Voice of the Present: Thich Nhat Hahn on Doing Dishes

Photo credit: touching peace photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

My dishwasher is broken, forcing me to relive the 1980’s, when Palmolive used to advertise “I love a man dishpan hands.” That man is me this week. And like most chores, I have tried to breeze through them so I can get to what I think is more important. Yet once I arrive at that thing I thought was more important, I idle, and merely think to the next thing I must do.

At the sink, with wrinkly fingertips. my mind turns to the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. (Talk about a referral!):

“To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value.

One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl. Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.

If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.”

In a land where multi-tasking is taken to be a virtue, is it any wonder that so many people devalue the labor of others (save for their own)? If we’d only be emotionally present in each task completely, rather than thumbing on a smartphone in meetings (or talking through someone’s presentation, or any other minor “multi-tasking” offense), the work world might improve a bit. And who knows, maybe quality may prevail over quantity. Or perhaps just the dishes would get done.

Photo credit: touching peace photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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Starbucks: Five Easy Pieces

Caffeine, Heal Thyself, Heal Thy Planet

1. A woman stood in front of me in line at Starbucks, a bit of a fish out of water, and is perplexed by all of the options. To her credit, festooned in gypsy-like garb, she clearly was not a policy wonk nor law school student, nor Senator or local. She quizzes the Barrista on all the possible combinations of chocolate that she can get into a coffee. She first orders a white chocolate mocha.

She then asks “Do you just have plain mocha?”

“Okay, I’ll just have hot water for tea.”

“No wait, I’ll have a double-chocolate chip Frappuccino”

“Does that come in extra-large?”

“Oh, can you make it with half-and-half and extra chocolate?”

So, to review, she ended up ordering a Trienta (30 oz) double chocolate, double chocolate chip mocha frappuccino made with half-and-half. It is important to note that most transactions at an urban Starbucks are instantaneous–people know what they want, or they get the same damn thing every day.

This episode (annotated) took about five minutes. An eternity for the wonk in need of an afternoon perk. The Barrista, upon the final draft, did a double take and nearly laughed out loud. I swallowed my own laughter too. The woman paid with a free drink postcard, the sort that Starbucks offers up to get a new drone hooked on the nectar (because this HAD to be the most expensive single order I have ever seen, you know, get your free money’s worth!).

Lesson: I am pretty sure a .32 caliber would make for a more humane suicide.

2. Reprise….A gruff chap, perhaps fresh in from the mountainside given his beard length, tried to order a “white milk shake.” Perplexed, the Barrista asked him if he meant a smoothie, and proceeded to ring him up. He insisted it wasn’t a smoothie, but a cappuccino. He saw an ad for it, he said. The Barrista explained that the cappuccino is of course, foam and espresso. At this point, the senior Barrista-in-charge stepped in. He backed up, asking if our mountaineer would like a “Blended Beverage.” This was lost in translation from the original Starbuckeese. There was a bit of a pause, long enough to palpitate the inability of our vagabond to speak to the natives. Then, from the line, an increasingly impatient customer offered up “Frappachino!”

Lesson: At Starbucks, it is un-PC to say “white milk shake.” “Blended beverage,” please.

3. I have seen ten year old princesses of the yuppie kingdom speak such fluent Starbuck-prose, that Yeats or Byron would weep upon a hearing. Certainly their parents claim their children to be bilingual! The addiction seems to start with frappaccino fueled by a parent’s wallet. Admittedly, that is how it happened for me, except in those days, Starbucks could only be found in major urban centers and not at Target. Buckys wa a treat, not a need.

By the time the young whippersnapper gets his first job, it is on to more potent caffeine. I marvel at the cost of this daily habit. People used to try to discourage cigarette smokers by showing the cost per year for a pack-a-day person (what is that nowadays, $3650?). Starbucks, at $3 a pop gets into quadruple digits–a plane trip to Europe perhaps.

Lesson: Maxwell House can get you both a morning coffee AND a trip to Europe.

4. A friend of mine, engaging in hyperbole, “checked in” at a Starbucks on that Orwellian app, “Foursquare.” His comment?

“A gallon, please.”

I took up the challenge–how might your order a gallon? Granted, you could get the office kit of a gallon with a nifty carrying handle, but I envisioned the “Big Gulp” of Starbucks. “I’ll have a Cento-venti-otto, please.” Certainly if one wanted death by Starbucks, this is the way to go. Coked out like a 80’s Hair-banger, not smothered under caramel syrup.

Lesson: If you say it in Italian, it doesn’t seem like excess.

