Thursday, February 28, 2013

Finding Philosophy in Obituaries

I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.
-Benjamin Franklin

Today is the end of innocence for this blog. (just had to use that line once this month while studying childlike innocence) March begins with a look at childlike sincerity. Before I say goodbye to books about guilt, shame, purity and whole heartedness, I had a conversation with a local philosopher. Actually, Andrew Meacham’s day job is writing obituaries for the Tampa Bay Times. What you can learn from a philosophy student turned obituary writer may seem like a stretch for the topic of childlike innocence. But read on.

Meacham estimates not a majority, but “many" families who he contacts for stories are in the middle of some type of  rift or feud. If he had to put a number on it- he estimates less than fifty percent and more than twenty. So I am going with one third. That means roughly 3.3 out of 10 people will go to their grave without forgiving a sibling of a slight or resenting a child for not appreciating them enough or judging a parent for not loving them enough. Thirty three percent of people will live their lives separated from the people who know them best. Odds are that you or someone you care for will pass without letting go of weighty grudges.

Before we cut to Meacham’s philosophy on innocence, a little bit about his fascinating job. He says studying philosophy in college qualified him to carry and dig stuff up. He worked as an unskilled laborer for years before learning the trade of tying steel rebar. Eventually, he left construction and started freelance writing for the neighborhood news section of the Times. A regular beat meant more ink, which every writer wants, even if that means writing about the dead for a living.

I like the idea of trying to find the essence of a person. Everybody has a story. From prominent lawyers and doctors and politicians to a guy who died while being chased by police. Every life has meaning. I have written about a woman who likes to watch soap operas with her cat, a homeless veteran who died in a tent in someone’s backyard and circus performers. “ Meacham explains.

“It is not as depressing as you might think.” Meacham continued. “ In the midst of all this pain, people have a lot of tasks. Dealing with funeral arrangements, clerical stuff, you have to be social at a time when you are feeling numb. It takes a lot of energy to deal with condolences. In the middle of that, being able to talk to me and tell stories gives people a chance to laugh. I laugh a lot. People tell me really funny stories.”

Obituaries run on average 14 inches or about 800 words. Meacham has done obituaries as long as 80 inches when dealing with a teen whose suicide was blamed on “sexting”. Summing up a life or a senseless death within the confines of inches is no easy assignment. Still, he finds fulfillment in his job. He enjoys the freedom to choose whom he will write about.  There is usually something in the paid obituaries that catches his eye and makes him want to learn more.

Most people have an archaic idea of obituaries. Most people think of it as a list of accomplishments or affiliations. Most people speak in cliché’s like ‘never met a stranger’ or ‘always had a smile’. All that stuff misses the unique essence of a person. I have written about respectable people where there was no warmth. Sometimes the people who are the most anti-social are the most interesting. I wrote about a memorial they had at the Clock restaurant  for the grouchiest customer. They called him Spook. The first time the manager asked him if he wanted a refill on his coffee, Spook told the manager to leave him the hell alone. But they loved that guy.”

Meacham was not advocating being anti-social or grouchy. But when I asked him his advice on being more childlike and cultivating childlike innocence, he was quick to respond.

“Both from a personal perspective and from writing more than one thousand obituaries, I would say it is important to have fun. Otherwise, what is the point? Tell people you love that you love them. Make sure that you don’t put off doing the things that you want to do.”

If an obituary writer contacted your family, would you be one of the families feuding?If so, can you change that?

For today's "Sky's the Limit" on what you can learn: Did you know there is a  "grandmaster" of obituary writers? Jim Nicholson is Meacham's mentor and quite famous in obituary circles. Did you know there were circles? Nicholson turned  writing obituaries into an art form and has since earned the only Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. I didn't even know there was such a society. The organization's mission is to make sure obituaries are treated like once-in-a-lifetime stories and are researched and reported with great care. Who knew?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Time Travel Tuesday- Checking in to Recovery

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
-Reinhold Niebuhr

Do you ever read the last page of a book first? I do. In the case of The Artists’s Way by Julia Cameron, I read the entire book first before committing to the workbook exercises. Cameron is a famous filmmaker who was married to another famous filmmaker, Martin Scorcese. She is also a well-known author, who produced a trilogy of books on how to discover/recover your creative self. The premise in her writing is that we are all creations and we are all born with creative gifts. It is our gift to God to express those gifts. She likens our inner artist to an inner child, that must be encouraged and supported. While Cameron doesn’t directly use the word "innocent" when describing that inner artist child, that is the interpretation I took away. She talks a lot about a creative journey being a spiritual journey that brings you closer to divinity.

