Betsy Robinson, author of funny literary stories about flawed people, is a perpetual seeker of truth.

From books to music to theater and fine art, from online TV to DVDs, this blog takes a look at current culture through a spiritual perspective — with a touch of humor.

Materials under the "review" tag are a mix of free review copies (books, DVDs, etc.) in exchange for a review, to library copies, to materials and tickets I've paid for.

A Really Bad Hair Day (Feb. 13 blog)

The Art of Collapsing (Feb. 6 blog)

Life is only temporary says Evan Handler (Jan. 28 blog)

The New World of Finance (Jan. 28 blog)

All about growing up in a cult (April 16 blog)

Fierce Giving (Jan. 8 blog)











(Copyright © 2008-2014 Betsy Robinson. All rights reserved)

Notes from a Crusty Seeker

A Gentleman in Moscow and Hypocrisy in Historical Accuracy

May 24, 2017

Tags: review, compassionate wisdom

"At no other time in history," said Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow (which I've swooned over) and Rules of Civility (which I will read very soon), "at no other time have fiction writers been held to a higher standard of truth than people who run for political office."

Big laugh! We were a packed audience at a talk Towles was giving at the National Arts Club located on Gramercy Park South, one of the most elegant addresses in New York City and a fitting venue for a writer as elegant as Towles in his perfectly fitted brown pin-stripe suit. He continued: "Someone running for the highest office in the land can say anything, the most outrageous lies, and be excused, yet if I get an address wrong in a novel, I receive a million irate emails."

Another laugh. (more…)

Libraries for Life

April 12, 2017

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

The first thing I ever wrote and published was a review of Tell Me Another Morning by Zdena Berger. I found this autobiographical Holocaust novel while browsing in my local public library when I was 13 or 16; the time is hazy. I would hang out in the quiet of this small-town oasis, explore, and for a little while feel like who I really was. There was a newsletter booklet on the librarian's desk and it said they'd publish reviews, so I wrote one. Although I read Tell Me Another Morning 53 or 50 years ago, I still remember it. It was a story about surviving by listening to stories.

I was catapulted into this memory by yesterday's The Hill report:
As National Library Week begins April 9, the Trump administration and Republican Party have launched an unprecedented attack on the institution by submitting a zero budget request for the Institute for Library and Museum Services.

Libraries are important and I am appalled that the government of the country that people run to, the "land of the free," would defund them. Libraries are part of our national infrastructure. They allow people who have nothing to have access to everything. (Just take a look at this list of a few famous people, including Lincoln, who educated themselves with merely a library card.) Libraries allow those who are interested to learn the horrors of not resisting when humans act inhumanly (Yes, Sean Spicer, Hitler really did use chemical weapons on his people). (more…)

Our Revolution—Education, not Blame

November 27, 2016

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

It's been decades since I've faced racial and ethnic hatred up close, but when these things happen, they scar you. Hence, my fear at the proliferation of swastikas following our 2016 presidential election. I don't like feeling this kind of fear, and education helps lower my heart rate as I stay engaged. I read Bernie Sanders's Our Revolution because I needed educating, and if that is your goal, this is the book—whether you are a Bernie true believer, a Clinton supporter, or a Trump voter whose motivation was to take a sledge hammer to a system that is not working and is ignoring millions of people.

The first section of this book is a methodical educational walk through recent politics—absolutely excellent, clear-eyed, and optimistic (particularly the Burlington story which comes near the beginning of the book), no matter who you voted for! If you can ignore your particular biases, you will receive an education in oligarchy, which has been the direction of U.S. politics for a long, long time—whoever has money gets their way.
The political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realize. (190)

The second section of this book is a manifesto about what exists now and how to create something else for all of us who want fairness, the ability to make a living, safety, and acknowledgement. There is a lot of detail, heavy facts—so much knowledge that I wondered how Sanders can contain it without having his head explode as mine kept threatening to do. But education is not easy. And it can be pretty scary to learn the why and how of oligarchy. At times, I felt panicked and overwhelmed. But I would rather feel those things than not know. There are reasons behind Sanders's campaign talking points about the top 2% owning all the wealth being a bad idea, about why raising the minimum wage is a good thing and how it can be done, and the section on reforming Wall Street is an alarming "Paul Revere"-type equal-opportunity indictment of Democrats and Republicans that left me gasping. (more…)

Different Seasons by Stephen King

October 30, 2016

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

Masterful writing and storytelling.

I've stayed away from Stephen King's books because I do not like being scared and I was under the impression that he wrote horror. He does. But in this book of four novellas, the horror is rooted in the normal human being's shadow (to use Jung's nomenclature). And the fact that it is exposed and played out through such exquisite writing makes it all the more horrifying. And the beauty of the writing makes the ugliness more ugly and also tolerable.

Sometimes a writer who is writing for a deep personal reason (and not all writers do) will expose his motivation. For me, King's M.O. came in this quote from the novella called Apt Pupil about an all-American sociopathic boy who gets involved with a Nazi, living incognito, in his small town:
The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. . . . maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us—something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right—or wrong—set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. (250)
(more…)

3 Riveting Naked-People Novels by Herman Koch

August 13, 2016

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

In an NPR interview, the internationally best-selling Dutch author Herman Koch was asked about reader reaction to his first English-translated novel, The Dinner, a disturbing story about people doing despicable things and enabling their children to get away with horrifying crimes. In reply, Koch said, "It goes from people saying, 'Well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not,' to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, 'Finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.' This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?" I live in the USA, which I guess qualifies as a southern country, and I certainly fall into the latter category.

Herman Koch has remarkable writer's gifts: X-ray vision for the hidden thoughts and inner workings of everyone from an old man to a teenage girl, perfect pitch for dialogue, and such command of structure and plot that my persnickety editor's mind disappears and I read with a fan's full abandon, confident that I can give myself totally to the unfolding story. Here are three briefs about his novels:

Dear Mr. M
The plot of Koch's newest book (Hogarth, Sept. 6, 2016) is complex with so many subtle turns and such heart-pounding tension in the last hundred pages that I literally could not put it down. Suffice it to say there are a group of school kids in Holland. There is a teacher. There is a writer. And they all weave together in a kind of murder mystery—but ignore what I just said because this is not a typical mystery. It's not a typical anything. It is an exposition of the inner workings of humans at their worst and a bleak philosophical treatise about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the nobility of action vs. inaction, the vicissitudes of power to create balance, loss of innocence and the nature of existence that is so well done that, even though my own philosophy about the final nature-of-life topic is quite different, having just finished reading, all I can do is bounce from couch to computer, yelling "Yay! Bravo!" The book is riveting, entertaining, and magnificently rendered.

In Dear Mr. M, an anonymous letter writer says to the author (M) he is stalking that M has a kind of obscene expression: "You're not looking at the reader, no, you're challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It's like one of those contests to see who'll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses." I suspect Herman Koch, too, does this. Not once during his virtual gaze that permeates the story does he blink. But neither did I. I was too enthralled, drawn by an ineffable magnetic force into his meticulously honest creation exposing how we really are. (more…)

3 Literary Novels that Reinvent Language

June 24, 2016

Tags: review

For years I’ve been told that my writing is “not safe.” I take this as a compliment. But it’s also the cause for problems: How does an agent sell such work? How can one communicate about it to readers? After much teeth gnashing, my literary agent finally figured out how to place my work in a genre: “You don’t sound like anyone else,” she pronounced. That was my genre—not like anyone else. “Yes,” I said ecstatically. “Yes, and that’s my favorite kind of book to read: writers with original voices.”

Who but Alice Walker could have ever written The Color Purple? John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in despair and whose mother finally published A Confederacy of Dunces, was one of a kind. And more recently Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is written in a child’s language all its own, was such a hit it has been turned into a popular Hollywood movie. But, except for the rare writer who achieves fame with something out of left field (Haruki Murakami, for instance) and becomes his own "brand," these books are not the rule. Most popular books fit into a standard genre: women’s fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I like these books too, but the books I love, the ones that get inside me and change me, are those that are written, and had to be written, by writers who used their original voices. Here are three such books:

The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s Press, July 26, 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

Imagine the best Southern writers of many eras, plus a serving of a script by Shirley Jackson produced in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with a touch of futuristic Kurt Vonnegut seasoning, all cooked with an imagination that belongs only to Tiffany McDaniel.

The setting is the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio, during the abnormally hot summer of 1984. The story is told by a man called Fielding Bliss (son of the town’s prosecutor, Autopsy Bliss)—from his point of view in a future none of us have yet lived.

At Autopsy’s invitation, because he cannot live with being certain and wrong, he invites the devil to Breathed; surely the devil will be someone he is certain about and right. A boy shows up claiming to be the devil. And all hell breaks loose.

This is a poetic parable about how, in fear, driven by our herd instinct, in the high heat of unexamined beliefs, we humans easily and instantly allow common sense to be melted away. It is about our species—beings who have not been accepted as they are, disappointed in themselves, similarly rejecting themselves and then others. Paradise Lost. (Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Milton poem.)

