One simple step toward happiness every day for a year. Doesn't everyone want to be happy?
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Friday, July 31, 2009

Just Breathe

Back in 2003, I paid a visit to Deer Park Monastery, in Escondido, CA.

This is the California branch of the Buddhist order founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who has been based in France the 1970s.

The grounds were pleasant were pleasant on that early summer day, the smell of the chaparral strong. The buildings were spartan, as befitting a Zen monastery.

But my favorite thing about the place was the small signs posted here and there with a simple message: "Breathe. You are alive."

Breathe. Just breathe.

Did you ever see an animal in panic? Like a bird trapped inside a house? It doesn't breathe, it pants.

Often, so do we.

Hindu teachers say that we are only allotted so many breaths in our lives. The longer and deeper we breathe, the longer we live.

It makes sense.

How important is breathing? A very rough rule of thumb says that an adult can live three weeks without food, and three days without water. Air? Three minutes.

Of course, what we breathe is also important. Contrast the air on a clear mountain morning to the sludge in a smoky bar. Breathe the best air you can. (Some of you may have to quit smoking.)

So wherever you are right now, whatever you’re doing, stop. Sit up. And take a deep breath. Then another. And another. Make a habit of it.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sit Under a Tree

When was the last time you sat under a tree?

It's been inspirational for people from the Buddha to Isaac Newton. Why not join them?

Go outside, maybe to a park or better a forest, and find a big ol' tree, a giant specimen.

And just sit down.

So, what should you do when you sit under this tree?

My recommendation: nothing.

But if doing nothing makes you nervous try this: Think about that tree.

Start with the roots. Deep, dark underground, digging their way ever deeper even as you sit there.

And what are they doing down there? Eating. Getting nutrition and water for this magnificent giant.

Eating what? Dirt. Plain old dirt. Hard to imagine that such a creature lives on nutrition so inaccessible to us, isn't it?

Now, the trunk and branches. When we usually see these, they've been cut down, cut up, and dried out. Dry as old bones.

But the ones you're sitting under? They're so wet that you can't light them on fire as is. They're carrying the water and nutrients to the tree.

And meanwhile, at the other end, the leaves are turning sunlight into energy. In fact, if not for their work, there'd be no oxygen on earth.

And you know where we'd be without that.

If this is a fruit tree, it may also be producing apples or peaches or, like the trees near my house in south China, litchis and mangos. Yum.

So sit under a tree. Think about all the giving it does. And just appreciate it.

And maybe, like the Buddha and Sir Isaac, you'll get a great idea too.

But one thing's for sure: You'll be happier.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Visit an Aquarium

James Taylor wrote a kind of weird song called "Valentine's Day." It begins:

Beneath the tide the fishies glide
Fin to fin and side to side
For fishy love has now begun
Fishy love, finny fun

The rest of the song has nothing to do with fish; that's one thing that makes it "weird."

But it serves as a good enough intro to today's "secret": visiting an aquarium.

When I was a kid we used to go to a place called Marineland of the Pacific. It now exists only as the homepage of a historical society, but in its heyday (1954-1987) it was the world's largest "oceanarium," with deep-sea critters of all kinds, and performing sea mammals like dolphins, seals, killer whales, and a 1600-pound pilot whale known to all SoCal kids (and, allegedly, internationally) as "Bubbles the Whale."

The shows were fun, but for sheer mystery, nothing could top the three-story-high tanks. Dwelling in their murky depths were starfish, turtles, and--chilling the bones as he passed by--a hammerhead shark. I've never gone scuba diving, but I've seen the depths, and they are creepier than James Taylor's song.

You may not be near "the world's largest oceanarium" (wherever it is), but there's probably a municipal aquarium somewhere within a day's drive.

So get out of your element. See the fishes. Visit an aquarium.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Remember the Point

Here's something you've never seen before: A "video Secret of Happiness."

I saw this video last week, and I think you should see it, too. (I wanted to embed it here, but embedding has been disabled.)

The people in it did something special. They remembered the point.

Go watch. I'll wait.

See it?

Now, here's the thing. Weddings are supposed to be joyous affairs (despite the glumness of the JP that married my wife and me in Hong Kong).

Screw solemnity. Remember the point.

You'll be happier.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Visit the Sick

There's an irony built into the very word "altruism."

