Thoughts on: Emerson

Something I’m going to start doing once in a while is reviewing a quote or a phrase or something of the sort that I like – for whatever reason. It may or may not be related to anything that I blog about, but just something I appreciate. I will start with a worn-out overused quote that probably everyone knows. It is, however, probably the core of my personal life philosophy. This quote comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Even if you are not a deeply religious person I still think you need to find some sort of meaning in life. I do not believe that there is some sort of force guiding my every move or interfering in my day-to-day life. I have simply seen too much evidence of evil winning out to assume that there is a kind presence altering the course of events in the world. But I do believe, very loosely and without any formal rules, that there is a concept similar to karma. Good returns good. Good thoughts lead to good actions which lead to good results. Anger leads to hate, hate leads to fear, and fear leads to the dark side of the Force…oops, wait, I’ve heard that somewhere before…

Seriously, though, if everyone in the world followed Emerson’s advice the world would be a better place. That’s also true of many other people’s advice, as well, but this one always struck me because it’s so DOABLE. It does not ask the impossible. Anyone can do something as he describes. It’s actually very similar to George Bush Sr.’s much mocked “thousand points of light” concept (which ironically is probably the lone insightful and kind concept he brought into this world, yet the one he may be most ridiculed for).

So think about Emerson’s quote and pick up a piece of trash that isn’t yours today and put it in a garbage pail – or better yet a recycling bin if it’s recyclable. Play peek-a-boo with your child, or teach them about rocket ships. Tend to a living thing. Those are small actions, but doing just one means your day will be a success no matter how you look at it.

(tip of the hat to My Two Dollars, where I got the idea for a weekly quote post)

Suggested Reading

today is better than the day before

As I read what is written about self-improvement and becoming rich and dieting and being happy, I wonder if sometimes too much focus is placed on huge changes. Becoming frugal – staying sharply on the lookout for money – losing weight fast – all can be carried to extremes. Here are a few simple ways to make today better than the day before. Nothing more, nothing less. I know every day I should do all of these, but I take them all one by one.

  • Wake up early
  • Stretch or exercise
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Drink tea instead of coffee or soda
  • Walk slowly
  • Let someone merge in front of you in traffic
  • Drive slowly
  • Don’t listen to the radio in the car
  • Breathe deeply
  • Meditate
  • Eat less than you did yesterday
  • Don’t eat anything that had eyes at one point
  • Don’t eat or drink anything with high fructose corn syrup
  • Enjoy a piece of fruit
  • Skip reading the news
  • Take off your headphones
  • Get off the Internet
  • Don’t buy anything
  • Reuse something
  • Recycle something
  • Don’t check email first thing on arriving to work
  • Don’t watch any TV
  • Take a nap
  • Don’t curse
  • Be positive
  • Don’t worry about money
  • Take the stairs
  • Don’t say anything negative about anyone
  • Smile
  • Laugh
  • Walk outside again
  • Drink water for lunch
  • Chew your food thoroughly
  • Sit quietly for five minutes and do nothing
  • Hold a door open for someone
  • Read at least one chapter of a book
  • Say ‘hi’ to everyone you pass in the hall at work
  • Make eye contact
  • Leave work early
  • Take off your shoes before you walk in your home
  • Sit down for dinner
  • Read a children’s book to your kids, or even just read it to your yourself
  • Go outside after dark and listen
  • Take a piece of paper and write down 2 things you were grateful for today
  • Take a shower right before going to bed
  • Go to sleep early

I would like to think that none of these are particularly hard to do, but they are. It’s always hard to take the long view and the short view at the same time. But even when we’re all trying to pay down debt and fight the good frugal fight, it’s important to step back sometimes and literally smell the flowers.

illuminating life

There’s an article in yesterday’s New York Times that tells us we’re using an incorrectly shaped glass from which to drink wine.

The theory is that the design of the wineglass — from the shape of the bowl and degree of tapering at the rim, to the design of the rim itself — can affect the way someone experiences the aroma, taste and harmony of a wine. The nuances of a complex red wine, for example, might unfold and beguile in the appropriate glass, but turn harsh and closed in another.