5. Another acquaintance, perhaps longing for his halcyon college years of dropping shots of whiskey in his beer, opts for a shot of espresso dumped into a venti (large) bold (dark) coffee.No cream, no sugar. “An act of terrorism,” he calls such additions. The beverage is not on the menu, but is part of the secret lexicon. One shot is a red eye. Two is a black eye. Three is a green eye. Four is an overdose.

Lesson: If you want that much caffeine, take it in pill form.

Personally, I have had better coffee. Starbucks is the McDonald’s of coffee (that is not fair to McDonalds, as their coffee has always been okay.) Uniform and ubiquitous, and reliably found in every travel destination, Starbucks is every bit a Kraken or Cthulhu, rather than a mermaid. Perhaps the better analogy is a Siren that lured the seafarers into the rocks.

I have since kicked my daily habit, opting for better brews and a little more lead time at home (whilst blogging!). But it is hard to imagine an America, 30 years on, without the Green mermaid.

Photo: Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC

Voice of the Past: Wagner on Homecomings

Le Jour ni l’Heure 9274 : Émile Bernard, 1868-1941, portrait de Richard Wagner, 1813-1883, Le Prieuré, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, Île-de-France, mardi 21 août 2012, 17:02:11

Homecomings are bittersweet. In a previous post, I gave Robert Louis Stevenson’s take on the matter. As my blog is mostly about travel, I tend to return to those themes of homecoming, renewal and loss frequently. Travel is all of those things–the wanderlust drawing you from home, the anticipation of adventure, a new experience in a new land, falling in love with the place, then the sad realization that you may never see your destination again. You return home, changed. Home never looks the same.

The German opera master Richard Wagner knew a bit about this. And the Romantic-era children of Germany often returned to the theme of “Storm and Stress” in their works. Wagner captured that feeling in all of his opi. As for the longing for home–the verdant fields of flowers and mountain meadows–he outdoes himself in his “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from the opera, Tannhäuser.

The lyrics to the work, in English:

“Once more with joy O my home I may meet,
Once more ye fair, flowr’y meadows I greet,
My Pilgrim’s staff henceforth may rest,
Since Heaven’s sweet peace is within my breast.


The sinner’s ‘plaint on high was heard
On high was heard and answered by the Lord.
The tears I laid before His shrine,
Are turned to hope and joy divine.


O Lord eternal praise be Thine!
The blessed source of Thy mercy overflowing
On souls repentant seek Ye, all-knowing
Of hell and death, I have no fear
For thou my Lord are ever near.

Alleluia!
Alleluia forever and ever.”

And here, take a listen:

Of course, Wagner’s pilgrims are trading home for heaven, but still, the first stanza captures that melancholy for home. I know many jocks, brutes, meatheads and every-men that loathe classical music, especially opera. And yet when they hear Wagner, they are awestruck. Maybe it is Wagner’s way of building walls of sound, sustaining crescendos over minutes and hours. Maybe it is his knack for melody. Maybe there’s something about singing German loudly that appeals to fans of football, death metal and X-Box. It doesn’t matter why they like Wagner to me, other than that they like it. That is evidence enough that one needn’t know German to understand Wagner’s sentiment.

What does homecoming sound like for you? How has travel changed your homelife?

Wagner Photo credit: Renaud Camus / Foter / CC BY

Carmel, Shmarmel!

Passing on another mostly travel blogger’s view, of coastal California. I have similar impressions of the region by Monterey. So did Steinbeck. I discovered Richard’s work, like most wordpressers, through our shared blog platform. He’s a good read.

Richard Nilsen

17-mile drive

I love California, with its green trees and golden, grassy hills. I love its desert and its two great cosmopolitan cities. But I know that the state isn’t perfect. There are earthquakes, bad air and traffic.

And there is the problem of Carmel: A worm in the apple.

This is like being in love with a beautiful woman and hating her taste in gaudy gold necklaces, for Carmel, like jewelry, is about money.

It reminds me of Beverly Hills with a view, all shops and wealthy wives promenading in the tree-shaded sidewalks with their Lhasa apsos.

It is a shame, because the area is one of the coast’s most beautiful. The churning sea whips granite rocks topped with arthritic Monterey cypress trees. carmel postcard

Yet its residents have turned Carmel into a kind of Disneyland for the Gold Card. Fake Tudor storefronts mix with artificially quaint habits, such as the lack of…

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Voice of the Past: Calvin Coolidge on Persistence

Ex-Pres. Coolidge as private citizen in Boston

In 2013, Amity Shlaes released her comprehensive biography of a forgotten American president of the 20th century, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge is a bit overshadowed in the annals of contemporary US history. Like Clinton in the 1990’s, he presided over a period of rapid economic growth–the “Roaring 20’s.” Tired of war, the American people turned to dancing the Charleston, and to reading “The Great Gatsby” for escapism in the “Jazz Age.”