It's root lies in "alter, " like in "alternative," meaning "other." Yet, when we do something for the benefit of "an other," i.e., somebody else, something funny happens.

We feel good.

What could have driven the great sacrifices made by someone like Mother Teresa? At the risk of sounding petty, I contend that she did what she did because she got something out of it.

Have you ever gone Christmas caroling in a rest home? Or simply visited a sick friend?

Didn't it make you feel good?

Maybe you know someone who's ill, right now, who could use a visit, and you've been putting it off for a million little reasons. But underneath it all, you know you're hesitant because sickness creeps you out.

Get over it.

"Visit the sick," wrote the poet Rumi, "and you will heal yourself.." And later, "For kindness has the power to transform."

If you don't know what to say or what to do, just remember to be yourself. Usually all the one you're visiting will need is you.

Want more tips? Check out this article.

Then go do it.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Look into a Microscope

It was 1674, and Dutch draper, surveyor, and wine inspector Anton van Leeuwenhoek was looking through an odd instrument he had fashioned from metal tubes and little glass balls. This was not the first microscope ever, but it was a vast improvement over previous ones.

What he saw in this simple instrument rocked the scientific establishment (not to mention the church) to its core: "animalcules" he called them; "protozoa" I called them in school. The single-celled beasts like amoebas and paramecia that we can now see with the cheapest of dime-store microscopes.

And what a thrill it is to see them, even without realizing how news of their existence rocked the world.

If the little critters aren't your thing, how about flower parts? Or feathers? Or parts of dead insects found? Mr. Van L. enjoyed looking at bee's jaws and stings. How about a fly's wing?

I'm against killing for the sake of viewing, but plenty of material can be found without committing murder. A drop of one's own blood (taken in a sterile manner); salt, celery, and other kitchen stuff; the algae in dirty water from outside; dirt itself.

And what do you get from all this? A new perspective.

There's a whole world around us that we never see, and it's thrumming with life. The intricacy of things on the minutest level might be just the thing to knock us out of our doldrums.

So take a close look at the "world in a grain of sand." Enlarge (heh heh) your view of the world we live in. Look into a microscope.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Choose Happiness

One of the first things that attracted me to my wife was her positive outlook.

Her life has been no easier than any other, and yet she's always cheerful, smiling, even laughing out loud.

This became clear to me one day when she was wearing a t-shirt whose simple words said it all: "Choose happiness."

Whoa. Happiness is a choice?

She has even said to me on more than one occasion, "Why are you choosing to be unhappy?"

A tough question to answer.

Why do we choose to be unhappy?

Sometimes, I think, it's because we think that there are things more important than happiness. Like love. Or money. Or duty.

If this is your problem then, as the Wizard of Oz put it, "You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking."

Because ultimately, the proper pursuit of love, wealth, or the fulfillment of duty should be cause for joy. If not, some serious examination is in order.

So take a little inventory. What are the sources of unhappiness in your life? What choices led to these? What choices will you need to make to optimize your happiness?

"But I can't give that up!" you wail.

Fine. As long as you can't, you're choosing unhappiness. But once you realize what needs to be done, and then do it? Well…

You'll be happier.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Try Something New With Your Hair

It's almost a cliché, like something from a corny old movie: a woman gets depressed, so she goes to the "beauty salon" for a new hairdo.

Well, the best of clichés are based in reality.

There's no question that a change in hairstyle (and gentlemen, this includes facial hair) can do a lot for one's self-image.

In my lifetime my hairstyles have run the gamut from below-the-shoulder-blades to smoothly shaved. In the 80s, I even had a perm (but only once).

You can call it vanity, but hair matters.

Virtually every religion says something about hairstyle, from the unshorn Nazarites of the Bible (Samson, John the Baptist) to the tonsured Capuchin Franciscans; from the long hair and mandatory beard of male Sikhs, to the side curls of the Orthodox Jewish men, to the shaved head of Buddhist monastics (male and female); there is something about hair and holiness.

But religion aside, a new style puts a spring in the step, and a song in the heart.

For some, we may be talking color; for others, length, for still others, shape. But whatever you change, the change will do you good.

So go to the salon, or just grab a trimmer, and do something to "the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of your hair."

You'll be happier.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Greet Someone

We've witnessed a strange phenomenon here in China. When two "foreign" strangers pass on the street, it's not uncommon for one of them to look away as though the other weren't there.

