Give Something Away

The most profound line I read in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning has to do with generosity. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” Frankl used the line in order to illustrate that we all have a choice to choose our own attitudes regardless of circumstances.

I understand it in that way and I see how those downtrodden prisoners of oppression chose to give away the most precious material things in their possession, morsels of food. That is an act that goes against our very biological urges to survive. Giving away your last piece of bread is a courageous act displaying the virtues of giving and serving others.

We certainly don’t have to be concentration camp inmates in order to give things away. Anyone can do this. There is a simple joy in giving something away. This past spring, I was the lucky recipient of an anonymous fellow Nebraskan at the drive-through lane at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in Omaha.

I had decided to stop there to grab a large malted milk to enjoy before driving back home to Norfolk. When I got to the order pick-up window the employee said the driver ahead of me paid for my malt. Wow! What a great surprise. On an impulse, I decided to pay for the order of the person in the car behind me. As I drove away, I wondered if that person paid for the meal for the person behind him. Did that person pay forward or did it end with the person behind me? It’s fun to imagine that the string of generosity happened sequentially to everybody driving through that McDonald’s for several hours. Of course, it probably didn’t.

One of the best things about having my malt paid for by the person ahead of me in the drive-through is the happiness that was triggered. I instantly felt a little bit better about humanity. The positive feelings stayed in the background of my mind during the rest of the 150-mile drive back home.

In my opinion, most of us humans have some sort of elemental instinct to be decent and kind to others. Perhaps this comes about because we are social animals. At some level, we understand the truth that it is improbable for us to survive without the actions of other people. Nearly everything we need or desire comes about through the actions of others.

In today’s rather impersonal world, it’s good to remember our interdependency upon each other. Knowing this, makes generosity seem vitally important in the list of things that build successful civilizations.

Not only does sharing help enable civilization, it is good for the generous person’s life. A 2013 article in the American Journal of Public Health states, “Giving time and assistance to others reduced the mortality risk tied to stress.” We know that chronic stress is unhealthy in many ways and leads to chronic disease.

A Detroit, Michigan area study (adjusting for age, health and other variables) showed stress and mortality were more apparent in individuals who did not voluntarily help other people.

There is one caveat, the generosity must be heartfelt. If the gesture is grudgingly given out of a sense of obligation, expectation of benefits, or if the gift is trivial or insignificant, the benefits don’t happen. Hence, true, authentic altruism can be life-extending. The trick is, don’t be generous in order to live longer; simply follow the basic instinct to be generous with no anticipation of reward.

If you feel inclined towards experimenting with the positive aspects of generosity, tomorrow might be a good day to try. Tomorrow is Give Something Away Day. We can plan ways to commemorate this unofficial holiday.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes philosopher author Mortimer Adler. “Love consists in giving without getting in return; in giving what is not owed, what is not due the other. That’s why true love is never based, as associations for utility or pleasure are, on a fair exchange.”

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Stargazing …Floral Friday

Flower breeder Leslie Woodruff introduced his most amazing hybrid lily in 1978. Since then, the stargazer lily has been a spectacular success. Not only are its coloring and shape mesmerizing, the stargazer has a mild, heavenly scent. Woodruff named his special flower “stargazer” because its bloom points toward the sky.

I came across four stargazers this week as remainders of old stock and brought them home. They inspired different approaches to their use. All of them involved pink as the major color theme.

An old decorated vase is home to a stargazer and pink roses. Artificial ferns are arranged in a finger-like array to offset the visual weight of the main flower.

An old FTD vase has been in storage since last year after my birthday bouquet from two friends, Jorge and Jose, faded away. It has been put to use again as the base for a festive floral array.

A vintage “Made in Japan” decorated vase is the base for a simple, tall Ikebana. The stargazer harmonizes with the other blossoms and tiny flowers to encourage quiet contemplation.

The flower in the raku-type container is part of an afterthought. It was improvised from the extra stargazer and elements left over from the other three arrangements. So there is this bonus project for you today.

The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the stargazer lily has come to symbolize many positive concepts. They include: spiritual purity, heaven on Earth, limitless opportunities, abundance, and prosperity.

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With Equipoise

The eulogy contained one word used once and that word described the man elegantly and efficiently. The funeral was a commemoration of a prominent community leader. I attended the service because he had been my employer. The word “equipoise” is apt when thinking about Jerry Huse.

Equipoise, when spoken, sounds beautiful and sophisticated yet not snobbish. Because it is not often used in contemporary communication, the mind remembers its use with fondness.

We are more accustomed to hearing or reading the words “balance”, “symmetry”, or even “equilibrium”. Casual or business acquaintances of this man would probably have described him as being balanced. Those of us who were closer to him would have also used these words to describe his personality, and would also add that his actions caused his newspaper publishing business to be a balanced institution. Hence, both the noun and the verb forms of equipoise are appropriate in Jerry’s case.

