How Great (Thou) Art

These are bewildering times. As I follow the growing dis-ease on the international political stage, I retreat to the theatrical one, from which I draw endless strength. In the shadows behind the curtains, I can smell the mystery and anticipation of that golden moment the performing arts can carry.

But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh. “Because poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Indeed, the beauty of art is a magnificence to behold. After a week in the Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn, observing and interviewing over a dozen artists whose bodies are their art form, I have come to realize two things:

  1. Art is like air. We need it to breathe.
  2. Nature heals and holds us high.

Sometimes we forget in the rush of things how important the simple aspects of life are to nurture us and make us whole again. Then, with a gentle nudge from happenstance, we become transformed as we stumble upon a magical moment. Maybe we pay an unexpected visit to an art gallery or attend a performance that moves us so deeply as we witness the connection between artist on stage and the audience below.

In my case it was Viktor Kee, the world’s best juggler whose act has been featured in Cirque du Soleil numerousIMG_6290 times. He is a mild-mannered fellow who likes to laugh. He told me he is always nervous before every performance, which is a good thing. “The moment I am no longer nervous is the moment I must stop doing this.” Adrenaline gives you a laser-like focus. You can’t be distracted, thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you do circus arts. Keep your eye on the ball. At all times.

Elayne Kramer, a world-class contortionist and a sixth generation member of an Argentinian circus family, told me she has no regrets. “The road is my home. When I arrive to my house in Florida, I am IMG_6300on vacation. But I can’t stand it there for long. I was born to do what I do.” She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America. Her charm, grace and balance will knock your socks off.

The commitment these acrobats have for their art is remarkable. A couple from Colombia told me when they perform time stands still. They lose all sense of pain and feel like they ‘are floating in the air. By the looks of their performance, they are!

And so, when poetry does not come to us, we must go to the place where it can find us again. Where we can put the pieces back together of our shattered hearts and remember that these times too shall pass.

And the show? Well, yes. The show will go on.

 

 

Time without Meaning

Western understanding of time is that it is a commodity to be exchanged for money. Our entire system, including institutions, commerce, systems for governance and lifestyle, is based on our time-is-money definition. It creates an environment in which clock combat is king. We immerse ourselves in a pressure cooker and wonder why our heads and hearts hurt so badly.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

Our preoccupation with time is further intensified through our alienation from the natural world. Who has time to dally about, reflect or pause? It is too costly, we argue. We can’t afford it.

But Nature and the time we spend with it is as essential as good nutrition. We are natural beings. We need Nature to remember who we are and why we are here. Our communion with the natural world has been forgotten. And yet it is as important as the air we breathe.

For the past few weeks I have been traveling about Nepal and now India, feeling at one with all things and wonder how I could feel so comfortable in a place so foreign to my usual surroundings.

And then, as I strolled through the desert amongst camels and nomads, it suddenly hit me. The people here mill about towns just as casually as the cows and dogs and monkeys that inhabit the places we have seen. The co-mingle, co-exist and co-inhabit with Nature. The food they eat is real food. It is Slow Food that actually doesn’t need capitalization. They don’t eat processed foods geared toward saving time in its preparation because time and nature are the same.

When we return next week, I hope to remember the lessons I have learned here and, to my very best ability, uphold the same understanding I have gained during my travels to these most exquisite places.

I am humbled by the experience. Blessings to you all.

Driven to Distraction

Back in my high school days, my pokey Chemistry teacher doubled as our driver’s ed instructor. Clipboard in hand, side hairs carefully placed over his balding orb, he would patiently smile, take a deep breath and invite two students at a time to drive him first around the parking lot, then around town, then on the highway. I’ll never forget his paternal tenor as he gently reminded us to “keep both hands on the wheel.” It never would have occurred to him to say “and both eyes, too.”

But today, instructors everywhere will have to remind their students of much more than the 1o-and-2 rule (left hand at 10 o’clock; right hand at 2). The automobile industry has started placing infotainment centers in the dashboards of their cars so people can remain connected even when they are on the road.

Um. Who thinks being able to Google while clocking 80 on the speedometer is a good idea?

I’d dare say no one.

According to a recent AAA study, people who played around with their in-car infotainment systems were distracted up to 27 seconds – even after they placed their attention back on the road. The study suggests that “just because a driver terminates a call or music selection doesn’t mean they are no longer impaired — impairment lingered up to 27 seconds after a task was completed.” Our cognitive ability is hindered even if we chat hands-free on our mobile devices.