A friend of mine calls this "Marco Polo Syndrome," theorizing that the person who behaves that way wants to believe he's the first--and only--non-Chinese here!

Whatever the reason, it feels a little odd to be heads up, eyes directed, mouth poised for a greeting, and then suddenly to feel invisible.

This is compounded by how readily Chinese people who pass us say "Hello, Hello" in what some have called a kind of verbal ambush.

Now, reverse the situation. You're a stranger in a very strange land, making your way down the pavement in an environment of alien sights, sound, and smells; and suddenly, there's a friendly face ("foreign" or Chinese), smiling, making eye contact, and extending a warm greeting.

Safe!

Well, here's some news for you: We're all strangers in a strange land. We're all foreigners in need of a smile, a look, a friendly "Hello."

So why not be that oasis, that refuge, that port-in-a-storm, and greet others?

Some "Marco Polos" will ignore you, some look embarrassed, but most will gratefully accept your greeting, and offer you one in return.

And guess what will happen then?

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Be Early

It seems I've spent most of my life sliding into position just before a bell rings; the soundtrack of my life should include an umpire yelling "safe!"

Whether it's the start of a class (as student and, for nearly 30 years now, teacher), or renewing a driver's license, or making a necessary phone call, the plaque that the staff put on my desk when I was a principal has been the theme of my life: "If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would ever get done around here."

Occasionally, though, circumstances conspire to make me be earlier, and when that happens, I'm usually happier.

These days, for example, I live on the east campus of my school, and work on the west. There's a shuttle bus whose schedule compels me to arrive at least 20 minutes before class time. I'm able to buy breakfast, eat it in my office, and stroll into class with time to spare.

In Japan, I did evening training sessions in various companies around Tokyo. I would head to the client's neighborhood and eat my "lunch" (early dinner) there, rather than near my office, so I could walk in cool (literally), calm, and collected.

When I've been able to do this, to go against my "nature" (whatever that is) and avoid rushing, I've discovered that it makes me happier than the five minutes of troubled sleep gained by that extra hit of the snooze alarm.

So reduce the panic in your life, the drama of the constant "photo finish," and be early instead.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Write a Poem and Give It to Someone

Picture this: Romeo has found Juliet and, in a fit of passion, decides to...stop at a Hallmark store and buy her a card.

Or better yet, just grab something from the net.

In this age of easy communication, the personal touch is sometimes sadly cheapened.

When we can send a thousand thank-you notes with the touch of a button, or get a computer to compose love songs, the heartfelt expression of sentiment is no longer the fine art it was.

Why not write your own poem?

You don't have to be Shakespeare. Going through old papers at my parents house, I found a "Christmas poem" I had written for my mom when I was 6 or 7:

On Christmas Eve, the cow says "Moo"

She is saying "I love you"

On Christmas Eve the sheep says "Baa"

And she means "I love you, Ma."

Laugh if you want, but how do you think my mom felt when I gave her this?

So don't let some commissioned "poet" determine how you'll express your feelings. Say something original.

Not just "love poems," either. Thank you, I miss you, you're the best, I'm sorry. There are lots of reasons to wax poetic.

And instead of making it all fancy on the computer, how about buying some nice paper and a pen and (gasp) writing it by hand?

You'll be happier (and so will the recipient).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Feather Your Nest

These days, to feather one's nest implies taking bribes or doing something else illegal to secure one's future.

But originally, the idiom meant to make your environment more comfortable. It comes from the idea of birds lining their nests with feathers to make them soft.

So what the heck is this bird-brain talking about?

I'm talking about making the place where you live (your nest) both comfortable and attractive.

Spruce it up.

I've mentioned "Going a Little Martha Stewart" before, talking about making your food more palatable.

Now I'm talking about the space we live in.

When I recommended buying a piece of art, I was thinking of art as art.

Now I mean everything around you. Furniture, white goods, knick-knacks. Plates, silverware, glasses. Indoor plants, incense, sound (a rippling fountain, a wind chime).

Our home has two halves (really two dorm rooms, each with a kitchen and bath). One side is utilitarian.

On the other side: A jute rug and pillows. A half-bath (for guests to use). The kitchen, for hospitality. Scrolls, statues, incense burners. A real sanctuary. When we're on "that side," everywhere the eye falls is pleasing.

