Lisbeth Salander and Ladies Who Lunch

July 21, 2010

So recently, a small group of attractive, mature, successful women were sharing a meal, and two themes emerged.  One was that they all were deeply touched by Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larrson’s fierce, warped, self-contained heroine (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, come back next week for a change of topic).  The other was that they had all, in their early years, knowingly married a man they didn’t love, or even like.  The pattern was roughly the same in all cases:  He asked them.  It would have been impolite to say no.  This was the only shot they were going to get.  It would create an unthinkable scene not to go through with it.

And so they did.  Said unions lasted from 3 to over thirty years.  The thing is, all involved also said their first impression of these guys was a kind of inner recoiling.  It was an inbred requirement to be “polite”, above all things, that just clamped them onto a path toward misery.

Maybe this sort of thing is more indigenous to women in my neck of the woods (geographically located in an area where people use phrases like “my neck of the woods”).  Maybe it’s a generational thing, and deservedly dying out with the new generation of women.  Which, BTW, does not identify itself, on the whole, as feminists.

Then there’s Lisbeth.

Part of the fascination with this unlikely heroine is that she is completely unaculturated.  And as such, she reveals to the rest of us the layers of social expectation and indoctrination that we are laboring under.

Salander’s is a kind of primal purity of logic and emotion.  It is raw, but with a steely center of intellectual clarity, loyalty and a surgically-precise sense of justice that is startling at times, but which instinctively respects whatever limits she has come to understand.  And in reading the books (and the first film, the Swedish version), one is somehow thrilled that anyone can go to such deep places and still maintain her footing;  able to operate in the darkness, without ever going over to the dark side.

No one would want to be shaped by the traumas and tragedies of Lisbeth’s early life.   But the real difference between Lisbeth and those women whose tales I share, is not that Lisbeth had sharply honed instincts, and these women didn’t.

No, the difference is that Lisbeth was never taught anything beyond her own instincts.  These women had the same instincts, the same primal, basic reactions to another human.  But they were already drenched in a culture that devalued instinct, that molded them into a cultural identity as women that stressed conciliation, understanding, and that weird, 2-edged sword, “putting other people first”.

Someone pointed out to me long ago, and I’ve heard it repeated many times; when the flight attendant gives the pre-flight spiel, he or she reminds passengers to put on their own air mask first, before attempting to help others around them.  Take care of yourself first.  You can’t help anyone else unless you do.

And as humans, one of our most important built-in systems of protection is that instinct we have on first meeting another.  And yes, I could write another whole essay about how our initial reactions to others are also often tainted with cultural, racial and other confounding factors.

But for now, I’m talking about the most intimate interactions, the one-on-ones, the first dates, the guy at the bar (and guys, you know darned well this works both ways!).   No matter how cool he looks, no matter how lonely and needy you’re feeling, no matter how late the night or how much you’ve had to drink (again, another whole essay), no matter what your girlfriends say…it’s that little voice inside that you should really stop and listen to.  The list of potential disasters is too long, and do-overs, in the real world, are damned expensive.

Lisbeth Salander may never find peace.  Then again, most of us, I fervently hope, will not be faced with the extreme challenges of her life.  In any tricky encounter, if we can just step back from being either “good girls” or “sex kittens” for a few seconds, if we can apply just a little of Lisbeth’s primal clarity, we might actually begin the process of becoming true post-post-feminists:  straightforward, honest, responsible, strong, loving women.   Really, I think there’s a demand out there….

p.s.  The second film is coming out soon, the Swedish version.  American re-makes are in the works, but I have real reservations as to whether Hollywood can capture the essence of Lisbeth Salander.  Read the books.  Stick with the Swedes.

Are you Conscious?

July 14, 2010


Yes, that’s probably the appropriate starting point for this conversation, because the odds are, you aren’t.

But you have been.  And you will be again.  And at some point, you may decide being Conscious is downright appealing.

A few definitions here.  I use “Conscious”, with a capital C, to distinguish from “conscious”, with a lower case c, which is more like the state in which you are not physically sleeping, passed out from the over-enjoyment of various amusing substances, or undergoing surgery while you are reading this.  Which might be more suited for a Discovery Channel special.  Or maybe the National Enquirer.

By “Conscious”, with the capital C, I am referring instead to a state in which you are perceiving the world around you, and yourself in that world, through eyes undistorted by culture, outer identity, and other lenses of received knowledge and “wisdom”.  In such a state, there is nothing but a sense of wonder and seemingly irrational bliss, which in itself is a pretty good rule of thumb for determining whether you’re “there”.

