w(h)ine. It’s knowing that certain people are always always always your friend.

Love is my sister and her remarkable attitude, her graciousness, her kindness; her sense of humor. My niece, my nephew, my brother-in-law; my brother; my mother; my Aunt Barbara and Corky; my great Aunt Beryl who’s in the hospital but hopefully not for long. It’s watching everyone grow older and not caring a whit that we all have lines; that we’re all a little heavier (except for Diane. My friend: how the hell do you do that?)

My new love is Cooper. I wondered if I could fall for another dog, after Maguire. I liked Cooper but for a couple of weeks I actually wondered if maybe I’d made a mistake, if maybe it was too soon. I didn’t and it wasn’t. The last two weeks, something happened. I don’t know what it is, but Cooper seemed to finally settle into his new name and his new life, and we seemed to finally and completely embrace a new four-legged friend. Maguire was our vintage puppy; Cooper is our pre-owned boy.

Love is my dog’s wet nose as he herd’s me through the house.

Cleaning up the kitchen when the other has cooked, or cleaning up the kitchen even if you’re the one who cooked. That’s love. 

Being content to watch an NCIS marathon on a Sunday afternoon, and enjoy it. That’s love.

Love is a glass of soul deep syrah from Zaca Mesa, or inky dark Petite Verdot from Trahan.

Love is spending the rest of your life with someone you want to kill and not doing it because you’d miss them. (That’s from Bobbi; love is … that)

Love is whatever you want it to be. It can even be the new year and all of the mystery that it holds. Let it drag you kicking and screaming, or smiling and laughing. Let it unravel to be whatever it will be. Let it be a night filled with love and 365 days filled with whatever your version of love is. Because that’s what’s important. That’s life. Celebrate it at midnight and always.

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The perfect Sunday

by Lorin Michel Sunday, December 30, 2012 8:32 PM

Every once in a while, I am lucky to experience a perfect day. It’s usually not because of something spectacular that happened, something out of the ordinary. More often than not, it’s that absolutely nothing happened and by virtue of that, it becomes extraordinary. Such was this Sunday.

It started off by sleeping in. I used to sleep in every Saturday and to a lesser extent, Sunday as well. Sleeping in when I was teenager meant 11 am. Sleeping in now means 8:30 or 9. This morning was of the 9 variety. Then the phone rang and woke me up but that was OK. It was time to get up. As much as I love to sleep, I also find that when I do, I feel like I’ve wasted the day. Since we got Cooper, there is no sleeping in. He goes out by 7:30 and then we go for our first walk of the day. Today was a rare exception. Perfect.

Kevin had put Cooper on the bed with me so he was snuggled up close and warm. The bed is the only piece of furniture in the house we allow him on. It was the same with Maguire. And it’s only in the morning and only for a very brief time. Once I was awake, my wonderful husband brought me a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper. I love to read the paper; I especially love to read the Sunday paper. I love the expanded sections, especially Calendar (essentially movies and television) and Arts & Books (self-explanatory). Coffee and the paper in bed. Perfect.

While reading, I got a call from my mom and we chatted for a few minutes. She’s been nursing a cold and yesterday’s snow storm didn’t help, but today she felt a bit better, the snow had stopped, my brother had cleared both her walkway and her driveway and she was on her way out to the barn. The barn is where her “friend” Gregg lives. It was once an actual barn, but he bought it and converted it to a house. One of the coolest houses around. We said our “love yous” and “byes” and hung up. Talking to mom. Perfect.

This was followed by a nice long walk with the aforementioned and now no-longer-on-the-bed Cooper which was followed by a phone call from my sister where we chatted about her kids, my dog, mom and mom’s dislike of her new cell phone. My mother is not very good with change, by her own admission, but hearing my sisters voice is perfect on any day.

While we were talking, my wonderful husband brought a Bloody Mary with just the perfect amount of horseradish and Tabasco, nice and spicy, almost enough to bring tears to my eyes but not quite. We have Bloody Marys on Sundays every once in a while but since today was close to the perfect Sunday, it was the perfect day to indulge. Plus it’s the end of the holiday season and tomorrow won’t really be a work day even though we’re both working.

I called my Aunt Beryl who is in the hospital with an infection on her leg that won’t seem to heal, watched a little football, and then Kevin went out to his studio to work on some end-of-year invoicing while I pulled up some work to do as well.

I didn’t do it. Instead, I surfed the channels on TV and stumbled across Sex and the City: The movie just starting on E. I was a big fan of the show that ran on HBO from 1998 to 2004. The last two seasons or so, Kevin watched with me. In fact, we were watching the series finale when the huge mirror we used to have over our fireplace peeled away from the wall, starting at the top of our vaulted ceiling, and crashed onto the coffee table between us shattering into a million pieces. Needless to say, we missed the finale of the finale and had to catch it on a repeat later.