Give it some thought. Make your home a place that you and the people you love find rejuvenating.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Go Stargazing

Before movies, before dramas, even before speech, there was the Greatest Show Off Earth: the night sky.

Virtually every culture has looked to the sky and seen entertaining stories, predictions of cataclysms, or intimations of immortality.

What a shame that all we see are "balls of gas burning billions of miles away" (as Pumba says in The Lion King).

Although I know the planets, and can pick out a constellation here and there, I have never been serious about astronomy.

But I have often been overwhelmed by the wonderment of it all, whether before sunrise on Japan's Mount Fuji, or on my back in a sleeping bag in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon.

Once, while at Chaco, I was checking out the stars before moonrise with a group of kids. One of them said, "It looks like they're rushing toward us." I explained that in fact, science says they're rushing away.

"Really?" he asked. "Then what?" Well, I said, when they ran out of oomph from the Big Bang, gravity would start them falling inward again, until another Big Bang made them fly outward, and then in, and out, in, and out, again and again.

As I gestured, clasping my hands, moving them apart, then clasping again, he said quietly, "Whoa, like a giant heartbeat."

Whoa, indeed.

It's moments when we're immersed in the stars that even a junior high kid can have an insight like that.

So get out of town, away from the city lights; lie in your back, and look to the stars. Maybe even make a wish on one.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Go to a Movie Palace

When I was a kid, the theaters we went to were as exciting as the movies we saw.

Back when there was no VHS or DVD or cable, and the only movies we could see at home were the handful shown on the broadcast channels (seven whole channels in the L.A. market!), "going to the movies" was a pretty darned big deal.

Some elements of the experience were the same as now. A snack bar with Milk Duds, Jujubes, and other candies we couldn't buy anywhere else (or, if we could, they were a lot cheaper outside). And popcorn.

But other things were different. Seats bigger than any we had at home. A proscenium in front of the screen. A big screen. Real curtains, that a person could walk behind. (Sometimes there was a full stage behind the screen, as the theater had been converted from a "live" show place.) A balcony.

And decorations that can only be described as "rococo."

The places were big, cathedral big.

And then something happened. "Multiplexes" started opening--four-plexes, six-plexes--"cinema in a shoebox." Suddenly, being in a theater wasn't much different from being in your living room.

And the big movie palaces couldn't compete, so some of them did a terrible thing: they stuck a "plex" inside the palace. They chopped up the cathedral into a bunch of living rooms. One old theater in Pasadena, CA, even squeezed a couple of "theaters" into the balcony.

Well, here's something the multiplex owners don't want you to know: Some of these old movie palaces are still out there.

Some, like Disney's El Capitan, have been refurbished, and even have stage shows before the film. Others, like those in L.A.'s old theater district, are only opened for special events, like the L.A. Conservancy's "Last Remaining Seats" series. (They still look great, but they don't smell so good anymore.)

So get out and find a movie palace, restored or derelict, first run or revival house. Sit up close to the big screen or up in the balcony and dive in to the wonder of a movie (and turn off your cell phone, for Pete's sake).

You'll be happier.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Play a Board Game

A few years ago, my wife and I made our first visit to Baguio, the town in the northern region of the Philippines where my wife went to university. There, we fortunate to meet a couple, Jim and Shanti, who run "Bliss," a vegetarian restaurant .

Unfortunately, when we first dined in their restaurant on Sunday, we learned it would be closed Monday, and we were leaving Tuesday morning. This was to be our first and last visit.

But fortunately (life is like that, ain't it?) the phone rang in our inn Monday morning; it was Jim inviting us to their home for a scrumptious veg dinner.

Also fortunately (didn't see that coming, did you?) we played a board game called "Cranium." Four professionals, sophisticates, yelling at each other like kids: "That's cheating!" "No it isn't!" and so on. (Jim and I beat Lila and Shanti, but barely).

On his next trip to Hong Kong, our friend Mike brought us a box o' Cranium (at Lila's request), and a tradition was born: Cranium Nights, whether in our home, in the company dorm where she lives during the week, or in local restaurants.

It took me back: Risk, Life, and the king of them all, Monopoly, on rainy days when I was a kid. Stratego in college days. Trivial Pursuit with friends and neighbors Bill and Mary Ann during my first marriage.