You all know what I mean.  You’ve all been there.  Not some woo-woo, goofball, spacier-than-thou thing.  Just a moment of joy.  For no apparent reason at all.  Very cool.

Here’s another distinction:  Conscious is not the same as Mindful.  Mindful is good, too.  It means you’re paying attention to the main task at hand.  Do not, for example, try operating a chain saw without fixing your total attention, mindfully.

But being mindful, as the word implies, involves the Mind.  Wheels turning.  Sensory inputs engaged.  And the Mind, which is quite full of itself, is behind the tendency to “multi-task”, because once those wheels start turning, it’s such a buzz that, surely, more is better?  And the fact that you were able to arrive at work after simultaneously driving a car, texting your BFF, eating a breakfast burrito and maybe even painting your toenails, well, surely, that makes you queen (or king?) of the Mindfulness universe, right?

Actually what it makes you is momentarily… lucky.  Not cool.  Stop it.

Mindful means tending to the One Thing you are doing.  Not fragmenting your attention until there’s not enough attention left on any one thing to do that thing well.  And if you’re doing so many things that do not require deeper attention, your life is really superficial, my friend.

I used to know someone who always insisted that the devil is in the details.  By this, they meant that one should get down into the level of detail, which in the case of that person, meant, for example, days or weeks comparison shopping, both before and after a purchase.

Then again, this person also defined “5-ish” as meaning “any time within the clock hour between 5:00 and 5:59”, which made scheduling social events a little dicey.

Another interpretation of the devil is in the details is this:  that the real and perilous temptation lies in letting our attention get sucked out as we obsess about little things.  Things that Do Not Matter.  Consciousness always lifts one out of the specific and into the global, even though, paradoxically, it is often something specific that sparks the moment, like really seeing some bit of beauty in nature, or in some everyday interaction with another human being.  It’s only in those conscious moments that we are not only free of fear, but astoundingly clear as to how to live our lives and conduct our affairs.

Of course, then you crash down to earth again.  Welcome back.  We missed you.

Details are necessary, of course.  If your accountant is too fond of using the phrase “whatever”, you could have a problem, and maybe you need to tune into your own details.

But between the detail-microscope in the lab, and the infinite-universe-blowing-your-mind telescope looking out into the vastness of space, there are those little moments when we see it all, head in the stars, feet on the ground, nothing occupying our own space but compassion and understanding.

Consciousness is what happens when you fleetingly lift your boots out of the muck of what we think of as “normal” perception.  It’s that moment of sexual release, when there’s nothing but the … whoosh!

Nothing but the smile.

Have you been conscious lately?  Even though these moments are fleeting and often far between, you know another one will sneak up on you sometime when you least expect it.  Very cool indeed, huh?

The View from 2020: ’10 Oil Spill started it all

July 9, 2010

Although nobody saw it at the time, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 was, in retrospect, the tipping point.  The grand scale of the universe was finally tilted the other way, so that what had been up began to go down.

The change was imperceptible at first (it often is), but surprisingly swift once the momentum took hold.  After a while, it was just one damn thing after another.

Back in ’10, people began by bemoaning the lack of fresh seafood and unspoiled beaches for their summer vacations.  It did not immediately occur to these people that, with the economy already on its own sly slide, they did not have the disposable income to spend on either of those things anyway.

As the Gulf was essentially rendered lifeless, swarms of unemployed fishermen, oil rig workers and service sector employees migrated northward in desperation.  The term “illegal immigrant” started being used in the Midwest to describe native Louisianans.

At first it was only true illegal aliens who were willing to stay on the coast and take the dirty jobs, like shoveling out the blobs of oil that coated Bourbon Street in New Orleans after Hurricane Gordita, so nicknamed for its unprecedented size, and tendency to devour everything in its path.

However, having escaped the worst of the hurricane season, the Mexican economy continued its slight but real improvements.  The major drug lords of Mexico, never ones to let a business opportunity slide, began to expand their reach.  Cannily reading the restlessness of the Mexican people, and bored themselves with the drug violence, they struck an accord between the various cartels and quite easily put up a vapid, attractive candidate for president in 2012, winning handily.  With the on-going infusion of drug money from the U.S. (as the U.S. economy sunk, more and more people sought the solace of drug-induced escape) the cartels had found in politics a new and more amusing way of exercising power, and by 2018, Mexico was starting to claim its place in the pantheon of first world countries, while the U.S., having had its debts called in by China (who needed the money for their own expansion), saw its financial standing go through a shocking slide.

The U.S. economy received a big boost when Mexico bought the entirety of the border fence, to prevent the upsurge in baby boomers tryin to move to Mexico for cheap prescriptions.  It was the biggest real estate deal since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and don’t think there weren’t people in Washington regretting that move, either.