Major automobile companies believe they are giving consumers what they want. In truth, they are. But what we want may not necessarily be good for us. Hyper-connectivity doesn’t lead to safer roads. It leads to distracted driving and ensures that one of the major causes of death in the United States remains automobile accidents.

One day we will have pervasive wireless access on airplanes too. My only hope is the pilot stays offline. With both hands on the wheel and eyes on the sky without a television to info-tain him during long-haul flights.

Are you with me on this one?

 

The Sliding Holiday Scale

September and October used to be the months of fall with colorful splashes of pumpkin orange and blue skies. If you were to believe the retailers, however, you would think it was Christmas. Since early September — before my kids even returned to school — grocery stores have been selling holiday sweets. At times the thermometer read 25C (78°F) and the chocolate Santas sweat alongside us at the check-out counter.

The saturation of holiday cheer well before we’re even thinking about roasting chestnuts by an open fire got me to thinking. What are the holidays really about? I mean before consumerism took over and everyone strapped on their boots for the mad rush to the local mall?

For me it is about reinforcing what is truly important in my life. And for me, that is family.

Ussed with permission by Lifetime

Ussed with permission by Lifetime

Lifetime is running a series of somewhat sappy, yet heart-touching movies around the holidays. Of the half-dozen screeners I could have watched, I selected to review “A Gift-Wrapped Christmas” airing November 28, 2015 at 8 pm ET/PT and starring Meredith Hagner (Men at Work), Travis Milne (Rookie Blue) and Beverley Mitchell (7th Heaven). The film is about a personal shopper who falls in love with her workaholic client. While the protagonist may seem to represent our consumer-oriented thinking around the holidays, the underlying message really touched me – her selfless striving to make others happy with her personal gift selections turns her grouchy client into the soft, loving puppy he was prior to his wife’s untimely death. While one could argue you don’t really need expensive Italian suits to make you happy, the movie’s message goes beyond the drive to buy people’s love to a more subtle meaning of the holidays. We love; therefore we give.

So before you stumble over yet another holiday decoration at the downtown mall, turn up the fires of your heart to remember what really counts, no matter the season.

 

Run (in the Forest), Run!

What does running have to do with the power of slow? There really is nothing Slow about running per se. With a minor exception of one blazing summer as a Washington, D.C. intern, I’ve never been the jogging type. But I do love my walks through the woods. I do them every chance I can get.

Run Phones meEvery now and then I’ll bring my iPhone with me to listen to music. But as I briskly jaunt through the forest, those annoying ear buds kept popping out of my ear. Dangling down to the forest floor, they seemed to mock me. I was about to give up every listening to music on my iPhone again until RunPhones contacted me. They offered me to try their product in exchange for a review on my blog.

So I agreed.

The headband comes in two types of styles — the warmer, fleecy type for winter and the cooler, thinner material for summer. Both are washable so you don’t have to worry about them getting funky after a while. I got the summer kind (thankfully). As the temperatures rise, I don’t really want anything on my head. I was ready for an itch-a-thon, but the headband is so comfortable, I soon forgot I was wearing it at all. It’s like having a portable stereo without the cackling ear buds to ruin the fun.

Another bonus is I don’t have to jack up the sound to have the high fidelity that the RunPhones provide. I always felt like ear buds were making me go deaf. Now I’ll be stylin’ whilst maintaining my hearing too!

I may never take up jogging again, but I’ll certainly be listening to my tunes  more often whilst traipsing through the forest.

The No Vacation Nation

Our relationship with time is embedded in our culture. It is never so apparent than in the different ways in which people view vacation. For some, vacation is a luxury; for others, it’s a birthright. One glance at this chart reveals how diverse our perspective is about taking time off. It shows the number of mandatory vacation days per year. France wins – hands down – with 30 days. The United States lands on the opposite end of the spectrum with exactly zero.

vacation days 2015

 

After seeing this chart, I got curious.  John Piana, a veteran of Corporate America with over 20 years of experience and a work-life balance proponent, approached me with some of his ideas as to why Americans don’t view vacation as a necessity. He calls the United States the No Vacation Nation. It is so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that anything other than working is considered “time off” (even hospitalization – I swear I can’t tell you how many of my American friends told me to enjoy my time off and to consider it a mini-vacation when I went in for surgery– are you serious??).