I love my computer; I'm shackled to it (by choice) most of my waking hours.

But there's something about shaking dice, spinning a wheel, moving your piece forward (or back), drawing cards, jumping someone's king--tactile sensations that can't be duplicated with a mouse, a keyboard, or a joystick.

Not to mention being around a table with friends, face to face, like a meal.

So dust off your Scrabble, Parcheesi, Yahtzee, Chinese checkers, or go out and buy one of the flashy newer games. Get some snacks, invite some friends, and have some fun.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Visit a Historic Site

One of the greatest motivations in my life (and, I believe, with most human beings) is the drive to feel connected.

In most cases, that means connection to the people around me, to nature, even to something "other."

But sometimes, in addition to that sense of connectedness across space, I also feel the need to be connected through depths of time. This could mean seeing old friends (as I'm doing during a return visit to my hometown this week).

But the need for "historical" connection can also be filled by getting in touch with actual history, wherever you are.

For me, that usually means visiting a temple, pagoda, fort, tomb, ancient village, or ancestral hall near my home in South China.

But when I lived in California, it was the missions and old adobes; in New Mexico, the pueblos and churches; in Japan, the temples, shrines, and castles.

When I travel, I'd rather go to historical sites than to resorts, bars, beaches, casinos, or markets.

During my "healing years" (after my divorce), if I wasn't in the Southwest, I was reading about it. The combination of breadth (those "wide open spaces" and the big sky) and depth (ancient sites, ancient cultures) in America's "Four Corners" region brought me out of a bad time.

To be honest, I don't so much love reading about history. I'd rather learn it from a brochure acquired on-site than from a dusty book in a musty library.

So if you haven't already, check out the historical sites in your area. Better yet, join a historical society and help keep history alive.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Visit an Amusement Park

A few years ago, there was a campaign that implied that, even if you've just won the Super Bowl or other amazing feats, going to Disneyland would be even better.

Now, I'm as big a fan of "The Magic Kingdom" as anyone. In fact, I have a nearly mystic connection: I was born the day the first one opened, in Anaheim, CA.

And how could anyone not love an enterprise that calls itself "The Happiest Place on Earth"?

Anyway, Disneyland and the other big, corporate parks are not what I'm talking about.

I mean those crunky little places that are more like a stationary carnival. In some areas they used to be called "trolley parks," built by the rail companies to increase ridership on weekends.

You know, a place where you can throw a softball at a stack of metal milk bottles, or bust balloons with darts, and win stuffed animals that are bigger than you.

Where you can see "the world's largest bull" or a two-headed lamb.

Where the ride operators are hand-painting the equipment in between rides.

Cotton candy and funnel cakes. Ferris wheels and Tilt-A-Whirl. Pitching ping pong balls into goldfish bowls.

If there are no amusement parks in your area, keep an eye out for county fairs and traveling carnivals.

Take the kids, take your sweetheart, step right up and become one of those suckers born every minute.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tell a Tall Tale

With the explosion of modern media, the fine old art of storytelling has become practically a thing of the past.

These days, if it ain't got CGI, forget about it.

But to some of us, the raconteur is still a most welcome figure.

So, why not become one?

Here's my idea: Think of a story that seems, well, unlikely. Maybe you'll choose something that really happened, but it would be better if it were impossible. Perhaps a friend told you something once, even a joke, or you read a story somewhere, and said, "That couldn't happen." That would be perfect.

Now, write it down. Add lots of details, and as you're writing, be thinking of your presentation.

Then, practice it, again and again, until it comes out perfect. Be sure to use your voice, facial expressions, gestures--all of your body language--to add as much to the story as you can. Maybe even add a simple prop or two: a hat, or a stick.

Now, find an audience. It might just be your family around the table after dinner, but it would be better to have a larger group. Maybe you're in the Lions, or a Scout leader, or in a cycling or some other kind of club. Offer to provide a "program" there.

Or if your schedule permits, volunteer at a local school.

So write, practice, and tell a tall tale, in front of an audience. Imagine the laughter, the applause, and the satisfaction.

You'll be happier.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Be Someone Else

Everybody loves Halloween.

We can dress up as someone else, and in unguarded moments maybe even believe we're someone else.

Not that there's anything wrong with being us, mind you; it's just that there's nothing wrong with being someone else, either.