There are a million and one reasons why people deny their divine gifts. Stereotypes kill creative dreams. Artists are poor, gay, alone or crazy. Excuses are plentiful. I am not that good. Creative activities are only acceptable as hobbies. I can’t take time away from my steady paycheck or my family.

Repeat after me: Hello me name is ------- and I am a recovering artist. Whether it is cooking, gardening, drawing, writing, singing, strategizing or organizing. There is something you are uniquely capable of  doing that could be an art form.

Cameron offers a twelve-step "creative recovery program". She asks for a twelve-week commitment to do the work necessary to identify your talents and dreams than protect and nurture them. As I said, I am doing it a bit backwards. I already read the book before signing the pledge. Today is my first official day in recovery. There are several different homework assignments. But there are two constants every week. First, wake up early and write three pages of stream of consciousness every day. Call it meditation or getting the garbage out of your head. Cameron calls it “morning pages”. I got up at 5:15 am and it took me 44 minutes to fill three pages. The second commitment is a weekly “artist date”. I already enjoy weekly “play dates” for the Time Travel Tuesday segment of this blog. The difference is my play dates are not always just for me. Cameron believes it is essential to schedule time alone for some activity that gets you either moving or in contact with nature or both.

For my first “artist date” version of Time Travel Tuesday, I  simply walked in my neighborhood. No big deal. I have done that before. Wasn’t even sure that counts as a date. Except, in my thirty-minute excursion, I found a yard filled with amaryllis bulbs on the verge of blooming. I discovered a hopscotch board painted on a stretch of nearby sidewalk. I witnessed a herd of eight manatees playing in the dazzling white morning light.. When I turned the corner for the final stretch of my walk, I thought a car was driving by with the radio blaring. I quickly realized there was a woman singing Rhianna at the top of her lungs:

 “Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.”

The woman, if in fact she was real, looked to be in her fifties. Dressed in work out pants and jacket, her long hair was pulled back in a pony tail. I question whether she was some figment of my imagination because the song was a perfect reflection for how I was feeling at that moment on my first “artist date”. It seemed so unreal to have this seemingly normal looking neighbor singing with such confidence and so completely immersed in her music. I was going the opposite direction across the street. If she saw me, she certainly didn’t dial it down. I slowed and stared hoping to make eye contact. The woman just walked ahead with her head tilted up, completely oblivious (in a good way).

Maybe she read the same book.

Do you give energy and time to your creative gifts?

For today's "sky's the limit" on what you can learn: The serenity prayer was first included in a sermon by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940's. Around the same time, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the prayer as the motto for recovery. The famous prayer has been compared to a Mother Goose rhyme: 
For every ailment under the sun There is a remedy, or there is none. If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No Experience Necessary

Innocence plays in the backyard of ignorance.

My daughter is quick to point out “I am a kid. I don’t know stuff yet.” She frequently says this with no hint of pride or making excuses. I went to a writing conference this weekend with Tom Robbins, regarded by Writers Digest as one of the best 100 writers of the 20th Century. In the presence of the man who wrote nine novels, including bestsellers like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Skinny Legs and All, I quickly realized how much I don’t know about writing or the publishing industry.

As I focus this month on childlike innocence, I can’t ignore that knowledge is the original sin known for corrupting innocence. I was raised to see innocence only as the absence of guilt or shame, certainly not the absence of experience. Maybe instead of worrying about my lack of experience, I should regard it as my own innocence, my own clean slate. I have tried to educate myself on publishing, only to be corrupted with all sorts of confining rules to follow and limiting beliefs. You must master social media and build a brand for your self to be noticed by a publisher. You can’t seek a publisher without landing an agent first.  Get used to rejection. The publishing industry is in the toilet.

Tom Robbins hand writes his books one sentence at a time on a legal notepad. He has been known to spend all day writing and rewriting one sentence in search of the perfect word. Is that the right way to write a book? Is it the only way? 