Coolidge is also forgettable because he wanted to be. Nicknamed “Silent Cal,” he employed his Yankee restraint in his dress, personality and conversation. A famous anecdote about the President goes something like this:

“There is a story that Coolidge was approached at social function by a chirpy Washington socialite who told him, “That man over there bet me I couldn’t get more than two words out of you.”  To which Coolidge replied, “You lose.'”

Imagine if a modern politician was able to have that level of wit, restraint and economy in two words! You can see his modern appeal. That frugality and zen-like ability to withhold action has found champions in modern political circles. Libertarians and conservatives adore his fiscal restraint. Ronald Reagan kept a portrait of him in the Oval Office. While his critics in the past (Dorothy Parker, Upton Sinclair) and the present are quick to point out his seeming lack of consequence while holding the presidency, conservative-minded budget hawks in politics have come to revere Coolidge for his hands-off business approach, and his surgical lancing of the federal budget. He was for them, the Ur-Republican. And yet, his reticence toward bombast and self-promotion makes his an unlikely model for the modern politico.

The Coolidge of history then, is a man of unusual serenity with what the modern American might take for ennui.

Another famous quote, illustrates another trait–his persistence:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Intriguingly, the quote is merely attributed to Coolidge. Scholars have argued for most of the century over the authenticity of the quote. According to Shlaes, the quote appeared in the prospectus of the New York Life Insurance Company, of which Coolidge sat as a director post-presidency. A piece of advertising, the language was likely re-purposed from the pen of  an anonymous editor of some newspaper, who may have used the blurb to fill out a column of space in the want-ads. Pulp philosophy perhaps, but the words resonate.

For a guy who used such precision in his speech, the lines seem a bit long-winded. Yet the simple message captures Calvin’s ethos, of unyielding perseverance.

Most people have been in that sort of rut at some point in their lives–the rut that feels defeated by the Joneses, the envy of the seemingly easy success of another. This bit of Yankee wisdom seems to tidy up that sour-puss, whiny, self-loathing pretty well, I think.

Silent Cal Photo credit: Boston Public Library / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Rocky Mountain High: Lookout Mountain

Lookout Mountain View - Lariot Loup

“He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin’ by a song
But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care
It keeps changin’ fast and it don’t last for long.”

–John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

For the uninitiated, the first disappointment upon landing in Colorado is that Denver is not actually atop the Rockies, but sits before them. While Denver is the Mile High City, that altitude comes via a very slow gradient across the continent up to the city limits. The next 10,000 or so feet of the Rockies spring up along the “Front Range”–the long natural battlement that splits the continent like the great spine of a planetary-sized beast. In the flatlands, Denver then, is for gazing upon the Rockies at a distance–hotels charge more for the mountain view.

In the time I had in Denver before a major convention downtown, I wanted to get some of that mountain air. With John Denver’s ode to those atmospherics playing in the rental car, I drove right past Denver and straight along State Route 6 until I hit the mountain wall. I didn’t have to drive long, as a mere 17 miles from the Airport puts me in Golden, Colorado–home to the great Coors Beer empire. Shooting past the home of the “Silver Bullet”, I found the winding roadway that would take me above the flatlanders in Golden and Denver and up high–Rocky Mountain high.

Colorado - Golden: Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave - Phasaka Tepee

That first entree into the Rockies would take me up a mountain road to the top of Lookout Mountain, an outpost of kitch and good humor that separates the urban Denver from mountainside Colorado. The mountain, at 7700 feet, is a mere foothill compared to the “fifteeners’ out in the distance. The Lariat Loop road gave this flatlander both the whiplash and the vistas he was seeking. Up above the valley, I am always taken by how quiet the landscape becomes. Cars below become muted. The sounds of city life are smothered by the skies.

(animated stereo) Buffalo Bill, circa 1870s

Atop Lookout, I did not find a secluded vista. Rather, the pinnacle has become a tourist trap. In 1917, the legendary showman, soldier and bison hunter “Buffalo Bill” Cody was buried on Lookout, to keep an eye on Denver. It is fitting that a man who made his living on being a spectacle, a caricature of western life would in death continue to profiteer by amusing city slickers. The Memorial Grove is off to the side of the Pahaska “Teepee”–a roadside diner and expansive bric-a-brac shop. Munching on a Buffalo burger, I sat with Buffalo Bill at his memorial, pondering the oddity upon oddity that I was experiencing. Was this surreality the “Rocky Mountain High?”