In 1939, the great James Thurber's story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was published in The New Yorker; it later became a film.

Since then, Walter Mitty has been the prime example of a daydreamer, one who is so ineffectual in real life that he has to make up fantasies just to keep himself happy.

Now I ask you: What's so wrong about that?

I'm not talking about breaking laws, like impersonating a police officer, or becoming a quack doctor. We're not talking "Pretender" here.

But when you walk through a series of doors and enter an elevator, why not be Maxwell Smart, complete with the "Get Smart" theme running in your head?

Dining in an unusually fine restaurant, or walking into the lobby of a five-star hotel to meet someone? Be Trump or Gates.

Sprucing up the house? Be Martha Stewart.

You can be anyone you want whether you're singing in the shower, playing basketball, or just living vicariously through a movie.

Let yourself go (literally) and be someone else.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Get Wet

We originated in a wet environment.

Evolution says we came from the sea. The Bible begins with a water-covered earth, from which dry land and then humans were made.

In any case, each one of us before birth lived in "water." (You know a baby is coming when the mother's "water breaks").

Is it any wonder, then, that we feel happy wading in the sea, or swimming in a pool, or even splashing in a tub?

South China, where I live, is subtropical, hot and sticky most of the year. As summer gets going, a three-shower-day is not unusual. (Wish I had a tub.)

Our city is replete with spas, pools, and hot springs. Not so much my style, but lots of my friends love them.

I remember my long walk through Japan, though. After walking all day, I was sometimes fortunate enough to find accommodation in a temple. Great ambiance, great food, and great bath.

Outside the tub, you'd soap up on a stool, and rinse off with a scoop-and-spigot (the fancier places had spray hoses). Then lower yourself slowly into the 40C (104F) water, ignoring the naked men around you.

Bliss.

So whether it's a sauna or a steam room, a Jacuzzi or a lap pool, the ocean or a bubble bath, get wet.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learn that When One Door Opens...

One day recently a student came in and "asked for leave" (a Chinese-English euphemism for saying "I won't be in class").

She asked if she would get credit for being present. I replied that no, of course not, if she wasn't there, she couldn't be marked "present."

But she was on the volleyball team, she said, and they had a match in Guangzhou, and it wasn't her fault.

And I found myself saying the oddest thing, the opposite of an optimistic expression we're all familiar with. I said, "But remember, when one door opens, another one closes."

She didn't get it. And I'm not sure I did either until I thought about it for a few days.

And then it hit me: This is the lesson in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

We make our choices in life, and despite the constant yammering that "You can have it all," you really can't.

If you choose the life of a solitary mendicant, you can't be the father of four.

If you choose to be CEO of a Fortune 500, you can't simultaneously be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Every choice for is also a choice against.

And I think a lot of frustration comes from not realizing this.

So accept the fact that time, and energy, and resources are limited. There's only so much you can do. Do that, then relax, knowing you've done your best.

You'll be happier.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Buy a Piece of Art

What is it about art that captures the imagination?

Joseph Campbell says that when a painter paints a mountain, he's not trying to explain a mountain; he's trying to give you an experience of a mountain.

So why not just go to the mountain?

Well, sometimes we can't. And in the best of circumstances, the artist's perspective on the mountain may convey more "mountainness" than a real mountain has.

Now, I can't afford "real" art, originals by brand-name artists.

But I do appreciate something more than a postcard of dogs playing cards.

I'm thinking about something with canvas, to which oil paint has been applied, with a brush.

I'm thinking of something made of wood, that emerged layer by layer under the careful invasion of chisel and knife.

Something more than the product of a printing press, or an injection molding machine.

Something from the eye, hand, and heart of someone who is trying to give me an experience.

And as much as I love seeing art in a museum, there's something fine about living with art, being greeted by it every morning.

So head out to a local gallery or an Arts and Crafts fair. Meet (and support) a local artist. Find something that speaks to you.

And take it home and give it a place of honor.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Go to a Farm

Here's my dirty little secret: I love the smell of manure. And compost. And humus.

They smell of verdure.

I love to be near, or better, among, cows. I love watching chickens, some of God's dumbest and least graceful birds, as they run down a bug.

I love walking through cornstalks taller than me.

When I was a kid, my grandpa had 10 acres of Thompson seedless grapes and a contract with Sunmaid Raisins. Visiting the farm, playing with the dogs, collecting eggs--that was living.