Come to think of it, I remember an innocent high school intern at one of my last TV station jobs. He emailed Ann Curry and Matt Lauer of the Today Show asking for a summer internship in New York City. I cynically thought to myself he might be lucky to get an automated response. I envied his lack of knowledge of rejection. I envied the fact that he didn’t know network internships were reserved for college students with a recommendation from a professor or a family connection. That envy turned into awe when Ann Curry helped him become the youngest intern on the Today Show set. I seem to recall Curry even helped his nervous mom find a suitable apartment for her teenage son.

Can you regard lack of experience as innocence? What would be the pay off if you didn’t know how it was supposed to be?

For today’s “Sky’s the Limit” on what you can learn:  A little more about Tom Robbins. First of all, I couldn’t stop staring at his hands. talking animately with  his hands that are covered in weird snake rings, he spins a yarn with a southern drawl like I dole out directions. One person asked him how he comes up with his story ideas. Without pausing, Robbins dove into this long tale about naked blondes and secret passageways under Graceland and seedy motels and mysterious midnight package deliveries. Robbins may be 80 years old, but he has managed to stay in touch with his youthful heart. Maybe it was working for an underground radio station in the sixties or dropping acid with Timothy Leary. Maybe it was his pilgrimage to Timbuktu or his sabbatical with mythologist Joseph Campbell. Maybe it was his studies in Greece with poet Robert Bly. Maybe it is the articles he writes for Playboy and GQ or serving on the board of The Marijuana Policy Project. Maybe it is his role as judge of  Seattle's annual Spam carving competition. Maybe it his much younger, hot wife. Or maybe, he has mastered the art of “not knowing stuff”.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Best Day Ever

"What day is it?'
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh
-A.A. Milne

My daughter’s almost daily declaration that “This is the best day ever!” is one of the driving inspirations of this blog experiment to Be More Childlike. I always admired how Hadley squeals in delight while driving through a carwash or how she jumps up in down with excitement at the prospect of going to the grocery store. I admired her exclamation points-after-every-sentence mentality, but I never fully grasped it, until yesterday. My first best day ever!

While on my hands and knees scrubbing our floors because the mop broke, I didn’t yet realize the day would go down in the history books. A three-generation, mother, daughter, grandmother lunch still didn’t tip me off at how the day would end.  A manicure with Hadley was an indulgence, but a treat we have enjoyed before. It was somewhere between the stop for ice cream after school and watching my son grow before my eyes on a paddle board that I started to catch a glimpse of that elusive concept of Now.  It is a rare experience, at least for me, to be fully in the moment and grateful as the moment is unfolding. Describe what that feels like? I will try.

It is like having a flower war under a giant Kapok tree! It is sort of like driving down a street you drive down every day, except this time, you notice a curious house painted in a sacred prayer for joy, alignment and waffles! It feels like pulling an illegal U-turn on a busy avenue to be a voyeur into the tattoo parlor where sacred prayers are inked on people! It is similar to introducing Mexican Pad Thai to unfamiliar taste buds than washing it down with spicy hot mangos! It is the sense of greeting your husband at the door like a long lost love and truly meaning it! It is that moment of laughing uncontrollably and inappropriately at the antics of MTV’s Jack Ass crew while staying up well past your bedtime! It is like pretending not to notice your dirty dog sneak into your just cleaned sheets! It is a lot like cuddling!
It is also like rushing to the grocery store when you don't have time and waiting in way too long of a line for the carwash, which also happened on my first best day ever! It is a lot like today, this very second in fact, depending on how you look at it!

What makes something the best day ever for you?

For today's "Sky's the Limit" on what you can learn: Since going to the carwash is equal to going to Disney in my daughter's worldview that everything is a wonderful adventure, I wanted to continue the theme on equality. 

Did you know that people who list their middle name as "equality" on Facebook and other social media sites are publicizing the fact that they are openly gay? Sort of the like "Friends of Bill W." became the code name for Alcoholics Anonymous, "equality" is now the code word for gay pride. It was started by a Florida activist that leads a gay and lesbian rights lobbying group.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Innocent as a Caveman

So easy a caveman can do it.

We are trying to go Paleo in our house. The reason why I am sharing this on this blog is because this month’s focus is on childlike innocence. So purity is top of mind right now. Pure thoughts. Pure intentions. Pure food. Chef Emily Golden, the founder of Mindful Meals. is a personal chef who is teaching me how to eat like a caveman, which means anything that can be hunted, gathered, picked or dug up. Nothing processed. Meat must be grass fed. 