The second (or was it third?) wave of the recession hit in 2015, when half the Republican senators and about 20% of the Democrats, were found to have taken huge stock options in several of the banks that were “too big to fail”.  The resulting scandal not only took down those politicians, but the banking industry itself.   Emergency legislation was rammed through and what had been branch banks on practically every corner of every city were turned overnight into independent “home town banks”, with government bailout money, for the only time in history, being shared more or less fairly among them all.  Some thrived, some failed, but there was a mini-boom in the printing of new business cards and stationery.

Meantime, practically all of the “greatest generation” passed on, due to a combination of old age and cut-backs in Medicare, apparently taking their “can-do/make do” spirit and know-how with them.

Young people in their 20’s, who had come of age with an ingrained and total faith in the internet, and their own pre-ordained fame and fortune, at first continued to seek answers online.  Unfortunately, with the shaky economy, all the major internet search engines were forced to start on-line usage metering in order to keep operational, since they were no longer able to make money by advertising.  No one was buying anything.  The 20-somethings were befuddled until the most forward-looking of their generation began to strike out, putting on coats and ties (a curiously unisex ’70’s fashion throw-back) and hitting the bricks to job-hunt face-to-face.  Others, of course, followed.  Many were stunned to encounter humans of other age brackets, who, however inconceivably, seemed to have something to contribute that might be of use.

The period was hard on everyone, as the new reality was still sinking in.  We had lived in a culture where constant new technological advances were eagerly anticipated, and people regarded every new gadget as a life necessity.  Therefore, everyone was bewildered, unnerved and depressed when the flow of these new products slowed to a halt.  Third world countries began to horde the valuable minerals and rare natural resources required for production, so that, over time, used cell phones, MP3 players, laptops and other items, became of greater value, and an unanticipated business grew in technological repairs.

Like Cuba, after the 1959 revolution shut the country down, and old cars were kept going for decades, so now were iPhones and iPods kept alive by “shade-tree techies”, so named because, with the periodic power outages and the rising summer temperatures, more and more people took to moving tables and chairs outside to do their work.

One upside of this was that the obesity problem began to dissipate.  Abruptly un-tethered from their devices (power outages), and from their cars (gas shortages), the hypnotic addictions of the first part of the 21st century were broken, and at least the strong survived.

Of course, this survival of the “fittest” had already begun, in terms of technology, as so many people had been killed crossing streets or driving while fixated on their “smart” phones (not so smart after all).  Another side effect of this shift was that, denied access to constant communication, more and more people came to a shared conclusion, which was that they really didn’t like or care about most of those other people anyway.  A mini-boom in body-language expertise rose to meet the demands of newly-discovered non-virtual communication.

And since life had slowed down so much, there was even less trivia about their lives worth sharing.  Who wants to read a tweet that says, “still sitting under the tree…”?

On the other hand, actually sitting under a tree didn’t turn out to be so bad.
Read more:

The Most Interesting Man in the World

June 27, 2010

I love those beer commercials that feature the world’s most interesting man, maybe because I’m of an age to go for that weathered face, those wise and sexy eyes.  But what if there was an actual contest?  What would the criteria be for picking a winner?  And could I please be in on the judging?

Lets start the proceedings right here.  What does it take to be The Most Interesting Man in the World?

I’m going to fall back, for a moment, on a bigger authority than myself:  Joseph Campbell, who was a Pretty Interesting Man himself.  For those of you who never heard of this guy, he spent his life studying myths and their meanings for our everyday lives.  If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you could do worse than reading any of this guy’s many books.  For a taste of Campbell, this is a superficial but lovely sample, with YoYo Ma for musical accompaniment.


One of the major themes Campbell explored was the Hero’s Journey.  The whole concept of the hero has been pretty well dumbed-down these days, but even in the schlockiest blockbusters, there’s a faint reflection of the real journey Joseph Campbell wrote and talked about.

The Hero is found in cultures all around the world, and the tales throughout history are similar.  Here’s Campbell’s definition:  (I pulled this off Wikipedia)   A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. According to Campbell, this mythical journey captures the essence of the great religious figures across history and cultures and traditions:  like Buddha, Jesus, Moses.

But here’s the thing.  You can go slay all the dragons you want.  But Life isn’t here to just provide you with an endless supply of exciting dragons (and no, we’re not talking computer generated, either!).  The Hero actually learns from all this, becomes older and wiser,  battle-scarred and toughened, in the way that soldiers who have seen actual war are often the ones who are most wary of starting new ones.  Experience.  Wisdom.  Transformation.   This journey isn’t just a fun thrill-fest, either, no video game shoot-em-up.  It’s perilous and disorienting and scary.  It’s having everything you thought you knew about your life ripped away.