Colorado - Golden: Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave

No, what John Denver eluded to was not brought on by drugs or irony. The troubadour denied that the ditty was about drugs his entire life. While Coloradans recently snubbed federal edict and legalized marijuana, I found a different sort of high had taken over. Altitude sickness. My strategic error, of taking right for the mountains from the airport without acclimatizing, was a bad move. The only cure for that sensation–which could be fatal–is to get off the mountain. My time on Lookout was brief, but the blast of crisp air and the silence that comes with being 7000 feet above was well worth the nausea.

“He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”

–John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

Denver from Lookout Mountain

“And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high.”

Rocky Mountain Photo credit: Rockin Robin / Foter / CC BY-NC

Buffalo Bill Photo credit: Thiophene_Guy / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Teepee Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Resting Place Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Views of Denver Photo credit: Eric Lumsden / Foter / CC BY-ND

The Secret Language of Striped Ties

Tie 01

Regimental Tie of the Royal Household Guards

The striped tie is the ubiquitous workhorse of business dress. From boardrooms to intern cubicles, the striped tie can signal both the elan and fortitude of its bearer. And yet, this seemingly essential piece of menswear was not always so. Once the dresswear of British Army regiments and preparatory schools, the striped tie has clearly evolved from its roots.

I eschewed this style of tie for many years–thinking it the stuffy and safe choice of the uncreative. Such is the opinion of the greasy teen, in whose father’s dress shirt would wear an abstraction from Jerry Garcia or Rush Limbaugh. But for the initiated, the striped tie signals an appreciation for tradition and timeless style. The stripes are also practical, as they can match up with nearly every conceivable shirt and jacket.

My Necktie -- 23/6/2005

Argyle Sutherland Regimental Tie

While Americans regard the verisimilitude of striped neckwear as just a combination of colors, to the British eye, these ties signify a lot more. Those bars and colors signal the fealty of the bearer to alma mater or king and country. For of the traditional ties pictures in this blog, these are the traditional colors of preparatory schools and military regiments, and were intended to be worn only by those alumni or current members of the Army or school. Brits can read these ties and know where you might have gone to boarding school.

The British model is easily recognizable, the stripes are diagonal, from the upper left to the lower right. Two to three colors mark the tie, sometimes with a thin gold line outlining those colors. Green usually signals an Irish regiment. Three colors tend to be the hallmark of a prep school, as in the red, white and blue of the Charterhouse school.

File:Charles, Prince of Wales.jpg

Charterhouse Prep School Tie

According to M.S. McClellan, a clothier in Knoxville, Tennessee, the move of the striped tie from exclusive use to the everyman can be attributed to the Prince of Wales–Edward, not Charles. After World War I, the sartorial Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) wore the Royal Household Grenadiers Red and Navy in solidarity with those troops with which he served. He brought his regimental tie to the US, and that panache set off the trend. (Prince Edward had a habit of being a bit of a clothes horse. He “invented” the Windsor knot, the bulky noose preferred by Republicans, introduced Argyle to casual attire and had his own pattern of suit fabric (the “Prince of Wales”), all commonly seen today.)

Brooks Brothers and J. Press–two American haberdashers that cater to the preppie aesthetic–capitalized on the trend for American audiences. However, the British were aghast that Joe College would bear the stripes of the Black Watch, Westminster, and Charterhouse. Thus, the American Repp Tie has the stripes in reverse, from lower left moving toward the upper right of the tie. This little change seemed to satisfy those fey Brits and their calls for proper decorum.

Repp, by the way, refers not to the stripes of the tie, but the weave of the silk. A true repp regimental tie will have a diagonal silk weave, in contrast to the the colored bars on the tie.

Tierug - stripes

Americans have taken a prism to the striped tie–as there is no limit to the variation of colors available. Americans have taken to the striped tie as we have with so many ideas from Old Europe. We take the vocabulary and innovate something new of our own. From Opera, we invent musical theatre. From classical music we get Jazz. From the Greek Orders we give you Frank Lloyd Wright. Americans use the scaffold of the stripes to show off splashes of new colors against tweed, navy and gray. The American Repp stands as a bulwark against the meaningless geometry of contemporary ties.

Yet the ties in the US have lost all meaning compared to the British varieties–a lost language in the New World. Any American who is fond of those stripes should be forewarned against wearing them in the UK. Such a display by an American in London might earn you a tongue-lashing from an aged veteran of Her Majesty’s Hussars, or the ridicule of an Etonian who finds you out for wearing his school’s colors. This warning of course matters not if you happen to be a prince, who happens to be the head of every armed force and a patron of most universities and prep schools in the UK.

Repp Photo credit: Paul Worthington / Foter / CC BY-NC

Tweed and Repp Photo credit: bjohnson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Prince Charles Photo Credit: This image is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Tie wheel Photo credit: eileenaway / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Edward VIII http://essentialbritish.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/when-the-blithe-led-the-blithe-high-30s-style/