This book has an epic quality. The writing is unusual. Is life an ongoing tragedy? This story is one to live with and contemplate. And the mystery of how a debut book can be this mature is solved in this interview; it's the "fifth or sixth" book McDaniel has written! (more…)

Reflections on “Hold Still” by Sally Mann

June 17, 2016

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

Earthy, fierce, sensual, and elegant—that is the nature of this person, the gorgeous writing, and also, it seems, the nature of the American South, as expressed by photographer Sally Mann in her stunning autobiography. Just like the cover which shows a child “holding still” mid-jump, surrounded by sky, the writing manages to simultaneously move and hold you.

Sally Mann and I are the same age, we occupied the same territory for a time (same class at Bennington), but I don’t recall knowing her. If I did meet her, I’m sure I took one look at the ferocious expression in her eyes—illustrated in some of the many photographs in this book and acknowledged by her—and I would have given her a wide berth. She describes herself as a “feral child.” Funny, because I’ve used the same words to describe myself at that time. But where she was fearless, I was afraid of anything and everything. Where she moved forward with jet propulsion, I free fell. But I think now we would be friends.

She is honest, self-aware, and naked about her personality proclivities:
“. . . I have always been susceptible to some form of opportunistic sorrow—of the deepest, most soul-wrenching, step-off-the-cliff variety.” (203)
In a world filled with people (and media) who move seamlessly from true grief to exaggerated, self-feeding “opportunistic sorrow,” I think this is the first time I’ve ever read it admitted and so well named, and it made me cheer. (more…)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

April 26, 2016

Tags: review, healing

Ever since I ran my fingers through my mother's cremation remains, just before sending them sailing into the ocean, I've wanted to know what happened to her body in the gap between the moment I kissed her still-warm face goodbye in the ICU and her transformation into emulsified bone matter. Although I'm not in any rush for it and I really loathe losing anyone I love, I am not turned off by death. It's inevitable and I'm very curious. I realize this is an idiosyncratic thing, but I've found that when someone I love dies, I instantly distinguish the dead body as an object quite different from the being who moments ago inhabited it and lose interest in the container; to my senses, it's suddenly like a well-worn shirt. I also rather enjoy the Buddhist exercise of imagining my own disintegration. So I dove into Caitlin Doughty's book, appreciating it for the treasure that it is: answers! (more…)

Artists Fail . . . It's What We Do

April 11, 2016

Tags: compassionate wisdom, review, healing

I just read a wonderful essay by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about his many years of failure prior to success. And one of the quotes that especially got to me was this one:
. . . the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, "This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show." Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
I honestly don't think I've ever read that particular loneliness articulated: when somebody actually sees and appreciates you and then they reject you.

In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”

Both of these statements catapulted me back in my own history:

In 1986, after performing a workshop of the one-woman play that I’d written called Darleen Dances—about a girl who is trying to rock ’n’ roll dance her way into the Guinness Book of Records in order to feel as if she’s mattered by the time she gets “old and decrepit and eventually dead”—I was delighted when the phone started ringing with queries about producing the play. (more…)

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

February 22, 2016

Tags: review, healing

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.
I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!
This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:
This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)
(more…)

Best Funny Books about Difficult Women

November 17, 2015

Tags: fun, review

After publishing The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, a funny novel about a 4'11", 237 pound woman with a habit of lying, burgling, and incinerating houses--a woman desperate to be seen and accepted for her talent and inner beauty--I became a little desperate to read funny novels about other difficult women. There are not a lot of them. But here's what I found. (more…)

National Novel Writing Month is Here! (And so is Stoner!)

November 2, 2015

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

Two Quickie Topics:

1. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'm addressing the craft of writing in a blog at Black Lawrence Press. Writing a novel is a healing process for the writer, but the subsequent existence of a novel is potentially healing for readers who are willing to experience the discomfort of having their flaws poked--which The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, the subject of the blog, has been known to do. If this subject interests you, I hope you'll click the link.







2. Also on the subject of craft: I just received my 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Stoner, which I mention in my list of recommended books in the aforementioned Black Lawrence Press blog. (It is currently 30% off at NYRB)

The hardcover doesn't have a dust jacket, but it does have a paper sleeve with praise from stellar people, and at the top, under the title and author's name, it says "The International Best Seller."

I mention this because this edition includes letters from John Williams to his agent in which he seems to foretell the luminous future of this book, despite massive discouragement. These letters are so wonderful because they give you a feeling for John Williams, the man. How clear, savvy, and aware he was of exactly what he had created—with almost no validation:
From his agent, Marie Rodell
Now, from a business point of view: I may be totally wrong, but I don't see this as a novel with a high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing. . . .
(more…)

Haruki Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE

September 11, 2015

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

I'm interested in the grotesque—so interested I devoted a whole book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, to a grotesque character. I was impelled to do this because I believe what Zelda embodies—fear, craving to be known, envy, desires that overwhelm her—is what we all, every one of us ego-driven humans, most try to hide. My feeling is that if we can acknowledge these things inside us, even laugh at them—engendering compassion for our human condition—we can grow into the best of us. My epigraphs for the book (and there is a whole page of them) focus on "exile." Why? Because I believe either not knowing these grotesque parts of ourselves or knowing but hating them puts us in a state of exile from who we really are.

An earlier blog on Flannery O'Connor's work gives O'Connor's take on the power of writing the grotesque: ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

The following review of Haruki Murakami's wonderful book offers a different definition of grotesque—one that makes even more sense to me. (more…)

Original Voice: Jeffrey Euginedes, Amanda Filipacchi, Bradley Somer

June 27, 2015

Tags: fun, review


About a year ago I attended a Jeffrey Euginedes lecture on the subject of writer's voice (Columbia University School of the Arts, Heyman Center for the Humanities Creative Writing Lecture series). If you have about an hour, by all means listen; it's rich. [He stops reading and turns loose, funny, and charming during the Q&A which starts around 40:00. (My questions are at 52:58—about the nature of the personal "starter yeast" that brought him to commit years of life to researching Middlesex. His wonderful answers involve Latin class, Ovid's Metamorphosis, whether men or women enjoy sex more, and having a hopeless existence.)]{POSTSCRIPT: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN PRIVATIZED. I'M SO SORRY. BELIEVE ME, IT IS WONDERFUL}

I start reading a lot of books and nothing makes me abandon them faster than a generic voice; to my eyes and inner ear, it's like fingers with no fingerprints. Not only is something off, but there is no feeling of surprise for me when I hit that kind of writing; no pulse. And the majority of books fall into this category. Why? Probably for the same reason so few of us generally and regularly express who we really are from our deepest essence. Which makes me all the more grateful when I land on a writer with a voice like no other—as unique as their fingerprints, so resonant with pulse that the words vibrate off the page and throughout my physical/spiritual system. I recently discovered two such writers: Amanda Filipacchi and Bradley Somer. Here are my reviews of their magnificent new novels: (more…)

Taking Dead Mom to BookExpo America

June 17, 2015

Tags: fun, review

It all started at BookExpo America (BEA) 2013, arguably the largest book publishing convention in the U.S., so it seemed fitting that I asked my mother, Edna Robinson, whose debut novel, The Trouble with the Truth, found a copacetic agent there, to accompany me to BEA 2015. The fact that she has been dead since 1990 is inconsequential.

“Mom,” I said, “things have changed since 1958 when you wrote your coming-of-age book about a lost but funny girl named Lucresse in the 1930s, (called by Booklist, ‘a gem of a book’) [No, of course I didn’t really say all this, but I’m trying to make this conversation both comprehensible and appealing!] You thought getting a word processor in 1989, a year before you skedaddled, was wild. Just wait till you see what’s going on now!”

Edna Robinson: “I can hardly contain myself. Are you really going to wear those shoes?”

Read the whole article at FiftyIsTheNewFifty.com

I Could Use the Help of Flannery O'Connor … But I Have Issues

April 24, 2015

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

I've had this Signet paperback (pub. 1964) on my bookshelf for decades. I'd read parts of it many years ago, and, in a minute, I'll get to why I recently decided to read the whole book.

The anthology is in three parts: a novel (Wise Blood), a collection of short stories and a novella ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and another novel (The Violent Bear It Away). Since I couldn't remember what I'd previously read, I went from back to front in the hope of sampling the new material first.

Part 3. I was brought up with no religion and in some ways I think that has sensitized me to fundamentalism in many forms—not only religious, but political (including progressive fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is characterized by somebody's absolute certainty that their belief is the only true one and anybody who does not agree is wrong, misguided, an idiot. In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor painfully evokes the feeling of being torn to bits by warring sides, of being a confused and helpless angry child without the wherewithal to deal with this level of extremes. O'Connor was Christian and deals with Christian fundamentalism, but the pain transcends the particular story. Reading through all the Scriptural references was a slog for me, since this is not my natural territory, but ultimately I found myself riveted by the basic human drama: a child torn apart by warring adults, and everybody is nuts. I can relate … Unless I completely missed the point and the great-uncle prophet who creates a murdering boy prophet is supposed to be sane. This was the most difficult (unenjoyable) section of the anthology—not easy reading. (more…)

The Music of Language: 1930s, '40s, '50s . . .