The article goes on to extol the benefits of buying $95 stemware and describes the frightful effect of drinking wine from the wrong glass:

“We started with a typically full-flavored California chardonnay, from Kendall Jackson. In Riedel’s Vinum Chardonnay glass, notes of tropical fruit wafted up and expanded lusciously in the mouth. We transferred the wine into the Vinum Sauvignon Blanc glass, where it seemed to lose depth. Creamy oak and vanilla overpowered the other flavors. It also seemed unpleasantly tannic. Finally, we poured the chardonnay into a “joker” glass — those miserly little wineglasses that you can barely fit your nose into. In this glass, alcohol burned on the nose, and the tropical fruit disappeared.”

This all sounds crazy, right?

I drink red wine. Probably the best glass of wine I ever had was a chianti (Peppoli 2000) at a Roman restaurant, San Teodoro, in May of 2004. Probably the beautiful restaurant, the view on the Forum and simply the fact that Bubelah and I were in Rome had something to do with my pleasant memory of the evening, the meal and most particularly the wine. My recollection of the day includes spending the morning, a clear spring day, in Hadrian’s Villa and then a long evening after dinner walking through a rose exhibit near the Circo Massimo and enjoying some campari in a café while listening to jazz.

At home, I usually use a small tumbler for my wine, and I seldom get out the wine glasses. I enjoy inexpensive Spanish and Australian wines, and maybe an occasional Italian wine. My fallback brand is Yellowtail, although I also like Rosemount Estate. I am not terribly picky, though. I drink Yellowtail because to me it is consistently the best bottle of wine under $20. It’s not harsh, and I actually quite like their Shiraz and Shiraz-Grenache blends, but it’s certainly not inspiring any soaring comparisons to tropical fruit or creamy oak – whatever a creamy oak might be.

I guess my point is that – at least for an unsophisticated wine drinker – the atmosphere surrounding the Peppoli at San Teodoro made the wine fantastic rather than any magical combination of earthy vanilla tones. I doubt the Peppoli was a particularly impressive wine, strictly speaking. I suspect if I drank it sitting at home while eating a plate of leftovers it would not have made such an impression on me. So the surroundings, which might include a fancier glass than normal, probably made the difference in taste and perception. The goal for all of us, then, has to be to create the atmosphere and environment in our lives around us to make the mundane seem transcendant.

Trying to create an atmosphere of beauty in your daily dining – or any part of your life – can have more of an impact sometimes than actually upgrading the things in your life. Imagine, for example, these two scenarios:

  1. Fresh slices of tomato, slices of buffalo mozzarella, olives, bread and olive oil. Glass of red wine, candles, tea after dinner and music – classical, jazz, or whatever works for you.
  2. An expensive filet mignon steak, carmelized onions, butter, rolls, a side of creamed spinach, a glass of expensive red wine with brandy after dinner – eaten on a TV tray while watching the last 15 minutes of Wheel of Fortune.

The first dinner would be substantially cheaper and some would say less satisfying than the second. However, the atmosphere it is delivered in would make it infinitely more satisfying to me. Coming full circle back to the question of drinking wine from $100 glasses, I can say with some certainty that I am sure that if I knew they were $100 glasses, I would enjoy it more. I would probably savor the wine, remember the moment, talk about it, and enjoy it. If I drank the same wine out of a paper cup, it would still taste the same, but some of the beauty of the moment would be lost.

I am not recommending anyone rush out and buy $100 glasses, but I would recommend that you take a few minutes when eating (or doing anything, really) to consider how you will undertake your meal. Will it be rushed, on paper plates and with a TV blaring? Or will it be in a calm, pleasant atmosphere? Making your dining more pleasant can transform the mundane into the excellent, just as drinking a wine – according to the New York Times – can be changed from “burning” to “luscious” by using the right glass. Just make sure someone else buys the $100 glasses!

blog action day

Yesterday about a half dozen of the blogs I read made reference to Blog Action Day.  I was curious, so I checked it out.  The idea is that on October 15th a huge number of bloggers will all post on a single topic to draw attention to it.  The topic?  The environment.

I think it’s a terrific idea and hopefully it could be applied to other worthy causes, as well.  So even though it’s a long time away, stay tuned!  If you’re a blogger, head over to and sign up!