In addition to owning restaurants that catered to various food sensitivities, Chef Emily had to become an expert on pure foods when her daughter developed allergies to wheat and dairy. She converted her family to a Paleo diet more than a year ago. The switch cleared up nagging health issues, boosted energy and slimmed everyone down in her family. Now, she is teaching me to plan meals in advance, add more fruits and veggies to the mix and cut back on the grains and sugar in our house.

I am battling excess weight, fatigue, brain fog and frequent headaches. So if this lifestyle change helps, it will save me from being a pharmaceutical experiment and save my kids from inheriting some of my bad habits.

Here is a Q & A with Chef Emily Golden who better explains Paleo.

How is Paleo different from Atkins or other no carb diets?
Chef Golden: It is not just meat. That is ultra low card. Atkins was designed specifically for weight loss. Paleo is more about lifestyle. Living a really pure lifestyle. At it root, its about getting the cleanest sources of fruits, vegetables and meats that we can. At its root, it promotes sustainable farming, If cows and pigs forage for grass and weeds, that is reflected in the meat that we get from these animals. They are not intended to eat grain any more than we are. Once they are sent to a feedlot, they are stuffed with grains, antibiotics and hormones.  All of that depletes their natural nutrient content. Atkins focuses on all meat. Paleo focuses on natural foods.

What are you giving up?
Chef Golden: Anything processed including: sugar, bread, cereal, flour and anything that contains grain.

What was the hardest part to give up and what did you use to substitute?
Chef Golden:
I started January of last year. Initially, the hardest thing to give up was sugar. We found sugar alternatives like organic honey and maple syrup. If you are going to bake, I suggest avoiding anything fake. They have the same reaction in your body. They still stimulate hunger. I substitute coconut and almond flour for flour and almond or coconut milk for dairy. I also use mashed bananas and applesauce for baking. It is very positive for diabetics, because it is anti-inflammatory.

 We didn’t completely give up everything, but we reduced it greatly. We didn’t give up alcohol entirely. We did not give up dairy. But I use whole unpasteurized milk sparingly. We did not give up corn tortillas because we are huge Mexican food fans.

Is Paleo effective for weight loss?
Chef Golden: I wasn’t overweight or had health conditions. I just wanted to be better and feel better. I had a lot of stress and anxiety. Just not feeling 100%, really tired, normal work a day stuff that a lot of people suffer from. I thought If I could feel better, look better, perform better, than it was worth a try. I only lost a few pounds but I lost two dress sizes. My husband lost a lot of weight. I also did not feel so stressed. I felt an immediate improvement in my ability to focus. I thought I had ADD and I really struggled with that in my business and personal life.

Are there misconceptions about Paleo?
Chef Golden: Everyone assumes it is too expensive to eat like this. But I make the case that it is more nutrient rich food. So its not a fair comparison. I found because you are eating higher quality food, you become satisfied with less, so it doesn’t require as much. Plus there are ways to save like buying organic from your local farmers market, supporting a local farm or joining a co-op.

Is Paleo for everyone?
Chef Golden:  It is going to be a challenge if you eat out a lot. But it can be. It is really a one size fits all template than figuring out what works best for your lifestyle.

More about Chef Emily
Chef Emily has been cooking since 1994 and has a history of restaurant experience and customer service. She has long been a health enthusiast and has developed special skills in creating whole foods menus with a particular focus on gluten free and Paleo style cooking although, her skills encompass all types of cuisine. She started her Mindful Meals Delivery Service over 4 years ago in Saint Petersburg, serving the Tampa Bay area, realizing a need for consistently healthy meals available in a climate of over scheduling and fast food diets. In addition, she has worked with groups doing healthy cooking demonstrations and speaking events, has done private cooking instruction and classes, joined in cross promotion and charitable fundraisers with other local business and organizations and, has cooked for hundreds of happy households in the Bay area.

If you have specific health issues or are challenged by weight loss, Emily has a reputation for creating satisfying healthy menus that don't leave you feeling deprived. She will work closely with your doctor or dietician or you can follow her special, proven, Paleo protocol. For more information about Chef Emily Golden, visit her website at 

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