8 October 2018 : There are People in the Country Besides Politicians

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The title of this post comes from this quote from Charles Kuralt:

“It does no harm just once in a while to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames, that there are people in the country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals.” -Charles Kuralt

I’m finding the quote to be centering for me, acknowledging that the privilege I have as a self-identified heterosexual middle-aged white American man makes it a lot easier for me to find balance than others. Still, with this privilege and in finding my center, I think I have a responsibility to contribute to the country working to find its center.

I fear that if we stay polarized or get even more polarized, we are going to individually become versions of our worst selves, and collectively we are going to become a mean, dispirited country.

So here’s what I think we need to do:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

To me, that means I need to focus on seeing the positive and not getting overwhelmed by the negative. It means I need to contribute to positive things taking place, and point out to others the positive things I see. It might mean I need to turn off the news, especially when the stories are negative and I don’t really need to know about them. Instead, I can rub my wife’s shoulders or take our dog for a walk.

When I worked with children, I would tell them that when in a conflict their first job was to not make the situation worse. Their second job, if they were capable, was to make the situation better.
That’s hard to do, I know, and nearly impossible when we feel we are under attack.

Positive psychology suggests that we need three positive messages to balance out one negative. And since we all have been bombarded with negative messages lately, I’m suggesting we all need quite a few positive messages. So be the change - seek to find positive messages for yourself and promote them to others.

What can count as a positive message?

Anything that makes you feel good that doesn’t harm someone or something else. For me, I look for the ordinary kindnesses that take place around us all the time, counting each as a positive message in my ledger. To make this work, though, I need to take the time to consciously recognize them.

Here are just a few of the positive messages I’ve benefited from recently, either by doing them, seeing them happen, or having them done for me:

  • Giving up a seat on public transportation 
  • Holding a door open for someone
  • Letting someone go ahead in a grocery store line
  • Buying someone a beverage
  • Positively acknowledging someone
  • Children’s laughter on a playground
  • A blossoming flower
  • The sunrise
  • A mountain view
  • An adult bending down to truly listen to a child
  • A dog’s wagging tail
  • A warm smile…

Here’s another quote in support of what I’m trying to communicate here:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

So the wisdom is out there. Can we make use of it?

Back to Charles Kuralt for a second. He was a reporter for CBS news who himself grew a bit disillusioned with the negative. In the 1970’s he was granted permission to take a mobile home and a camera crew to travel the back roads of America in search of good news. His program “On the Road” followed, a positive news segment that lives on long after Kuralt’s death.

A few years ago I found a DVD set of the old “On the Road” series. Compared to today’s slick production and fast edits, the show is quite quaint. But that’s part of its charm.

One of my favorite stories was about a man named Jethro Mann in North Carolina who fixed up broken bikes so every kid in town could have one. When Mann died in 2013, a local TV station referenced Kuralt in their story, which included an adult banker who credited Mann for serving as a positive male role model when he was a small child.

Take a look:

4 October 2018 : Some Things I’ve Learned From Promoting the Importance of Kindness for 25 Years

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Years ago, I started offering kindness classes via email. I mean this was YEARS AGO, as in last century, 1994, to be precise. Like many people lucky enough to dial into it, I knew this Internet thing was a game-changer, allowing collaboration with people all over the planet.

A year earlier, in response to Johnny, an 11 year-old boy who most would say was a student of mine in the 5th grade class for which I was the “teacher” (I think I was more his student than he mine), I had suggested we have a “random acts of kindness” classroom activity.

Johnny had tried starting what he called “The Good News Newspaper,” a publication that would only report on the positive things that happened each day. For instance, instead of publicizing the one or two cars involved in an accident, Johnny’s newspaper would report on ALL the cars, and drivers inside them, that made it home safely each day.

As Johnny told me, “There are more good things happening than bad things. Why do the bad things get so much more publicity?”

It was a question I couldn’t answer. But it certainly got me thinking.