For several of my preschool years, when asked what I wanted to be "when I grew up" (a problem that still vexes me) I would answer "a farmer." (After that, it was "President.")

I had to have a new "Farm Set" from the Sears Catalog every year for Christmas, too.

Later, in "Marriage: The Prequel," I had geese, chickens, pigeons, a horse, and a goat.

Now, I've become a little sensitive. I know about "agribusiness," and I know that the life of farm animals is more like a Stalag 17 than like Babe.

But still, to be around growing things; to walk through rice fields all over east Asia; to see the farmers in Jiangsu threshing on half of a two-lane asphalt road; to watch the water buffalo soaking in his massive natural tub--that takes me back to the pre-Industrial days when most human beings made their livings on some sort of farm.

So go visit one. Or, if you can't, find a community garden, or a petting zoo.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Get It Fixed

What's annoying you, friend?

Is it that squeaky car door? The kitchen window that won't stay open? The camera that keeps losing all its settings?

Is that what's botherin' you, Bunky?

Well get out of that chair, pick up that phone, and call a repairman.

Or, if you're handy, strap on the old tool belt and do it yourself.

Let me tell you what happened to me a while back.

My toilet ran for over a year. For more than 365 days, I had to pick up the tank cover and tap the float to get the valve to shut tight.

Now this is in China, where labor is cheap, but if I had only known how cheap...

So we were planning to have a party, and that afternoon I decided I was going to fix the toilet just hours before the guests arrived.

Can you guess what happened?

I broke a pipe, and water was spraying everywhere. I had to turn off the main on the outside of the building, and go get a plumber.

A nightmare, right?

Thirty minutes and about three dollars later--yes, three whole U.S. dollars--the problem was solved. The toilet was quiet.

So do it yourself, or have it done, but get it fixed.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Take a Road Trip

One of the things I miss since I moved to Asia is the Road Trip.

I used to love to just jump in my car and wander off. As a teacher with ample vacation time, I sometimes would wander for weeks at a time.

I miss that. Being a passenger in a bus in China just isn't the same.

The last real road trip I took was in 1998. LA to Santa Fe in two cars with seven Japanese friends and two walkie-talkies. Not exactly Jack Kerouac, but a great trip nonetheless.

But the best trips I had were solo.

Once I was traveling alone in the Southwest, and up at Four Corners I met an older man, a retired railroad worker. Married for 40-some years, he wondered aloud what it was like to travel alone.

"It's great!" I crowed. "I can go anywhere I want, do anything I want, stop when I'm tired, and there's no one saying 'Honey, let's go.'"

Just then a woman's voice called from behind me, "Honey, let's go!"

"Yes, dear," he called over my shoulder, then quietly to me: "I may have to kill 'er."

I wouldn't go that far. But I would say that a road trip alone (with due regard to safety) can allow you to see more country, meet more people, and have a deeper experience of...the Road.

So load up on snacks and drinks, throw a lawn chair in the back of the car, and head out beyond the city limits.

You'll be happier.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Hug and Be Hugged

When I was living in Japan, I had a most peculiar experience.

An honest-to-goodness Mahatma came to town. The word means "Great Soul," and you'll never guess what this Great Soul's mission was?

She hugged people.

That's it. Not a whole lot of teaching, no preaching. Ammachi just goes around hugging people.

I saw workaday Japanese people take off their glasses, rings, and so on (to prevent snagging on her robes), kneel in front of her, and be hugged.

Then I saw them turn around, almost every one of them demolished in tears, and walk shakily away. Being hugged is powerful.

So today's "secret" is a two-for-one:

First, hug someone. It'll do you good.

Second, be hugged.

Don't get hung up on what hugging's all about; just hug and be hugged.

And hug like you mean it.

Garrison Keillor describes the "Minnesota hug": stand two feet apart, place left hand on the huggee's shoulder, and shake hands with the right.

Then there's the "lean-in hug," where only the shoulders touch.

Not like that. Hug like a boa constrictor.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Read a Poem

Right up there with drama, as far as antiquity goes, is poetry.

Now, I'm not talking about the "Roses are red, violets are blue," or the "girl from Nantucket" variety.

I'm talking about the real deal.

Joseph Campbell says that poets (and artists) are the shamans of our day, intermediaries who put us in touch with something larger than ourselves.