March 26, 2015

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.

As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!

For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media. (more…)

Creatures of a Day

February 18, 2015

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

Renowned existential therapist and one of the most distinguished and popular authors writing about psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom took the title of his new book, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Basic Books, February 24, 2015) from Meditations, the private scribblings of second-century Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on how best to live:
All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.
Recently I was stunned to hear public radio's Radiolab show The Bitter End about the dramatic difference in doctors' and lay peoples' wishes for medical interventions in order to be kept alive no matter how badly injured they are. After my mother died on a respirator—having neglected to (or chosen not to) transfer her living will from one doctor to another—I did my own living will. However, until hearing the Radiolab piece, I was not fully aware of the torture (something akin to waterboarding and being raped) of being put on a respirator, and now I feel even more strongly about my living will. I have no death wish, but, since death is inevitable, I'm curious: I want to know from people who are dying whatever they want to share: how they feel, what they want—any wisdom they might offer. Yalom's book is a font of that wisdom. (more…)

Monk with a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland

November 21, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom, fun

I am sitting in the Good Stuff Diner on West 14th Street across from Nicky Vreeland, a maroon-robed Buddhist monk with deep smile lines. A gifted photographer with an exquisite W Magazine-sponsored exhibit at ABC Carpet & Home to benefit the Tibet Center, Vreeland has mentioned that he finds harmony in his pictures. “Did that train you for life as a monk?” I ask.

“I think that recognizing that [finding harmony is] what I’m doing is something that has happened recently,” he says thoughtfully. “I used to feel that there was some essential quality that I was searching for in composing my photographs, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not a question of there being something there that I have to find. It’s a question of a relationship between the subject, the object, the elements within the frame of the subject, and that I, as the photographer, in my placement and my feeling about the situation, am an integral part of the creation of this harmonious whole. Where you place that lens—the height, the angle, the settings—is an integral part of what you capture. Where I place myself determines my shot. All of these things change everything!” (more…)

Creativity and Depression: Signe Baumane’s Balancing Act

November 14, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom, fun

I interviewed the magnificent artist/animator Signe Baumane for RewireMe.com. Here’s the beginning of the article:

Is it possible to have a tolerable relationship with chronic depression? How does a Latvian artist and animator, working in New York with no funding, realize a unique, noncommercial stop-motion, hand-drawn “funny movie about madness and depression” (in both English and Latvian) and have that movie receive enough worldwide enthusiasm to end up as Latvia’s entry in the best foreign-language category for the Oscars? And how does this artist/animator, who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia—modified to bipolar disorder after her parents paid Latvian psychiatrists a bribe—function and create at such a high level without medication? (more…)

Piece of My Heart: The Epidemic Craving to Be Known

August 17, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom, fun

“My children will know me through my music.” These are the dying words scribbled on a piece of paper by one of the most successful, yet unknown, songwriters of our time, Bert Berns, in the wonderful new musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. Over the course of seven years in the 1960s, Berns wrote fifty-one songs, including “Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and the title song, “Piece of My Heart.” But when he died at age thirty-eight, he died with a craving—to be known, not only by his children but by the public.

According to the play, he never achieved his deserved notoriety because a wronged partner somehow managed to blackball him. But through Piece of My Heart, Berns's children, Brett and Cassandra Berns, producers of this rousing, beautifully performed production, are rectifying that error in rock 'n' roll history. In fact, both offspring have dedicated their lives to this cause. From Brett's Playbill bio:
Brett has devoted himself to championing his late father. In tandem with his sister Cassandra [performer, songwriter, and music executive], he has led efforts to document his father's canon and remarkable life story. Through these revelations, he has succeeded in establishing the enormity of his dad's legacy. Brett is also producing and directing a documentary film about Bert Berns.
(more…)

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

July 21, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom, fun

Lucky Us is the story of a patchworked family: two sisters (by different mothers), their “blithe, inscrutable, crooked father,” and their various acquaintances who become new patchworked families — all manipulating and scheming their way through the 1940s US of A.

This is voluptuous American writing. Like the family, the story is patchworked — the pieces, not necessarily linear, but when put together, they tell a more perfect story than tales that are forced into a tight chronological narrative. Events are revealed through a simultaneous tide-in and undertow-out flow of action and letters from the future; the writing voice changes from third person to various different first persons and yet it is never confusing. Why? Because Amy Bloom writes at the pleasure of a muse that is uniquely her own — a truly authentic and organic voice and structure. Bloom’s voice and structure are so naturally honest that they seem easy. But I’ve read writers who I’ve suspected have tried to copy her, and, in their copycat hands, you realize this level of honesty is anything but easy. Amy Bloom copies no one. She writes at the pleasure of her Original Voice. And so few writers find, let alone express themselves in or from their original voices that it seems rare. Maybe that’s just the way it is. An Original Voice is treasure. This book is treasure. (more…)

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street . . . Rocks!

July 16, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom, fun

This book is magnificent. Susan Jane Gilman is a master story weaver with perfect pitch—for dialogue, narrative, curlicued paradoxical human responses, and everything that contributes to a literary symphony.

The time structure of this book is inspired—weaving from both the past, forward and the future, back to finally sync up in a central present.

The story of the evolution of Russian Jewish immigrant child Malka Treynovsky into a Jewish Italian American Marie Antoinette/Leona Helmsley/Martha Stewart/Joan Rivers ice cream diva named Lillian Dunkle is both an only-in-the-USA story and a transcendently human tour-de-force of hurt, humiliation, (more…)

Wizard of the Desert: Milton H. Erickson, M.D.—What a Guy!

March 25, 2014

Tags: review, healing, compassionate wisdom

How do you get the most out of being severely color blind, tone deaf, dyslexic, paralyzed, in chronic excruciating pain from polio, and periodically near-death? If you are Milton H. Erickson, M.D. (1901–1980), founder of modern hypnotherapy and healer to people the medical profession has given up on, you develop your powers of observation. You become “the Mozart of Communication.” You reframe your and other’s so-called problems and disabilities into gifts and then milk them for all their worth—a practice known in psycho-lingo as "utilization"—in order to change and enjoy your brief time on this planet.

In the new documentary Wizard of the Desert, Austrian director (and grandson of Viktor Frankl) Alexander Vesely weaves remembrances from Erickson's legion of admirers—students, colleagues, family, and even patients—together with footage of Erickson teaching. Vesely also gives voice to some critics, which effectively humanizes Erickson and foils our wish to idealize him out of the possibility of being a real role model for change that we, too, might experience. (more…)

Voices of Elders

November 17, 2013

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

“We dance round in a ring and suppose / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem “The Secret Sits.”

“Let me tell that one again,” spoke actor Gordon Clapp in his mesmerizing performance of A. M. Dolan’s play Robert Frost: This Verse Business, and he told it again. I’m glad, because I needed an instant replay to really hear it. And I needed to see Gordon as Frost a second time; I’d seen the play once before as a workshop. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing and hearing it several more times, because like a great teacher or a great story or a great voice, the “stuff” of this play and performance is simply too rich to absorb in one sitting.

Two years ago I wrote my little book Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother. When you’re young, you imagine that when you get older—or old—you will no longer need elders, mentors, and teachers. Our culture tells you that old people are supposed to be those characters and, as such, nurture the young’uns. Unfortunately, this is not my experience; in my experience, as youthful hubris diminishes, you need elders more than ever. And even though I wrote my little book and gave myself an imagined elder, I still need wise, old rascally men and patient, compassionate, funny women to nurture me as I sometimes float like a lost blob through this thing called life. (more…)

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

October 11, 2013

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and I’ve not been disappointed.

David and Goliath is a book of both hope and experiential instruction for everybody who has ever felt like an outsider. Like Gladwell’s other work, it attempts to shatter assumptions and therefore expectations about who will succeed and why. However, taken in a context that includes some of the revelations of Outliers, this new book expands rather than shatters our notions. Because my primary interest is people rather than assumptions about class sizes and more amounts of anything being better than less (there’s plenty of that in this book), I’d like to focus on the outsider people aspect of the book:

Through copious footnotes Gladwell takes pains to clarify that his misfit and underdog success stories are not always the rule: lots of illiterate people with dead parents and lousy childhoods end up in jail rather than lawyering or doctoring.

Outliers illuminated the fact that when highly intelligent children who have been given guidance and nurturing are compared in adulthood to those who were not guided and nurtured, the non-nurtured adults are akin to a different “species.” Where the nurtured children become thriving successful adults, the equally intelligent non-nurtured ones can barely navigate life and live on the edges of society. (And I use “non-nurtured” to include people who were not only neglected but who were hurt and invalidated.) (more…)

Mother Daughter Me

June 26, 2013

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

What Eat Pray Love did for educated women with unhappy love lives who plunge into spiritual abysses, journalist Katie Hafner’s memoir Mother Daughter Me does for rootless educated women with abysmal, possibly alcoholic, mothers. As adults, these women—these daughters of abysmal mothers—can be sandwiched between being mothers themselves and repairing the damage wrought by formerly nightmarish mothers whom they now want to care for.