Jerry was one of those extremely rare individuals who is powerful but is never arrogant about his station in life. He was not classically charismatic, but his quiet, economical manner of communication signaled that he possessed great personal and public power. Although he inherited the corporation from his father, Jerry never used his position as publisher as a status symbol.

He was moderately conservative in his political views, but was eager to express his moderately liberal, open-minded views about humanity and his employees. Jerry was the one and only very powerful man who has ever put me at ease in his presence. Beneath his all-business exterior, he was warm, humane, and kind. He was serious in his dealings, but also had a wholesome, clever sense of humor.

Regarding his role as employer, Jerry expected dedication and skill from his employees. In return he was dedicated to the well-being of his employees. When greeting me socially, he sometimes asked, “How are you doing?” I’d reply, “Fine, thank you.” But he pressed further by saying, “No, how are you really doing?”

At one of the company’s December holiday parties, I was seated to Jerry’s immediate left at the table. He noticed that I was having difficulty eating my entrée. He gestured to the waiter and requested a fettuccine Alfredo that was not overdone. After I had sampled a bite from the new dish, Jerry made sure I was satisfied with the replacement. I was, because the food was perfect. He smiled at me and said, “It’s good to be the boss.” I laughed at his allusion to Mel Brooks.

Jerry was confident with people of all types. He also put people of all types at ease. He could be genuinely warm with his employees and also with people like Johnny Carson. Carson stayed at Jerry’s home whenever he was in Norfolk. Jerry didn’t need to name-drop, there simply was no need.

Jerry could have been an heroic figure, but would have rejected that description. When problems arose, he acted to remedy the situation through swift, confident means that were progressive, yet not revolutionary in nature. He was an important, influential man yet there was nothing about him that cultivated dramatics.

I can still visualize Jerry speaking at a gathering of employees. Dressed in a standard charcoal grey business suit with white shirt, solid blue necktie, and shiny, conservative black wingtips. He is calmly, almost quietly, speaking with just the right technique. He is able to motivate with intonation and inflection that is neither monotonous nor excitable. His speaking style is firm and empathic.

Equipoise is a quality to attain and maintain. It is all too rare these days.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the author and scholar Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Looking backward we could almost see, suspended with the most delicate equipoise above the flat little island, the ghostly shapes of those twin orbs of the Empire, the cricket ball and the blackball.”

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Bowdlerized (Op-Ed)

As a writer and someone who used to be employed as a media worker, all the recent hoopla about fake news feels terribly wrong. To point fingers and accuse entire news gathering organizations of being fake news is a bald attempt of censorship. Censorship runs against the grain of public ethics. It is the death knell of a democratic republic.

Suppression of information hearkens back to the days when despots stirred up mass anger to convert crowds into angry mobs replete with torches and pitchforks. Mobs are not rational nor reasonable. They are prone to willful ignorance.

There has been an insidious campaign against the media that has been incubating just beneath the surface for many years that is now exploding into blatant efforts to discredit honest journalism. Public figures who transform the term “mainstream Media” into an epithet seem to have ulterior motives for doing so. The unethical practice of “cherry picking” information comes to mind.

I’ve been involved in journalism in some way, shape, or form ever since I was a reporter for our junior high school’s monthly newspaper. I cut my teeth on “who, what, why, where, when, and how”. I learned early on the difference between news, and commentary or editorializing. That is news aims to inform as objectively as possible; commentary aims to influence as in-objectively as one can get away with. My junior high newspaper advisor reminded her pupils that news reporters should aim to never slant the news. If you want to slant your writing, you should become a commentator, not a reporter.

With that ideal in mind, censorship is a practice that is abhorrent to me. Even as a teen, I was turned off by the bowdlerized books that were assigned classroom reading. The stories seemed hollow and prissy. I sought out the uncensored versions whenever possible. This is why I find bowdlerized versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to be gross disservices to literature.

I bring up the problem of censorship and bowdlerizing today because today is Bowdler’s Day. It is the birthday of Thomas Bowdler. Doctor Bowdler is noteworthy because he “sanitized” many of the works of William Shakespeare and even certain parts of the Christian Bible to remove words he judged to be offensive.

Bowdler is thought to be prudish because of his overly cautious editing of literature. He once wrote, “Those expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in the family.” He further stated this notion in his introduction to his own writing:

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare.”

Certainly parents have the right to monitor what their children read. Such caution becomes censorship when children reach adulthood. In a society that values freedom and liberty, bowdlerism  is subversive to the interests of democracy.