Yeah.

How about this, from the beginning of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

Just pause a moment, and think about what that might mean.

This brings up another point. Orson Welles once told a friend of mine that "to read more than one poem at a sitting is an insult to the poet."

So don't read a book of poems; don't read "poetry."

Read a poem. Savor it. Chew on it. Memorize it and walk around thinking about it all day.

Then, the next day, do another one.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

See a Play

Drama is one of the oldest arts.

Before TV, before movies, even before the novel, there were plays.

To sit in a darkened theater, or outside on a warm summer's night, and see your fellow human beings strut and fret their hour upon the stage--pure magic.

It could be an extravaganza, an epic of Biblical proportions.

Or it could be a one-man-or-woman show.

It could be Broadway or (better, I think) the local Parks and Rec. Or your kids in the living room.

It could be Shakespeare. Euripides. A Medieval passion play.

Or it could have been written yesterday. Or improvised right now.

In Shakespeare's time, the poor stood on the ground, near the stage. They were called "groundlings."

Best seat in the house, if you ask me. Rotten-tomato-chucking distance.

Sit close if you can.

But even up in the "nosebleed seats," the play's the thing.

Finally, if there's just no way you can get to a play: perform your own.

You'll be happier.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Get Your Spiffy On

It may be true that, as a wise old friend used to say, "A monkey in a tuxedo is still a monkey."

But when I've had the chance to wear tuxedos, I was a happy monkey.

There are certain occasions--weddings, proms, Easter, graduation--where we dress up and we feel happy.

But I sometimes wonder, is it the occasion that makes us happy, or the clothes?

Women have long known this: a new hairstyle, some new clothes, a nail job, and voila! a new woman.

But guys, be honest: Isn't your step a little springier in new shoes? Don't you feel great after a haircut? Don't you feel like James Bond in a tux?

So brothers and sisters, get your spiffy on.

Polish up those shoes, trim those bangs, tie that tie.

Get that manicure, have those teeth cleaned, buy those new shades.

"The clothes make the man," they say, and the woman too.

Sure, it doesn't make you any better, like that monkey in that tuxedo. But if it makes you feel better, then why not?

Spiff up.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Give Someone Flowers

I didn't know this when I was a young man: Women love flowers.

(Socially backwards, I guess.)

I learned it late. And later than that, I learned something else: Men also love flowers.

Here's how it happened: When I was around 35, I had a new girlfriend. She asked me once what I liked, and I said, "Are women and men so different? Whatever you like, I like."

The next day, I was at school, teaching a bunch of twelve-year-olds, when a deliveryman walked into my classroom and handed me a large-ish floral arrangement.

I had a lot of explaining to do. I was flustered, and proud, and embarrassed, and pleased all at once.

The kids loved it.

I remember as a little kid, on May Day, making flower baskets out of construction paper, picking some weedy flowers from the garden, and hanging them on the door of my dear old babysitting neighbors before ringing the bell and running away.

I remember altar flowers. I remember weddings and funerals.

Nothing says "special" like flowers.

You don't have to spend a bundle on roses. A single daisy will do, or a nosegay of wildflowers. (What a great word, "nosegay"; it means it "makes the nose happy.")

Flowers also make the eye happy, and the heart happy.

And making the nose, eye, and heart of a special someone happy will make you happier, too.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Go Play in the Mud

The secret of happiness in two words: mud pies.

I don't mean the fancy dessert. I mean real mud.

Don't you remember being two or three years old, and being "happy as a pig in..." You guessed it.

The best excuse for playing in the mud at a certain age is gardening.

But it's really all about the mud.

Are you too fastidious for mud? How about sand? The sandbox was a great place. And psychologists even set up sand tables for "play therapy."

Speaking of psychology: The great Carl Jung was into rocks. In his mid-to-late 30s, he began playing outside again, building a small town out of stones:

I went on with my building game after the noon meal every day, whenever the weather permitted. As soon as I was through eating, I began playing, and continued to do so until the patients arrived; and if I was finished with my work early enough in the evening, I went back to building.

And if anyone knows what happiness is, it's gotta be Jung.

So get down on your knees. Put your hands in the soil. Look at the ground close-up. Touch it. Let it squish through your fingers. And initiate your own creation, shaping the earth into whatever you want.

You'll be happier.