In a riveting therapy session in a chapter called “Dam Break,” after Katie’s mother tells the therapist a simplistic version of how she lost custody of her children, Katie finally bursts:
When we were first taken away from her . . . it was a full two years before she officially lost custody . . . How could she have allowed precious years with her children to slip straight through her memory bank? . . . Resting my gaze on my lap, I start to tell the entire story . . . The entire time I’m talking, I am thinking that I don’t want my words to hurt her, that I want to protect my mother, to let her know it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, there’s no stopping me, because another part of me wants her to hear every word of this. To make her understand.

When Katie finishes her corrected version of the story, she looks at her mother.
Her face is a terrible crumple, her mouth forming the small breathless “O” people sometimes wear when hit with bad news.

“Katie,” she says. “I am so sorry.”

And with that she is telling me something else: She doesn’t remember.
(more…)

If a Heart Breaks and Almost Nobody Hears It . . .

June 9, 2013

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

If a musician composes music that he never sells, because he prefers “not to sell his baskets,” but instead he becomes an insurance salesman, resulting in nobody in his lifetime ever hearing his brilliance, can he still feel fulfilled and successful?

If actors perform a brilliant play about the essence of life, if they give their all, if the production is incontestably a work of great art, but only ten people come to see it, is it still worth doing?

If lungs breathe, if bodies throb, if a heart breaks, and there are only ten witnesses, does it even matter?

These are some of the questions playing ping pong in my cranium this morning after yesterday’s remarkable experience watching playwright Jessica Dickey’s remarkable 75-minute masterpiece Charles Ives Take Me Home. Oh, how I want to insert a comma after Ives, but I’ll respect her work. How could I not? This tour de force about a father and daughter, about music and basketball, about life and death and everything in between demands respect. (more…)

Quiet, Cain, Cohen—a Restorative Niche—Hallelujah!

December 23, 2012

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

I just know there are connections here. If I write about this week’s activity—or Quiet—perhaps they’ll come.

You see, I can’t stop being quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that I am contemplating Susan Cain’s magnificent exploration of my private experience in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After a thorough analysis of the introvert’s talents and essential nature, which includes the ability to act like an extrovert sometimes, she explains the necessity for “restorative niches” following events of vibrant social behavior. I think I’m in such a niche now. Usually I consider my niches of doing nothing while lying on the couch in complete silence a private matter. But Cain says it’s not only normal, it’s healthy! It’s a physiological need of people who happen to process stimulation via big-time amygdala (brain) activity, which apparently is different from the way extroverts process the same stimulation. So don’t call me! I’m in a restorative niche. In fact I might stay in this niche indefinitely because I’ve been talking so extrovertly about Quiet. (more…)

The Fog of the Phone War

August 6, 2012

Tags: fun, review, Cost Cutting

Lowest jerry-rigged phone/Internet/TV bundle ever:

Basic get-a-clear-picture TV..............................................$35.55/mo.

MagicJack DSL-line unlimited calling to
anywhere in the USA @ $20.00/yr....................................$ 1.66/mo.

Prepaid cell phone for emergencies @ $10/yr...................... $ .83/mo.

Basic Budget (for incoming calls only)
phone + Internet.............................................................$58.54/mo.

Total..............................................................................$96.58/mo.


* * *

“All associates are currently helping other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

Tick-tock, tick-tock, lost count of minutes waited.

“Hello, thank you for using Verizon. How can I help you?”

“Hi, I can hardly hear you. Could you possibly talk into your microphone?”

“Hello, thank you for using Verizon. How can I help you?” (more…)

Why I Prefer an $8 Paperback to a First Edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

April 8, 2012

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, review

After watching the wonderful PBS American Masters documentary Harper Lee: Hey Boo, I pulled down my old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with the intention of rereading it. I believed I’d read it in high school. I knew the story, and I thought the book had just faded from memory.

Perhaps I was certain I’d read it because it’s been sitting on my shelf for so many decades since I rescued it from my mother’s damp garage. She’d loved it and had written her name and declaration of possession in careful script on the front endpaper. Wondering what the value of such a book might be, I searched the Internet and was floored to see less battered versions of my “true first edition” selling for anywhere from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. Torn between my desire to read and preserve, I decided to buy the cheapest paperback I could find. And as I sank into it and under Ms. Lee’s spell, I instantly realized I was reading this book for the first time and had created a memory of reading it due to the book’s physical presence on my shelf as well as its place in our collective consciousness. (more…)

Zen Dog in Thundershirt

April 2, 2012

Tags: healing, review

Even though I’ve researched and sampled almost every trauma therapy there is, even though I’ve published stories about some of the amazing new healing modalities, even though I’ve experienced occasional instant releases from fear through EMDR and EFT (see more on these on my Art of Collapsing blog from 2009 and the attached article, Radical Change Through Radical Disruption), I was skeptical that the Thundershirt™ would calm my dog Maya’s terror at thunder, vacuum cleaner, and rain-on-the-roof noises.

“Pressure has been used to successfully reduce anxiety for many years for both animals and humans,” says the package copy. But $43 for a little grey cotton (55 percent), polyester (35 percent), and spandex (10 percent) garment with velcro-attached straps? Despite the fact that I was near-comatose from an all-nighter of futilely trying to wrap myself around Maya as she shook uncontrollably from the noise of rain hitting solid surfaces, I was reluctant to spend so much money. “You can bring it back within 30 days,” said the store clerk. “It works for almost everybody. Just make sure it’s snug.” (more…)

Animal Teachings Treasure

February 24, 2012

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

Animal Teachings: Enhancing Our Lives Through the Wisdom of Animals by Dawn Brunke with illustrations by the amazing Ola Liola is one of the most versatile works of art I’ve ever laid my hands on, paged through, or smelled. Does that sound odd? If so, I’m glad. It emphasizes why this elegant 160-page paperback needs to exist as just that—a real book, not a digital something.

In marketing circles, it’s common knowledge that the most important thing about any book is its reader benefits. The benefits of Animal Teachings scream.

First and foremost it is a work of art—a reminder of what is possible when a writer, an artist, a designer, and a publisher decide it is important to do the very finest work they are capable of. (more…)

Beyond the Leaving … and What I Learned from Gil Hedley

December 26, 2011

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

hard cover & paperback
1. Did you know that your heart has arms and legs? It does. The heart that we see in medical shows when a surgeon is saving somebody’s life is only part of the organ. The entire heart has long tendrils like tree branches that go down each arm and each leg. Imagine how amazing it would be if you could walk down the street looking at everybody through special X-ray–vision glasses that singled out the heart!

2. Super models are freaks of nature because, according to poet/anatomist/teacher/author/ethicist/renaissance man Gil Hedley, “our bodies are not symmetrical. Not even close.” They’re full of surprises and anomalies—like the most perfectly formed little ovary that looked like a miniature brain … in an 83-year-old woman who had donated her body so that people like us could learn something and maybe wake up a little.

3. It’s a well-known fact that New York pigeons smoke—you see them poking around sidewalks filled with butts, so who else could have dropped them? And lest you judge them harshly for stinking up the environment, just take another look—really look: See that pigeon taking off for the sky, tail feathers down, beak up, effortlessly defying our human body limitations and looking like a grey angel. I know this to be true because Gil Hedley showed slides of pigeons, both pre-smoking and frozen in flight, in his recent New York City intensive (which seemed to be over in about five minutes—blink, it’s eight hours later—really) at the Cantor Film Center, where about 120 of us packed into a tiny theater and were riveted, laughing, and grateful for what was really an indescribable experience of learning who we are through a mosaic of lecture, stories, slides, little movies, art, poetry, and Gil, Gil, Gil—who, in the course of a day, managed to gently and reverentially shatter all inhibitions, shame, judgments, and biases we humans walked in with. (more…)

Gil Hedley: Reconceiving Our Bodies

November 23, 2011

Tags: review, compassionate wisdom, healing

Not long ago, I blogged about anatomist/theologian Gil Hedley’s deeply moving new book of free verse,
Coming Into Form
. Well, there's more:

Reconceiving My Body: Take Two, from the Heart is Gil's earlier book, a 147-page paperback — part memoir and religious philosophy debate and a lot of the most out-of-the-box brilliant thinking you’ve ever read about who and what and how we are what we are. There are so many reasons to read this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. But my personal most important reason is fun. It is very fun! Funny, engaging, interesting.

Now the more serious reason: This book may cause you to install a new inner teacher that starts out as Gil’s voice, but quickly becomes your own. I find myself hearing that voice in my head many times during the day —

• When I suddenly start stewing about political matters, I hear Gil/Me talking about the “perpetrator-victim” cycle: When you get into an anger riff, you are casting yourself as a superior victim. You are superior in your rightness, and somebody more powerful (otherwise why would you be angry?) is wrong. Just realizing what I’m doing seems to diffuse my completely counterproductive mind spasms.