Today is the day to reflect upon bowdlerism and censorship and how it affects us as a society and personally. Today we ask ourselves if we want sanitized information or if we want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a statement from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.”

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Success Without Striving

Lewis is one of those rare, lucky people who attained a successful life without striving. This is not to say that my friend is lazy or passive. Lewis was granted an harmonious opportunity when he was young and merged with it.

Generally speaking, most self-help and motivational sources recommend that we persistently strive towards our goal and we will eventually achieve our dream. In other words, to try hard, to exert ourselves with single-minded strenuous effort towards your goal or dream will ultimately yield fulfillment. This formula is excellent and one that I have personally discovered to be true. However, like all rules, there seems to be exceptions. Lewis just happens to be one of them.

Lewis was born 58 years ago in Merrillville, Indiana, at the time a city of under 30,000 residents. His father was a moderately wealthy automobile salesman and part owner of one of the independent used car dealerships. As it turned out, Lewis was the only child in the family and was allowed many freedoms; or as Lewis admits, he was a spoiled kid.

Possibly due to the fact that Lewis grew up in the car culture of his family background, he developed a deep, abiding enjoyment of automobiles and everything associated with motor vehicles. When he reached his early teens, Lewis enjoyed washing and detailing his parents’ cars to perfection. This work was not something that his father requested nor expected Lewis to do. It was just something that he wanted to do.

When Lewis was old enough to have a part-time job, he was hired as one of the teens who washed and polished cars that were displayed for sale on the dealer’s lot. Eventually, Lewis advanced to become the sales manager of the dealership.

As Lewis’ father approached the age of retirement, Lewis was offered the opportunity to become a business partner with his father’s partner in the dealership. Lewis requested an hiatus from the dealership for a couple of years before making a final decision. The owners agreed that Lewis’ request was a smart idea.

It was at this chapter of Lewis’ life that he and I became acquainted. He had been hired as a part-time broadcasting intern at the radio station where I worked. I was to be his mentor for the first couple of months during his probationary period. Lewis was a fast learner and got along famously with everyone at the station. He and I became easy friends.

After about a year-and-a-half with our company, Lewis submitted his two-week notice of intention to resign from the job. He admitted that he liked working in radio and that he would miss working with us. Lewis realized he greatly missed working around cars. He had decided to return to Indiana to pick up where he left off at the dealership.

This spring, Lewis took a highway vacation to Yellowstone with his wife and two children. They stopped here in Norfolk, Nebraska to touch base with me. He explained that he felt like the luckiest man in the world. He met a woman when he closed the deal on her car. They began dating and “all the important things clicked”. After a couple of years they “tied the knot”. Lewis did obtain part ownership of the used car lot. The dealership continues to thrive.

Lewis said that while he is thankful for his material comforts and continued good fortune, he has his own definition of success. He does not feel that success is possessing a lot of nice things. He says that doing what he loves with people he gets along with is important. Selling transportation to his customers is “the icing on the cake”. Lewis realizes that he is one of the fortunate few who was granted a great opportunity and accepted it.

It occurred to me that Lewis’ success is genuine in that he understands how fortunate he is. He carries his success gracefully with no sense of entitlement and no arrogance. Lewis has just the right amount of humility because that is also a part of his familial inheritance. He is also generous, but does not feel the need to boast about it.

It is good to know that people like Lewis exist.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes television personality Kyle Hill. “It’s okay to take that reservoir of passion that you have and let it flow into whatever you love. Experiment, question, replicate, be critical, be nerdy, be yourself.”

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Creative Maladjustment

Have you ever engaged in a heated quarrel with someone who seemed to disagree with every example you put forward and disavowed all the anecdotal evidence you presented? In turn, did you also find her clever examples and evidence appear inaccurate? Did you become so frustrated with each other that you reached an impasse and called a time out?

Did you then decide to set aside your precious preconceived notions about the topic and decide to listen with “new ears”? Then she restated her argument in more or less the same terms, but then the light bulb of understanding turned on in your head. Suddenly you realized that both of you were on the same page, all along. She and you only had vastly different ways of expressing yourselves.

This is one example of the way people talk past one another each day. We hold similar values but we have cognitive differences (not dissonance) that are uniquely our own. We understand the solutions to problems or ways to complete a project in ways that make us seem maladjusted to accepted societal norms. Vive La Différence!

This week we celebrate one of my all-time favorite commemorative weeks–Creative Maladjustment Week. It was directly inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s idea for creative ways to encounter our unjust society. The activist’s aim was to come up with new ways in which we can deal with injustice, oppression, and hatred in new ways. King also thought of creative maladjustment as how we see the same things in different ways than others. You might say we each operate from different paradigms.

If you might be the “black sheep” in your family because you don’t quite fit in with your family’s traditional culture, you’re probably creatively maladjusted. You positively live your life in ways that your family or society have never considered.