You find me a man (okay, girlfriends, I’m on a gender-specific topic today – bear with me) who goes out to face real dragons and finds his own heart and strength and soul in the process, and you’ve got one Interesting Man on your hands.

And so, I’m nominating for today’s Most Interesting Man in the World Award, an often bellicose, difficult, brilliant guy who is up to his eyeballs in dragons right now, and apparently finding his heart, too:

Sean Penn.

Yes, Sean Penn, actor, political liberal, often abrasive and self-appointed rescuer of the world.

Sean Penn is in Haiti.  Still.  He went there shortly after the earthquake, scrounging doctors and medical supplies to take with him.

And he stayed.  And he’s staying.  Indefinitely.

According to a story in TIME this week, Sean got the cosmic 2×4 to the head:  divorce, facing 50 this year, everything he knew, all the old meaning in life,  just falling away.  Whether you know it or not, times like those can sometimes herald the onset of your very own hero’s journey.  It’s just that it’s not a journey most of us would choose voluntarily.  Fate has to give us a little jump kick.  Or a big one.

Fate seems to have jump-started Sean Penn.  He and the team he’s put together are now running a refugee encampment, of up to 50,000 people.  It’s hard and heartbreaking and challenging and frustrating.  And whatever adjectives I can spit out here are insipid compared to the real experience, I’m sure.

It seems like an unlikely turn of events, but sometimes you come across someone who gets kicked out of the rut (or the comfort zone) they’ve been in, and they rise to meet the challenge.  There’s no glory or glamour in such work.  But sometimes Fate offers us a way to find our heart and ourselves, in serving others, in leaving behind the easy and familiar life we’ve lived.

Now I don’t know Sean Penn.  I can’t see into his heart, can’t know if he’s in the midst of a major epiphany, or just a good old fashioned mid-life crisis;  don’t know whether he’s moving toward higher consciousness or just falling off yet another cliff.

But right now, poised in this moment, he just may be the Most Interesting Man in the World.

Signs of Redemption on LOST (3/9/10)

March 10, 2010

Signs of redemption on LOST this week…

I admit it.  I’m a LOST fan.  After a year of holding myself aloof, I finally succumbed, and now I’m thoroughly engrossed as we gallop toward the finale.

The moment that grabbed me last night was one simple line, spoken to Ben near the end:  “I’ll have you”. A line almost thrown away, that summed up what every human in the world wants to hear.

I’ll have you.  That moment of being seen, in all your shabby, tattered, despicable, abysmal failure and despair… and accepted anyway.  It’s as good as when you were a kid, waiting to be chosen in volleyball, every other misfit and geek taken ahead of you.  Then, finally, as you’re wishing you could sink into the floorboards of the gym, someone says, finally, I’ll have you.

Last week the kicker moment was that look of Sayid’s, calm, tranquil, oddly peaceful, as he, too, found his “side”.  The need to belong is strong in all humans, and that basic need plays out everyday.  Unfortunately in this world, too often, the most definable, clear “side”, the one with a hint of glamour, drama, blood-stirring possibility, decisive black and white answers, is the downward side.  That’s the side that says:  Join us! No ambiguity here, by golly, no questions!  You can tear things down!  You can fight against something!

Things that can be fought against tend to be clear.  The field of things that can be expanded, built up, nurtured, developed – these areas are fuzzy precisely because they are boundless.

But isn’t that the ultimate thrill?  Not the certain endgame of doom, but the limitless possibilities of positive expansion?

We all teeter on that knife-edge all the time.  The tension is always there.  Will we fall over on the side of positive, or negative?  Slip just a little either direction, or fall so far that even getting back to the edge seems beyond our reach?

As the characters fall off, to one side or another, during the final days of LOST, the questions – and answers – the writers pose really cut to the heart of life itself,  the biggest unsolved mystery of all.  And, as Art imitates Life, we stay tuned for the next episode.

Can Good Teaching be Learned?

March 9, 2010

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Bravo to Doug Lemov (“Can Good Teaching be Learned?”, New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010).   After 30 years in the “ed biz”, starting out teaching kindergarten, and ending up – yep – training teachers, I gave it up, in part because there were so many questions not being asked. The first and most obvious:  if we fire the incompetent teachers, where will we find those ideal replacements?  In the light of our economic woes these days, there may actually be good news, as there may be more competition for teaching jobs.  That is, if school districts keep afloat themselves.