When the movie came out, I was curious. It’s nearly impossible to translate what worked so well on the small screen to the big screen, and since everything was wrapped up so nicely at the end of the series, I thought anything else would be trying too hard. I was wrong. They saved the trying too hard for Sex and the City 2 which was horrendous. But the first one was vintage Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and all of their supporting cast of merry men, including Mr. Big. I settled down with a cup of hot cider and watched gleefully. Perfect.

I was struck this time by the concept of the bridge in the film. Miranda and Steve are having problems and separate but agree to meet halfway between their two apartments, in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Steve says, when trying to get Miranda to have a New Year’s dinner with him and their son: “we could go eat somewhere on your side of the bridge.” And Miranda, when explaining to Carrie the potential stupidity of meeting on the bridge, says: “if I show up and he doesn’t, I’m devastated … and on a bridge. I’m thinking maybe I didn’t think this through very well.”

Bobbi has written about the bridge concept, for therapy, and I find it fascinating. When I heard it used today in the movie, something I hadn’t previously paid attention to, I was equally fascinated. The bridge is a symbol for crossing over, for giving as well as taking and today, for meeting someone half way; for agreeing to possibility.

As I watched the movie, I was also struck by the idea that this day, my perfect Sunday, was serving as a bridge to the last holiday of the year. It was serving as a bridge between two years, and a bridge between what has happened before that we all know and what will happen in the future, which we have no way of knowing. Today is also a bridge to possibility. It’s a very exciting time, one full of potential and the perfect way to begin the end of my perfect Sunday.

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live out loud

Monkey think monkey do

by Lorin Michel Saturday, December 29, 2012 8:47 PM

The world is full of bad news. Every day we are bombarded with stories of horrendous rapes that turn to murder, with heads of state denying adoptions for purely political reasons; with mothers drowning their autistic children, teenagers torturing kittens for fun. It’s enough to harden all of us, to turn us into unfeeling, uncaring individuals, members of society who don’t commit these atrocities, but who are no longer totally surprised by them. It’s just what happens, we could say. What do you expect? we could ask. There’s nothing that will change it, not as long as there are different and indifferent types of people in the world. We excuse.

Readers of this blog know that I endeavor every day to find something good to write about it. Some days it’s so easy the posts almost write themselves. Other days, it’s a struggle and for various reasons. It’s not that there is nothing worth celebrating. There’s always something. It’s more that I’m tired, or not feeling creative. Or nothing feels important enough. Relevant enough. I work through it.

But today, in amidst all of the horror and strife and nastiness, I happened to read about people who have done good things for no reason other than they wanted to and they could. People in New York, after Hurricane Sandy, who had power and ran extension cords with power strips from their house out to the street and hung a sign telling people that they had power and to feel free to charge their phones.

Or the retired teacher in Iowa with no kids of her own, who, for 25 years, spends her year’s savings – money she makes by recycling cans, working at concession stands and even tutoring – on toys and clothing for kids. She looks for deals all year and buys as she finds so she can buy as many presents as possible. She gives these gifts anonymously.

Or the grocery store owner in Minnesota who decided to retire and travel the world with his wife, but before doing so, gave his stores to his employees, no strings attached.

Or the 25 families in a tiny Texas town called Possum Trot who have adopted 76 kids in need over the last 16 years.

What makes some people good and some people evil? We’ll never know for sure. Obviously there are some born to be bad; others are raised to be that way. Abusive parents can raise their children to be even more abusive adults. But not always. Sometimes someone is raised in a horrible home and turns out just fine.

What makes some people give and others not care? According to a new study, it may have something to do with unselfish brain cells. The study was published on December 23 in the Nature Neuroscience journal, and it showed that many animals (including humans) often exhibit unselfish behavior that doesn’t directly benefit them.  Mice will starve rather than hurt friends as will monkeys. In fact, the study authors taught rhesus monkeys to play a simple computer game where they looked at different shapes to either give themselves, a neighbor monkey or nobody a squirt of juice.

Naturally and unsurprisingly, the monkeys almost always gave themselves juice when they had the option.

The researchers then set up another game where the monkey could either give the other monkey juice or give it to nobody including themselves. The monkeys consistently gave the other monkeys juice versus no one getting juice.

A brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex, known to play a role in reward processing, fired when the monkeys gave juice to themselves. However, some neurons in the anterior cingulated gyrus also fired when monkeys gave their neighbor monkey juice suggesting that this part of the brain may be partly responsible for creating empathy, driving behavior that is all about giving.