One of the most amazing creatively maladjusted persons I’ve ever heard of is Masahiro Kikuno. He’s a mid-30s master watchmaker who meticulously creates unique, complex wristwatches according to his own rigorously traditional ways. His inspirations are the master artisans who built traditional Japanese clocks in the 1800s.

Kikuno took courses at the Hiko Mizuno School of Watchmaking that specializes in mechanical watch repair. While excelling in the courses, he also taught himself creative watchmaking on his own initiative. He came to prominence in the global, exclusive watchmakers community with his adaptation of the very complex “Myriad Year Clock” that was built in the 1800s by master craftsman Hisashige Tanaka. Kikuno’s unique, intricate timepiece debuted in 2011 at the prestigious watch conference, “BaselWorld” in Switzerland.

Except for the watch crystals, jewels, hairsprings, and mainsprings, Kikuno fabricates all of the components of his watches himself in his small workshop and a garage. If you are interested in Kikuno’s work, there are examples on the Web and YouTube. I highly recommend that you investigate his accomplishments.

Of course Masahiro Kikuno is an extreme case of creative maladjustment. We don’t need to be a world acclaimed cultural icon in order to happily practice the personal art of creative maladjustment.

Is there something in the world that inspires your particular style of creativity? Is there some sort of project that calls for a new way of living? Is there something incubating in your mind that requires creative solutions to old questions and problems? Do you understand the world from different perspectives than everyone else?

Whatever the subject matter, be it watchmaking, cooking, writing, painting, photography, social activism, medicine, or something else that is close to your heart, this is the week to actively engage your version of creative maladjustment.

The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this statement by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior: “.I must honestly say to you, as I’ve said before, there are some things in our nation and in our world of which I’m proud to be maladjusted, which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry.”

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Berry Good

The big old mulberry tree’s fruits had finally begun turning shiny black. It was time to gather a large bowl of the plump berries. While plucking them, I ate several right from the branches. After the Tupperware bowl was full to the brim, I rinsed the berries in a colander; poured them back into the bowl; and placed them into the refrigerator.

The next morning I dumped about half-a-cup of the berries onto a bowl of granola cereal, then poured milk over them. Just as I was about to dig the spoon into the bowl, a medium size black spider emerged from the center of the food. Of course, the eight-legged surprise caused me to drop the spoon. Soon, I carried the spidery breakfast outdoors and released the critter onto a shrub.

No, it was not a black widow spider. It was just a common arachnid that made her home in the tree. Yes, I salvaged and re-rinsed the mulberries, and placed them onto a fresh serving of granola and milk. The berries tasted especially sweet and scrumptious. That breakfast is certainly among the most memorable.

Mulberries grow in two varieties: black or white. The black mulberries are the only ones in my neighborhood. They propagate by going through the digestive tracts of songbirds, so there are at least a few “volunteer” mulberry trees along the river bank and one in bush form near my back door.

Black mulberry trees are not the only plants that have provided me with free berries. My childhood home featured two raspberry bushes that grew the best berries I’ve ever eaten. Of course the flavor might be enhanced because those raspberries have been idealized as fond childhood memories. Another berry fond memory involves gooseberries. Both of my grandmas used to can gooseberry jam when the berries could be found.

Blackberry memories didn’t form until my late teens. This is possibly due to the fact that the only blackberries our family ate were the store-bought variety. My most memorable encounter with wild blackberries was at Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. A French-Canadian family pointed out an especially prolific bush of the big berries. We gorged ourselves on them. Later, we laughed at each others’ purple fingers and lips.

During the rest of the year, the “miracle” of trucked in supermarket berries are year-around treats. Blueberries have nearly become a staple food. Unfortunately, I’m allergic to strawberries so they do not brighten my table.

Then there are lingonberries. Great-aunt Emma kept the tradition of the December Swedish smörgåsbord. On the sideboard was a cornucopia of ethnic Scandinavian dishes, including the dreaded lutefisk. Emma told us kids that we had to eat a serving of the mushy greyish-white substance so we could have dessert.

I managed to always choke down a small bowl of lutefisk because the dessert made it worthwhile. Emma’s ostakaka–the traditional Swedish curd cake pudding–was covered with a generous helping of precious lingonberry sauce. Emma prepared the sauce with cans of lingonberries our relatives from the old country shipped to her. Oh what I would give to have just one more serving of Emma’s lingonberry covered ostakaka.

Meantime, I’ll settle for a bowl of oatmeal with a generous handful of supermarket blueberries for this morning’s breakfast.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Andrew Dost. “Gooseberries should be mainstream berries! Why are chemically fattened strawberries a thing? Why not the delicious gooseberry?”

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