(Side note - A couple of years ago, Johnny’s and my kindness connection got written up as a chapter in the bestselling book “Angels on Earth.”)

The students took right to the idea of doing random good deeds, thus providing me a couple of life lessons - “Kindness is inherent to being human” and “The younger the person, the easier it is for them to tap into their inherent kindness.”

I don’t think of myself as particularly religious, but this latter lesson reminded me of something I was exposed to as a young child in Sunday School, that Jesus advised people to “be like little children.” The advice obviously had stuck with me, but I had new clarity on what it might mean.

Being kind is simple.

A year later, along with Melinda Shaw, my wife, and a group of dedicated parents, I had founded the Puget Sound Community School and managed to secure dial-up Internet accounts for all of our students, something that in 1994 was so novel that Newsweek magazine featured the school in a full page story and ITN, the Independent Television Network in England, sent a camera crew to Seattle to film a story about the fledgling school.

Buoyed by the willingness and engagement of the students around kind acts, I had the idea to expand these “kindness opportunities” to include adults. Having connected the students via email to Holocaust survivors in Europe, the idea of sending kindness lessons via email dawned on me.

I’ve been doing it ever since, although now I use a blog.

The most fundamental of these classes has always been one I call “The Practice of Kindness.” It consists of ten lessons, what I call themes, dispensed over ten weeks. Each week begins with a theme for the week posted to the blog on Sunday night.

Mid-week I send a supportive message of inspiration that usually includes a link to a website that supports that week’s theme. I conclude each theme on Sunday morning by posting a message of reflection about the concluding week’s theme.

The ten themes intend to build on each other, like concentric circles emerging from a core, the core being each individual participant. As such, the first theme is always “Do something kind for yourself,” the idea being that it is important to first take care of yourself before providing good deeds for others.

I encourage participants to summarize what they have done in response to each week’s theme, using the comments section of the blog. So doing, their stories provide additional inspiration for each other and connection to people all over the world engaged in the same activity. Frankly, it’s pretty darn incredible, so much so that the class has drawn the attention of the media, including bestselling authors Daniel Pink and Deepak Chopra who have blogged and/or tweeted about it.

The second theme is typically “Do something kind for someone you love” and the themes continue on from there (“Do something kind for a friend,” “Do something kid for an acquaintance,” “Do something kind for someone with whom you’ve lost touch,” etc).

As the weeks pass I ask participants to reflect on their experiences, specifically how completing each theme causes them to feel. Invariably, they discover that every kind act they complete is actually a kindness to themselves.

So aware, I conclude the class with the same theme with which it began, “Do something kind for yourself.” This time, however, the awareness of doing something kind for oneself INCLUDES doing something kind for anyone or anything. My hope is that the participants have a new understanding of kindness.

As Emerson also said: “No man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

2 October 2018 : I Wonder What a Country Would Be Like if its Supreme Court Was Made Up of Musicians & Artists?

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John Prine – A White American Male I Can Like

I generally stay away from politics in my writing, leaving the discussions to in-person conversations that lend themselves to a back & forth exchange. And I’m really not intending to make this piece about politics, either. It’s just with all the angst and attention around the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, I’ve been wanting to find a white American male in the public eye to like.

I’ve settled on John Prine.

If you don’t know him, John Prine is a singer-songwriter who has been singing and songwriting for the better part of 50 years. He started writing songs to pass the time as a mailman, then got up the gumption to sing at some open mic events in Chicago. Kris Kristofferson, among others, heard him and it wasn’t long until the US Postal Service needed to replace Prine on his mail route.

Prine’s first album came out in 1971 and demonstrated him being someone who can get to the heart of human feelings. His songs “Hello in There,” about the loneliness that can happen when people get old, and “Sam Stone,” about a wounded Vietnam War veteran who comes home addicted to morphine, still choke me up. And Prine’s been writing songs like these ever since.