Other questions addressed in the article also warm my heart.  For too long, too many opinion makers have successfully argued that any well-educated adult can walk into a classroom and be an effective teacher.  I propose here what I’ve proposed for 40 years:  Every lawmaker (ideally every pundit, too) should be required to substitute teach one day each year.  The complexities, the “real-time” multi-tasking, the unceasing responsibility not just for academic advancement, but basic physical safety and emotional caretaking, make classroom teaching as challenging a job, on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute level, as any.  Merit pay?  Has anyone heard of Systems Theory?  Teaching is a complex system, with many interactive components.  Pulling one factor (teachers) apart from the rest of the system and assessing “success” according to that one factor is, and I’m watching my language here, absurdly flawed logic.

Having taught teacher training classes, and listened to my students and their vocally expressed needs, I commend Mr. Lemov for addressing, rather than loftily dismissing, the nuts and bolts of classroom management.  There are so many little techniques, any one of which can avert disaster, or at the least, keep valuable time from being wasted.  Why have we thought that this knowledge was either innate or trivial?

Finally, too many prospective teachers come into the field picturing themselves like Mr. Chips (a reference young people would not get!), at a podium, wise, authoritative, respected, adored.  One of the first things I hammered into my teacher-trainees was a sequence for self-analysis:  1)  Understand your own mental, emotional, and cultural processes;   2)  Understand that others do not think as you do;  3)  Find out how those others think;   4)  Figure out how to bridge that gap.  This is the true work of a teacher, and, for me, was always the most challenging and the most rewarding.

Serendipity & Songwriting 101

November 7, 2009

It’s here!

New arrangements.  New vocalists.  All the result of a serendipitous and unexpected connection to the amazing Michael J. Lewis, Emmy-winning, Grammy-nominated composer and producer, and his equally amazing partner, Alison Pryce.  Exactly the kind of thing I would have sworn (and often did!) never happens to me.

Early last summer, I was in Santa Fe fro a singer-songwriter circle organized by Lisa J. Carman, my newest soul-sister, fellow Cancerian, award-winning singer-songwriter herself, and a wise teacher.  We spent a weekend playing, singing and talking, and Lisa cannily challenged me to get clear on what I really wanted to do with my music.  And my spontaneous response was this:  I wanted a top-flight producer who loved my music and really gets it.  I don’t really care about performing, I want to compose.  I get an amazing kick out of hearing other people sing my songs, and I love using the scope of unlimited voice types and talents to take my music to new places.

Not two months later, a different girlfriend, my old high school pal, mentioned in passing that she hd a friend who “did something in the music business”.  Thought it might be interesting to get in touch, and did so, with no idea beyond a generic curiosity.  The friend turned out to be Alison Pryce, formed bassist with the Royal Philharmonic in London, and collaborator/partner of Michael Lewis, composer of dozens of scores for major films, commercials,, and a Broadway musical, who had tired of LA and moved to Austin (an hour up the road) a few years before.  Alison followed with her own move to Austin, where she met my old high school pal, Ann.

One descriptor that has always come up in terms of my music style is… “movie music”.  Alison checked out some of my tunes, mentioned them to Michael, and within a week, the two of them had approached me;  they loved my music, and wanted me to let them “do justice” to my songs.

And how!  It’s been an overwhelming experience, educational, challenging, expansive, and thrilling at every step.  Alison and Michael worked magic, and my first reaction on hearing waht they had done was… So that’s where my music wanted to go!

More entries will follow soon, to give all credit where it’s due, and recognize the fantastic voices on these three tracks, but for now, Please take a listen – at to Juarez, Darfur Lullaby, and Leaving Athens.  I hope you enjoy them!

Tino’s Rainy Day

November 2, 2009


It’s me, Valentino.
It’s a very wet and dark day where I am. I cannot go out and play. I love to play outside. There is grass outside. I like to roll in the grass. Over and over and over.
There is dirt outside, too. I like to dig in the dirt. I have big white paws. They get very dirty. Then everywhere I go, I get things dirty.
That is a lot of fun. I do not know why Cece and Joe do not let me play in the rain. I sit at the window and look out. I am very bored! Sometimes I make little sounds to say, “I am bored!”
Cece knows I am bored. She said, “Let’s take a picture. Let’s take a picture for the girls at Santa Julia.” So Cece and I sat down to send you a letter and a picture.
Here is the picture. As you see, I am a very beautiful dog! Don’t you think so?

Tino and friend

Tino admires himself on screen

. Now I am not bored. I am happy because I wrote you a letter. Well, I did not write the letter. But I sent my lovely picture of my lovely face! If I were there, I would lick everyone’s face, too.
With all my love to the girls of Santa Julia, Valentino