Power of Slow: Do you think Corporate America will ever introduce mandatory paid vacation? 

John: If it does happen, it will be awhile.  In order for a fundamental change like this to take place, it needs momentum.  Right now there’s little to none.  And even when momentum begins to build, it will still have to overcome the powerful business lobbyists who will likely keep legislators from getting behind it.  Until the issue gets to the point of a social uprising, mandatory vacation will just be coffee shop talk.  However, I think a potential wildcard is social media.  I’m amazed at how many times social media has shown the power to turn public opinion almost overnight.  A social media firestorm could quickly transform the mandatory vacation landscape.

PoS: What things can leaders do to stay offline and in life while on vacation?

J: Simple.  Make the choice!  Prioritize it.  Set the expectation and precedent beforehand with your manager and with people reporting to you.  Explain you will not be calling or logging in during vacation.  Or if that is an impossibility (which I don’t buy), begin to take back control by severely limiting the contact and explain to others you will be checking in very infrequently, perhaps even defining the specific times of day you will check messages.  When an employee leaves the company, everyone always finds a way to get things done without that person.  It should be no different when an employee goes on vacation.

PoS: How should employees address the lack of vacation issue?

J: Set boundaries and priorities in advance with your manager and co-workers.  Once they know that vacation is a top priority for you, it becomes your holy grail.  Not only should you get fewer interruptions during vacation, but it also can become a motivational/reward tool to be used by your manager.  As far as simply asking for additional vacation, I think that may work in a small business setting only.  Large and mid-size companies will simply give a corporate-speak answer and say their hands are tied due to company policy.

PoS: Is mandatory vacation truly needed?  Does the government need to get involved to correct this?

J: Neither government nor corporations will solve this issue (see my ‘Work-Life Balance Advice That Makes Sense‘ post).  The US government won’t get behind it for reasons I mention above.  Employers long ago abandoned their long-term commitment to employees.  This is no more evident than seeing defined benefit pension plans being phased out.  Also, employees aren’t sharing in the ‘good times’ like they once did, but definitely feel the pain of the ‘bad times.’  If the company had a great year, that 2% raise becomes a 2.5% raise.  However, if the company had a bad year, there’s a good chance you’ll be shown the door.  Definitely not an equal risk-reward trade-off.  However, in general, I think free markets and, more importantly, the will of the worker should be sufficient to address this issue.  Again, I think social media could be a wildcard.

***

Social media has toppled empires. It could topple the belief that vacation isn’t important too. I advocate posting as many palm tree pictures this summer as possible, people. Let us rise up to celebrate our lives — both in and out of the office!

Love in the Land of the Lost


The book pulled me in and kept me there, until last night when I turned the final page. Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho is a haunting story about a young girl from the backwaters of Brazil who seeks love in all the wrong places. She lands in Geneva, Switzerland, a place I know well. My heart broke there — several times; and so did hers. Despite the floral clock and the water and the banks, Geneva was a lonely place for us both.

The protagonist’s search for love is akin to most anyone’s experience. Sustainable love can only come when we reach inside ourselves and realize we are the generators of our own joy. When we love without clamoring, we are set free. She was willing to let her deepest love go because she knew that her attraction to his beauty stemmed in great part from the freedom she felt to leave.

Coelho’s own story fascinates me too. At the tender age of seventeen, his parents put him in a mental institution — twice — claiming he was mad. But his spirit and his creativity were not broken. He followed his path, discovering much later in life that he could indeed find expression for all those thoughts inside.

Coelho reminds me of Sebastião Salgado, another Brazilian artist whose breath-taking photography will leave you hungry for more. Much like Coelho, Salgado found the way to his art form later in life. After moving from Brazil to Europe, he decided to leave his well-paying corporate job in Paris at the age of 30 to do photography instead.

Wim Wenders’ documentary film The Salt of the Earth, which I recently saw with my love at the theater, is an epic narrative about Salgado’s journey as a photographer. He travelled to the farthest reaches of the Earth to document the human condition. When he finally landed in Rwanda during the mid-1990s, he lost all faith in humankind and stepped back from the subject of man. Later he discovered Nature and rekindled his belief in the universal goodness of life.

What struck me most about his life’s work was the support his wife gave him throughout all those years of travel. Raising two children in his absence must have been hard, but she understood his need to do what he did. She, like Coelho’s protagonist, was willing to let him go time and again.

The result is a collection of amazing imagery for which our world would be poorer if Salgado hadn’t followed his calling.