• When I start berating my body for being what it is, or loathing some of the sensations of aging, or despairing about my genetic history, I hear Gil: “How you conceive of something has everything to do with how you behave with respect to that something.” If I’m conceiving of my body or my ancestral flaws as a burden, I’m probably not going to respect and be kind to my sometimes sticky joints or be grateful that modern medicine offers solutions that I cannot find by the natural means everybody assures me I should pursue.

• When I start feeling like I’m not enough, when I’m not doing “it” right, I think of Gil’s tumultuous experiences and mistakes, and if he is so clearly wonderful, then maybe I’m okay too. (more…)

Dark Energy, a Holographic Reality: a Case for Meditation

November 5, 2011

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

In a fascinating new PBS series called The Fabric of the Cosmos, renowned physicist and author Brian Greene says we've all been deceived. "Our perceptions of time and space have led us astray. Much of what we thought we knew about our universe—that the past has already happened and the future is yet to be, that space is just an empty void, that our universe is the only universe that exists—just might be wrong."

According to the latest science, up 70 percent of the cosmos is made of "dark energy." We know what dark energy does—it drives the expansion of the universe—but that's about it. (I have some thoughts about that in the little video on the right.)

But, for me, there was an even more compelling piece of new information—revealed like a live nude in the middle of a room full of clothed people: the nature of black holes of dark energy has led scientists to propose that "like the hologram on your credit card, space may just be a projection of a deeper two-dimensional reality taking place on a distant surface that surrounds us." (more…)

SERVING LIFE

August 3, 2011

Tags: review, compassionate wisdom, healing

Click to see Serving Life trailer and learn more.
When filmmaker Molly Fowler was at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola working on her documentary about inmate hospice workers, one of the inmates wondered how she could see him as a “normal person.” How could she accept him without even knowing the details of the bad things he had done? Didn’t she want to hear his full story?

“No,” said Molly. “I’m only interested in one story—the story of how you go from where you are right now to becoming a hospice worker.”

The result of this this single focus is the remarkable documentary, brilliantly titled Serving Life—a double, or maybe even multiple, entendre that not only describes the life sentences being served by the film’s subjects (murders, rapists, robbers, and kidnappers) who minister, change diapers, and sit vigil as their fellow inmates pass away; but it describes their personality change as they feel the enormity of their responsibility, their love, and their loss; it describes what they offer their fellow human beings; and it becomes a two-word mantra for everyone lucky enough to witness this movie and then resume a life of freedom. (more…)

COMING INTO FORM by Gil Hedley: A Gem of a Book

June 2, 2011

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review, fun

I first encountered Gil Hedley many years ago in what felt to me at the time like a murky soup of people. When he spoke, the murk gave way to clarity and the sun seemed to shine, even though we were indoors with no windows.

Gil Hedley is a poet anatomist. He teaches all kinds of people about the body through his Integral Anatomy human dissection workshops, his DVDs, and now through his gorgeous new book of free verse, Coming Into Form. From the cover art (“Self-Knitter,” sculpted by Lauren Rose Buchness) of a little person knitting her own skin, to the words that feel sometimes like Rumi–2011 and sometimes like ocean waves and sometimes like nothing you have ever heard quite this way before, the book is a gem.

This is the kind of book you never shelve because you want to have constant access. No matter what kind of mood you’re in, there is something in it that can catalyze growth, nudging you to inhabit your own form just a little more, just a little more joyfully. (more…)

Established Writers Don’t Know Who Their Audience Is

April 28, 2011

Tags: review

Manuel de Lope, Yael Hedaya, Albert Mobilio, Asaf Schurr
“There’s no such thing as an ideal reader,” said In Treatment head writer and Israeli novelist (Housebroken, Eden, and Accidents) Yael Hedaya during yesterday’s Authors and Audiences panel discussion. The program—part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature—held on the second floor of the beautiful marble lobbied French Embassy on upper Fifth Avenue in New York City, asked five established novelists from four countries to discuss the possible gap between who they envisioned their readers to be and who is actually reading their books. But what became almost immediately apparent was that most of the panel members had no idea who they were writing for. (more…)

The Black Stallion: Walter Farley's Steady Gaze and Calm Hands

April 1, 2011

Tags: review, fun, compassionate wisdom

In 1940, an editor told Walter Farley, “Don’t figure on making any money writing children’s books.” Farley disagreed. He wrote The Black Stallion, the first book in his seminal series, when he was in high school, and he published it in 1941 when he was just twenty-six. His subsequent twenty-one Black Stallion and Island Stallion books not only supported him and his family, but they became a family business that is now run by his sons.

I just re-read The Black Stallion because I just joined a Goodreads.com book club where we are reading favorite childhood books. As an adult, as an editor and a writer, I can see that there are a zillion logic holes in the story; the writing is simplistic and there are lots of little word fixes I'd suggest; but the book made my old adult heart thump and race just has hard as when I was eight. I felt, heard, saw, and smelled the Black, and that, in my opinion, is a feat of writing magic. (more…)

J. D. Salinger—What a Life!

February 12, 2011

Tags: review, compassionate wisdom

J. D. Salinger's life-changing masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye ends with protagonist Holden Caulfield's statement: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." He says this after describing the moving beauty of his little sister Phoebe riding round and round on a carrousel while he sits watching in a drenching rain.

In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Kenneth Slawenski, author of the new biography J. D. Salinger: A Life, claims that he doesn't know what this line means. In the biography, he calls the ending of Catcher "ambiguous" and says that "Salinger has deliberately left it to readers to insert their own selves, their own doubts, aspirations, and dissatisfactions, in order to complete [Holden's] journey."

I've never felt any ambiguity in that line or the ending of The Catcher in the Rye. To me, it expresses the essence of the spiritual battle that Salinger and anyone who commits to self-awareness/God consciousness/Oneness (insert whatever phrase suits you) must face. If you connect—to yourself and to others—if you really share beauty, God, your essence, you will have acknowledged that everyone is God . . . and, so long as you can tolerate feeling this epiphany, you will feel a sweet missing. You will simultaneously hurt and feel unbearable sweetness. I believe this sweet missing is a God state. God misses God: Because God is lonely to see God, we fractured little God beings play this game to relearn who we are. Loneliness drives us to know our God selves. And when we do, we feel the sweet missing at the root of the craving. Or, as Holden says, "you start missing everybody." (more…)

Blood from a Stone or You Can Never Leave Home Again

January 22, 2011

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

I think I was inadvertently and divinely prepped before seeing the Off-Broadway play Blood from a Stone by Tommy Nohilly last night. For the last few weeks I’ve been editing some stunning books about life and death, anger and forgiveness, and compassion. I’ve also been speeding down a runway to a “big” birthday—eliciting my keen awareness of how fleeting our time is and how I don’t want to squander it feeling lousy. And I’ve been inexplicably waking at 3 a.m., getting up, and spontaneously meditating. I recommend all of these preparations before seeing Blood from a Stone. Or none.

Blood from a Stone is an admittedly autobiographical play about what must be one of the world’s most dysfunctional families. Travis (Ethan Hawke) comes home to Connecticut—a state name that literally chokes him when he demonstrates articulating it. He’s on his way to, once again, throw his life off a cliff and start all over again, and he’s dropping by to see his family, get some money, get some pills. His mother (Ann Dowd) rages at his father (Gordon Clapp). His father rages at his sons (Hawke and Thomas Guiry) and anybody who’s not white and the world. And the house rages at the whole family—pouring water on them through the kitchen ceiling, electrocuting them through the broken thermostat, and haranguing them through intrusive telephone ringing. The family attacks the house. The house attacks the family. The family attacks each other. And everybody wants to destroy the whole thing and start all over again. (more…)

On Language Police and Naked Emperors

January 8, 2011

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

I have an ambiguous relationship with the language police. On one hand, I appreciate that discouraging the use of belittling, offensive, or just plain inaccurate language can move our culture toward inclusiveness and respect. I lived through the days of being called a “my girl” when what my boss meant was that I typed for him, and even before anybody thought there was something wrong with that, it used to make my skin crawl. But I used the phrase myself when writing about that period in my novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, and I dug in my heels when an editor suggested changing my references to the “boys and girls” of the Vietnam draft and protests to the P.C. language du jour: “young men and young women.” We were kids, which was a lot of the problem. Nobody knew what they were doing! Especially the people who claimed to know.

As an editor, I’ve altered offensive language. “I thought he was only a clerk” worked just as well as “I thought he was a clerk,” and the writer never even noticed.

As I story lover, I’ve cringed every time I’ve listened to the audio recording of one of my favorite authors, Eudora Welty, reading one of my favorite stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941), when I’ve heard the line: “Of course Mama had turned both the niggers loose.” I was surprised to discover many “N”-word lines rewritten in the 1980 edition of the collected stories. But this was done by or at least with Ms. Welty’s approval. (more…)

Growing Roots

December 3, 2010

Tags: review

FULL DISCLOSURE: Although I do eat, I am not a foodie. Most of my best friends are foodies and they would laugh if they knew I was reviewing a food book. I do not eat animals and I really hate reading about animals as products to be slaughtered and consumed. That's about it . . . except for one more thing: although I sometimes portray myself as a curmudgeon, I really do like people — not to eat, but to know about. I especially like to know about their deepest stories.


Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks, and Food Activists by Katherine Leiner, with lush photography by Andrew Lipton, is an absolute tour-de-force encyclopedic collection of stories (along with recipes and websites) about the new generation of sustainable food activists. I know Katherine from Central Park, a place where people with dogs become friends. I liked her on first sight, but I didn’t want to eat her. I wanted to know her story, so when she told me she had written a book, I couldn’t wait to read it. (more…)

Mad Men … Lost People … and Coming Clear

August 21, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

I came to the TV series Mad Men late. Although I'd heard about it from friends, it wasn't until a few months ago that I began borrowing the first three seasons from the library. I thought I'd be interested in it because of my background in advertising. My father was an account executive, my mother was one of the first female copywriters, and briefly toward the end of the seventies, I entered the family trade as a secretary and production assistant (material I put to good use in my novel Plan Z by Leslie Kove). But none of this prepared me for the kind of euphoric, sometimes shattering, shock I felt watching this show. (more…)

The Holy Woman

July 12, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

I’ve just finished reading The Holy Woman, the self-published third book of Susan Trott’s formerly commercially published “The Holy Man” trilogy. Like the first two books (The Holy Man and The Holy Man’s Journey), The Holy Woman is deceptively simple and charming. But what a complex story about our human drive to “get,” to achieve status or stuff, to win.

The book starts after the death of “the Holy Man,” a guy named Joe who everybody visited because they believed he was holy. Just before dying in a faraway country, Joe anointed Anna as his successor, but when she returns home, not everybody — including Anna — is so sure. After all, she is quite judgmental about Joe’s teacher, Chen, who runs a spiritual resort called Universe-city where he promises people immortality and seems to worship stuff.

Bad guy, right? … Not so fast. (more…)

How to Know What You’re Really Doing: Collusion, Confrontation, or Compassion? Peacemaking or Placating?

July 1, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

Recently I’ve been experiencing a dilemma about how to react in many areas of my life, which tells me I should pay attention.

When someone takes what is not theirs — from a person, a people, or the planet; when someone denies a truth; when one person hurts another person, people, or the planet, what is the right response . . . or lack thereof? (more…)

Meryl Streep, Toilet Paper, and the Merits of Pretending

May 23, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, review, Cost Cutting

Yesterday I bought 24 rolls of Marcal Small Steps® totally recycled toilet paper because it was on sale for $4.99 plus tax at Staples.com — with free shipping if you got it sent to a store where you’d pick it up.

I don’t know where I’m going to store 24 rolls of toilet paper, but Marcal is hard to find, I’ve been buying it since before recycling was popular, and I’m loyal to the brand. Plus which, it’s a whole lot better than the more popular recycled brands.

It really bugs me that Marcal had to change its name to Small Steps® and redesign its packaging and probably fire all its marketing people and hire new ones to try to compete with the eco-newcomers. It really bugs me that Small Steps® still isn’t carried in organic markets. It is unbelievably annoying that you can do something for 60 years and, when what you’re doing finally becomes popular, you’re still unpopular.

Which brings me to Meryl Streep. (more…)

Artists Who Express Who They…and We…Really Are

April 16, 2010

Tags: fun, compassionate wisdom, healing, review

It seems ridiculous that somebody would go to the trouble of creating art and then create work that is designed to please or be current or imitate somebody else who’s popular, but it happens all the time. That’s why gallery hopping with my artist friend, Ardith, is like finding treasure at the end of the rainbow.

We begin at the end of Manhattan’s West Side — 547 West 27th Street, a pretty rough part of Chelsea that is in the process of gentrification. As usual, the art community is already there amidst the blasting, construction, and street mess. But up one flight in the Ceres Gallery, a cooperative supported by and supporting female artists, there is a whole other world. We’ve come after seeing this fractured face in a story about sculptor Cynthia Eardley (Art Knowledge).

I don’t speak “artspeak” (you can click on the links for that), so suffice it to say, I take one look at Eardley’s fractured but exquisitely beautiful sculptures and I feel something deep — what, I suspect a whole lot of people are feeling these days — broken, but hanging together as best we can.

I suspect everybody feels some aspect of what Eardley communicates in her hand-modeled, resin-cast portraits. She tenderly displays everything we try so hard to hide — with clothes, manners, and civilized behavior. But the word “suspect” is a lie; I “know.” I know we all feel these things because I have spent so much time in so many places where large groups of ordinary people come to find out who they really are. And, in my experience, when people tell the truth, it turns out we are all equally fractured. (more…)

Chants of a Lifetime by Krishna Das

February 1, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

I first heard Krishna Das, a kirtan (yoga chanting) leader, in early 2001 when he sang in a scene in the documentary Ram Dass: Fierce Grace. I reacted viscerally to the sound of his voice. I simply had to find out who this guy was and hear his sound again, so I bought his CD Live on Earth. Even though I’d experienced sudden heart-openings (aka meltdowns), I felt like a maniac listening to this music. Every time I started to chant, I’d erupt in spasmodic sobs. After a couple of weeks of this, I emailed the guy, and was thrilled when he wrote back: he was going to be singing at a downtown yoga studio and I should feel free to come. I have been hooked ever since. So when I heard he had a book coming out this month, I got a copy.

The worst thing about Chants of a Lifetime is that you can only read it for the first time once. (more…)

Shapeshifting with Our Animal Companions: Connecting with the Spiritual Awareness of All Life

January 22, 2010

Tags: fun, compassionate wisdom, healing, review

I’ve got a cold. The world’s worst cold, to be precise. I’m hacking, spitting, and I feel as if I’m ten feet under water. What better time to read a book about consciousness? My brain is already exploding. My thoughts and ideas bore me to tears, so dropping them and saying to myself, “What if this is true?” has been a relief.

The book I’ve been reading requires nothing less. Shapeshifting with Our Animal Companions by Dawn Baumann Brunke (Bear & Co., 2008) is categorized as New Age/Nature because it is about people’s spirits, animals’ spirits, plants’ spirits, and all spirits sharing information and, ultimately, being one consciousness. But the categories of New Age and Nature are limiting in a way that is false — the same way our notion of separate consciousnesses for dogs and trees and rocks and people is false, according to author Brunke. (more…)

The Courage to Linger: A Single Man (movie) and Eric Bibb: Booker’s Guitar (CD)

January 6, 2010

Tags: fun, compassionate wisdom, review

The other night on PBS News Hour, computer scientist and author of You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier, bemoaned the fact that the Internet has birthed cyberfill (read as “landfill in cyberspace”). “Consumer identity got the best of people,” he explained. “And everybody just wants things for free. And that’s created this strange kind of cheapness to everything, where everything becomes throwaway.”

Recently I’ve imbibed (and that is the right verb) two works of art that are so full, so deep, so imbued with human spirit, so un-cheap that I believe they will linger inside me forever. They are extremely different — a movie and a CD — but they share the same courage. Nowadays it takes courage not to toss off throwaway or sensational material, but instead to quietly linger. When you linger over a face or a story or a tune, you expose it, and for it to stand up under such scrutiny, it must have soul.

There is not one throwaway second in A Single Man, the debut film of director Tom Ford, a fashion designer who had to finance his vision himself. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, the movie is the opposite of throwaway fluff, and actor Colon Firth, the main subject of the camera’s lingering lens, deserves every second of scrutiny.

A Single Man is the story of George Falconer (Firth) a gay English professor who, in 1962, leads “an invisible” life. Unrecognized by even the family of his partner of 16 years, he is briefly notified of the man’s death and then told that “only family” will be attending the funeral. It is this excruciating, largely wordless scene which demonstrates tour-de-force lingering — and it brings me to tears just to think about it.

Nothing in A Single Man is forced. Not the action, the characters’ choices, the emotions. Ford has directed to the metronome of his own lingering heart: the color, the camera angles, the music — oh my God, the music! (by Abel Korzeniowski) — feel like a heartbeat, and feeling our common heartbeat, how can we not love everyone?


Acoustic guitar player and singer Eric Bibb is another artist who is not afraid to take his time. After “meeting” and playing Delta blues legend Booker White’s steel-bodied guitar, he was inspired to write a song that became an entire album, Booker’s Guitar (TEL-31756-02, releases January 26).

Imagine taking a slow stroll, or rocking on a porch swing, or sitting at the feet of your elders listening to stories. That is Booker’s Guitar. In an easy, gritty, timeless voice, 58-year-old Bibb tells stories that linger and hypnotize in such a way that you find yourself spontaneously rocking, feeling instead of thinking, just taking it in.

This whole album makes you breathe, smile, and rock — whether it’s the song “With My Maker I Am One,” with its assertion that “I am the doctor … the junkie … the champion,” or “Flood Water” about a flood in 1927 that sounds eerily like the Katrina debacle, or “Rocking Chair” that beckons someone to “set down” and “just rock,” or “Turning Pages” where Bibb declares that reading books (a shamelessly time-consuming activity) is the foundation for everything he knows.