I learned about John Prine in the early 1980’s, introduced to his music by a buddy of mine named Hank with whom I worked in a radio station in Alaska. During that time, Hank talked about three unknown-to-me songwriters who over the next few years became my, pardon the expression, spiritual advisors — Harry Chapin, Tom Waits, and John Prine.

My mom, a John Prine fan.

One of my life’s favorite concert experiences was taking my mom to a small venue in north Seattle called Parker’s to see John Prine perform. He was solo, just John and his guitar, making it easy to understand his delicate and humanistic lyrics. This also allowed him ample time to engage the audience. We might as well have been in his living room, so intimate was the feeling.

I’m sure Prine is no saint. In a recent song he describes heaven as being a place where he can drink a vodka & ginger ale and smoke a cigarette that’s 9 miles long. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mislead a Senate committee or show blatant disrespect for its members.

“The Tree of Forgiveness” is Prine’s latest album, and one of its songs, “Summer’s End,” was just released this week as a single. The music video is a tearjerker. It’s directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, known for their Academy Award nominated documentary called “Heroin(e)” about the opioid crisis, which is a spoiler alert to what the music video is about.

You’ll find the music video below as well as with a little more detail about the song at this link.

19 September 2018 : What Stories Do You Have to Tell? Tell Them.

If you are ever feeling out of sorts, alone or untouched, try telling the story of something that has touched you.

In the book “The Power of Kindness,” author Piero Ferrucci talks about how human beings are able to “resonate” with other human beings. I love this concept. He tells us that the ability is with us from birth, but if it doesn’t develop sufficiently we are in trouble. Me, I think the ability can be cultivated at any time in our lives. It’s certainly easier when we are younger, before we’ve had years of not resonating or not resonating well. But the ability is always there inside us, waiting to be tapped. I think the means is through storytelling. If you are ever feeling out of sorts, alone or untouched, try telling the story of something that has touched you.

A few years back, I developed a class for teenagers on the subject of empathy. I wasn’t at all sure how many students would be interested. And since the classes that get scheduled at the school I worked, Puget Sound Community School in Seattle, are determined by student interest, I honestly wasn’t sure if this class would make the cut. Typically, more than 75 classes are offered to the students for each of the school’s main three terms, and the maximum any student can attend is around 20.

I told the story of visiting my newborn daughter Ella in Children’s Hospital.

When I pitched the empathy class, I told the story of visiting my newborn daughter Ella in Children’s Hospital one Saturday morning in early 1997, she having been admitted (along with my wife, Melinda) because of a possible case of meningitis. Ella was about 2 weeks old. The day before, we had taken her to the doctor because of a high fever and the doctor ordered us to the emergency room. There, Ella experienced a spinal tap, during which the nurse’s assistant passed out and Melinda had to step in and hold still the crying/screaming baby Ella while the doctor inserted a needle into her spinal cord to get a fluid sample. Fearing meningitis, the doctors hospitalized Ella and treated her as if she had the illness while the fluid was tested over a period of three days. Melinda stayed with Ella while I was at home with her older sister, Chloe, then 3 years-old.

So early that Saturday, with my mom having come to watch Chloe, I arrived at Children’s Hospital to be with Ella & Melinda. At that time of day they have a special entrance for parents. I entered there and took the elevator to the Intensive Care Unit, where Ella was being watched. Exiting the elevator I encountered one of the most moving scenes of my life – a young boy playing with a remote control car. 8 o’clock, Saturday morning, playing like little boys all over the world, down the hospital hall came this pajama-clad boy directing his car, remote control in hand. Keeping up next to him was his father, pushing the IV cart, making sure it stayed attached to his little boy’s arm. It was so poignant that it took my breath away. A little boy just being a little boy on a Saturday morning. And a dad just being a dad, doing what he needed to do so his boy could play.

I told that story to the students during my class pitch. Lots of students prioritized the class after that. It made it on the schedule.