Love is what makes art possible. See for yourself.

 

Mountains and Molehills

The crushing weight of anxiety placed firmly on our chests, we face new challenges — or avoid them at all costs — with a pending sense of impossibility. We know we have done something similar before this moment, and yet we cannot help but feel we are trudging up another mountain. And somehow we think that this time we won’t be able to master it.

Before every talk I give, every article I write, every call I make, I see that mountain off in the distance. The vice of fear curls its fingers around my head and I wonder if I may have lost my touch in the seconds it took between agreeing to the assignment and actually doing it.

Then, despite the mild paralysis, I step over it and onto the stage, tackle the keyboard and pick up the receiver to do it anyway.

I am not alone in this feeling. My expertly skilled friend feels the same. Before every job, he gets the tingle of performance anxiety. And yet he is a master of his craft. A true artist that moves me – heart and soul.

And so it is – we see molehills and think they are mountains. Before we know it, we are in the midst of that very thing we feared. Only we have forgotten to feel bad because we feel so good doing what we do best.

Stevie Nicks, the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, once said. “If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear?”

I think so. A little bit of fear mixed in with the passion that pushes us through it to the other side is what keeps us moving forward. And makes us so excellent.

Expand that comfort zone. Never give up. Stretch beyond what you think is possible.

Because anything is possible.

Anything.

Slow Childhood

 

Translation: Language and Computer Courses for Children as of 3 years old

Translation: Language and Computer Courses for Children as of 3 years old

The blue hue of the screen lent my kids’ faces an eery glow. Eyes widened, mouths slightly ajar, they looked as if they were frozen in time.

Digital devices can do that. They not only freeze time, they eat it up, skewing our perception of how long we actually spend time with them.

An example:

Son shouts from his desk.

“I’ve only been on my laptop for a few minutes!” The rings under his eyes tell me something different.

“How much more time do you want to spend on it?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Okay. ‘I don’t know’ tells me you want to turn it off now. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

You’d think I cut off his oxygen supply from the Space Shuttle as he floats weightlessly through cyberspace. But a few minutes of stretching and walking around the apartment bring him back to life. Real life. The one without a mouse, sound card or clickable links.

Living in Freiburg where the sun shines virtually every day, it is hard to argue with my kid to go outside “on a day like this.”

“Mom, every day is like this,” he mumbles, flicking off another video game soldier from the battlefield that is his screen. He says it with a mix of pride and practiced boredom. He is twelve, after all.

Or my teenage daughter, who visited last weekend. She wanted to chill out. So she grabbed her laptop and watched YouTube video games for the final two hours of her visit.

“You don’t want to bond, play Scrabble and talk about boys?” I asked with a furrowed brow.

“Mom? Can you just — leave?”

At one point I gave in and watched my own livestreamed show on my laptop in my room.

Where are our lives going with all this disconnection?

Like most people,  I love the Internet. It actually saved my life by connecting me with people and events that made my world a better place. But too much of a good thing is, well, too much. And I worry that our children will never learn how to maintain eye contact, speak a full sentence or hold a pencil with one hand.

Do I sound dramatic? Well, maybe I do. Some days it feels like an uphill battle, working against an unstoppable stream of information that competes with my children’s attention. All day. Every day. And sometimes into the night.

It’s a brave new world. One in which three-year-olds are encouraged to hone their computer skills. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought learning how to ride a bike would come first.

Slow Childhood ~are you a thing of the past?

 

Listen to the Voice

Television isn’t really something I enjoy much. But there is one show I like: The Voice.

The premise of the show is a person’s singing talent and nothing else: at least, at first. The contestants are required to sing while the jury only listens to their voice without seeing who is performing. It is a singular focus on their ability to belt out tunes, not their external demeanour, that counts.

Perhaps it is this laser-like focus that inspires me. Like any lover of Slow, I like to take things one at a time. Tuning into the voice within while tuning out the world is a simple Slow practice.

The voice speaks rather clearly if we have the ears to hear it. Like the jury members who block out everything but the sound, if we home in on what our inner voice is saying, we have a clear roadmap of what to do.

These days my inner voice has rung clear as a bell and when I follow it, magic happens.

This past weekend I followed my inner voice’s instruction. As a result, I made some awesome friends and even landed a job interview in Basel!

Listen to your voice. The Voice. It is the one that will guide you to your greatest potential. Every time.