Thank you, Tom Ford and Christopher Isherwood, Eric Bibb and Booker White! Perhaps there is still hope that the lingerers of the world will survive — even in this digital age — perpetuating the wisdom of those who have gone before them.












Our Universal Obsessions & Our Power of Attorney

December 17, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, Unemployment, review

About 12 years ago, I discovered Light of Consciousness magazine and ever since I’ve been a fan. The magazine’s staff is volunteer and they work in a place called the Desert Ashram in Tucson. Founded 22 years ago by a guru named Swami Amar Jyoti, Light of Consciousness publishes quarterly and is sold at newsstands. And in case you’re assuming that a magazine made by volunteers in an ashram follows some kind of doctrine or is even cultish, I’d like to assure you that this is not the case. (more…)

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

October 7, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, compassionate wisdom, healing, review

“So how do you know the difference between going with the flow and letting yourself drown?” writes author Eileen Flanagan in her new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, Sept. 2009). “One answer is to see if what is flowing within you matches the direction of the current around you. You have to pay attention to the cards you are being dealt.”

There are so many good things in this book that I almost don’t know where to begin. But perhaps the best thing is the topic.

Last year, after about 25 years of researching self-change modalities, as both a seeker and a journalist, I wrote an article about the necessity of interrupting the embedded neuronal patterns behind our self-sabotaging behaviors and beliefs. In the introduction to the article, I referred to the power of the Zen master’s thwack, and the editor of the magazine that published the piece decided to use “Thwack” as the title, along with an illustration of a therapist about to throttle an unsuspecting man with a rolling pin. Although it made a snappy and commercial cover line, this title inadvertently portrayed as acceptable what I believe is most dangerous about the new confrontational methods of change and many of the groups that practice them. The trouble with thwacking is that if it’s done by anyone who is not a Zen master or an experienced healer, and if it is delivered without a sense of nuance, devoid of love and compassion, and if the thwack is dealt to a person who is not ready to receive it, it is brutality. And it can even re-traumatize a person rather than help. (more…)

Science and Good Intentions

September 22, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, compassionate wisdom, healing, review


I suddenly realized that my unemployed lulls are a great time to read the “I’m-gonna-read-that-someday” pile. Here are a couple of interesting facts from two sources in that pile: (more…)

The Moth Radio Hour

September 19, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, fun, review


Since I finished writing a new novel, I’ve been down. It’s the contraction that inevitably follows the expansion of creative emission, I tell myself. Or maybe it’s the fact that my agent says that nobody’s buying fiction, no matter how good or well-written or funny it is. Or maybe it’s the purple vertical pinstripe that appeared this morning on my computer monitor, that I’m told is the beginning of a pinstripe cancer that will render my screen unreadable. Whatever it is, I am down and depressed and feel like wallowing. “Why?” I rail at the universe, sounding like a middle-aged Nancy Kerrigan. And that’s when the Moth Radio Hour comes on. (more…)

MOONWALK ONE: a Visionary’s Film about Leaving Mother Earth — 40 Years Later

July 28, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review





Theo Kamecke lives alone in and on five acres of breathtaking art in the Catskill Mountains. The man simply must create art — whether it’s a garden, a home furnished with handmade everything, a meal for guests, or a log bench overlooking a roaring, foaming brook so powerful that it could sweep you to your death in a nanosecond.




In his barn-size studio, Theo makes sculptures, wall pieces, and functional art objects from the collection of electronic circuit boards he began accumulating forty years ago for no reason other than he thought they were beautiful. With patterns that look like hieroglyphs and names like Nefertiti and Isis and Manifest Destiny, his child-size treasure chests and majestic pyramids, cabinets and jukeboxes, tables and wall plaques feel simultaneously ancient, familiar, and futuristic (see TheoKamecke.com). “I like to understand how things work,” he says, to explain what drives him. (more…)

A Sublime Evening in Central Park

June 24, 2009

Tags: fun, compassionate wisdom, review

“Hallelujah!” shouted a man after the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, played with simultaneous passion and heartbreaking sweetness by Lara St. John.

Hundreds of us felt the same as we listened, spellbound, to the first of this season’s free concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell, arguably the heart center of New York City’s Central Park. As dusk gave way to night, the violins soared and so did two ducks, taking in the concert from their bird’s eye view. The audience swayed, breathing in Linden tree perfume as sweet as 104 years of truly free music — the gift of a haberdasher turned banker named Elkan Naumburg who began financing the concerts in 1905, and, in 1923, created the present-day bandshell with its perfect, unamplified acoustics.

I arrived at the bandshell with my little dog, Maya, at about 7:20. The concert began at 7:30. There was no admission charge, no line to pass through. There was nobody who said, “You can’t bring a dog to this concert.” The bandshell is a place where all beings are free to assemble. I took a chair. Maya took another. People smiled at us. There were free programs and even free CDs for children at intermission. The musicians, too, were free. They played with relaxed arms, standing and swaying like one body in the cool breeze. Maya laid her head on the leg of the man beside her, and without looking at her, he submitted to her love.

As night fell, flutist Andrea Griminelli explained to the audience that Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor was very long, so it might be best if we held our applause until the last movement … and then he demonstrated our cue.

The final piece was sublime — The Knights orchestra along with virtuoso siblings Lara and Scott St. John playing Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor — closing the first evening of the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the United States.

And to think that all this might have been destroyed. The story of the bandshell’s survival is the story of a seven-year David and Goliath battle. In 1993, Christopher London, the great-grandson of Elkan Naumburg, took on the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Parks Department, foiling their attempts to demolish the bandshell. The agencies’ reasons for the destruction were many and ran from the bizarre (unamplified music was outmoded) to the more bizarre (an antipathy to freedom of assembly; no good could come from just anybody — even homeless people — sitting down to enjoy music).

Last night, hundreds of us not only sat down, but we did so amiably with only the trees and the cityscape against the moonlit heavens as housing. And after the concert, hundreds of us rose en masse, still savoring the music, and strolled home peacefully. This is freedom. Now why is that so scary?

The next concerts will take place Tuesdays, July 7, 21, and August 4. For more information, go to NaumburgConcerts.org. (more…)

Thoughts on Tomatoes, Lousy Posture, and the Alexander Technique

June 18, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, Unemployment, fun, review

It’s another soggy day in New York City, so it seems appropriate to talk about my posture. I have lousy posture. I slump with my chin out and up like a turtle and, since I’m very flexible, I have a tendency to sit with pretzel legs. I also have a big, ugly lump on the back of my neck which has alternately been explained as a sign that my spiritual center is connected or that I have an energy block. I believe it’s due to my lousy posture.

Because it is raining today and I’m having such a difficult time remembering to sit upright, it seems appropriate to also complain about my allergies. I recently discovered that I am allergic to my tomato plants. Not the tomatoes, but the Deadly Nightshade leaves that smell so good but make my eyelids swell like over-sized shrimp. My tomato plants live on my neighbor, Nurse Mia’s, terrace because my building superintendent kicked them off our roof. Nurse Mia is the one who diagnosed my tomato plant allergy, so the last time I pruned, I suited up with swimming goggles, a surgical mask, and latex gloves. (more…)

Socialized Medicine, Compassion, and Life — Oh No!

June 12, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, Cost Cutting, review

Last night I watched Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary about our health-care system. A guy at the grassroots Health Care Organizing Kickoff meeting last weekend referenced it a few times, and since I missed it when it was in theaters, I got it at the New York Public Library. This required asking for it, receiving an email when it arrived at my local branch, strolling over, showing my library card, and walking out without paying any money. This is because the public library is a government-funded social program, allowing even unemployed people like me access to free information. It seems to work awfully well.

A block up from my library is my local fire department. They are a government-funded social program that seems to work awfully well.

Last weekend, a guy on my block had a very loud party late at night. I dialed 311 and a courteous government-paid employee took my noise complaint and dispatched a member of our socialized law enforcement department to quell the din. It worked awfully well.

I’d thought Sicko was going to be a diatribe about our lousy heath-care-if-you-can-afford-it system, and I was quite surprised to see that the majority of the film showed compassionate doctors and satisfied patients in France and the UK and Canada. When asked how much money care cost, they either laughed or looked befuddled and then responded, with polite horror, that they wouldn’t want to work or live in a system that allowed people to die if they couldn’t afford to pay.

Although it seems like yesterday, many years ago my beloved hometown switched from subway tokens to Metrocards. Lots of New Yorkers said that the change was too big; it wouldn’t work. We survived it quite well. (more…)

Rants & Raves: Staples, Oxford, Garnier Nutritioniste, Obama

June 4, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, fun, healing, Cost Cutting, review

I’m living on unemployment at the moment, so I’m consuming a lot less than I used to. And that means I think a whole lot about what I’m choosing to consume. Below, for my own gratitude and ventilation, are some Rants & Raves. Feel free to add your own in comments:

RAVE: Staples Stores
I got a whole ream of recycled paper today, free with the coupon I received for recyling ink cartridges. I was worried I’d only be able to buy more ink, but no — you can do the right thing and actually get something you need with the recycle benefit.
Not only that, I thought Staples only recycled ink cartridges and batteries. Did you know they also take electronics? I’ve got a busted computer adapter and cable that Hewlett-Packard was going to charge to me return for recycle. I can just drop it off at Staples. Not only that, but the Staples employees look you in the eye when they talk to you and treat you like a human being. (more…)

American Idol and Our Shame of Being Human

May 24, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

I didn’t watch American Idol this season, so I didn’t understand my friend’s feelings when she first emailed and then phoned about her despair that a young singer named Adam Lambert hadn’t won the competition. She described the moment when the public declared another singer (Kris Allen) the winner as “being hit by a wrecking ball.” She understood neither her despair nor her compulsion to listen to an online recording of Lambert singing “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe).