The purpose? To provide professional photographs to parents of their terminally ill children before they died.

I’m not sure if the class ever matched the story that I think sold it, but it was a great class. The second week I brought in photographer Lynette Johnson as a guest speaker (side note – Lynette was one of the photographers at the Bill & Melinda Gates wedding). Several years previously, when I first heard of her, she was trying to start a nonprofit organization. The purpose? To provide professional photographs to parents of their terminally ill children before they died. Yeah. Kind of hits you right there, doesn’t it? Lynette succeeded in starting her nonprofit and has since been featured in People Magazine and on the TV show “Today.” She calls her nonprofit Soulumination and they’ve since expanded their services. They now take professional portraits, at no charge, of terminally ill parents so their children will have photos to help remember them. Yeah, that’s all. Lynette told the students why she started the nonprofit, tearing up each time she told the story of one of the children she has photographed.

Two weeks after introducing the students to Lynette, I took them off campus to meet a couple in their 90’s who live in the same retirement community as my parents. Both had lost their spouses and finding the other, they thought it made sense to share an apartment rather than pay for two. But the conservative retirement home wouldn’t allow this unless they married. So they got married. As it turns out, we learned the woman was at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when it was bombed. What stories these two people had to tell a group of teenagers!

Feel the resonance? If so, did experiencing this resonance change how you were feeling? Pay attention to this. What stories do you have to tell?

Tell them.

16 August 2018 : Compassion Games 2018

I got a call yesterday from Jon Ramer, founder of the Compassion Games. Not only did he want to update me about his recent marriage to Sommer Albertsen (now Sommer Ramer), he wanted to ask if I’d be willing to get back involved with next month’s installment of the games.

You might know that I started working with Jon on the games back in 2012 when he got the project started. I created a game called the Secret Agent of Compassion that involved sending out missions each morning (daily encouragements to do something kind and compassionate) through 2015, and since then have served in an advisory capacity. Jon is looking to return to the more simple format I favor so he reached out. I’m hopeful my artist friend Fish Astronaut can create some new images. If not, I’ll make use of some from the past.

To see an archive of the past missions and to learn more about the overall project, I’ve got a Secret Agent of Compassion website you can check out. Facebook users can “like” and “follow” the secret agent page.

This year, the games start on September 8th and continue for 16 days, ending on the 23rd. Sign up to have the missions delivered to your email inbox here.

15 July 2018 : Peace Wave Summit

Peace Wave Summit Interview

Last week I participated in the Peace Wave Summit on Facebook, having been invited by Jon Ramer, the founder of the Compassion Games. Over three days, Jon and his partner Sommer Albertsen presented interviews with social innovators. I was honored to be included as one of 21 people so invited.

Through tomorrow, access to all 21 interviews, including mine, is available for free via this link. You’ll see I was interview #19. After that, you’ll have to become a patron of the Compassion Games to have access, which is a way to show your ongoing support for Jon’s and Sommer’s work. I’ll be setting up something similar for Kind Living later this summer or early in the fall, something that I hope will initially cover the expenses I incur running Kind Living and ultimately lead to some regular income for Melinda, Fish Astronaut (the Kind Living illustrator), and me.

On a separate note, Melinda and I have arrived in California. We should be moving into our apartment in Berkeley on or about August 1. Right now, we’re at the home of my brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Deb, in El Granada on the coast. On Tuesday we head over to Melinda’s cousin Tracy’s house in Redwood City. More soon, I promise.

Last thing – Please think about joining in on the 10 weeks of kindness themes I’m promoting this summer, mainly on Facebook. If you’re not a Facebook user, you can get the themes via email each Sunday via the Kind Living blog. This week’s theme is to surprise someone. Note the sign-up link at the bottom of the post.

1 June 2018 : Peace on Earth, 2030

(“Do You Think it’s Possible to Create Peace on Earth by 2030?” I was asked this question this week by Jon Ramer, the founder of the Compassion Games. In response, I wrote this short essay.)