I found this fascinating. If science could find a way to get that particular part of the brain to fire in more if not all people, we’d have more individuals like John Unger who took his 19-year-old dog, Schoep, into Lake Michigan so that the Schoep could get some relief from his arthritis. Or the grandmother in China who carries her 7-year-old granddaughter six miles each day, on her back, in order for the little girl, who suffers from cerebral palsy, to attend school. Or the man who helped pull a deer from the turbulent waters off of Monmouth Beach when the animal was swept out to sea. Or the New York City police officer who bought a homeless man new socks and boots to help ward off the freezing temperatures. Or the runner that helped a fallen teammate during a track meet, carrying the injured runner to the finish line.

Small acts of kindness. Small gestures of good will. It’s enough to give this writer hope that we as a whole are better than those individuals who dominate the news cycles. It’s enough for me to celebrate on this Saturday. 

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live out loud

In perspective

by Lorin Michel Thursday, December 27, 2012 8:50 PM

I was struck today with how often it is that we put things into perspective. The saying itself – put it “into perspective” – is usually a way to ask someone to think about what they’re doing, saying or even thinking and to do it, say it or think it differently. It doesn’t mean a person has to change their mind. It’s just a request to step back for but a moment and imagine.

It is another cold day here. Cooper and I walked for a mile or so this morning and it was only 38º. Crisp, chilly. Rain is coming in again; soon we’ll be drenched. But our little cold, rainy snap is nothing like the cold that the Midwest and Northeast are experiencing. My sister sent me a text earlier that they were just getting buried with snow.

It’s cold here and we’ve had a lot of rain but nothing like what they’ve experienced back there, with Hurricane Sandy and now the truth of winter.

Kevin has a bad cold that came on with a vengeance last night, this after blasting around in the damp vineyards of Santa Ynez yesterday, and spending too much time out in the cold and the rain with nothing on for warmth but his new hoodie. He doesn’t do sick well, not that anyone really does, but when he’s sick it’s as if the world must stop. It’s all simply too much to bear to have a stuffy nose and a bit of a headache. He’s currently sound asleep on the floor of my office, curled up with his head on a pillow and wrapped up in an afghan throw. Cooper, having just gone up to his dad and licked his face, is now curled up behind him. Cooper isn’t sick; he’s just showing empathy.

It’s warm and cozy here in my loft. I have music playing softly, still Winterscapes from Live365. It’s got a Celtic feel to it. The music is solstice/holiday oriented but none is blatant in its caroling. Perfect for my sickly husband who is now snoring softly.

I thought then of the homeless woman in Los Angeles who was also sleeping, albeit on a sidewalk bench, and who was set on fire last night by some thugs with nothing else to do. It puts cold and sick into perspective.

This morning, our Justin left. It seems as if we just picked him up at the airport, and today, we were journeying again to LAX. He’s working in New York for several weeks during his break between semesters, making some money, gathering even more experience for when he graduates. We stood amongst thousands of others in front of the American Airlines terminal at about 12:45, hugging him, telling how much we loved him, how proud we are, and then we watched as he turned, slung his backpack over his shoulder and, pulling his suitcase behind him, disappeared inside. We both fought back tears. We don’t know when we’ll see him again and we miss him.

This morning, my friend Lisa who lives in Hawaii with her husband and young son, Xander, posted the news that Xander’s cancer has returned. He’s just a little boy, and this is his second go-round. I was in tears again. It gave me perspective.

Today is my brother-in-law John’s birthday. He turns 50, and is celebrating quietly with just my sister and their two kids. Yesterday they were in the emergency room with Caden, my nephew, who had hurt his neck in gymnastics. A birthday today; an injury yesterday; the end of the year in just a few days more, a chance to do it all over again, to do it differently, to do it in a new way. Perspective.

Kevin’s oldest sister is fond of adding a twist to the saying that “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” She always follows it with “Then why are the mental health institutions so overflowing?” God doesn’t dole out stress and misery and heartache and colds and cancer. If something good happens, God isn’t responsible. If something bad happens, it isn’t because of whatever God you do or don’t pray to. This is perspective.

Perspective allows you to see what’s right in front of you juxtaposed with others, against others. Perspective allows for empathy, it encourages change. It is a new vision, renewed sight.

We all have a right to our own feelings, our own limitations. But neither means that we can’t step back from ourselves to try to experience what someone else is experiencing. While I can’t know right now what it is to have a child battling cancer, I can begin to imagine the fear of it; the hopelessness wrapped in the hope of it.

Perspective gives me the ability to take my life and put it in context. It is what it is and it is right now, with a slumbering husband and a dog keeping a watchful eye over us both, with my child flying east while another’s flies against fate. With a storm now dissipated and another on the way. We do what we do because we must. Many times there isn’t an option, no alternative. It is perspective that can give us the strength to persevere, and the courage to continue to celebrate living it out loud. 

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live out loud

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