My friend is a mature woman — a sixty-year-old psychologist, to be precise. She is not a person who normally cares about pop singing competitions or even watches them. But something had compelled her to turn on American Idol, and when she heard the voice of Adam Lambert, she was transformed. (more…)

The Unbearable Sweetness of Being Human

May 14, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, fun, healing, compassionate wisdom, review

I’ve been kind of blue this week. Actually, that’s inaccurate. I’ve been red — beet red with eyelids that look like obese shellfish — but blue is more descriptive of my mood. A red mood sounds angry. I haven’t felt angry. I just enjoy vision. Apparently swelling up like a prizefighter after a really bad night plus a nasty rash is my new reaction to tree pollen. Although I could barely open my eyes, I decided it was a good time for reading, and my friend Liz from the greenhouse had recommended Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (more…)

Where on Earth Is Humanity Going?

May 5, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, fun, review

I’ve been thinking a lot about who we are as a species this week. Endless days of rain and unemployment have that effect on me. The last time it rained this way, I went to the American Museum of Natural History where I stared for a long time at this lovely 3.6 million-year old Tanzanian couple out for a stroll and frozen in time in the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. At the end of the exhibit, there’s a plaque on the wall that says:
ARE HUMANS STILL EVOLVING?
In this era of global travel and interconnected societies, we no longer have small, isolated populations evolving in different directions, as was the case earlier in human evolution, helping to drive the emergence of new species. The human genome continues to change in minor ways, but under present conditions a new human species more than likely will not emerge. (more…)

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm — review & interview

April 16, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

In this time of risk-taking based on promises of exorbitant returns from precarious investments, what could be more timely than the tale of growing up in a community where everybody has surrendered all decision-making and self-responsibility for the promise of divine protection and maybe God realization?

In her riveting, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari (Harmony Books, April 14, 2009), Jayanti Tamm recounts how her parents, like so many people who came of age in the sixties and seventies, met a guru after years of spiritual seeking. So moved were they by the experience that they didn’t question his direction to marry each other — despite the fact that they’d just met. They did, however, flaunt the directive to remain celibate. (more…)

Rx for Unemployment Blues: Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher

April 3, 2009

Tags: Unemployment, compassionate wisdom, healing, review

It may seem paradoxical that reading about panic attacks due to overwhelming professional success and an abundance of work is calming to a person who’s been unemployed for months and battered by the recession, but that was my experience reading Mary Pipher’s new book Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World. It may seem counterintuitive that reading about a big, warm circle of supportive family could make a person whose family is mostly dead feel hugged, but, again, that is the case with this simultaneously comforting and entertaining book about a bestselling writer’s meltdown and recovery. (more…)

The Holy Quiet of Edgar Sawtelle

March 15, 2009

Tags: healing, fun, review

After 38 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and much discussion at Oprah’s Book Club, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle hardly needs more talk. So the end. No more words. No more discussion about this remarkable epic.

However, there’s something else. Something even more remarkable to discuss. It has to do with how many people are choosing to read this 562-page novel. In this day of multi-tasking, twittering, and twaddling, millions of people are setting aside days on end to disappear into the holy quiet birthed by this story. (more…)

Tierney Sutton’s DESIRE

March 2, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, review

Teachers of self-actualization often use an exercise where you stare into another person’s eyes for a long time. If you’re not used to it, your eyeballs can go spastic. If you’re practiced at the exercise, all kinds of things can happen: Sometimes the person in front of you morphs. Their face literally changes so that it becomes like watching a special effects movie.

Listening to jazz singer Tierney Sutton’s new CD, Desire, is something like this. (more…)

Robert Thurman & Karen Armstrong on Compassion

February 22, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, review


Imagine putting the palm of your hand on a hot stove burner. Probably the idea makes you wince. Well, imagine if doing something — anything — destructive, vindictive (even if it seemed merited), or harmfully selfish evoked the same wince. And suppose that wince made you alter your behavior such that you were only capable of acting compassionately. (more…)

Evan Handler: It's Only Temporary

January 28, 2009

Tags: compassionate wisdom, fun, healing, review

As managing editor for a national magazine (a job that was downsized away just in time for Christmas), I looked at a lot of books for possible excerpting. Not long ago I received one that claimed that the nature of the Spirit is not fearful, confused, resentful, weak, or overwhelmed, but instead it is powerful, vital, fearless, content, and compassionate. That sounds awfully nice, but I found myself wondering how the author knew this. He started out by saying that, per Genesis, we are created in the image of God. Well, my image and the images of everyone I have ever met (including a whole slew of spiritual teachers) include fear, confusion, anger, etc. So why aren’t those qualities as much a part of our essential nature as all the blissful stuff?

I prefer a notion of spirit with a small “s.” This spirit lives inside all of us, and it is beautifully described in a book called It’s Only Temporary (Riverhead, 2008) by actor/author Evan Handler. A chapter titled “I Don’t Know” states our plight so nakedly:
“I am fascinated by our conundrum as humans living on planet Earth,” writes Handler. “I’ve said to friends, probably more times than they’ve wanted to hear, ‘We live in outer space. Do you know that? Can you believe it? We live in outer space.’ It’s a crucial thing to remind myself, because it justifies and enhances my choice to remain committed to philosophical non-commitment. We do not know where we live. We have no idea of our own address. . . . we have no idea what substance contains us, where it came from or where it’s headed, if it has a purpose or what it might be, how it started, or how long it will last.” (more…)

How to Get Fat and Sound Evolved Even if You’re Not

January 13, 2009

Tags: fun, healing, review


Knock, knock.

Who's there?

It's the self-proclaimed "head honcho" of a company called KnockKnock.biz that has created, among other things, "The Self-Hurt Series" of books (How to Traumatize Your Children, How to Get Fat, How to Have an Ill-Behaved Dog, etc.), The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion ("Get the Best Faith for Your Buck! 99 Religions to Choose From!"), and a self-diagnosis guide for hypochondriacs titled The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You. In the tradition of all great tricksters and contrarians, Jen Bilik has approached self-help and spiritual seeking by turning everything on its head — creating a body of work that is not only laugh-out-loud hilarious, but so thoroughly and seriously researched that if you simply do its opposite, you may end up healthy, happy, and very well-informed.

"I am a pricker of sacred cows," says Bilik, who actually loves self-help books and is committed to a path of self-awareness. "But so much in this arena is so earnest! And there's a lot of Kool-Aid drinking going on. I believe that the dark side of self-help is that it makes us feel like we're supposed to be perfect: If we read this book and we're told how not to obsess, how to love ourselves and our bodies, if we're told those things and they don't result in lasting change, we feel guilty. I feel like it's the corollary to women's beauty magazines which set a standard that none of us can attain. The self-help standard is perfect balance and happiness."

Along with a team of researchers and editors, Bilik decided to deal with the inevitability of mistakes by instructing us how to consciously make them: "If you want a child who can't do anything for him or herself and will have to depend on you into his or her fifties, how do you get there? We'll tell you!" she says with a grin.

Who buys this stuff?

Says Bilik, "I believe it's the same people who buy self-help books. People who are tired of feeling like they have to be perfect. People who have senses of humor about their core endeavors. It's also an acceptance of the truth." She reaches for a box. "My therapist loves these," she says, handing it to me: Therapy Flashcards: 60 cards for maximum psychobabble that promise to make you "sound evolved even if you're not."













magicJack and Happy-Go-Lucky

January 4, 2009

Tags: Cost Cutting, fun, review

“Do you have some kind of really cheap service where I can pay for incoming calls only?” I queried the friendly Verizon customer service woman after holding for a quarter of an hour. She seemed perplexed and said there was no such option, and had I not found my exorbitantly expensive unlimited plan, plus 3-way calling, unuseful? (All right, she didn’t phrase it exactly that way.)

Because I felt as if she was really interested, I explained that I’d been downsized out of a job being the hub of a virtual office, and I no longer required such services, plus which, I’d now purchased a magicJack at my local Radio Shack. (more…)

Selected Works

novel
Big Moose Prize-winning novel
a funny, sometimes sad, story of negotiating life without a clue

Coming soon — a funny book for foodies who are committed to self-change through self-awareness
an epistolary memoir ... sort of
A funny and moving little book for anyone who's had a mother or struggled with being human.
anthology of stories and plays
includes Darleen Dances and stories below

play
1-act play

short story
the problem with worrying about the future

true story
Why I don't believe in death.

Editing Services

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