I’d like to respectfully suggest that there may be a clearer way to get to the point of this question, a way that acknowledges that to the rabbit who is hunted by the hawk there will never be peace on Earth. A way that understands that if we truly are interested in peace, we need to recognize that as humans we are connected to the rabbit AND to the hawk, AND to the fact that the hawk hunting the rabbit is part of a natural cycle of balance. In other words, I don’t think peace on Earth will be defined as the lamb laying down with the lion.

As written, I think the question also presupposes that world peace is an end result rather than the unfolding of a process. As as end, I think we are tempted to treat world peace as the solving of a problem, the lack of world peace. I think any time we reduce complex issues to that of problems needing to be solved, we are bound to think in absolute solutions: i.e. – THIS is how we achieve peace on Earth. I think this is how fundamentalism and dictators gain power. Ironically, this approach is the opposite of peace on Earth although it could lead to no more war. For instance, had Hitler’s “Final Solution” prevailed, one might have argued that peace on Earth had been achieved when in actuality all that would have happened was a global dictatorship.

So I think a clearer approach is to consider peace on Earth as a process to experience. In this way, the question you are asking may be more along the lines of, “Do I think the Earth will be a more peaceful place in 2030 than it is in 2018?” To that question, I can easily answer yes, provided I dedicate myself to being more peaceful in my interactions – with others and with myself – over the next 12 years. I understand that may appear to make your question too simple, that what you are really wanting is something more global than individualistic. But I am of the mind that every time I choose a peaceful response over a violent one, even in my self-talk, I am acting globally by setting off a chain of peace that impacts everything. So in me being more peaceful, I will help create a reality that makes it easier for others to be more peaceful. Others do that for me and for others, too, outside of anyone’s conscious awareness. As such, it becomes a conspiracy, a word that really means breathing together, of peace. And even if all I take is one conscious breath of and for peace, even if that’s all you do, that’s fine, but we can do even more than that if we so choose. Just take the first step, take the first breath. Then take the second.

For instance, you asking me the question contributes to the Earth being a more peaceful place. You’re thinking about peace and I’m thinking about peace, more than either of us would be if you hadn’t asked the question. Having peace elevated in my mind, I’ll be more likely to let the driver on the crowded highway merge during rush hour. She’ll be touched by the gesture and be more peaceful with her child once she gets home. The child, touched by his mother’s peacefulness, will be more peaceful with the dog. Indeed, it’s the Butterfly Effect.

So as I see it, part of my role, today, tomorrow, in the next 12 years (and beyond), is to not only cultivate and practice peace, it’s to promote peace. And my way of promoting peace, what I try to do through Kind Living, is to help people recognize and celebrate what I call ordinary kindness. These are the kinds (pun intended) of things that people do all the time every day – hold open the elevator door, greet the grocery store clerk, smile at the bus driver, etc. What is needed is to elevate our individual and collective awareness of these acts. This is hard these days, what with so much division and partisanship. We are being tempted to choose sides all the times, which is an anti-peace movement. At the most simple level, your job, my job, as promoters of peace is to look around and notice these ordinary things, contribute more, tell someone else about them. The more awareness we bring to these ordinary acts of kindness, the more of them happen. The more that happen, the more that happen, you know?

Remember that great children’s song by Malvina Reynolds called “Magic Penny?” with the chorus, “Love is something if you give it away you end up having more”? Practiced first individually, then within communities, then municipalities, then within countries, then globally, that’s peace on Earth.

15 May 2018 : Renewable Energy (our house is on the market)

I think a big part of living a life that consistently moves you forward is tapping into personal sources of renewable energy. By that, I mean engaging in actions and material goods positively, causing your source of energy to expand naturally without taking away from something else. The energy I’m talking about is not necessarily measured financially, although it often can be, as illustrated by earning interest on a savings account or getting a dividend for owning shares in a company.

This idea really hit home for me on Monday when a good friend asked if I was sad Melinda and I were selling the home we’ve lived in for 20 years, the place where we raised our kids. On one hand, yes, it’s certainly emotional to be closing such an important chapter of our lives. But what I recognized is that while it is emotional, sad is not how I’m feeling. I’m actually excited to be starting this next phase of my life. The energy gained for what we’ve done these last 20 years is at its peak, meaning making this change now will propel us forward in the most positive way, generating more positive energy. To stay, due to nostalgia, laziness, or some other factor, would start taking from the energy.

Thinking this way reminded me of when I decided to sell my hockey card collection back in 1992. This collection was an incredibly important part of my childhood, with individual cards having individual stories. You could say they had built up a lot of positive energy for me. Because of this, Melinda and others were worried that I would regret selling the cards, that I would miss their presence in my life. Married and with a baby on the way, I realized back then that the cards had a new purpose. Although I didn’t have the words for it, the cards had an energy that could be renewed, transformed if you will, as the down payment on a house. As such, I have never regretted selling them, not even for a second.

Put simply, the energy of the hockey card collection, with all its history and meaning, renewed as our first house in 1993. And our first house, where Chloe and Ella each celebrated their first birthdays and is the place where PSCS got started, renewed as our current house in 1998. Now our current house, with all the positive energy generated by Melinda’s upgrades, is renewing and even guiding us into the next phase of our lives, that as older adults with grown children. Certainly, we’re lucky that this energy renewal benefits us financially, as can be seen in the listing.

It’s even energizing to imagine what’s coming next.

21 April 2018 : Digitizing Old Photos

As part of my personal downsizing project, a major undertaking I’ve started in preparation for selling the house, I’ve been digitizing old photos. Some of the best have come from a photo album Chloe started when she was 5 years-old or so. She had this simple little kid camera that looked like plastic binoculars, allowing the child photographer to hold the camera up to their eyes like wearing a mask. I think the camera took 110 film. Anyway, most of the photos in this book were taken by Chloe with this camera. The photo above of Ella sitting on her changing table in 1998 may be my favorite. Her expression, the cockeyed light above, and Melinda standing there with a hair dryer (which was used to dry the body before putting a diaper back on). It’s a classic.

Then there’s the photo below of Chloe herself. I have a recollection of her hurting herself somehow and me trying to cheer her up by using her camera to take her picture. I’m not sure it worked…

25 March 2018 : Our Third 27

27 years ago…

Having both been born in 1963 (in May, no less), Melinda and I were 27 years-old when we got married in 1990. That makes 1963-1990 our first 27, which we basically did not spend together.

Last year, 2017, Melinda and I both turned 54 (in May, no less), making 1990-2017 our second 27, during which we pretty much spent every day together. We also raised two children to adulthood and created a school, among a couple of other things.

So here we are, Melinda and I, having entered our third 27, 2017-2044. And as was true for the previous two 27’s, we expect this one to be remarkable for its uniqueness. It began last June when Melinda stepped down from PSCS, an action that is being replicated by me at the end of June this year.

So what’s next?

Melinda said something to me recently that really resonated. She said, “We followed a dream of yours for 24 years (PSCS). Now it’s time to follow one of mine.” What she wants to do is sell our Seattle house and buy a fixer-upper, probably in California. She says she has at least one more remodel in her. Sounds reasonable to me.

What will I do? Help Melinda remodel, do some writing, promote kindness… We aren’t financially set to not have an income so we’ll need to figure that out. I’m of a mind to do what we did when we started PSCS. We had a new mortgage, a baby, student loans, and no savings. We quit our jobs and threw our weight into starting PSCS. The universe responded and PSCS succeeded, helping us grow as adults while raising our kids.

In other words, I’m pretty sure we’ll have a good story or two to tell in 2044.