What if you had nothing? No home, no DVD player, no car, no skills, no money and couldn’t even speak the language? What if you had nothing except a suitcase full of clothes and a few photographs? Welcome to the outlook for many immigrants.

Politicians roll out the immigration debate all the time, but what most people don’t realize is just how frightening the prospect of being an immigrant is. I have been a temporary immigrant once in my life, when I moved to Russia. I came with the full-fledged support of an international firm that provided housing and help with the inevitable paperwork, and I still was overwhelmed, arriving with nothing except a suitcase full of business suits.

Imagine, however, showing up in New York City or Washington DC or Los Angeles with no knowledge of the language, no unique skills and no real savings. Imagine that hours before you landed at JFK or Dulles or LAX you were in the midst of a country at war, or a country where you were no longer welcome because of your race or your religion. Your only hope is to come to a country – ideally the US – where you will be allowed to work hard, raise a family, live in peace and practice whatever religion or custom or culture you choose.

I find it hard to believe that so many people make this drastic choice. It’s easy to flee a country, maybe, when staying means you’ll be killed or raped or maimed. But it’s less easy to imagine fleeing a country where your family has roots, you are a respected member of a community and you have a cultural or religious tradition stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years.

Yet every year someone does. In New York you see huge, thriving, vital immigrant communities. It is not uncommon to meet people in New York who don’t speak English well yet. It is not uncommon to meet a former doctor working as a janitor, or a teacher working as a clerk. And it is not uncommon to see immigrant family after immigrant family succeed against these terrible odds and pass on their work ethic and almost feverish belief in the American dream to the next generation.

I find it really inspiring, and when I look around my workplace I see America made more vital when I have one colleague who’s Russian, another Dominican, another African, another Australian, another Bosnian, and on and on. One of the things I truly dread when I consider leaving New York is a more homogeneous life – fewer ethnic communities, less exotic music piping out of shopfronts, vanilla accents. I know being an immigrant doesn’t make anyone a more interesting person, but I believe being around all of these different cultures and beliefs and cuisines and languages makes me a more interesting person.

I hope that the anti-immigration forces remember that immigrants are desperately hoping to come to America, not for a free ride, but exactly the opposite – to pay their fare and reach the same destination as the rest of us, financial and personal independence.

15 things I’d say to high school BB

I read an interesting article at Lazy Man and Money this morning entitled “15 things..”. It got me thinking about what I would tell myself, aged 18 or so, if I could travel back in time and give some advice to myself. So here goes:

  1. Save more. Echoing a comment by Lazy Man, I saved a lot but I could have saved a lot, lot more in my youth. There were a lot of gadget purchases and CDs and dinners out that I could have avoided that would probably pay for a year or two of my mortgage by now.
  2. Don’t stop exercising. The reasons for saying this should be obvious if you read some of my earlier posts on weight gain. I had a long slow period in the mid-to-late-90s where I never, ever exercised. The effects of that still haunt me today.
  3. Pay more attention to your tax courses. I have a master’s degree in accounting, but all of my specialization was in international accounting, audit and other ‘corporate’ areas. In taxes I whisked through a couple of courses simply because the university required it. I wish I had spent more time learning my taxes and building up my expertise in that area.
  4. Don’t move every year. From 1996 to 2000 I lived in 9 different apartments. Now part of that includes three brief stays of one or two months while “in transition” between cities, but I wasted a lot of time and money moving. While I was living in Moscow, it wasn’t so bad; I moved most of my stuff in one or two cars since I didn’t really own any furniture. In New York I wasted a lot of time and money moving, even though twice it was a somewhat involuntary move (Marriott bought my apartment building once, and 9/11 rendered another place I lived almost un-commutable).
  5. … and on a related note, buy a house when you start working and rent a couple of rooms out to roommates. I probably would be sitting on $300,000 of equity by now. And when you move to New York and think “who in their right mind would pay $600,000 for a two-bedroom in Manhattan?” the answer should be you. Some of that money wasted investing with could have been spent on a down payment.
  6. Stay in touch with people. In the early 90s, it was tough to stay in touch with people. You had to call, or write a letter, or visit them. Then suddenly we got this neat little thing at work called ‘electronic mail’, or email for short. With a tiny bit of effort, I could have carried a little notebook with the email address of every colleague, acquaintance and friend of mine for the next ten years and dropped them a two-line email twice a year. I didn’t do this. I lost touch with a lot of good people – people I wish I still stayed in touch with for networking purposes, and some I just miss.
  7. Don’t work so much once you do get a job. I had a colleague in the got paid exactly the same as I did. Neither of us stayed with that firm, and as far as I know he went on to do just fine, as did I – but neither of us were making a future at that particular company. I had another colleague who smoked pot constantly and wouldn’t show up for days at a time. He didn’t get fired either. So I wasted a lot of time working very hard at a job I detested (I quit before I finished my three year contract). Who was the idiot?
  8. Don’t join a fraternity in college. Joining a fraternity seemed like a good idea, but other than making some very good friends it taught me nothing other than: (a) laziness, (b) racism, (c) sexism, (d) violence and (e) drunkenness. Sounds like a good deal, all for just a few hundred dollars a semester, huh? I basically spent three years surrounded by violence and ugly behavior that would make most people cringe. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
  9. Don’t worry about trivia. A major drama of my senior year involved a quiz for (supposedly) the smartest kids in school. I lost because of a difference of opinion over which battle of the Civil War was the “bloodiest”. I believe I answered Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the war; the correct answer was deemed to be Shiloh, the bloodiest battle of the war over the course of several days. Did losing the Brawl affect me in any way, shape or form? No. Don’t even enter the stupid contest, high school BB. Spend that learning Russian or just hanging out. It will be time better spent.
  10. Don’t waste a lot of time on TV. You will live in two of the world’s biggest cities, with a million possibilities for entertainment, the world’s best restaurants, cultural events and explosive nightlife, and you will often spend whole weekends watching football. You will even watch Notre Dame play, and you hate their team. Nice going.
  11. Buy a cell phone when you live overseas. I know $1000 for a mobile phone circa 1997 is a lot to pay, but it will be worth every dime not trying to coordinate your daily life from pay phones that never work. Your phone card cost $8 a minute, anyway.
  12. Be kinder to people, particularly women. I have never been cruel, I hope, but I spent a lot of careless years not worrying about how my actions might upset other people, particularly girls I dated or who liked me. I certainly ended quite a few relationships rudely and thoughtlessly, and probably created some real dislike if not downright hatred for myself. I was brutal in some of my work relationships both in my speech and actions. A little bit of compassion or even white lies to appear compassionate on my part probably would have made life better for everyone. I would have lost nothing by being kinder. I guess that’s just life, but I do look back and really regret some of the ways I lashed out at people where no lashing out was necessary. I particularly regret being cold and emotionless when I just could have faked a little bit of pleasantness.
  13. …and related, don’t worry too much about your relationships in the 90s and early 2000s. When you meet the right girl, things are going to be immediately and blindingly obvious. You may think you’ve met the right girl a few times in the late 90s, but when you actually do meet the right girl you’re going to realize that everyone up until her was definitely not the right girl.
  14. However, don’t do vodka shots with Russian mafiosos while out for a fancy dinner with your at-the-time-girlfriend and her friends. That will not end well on many, many levels. Oh, and make sure your visa paperwork is correct before you travel to remote Siberian cities. They don’t like it when foreigners show up with the wrong paperwork.
  15. Don’t work for the Big 4 or a corporation. This one is tough, because of course it has led me to the life I have today. But I do wish that when I was young and more or less free of responsibility that I had taken a few more chances. I wish I had gone to work at a smaller company, or a foreign company or even started a business. I spent a lot of my mid-20s – most of it, in fact – working horrible hours at decent but not exceptional salaries doing work I detested. I wish I had some of that time back, even if it meant I couldn’t afford a slightly fancier apartment or to eat out 5 nights a week. Working in the Big 4 gave me a lot of opportunities, but I always wonder what if…

That’s actually a good exercise. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything you’d tell your high school self.

Buddhism versus creative visualization

Probably like a lot of other self-improvement junkies I have always been mildly interested in the idea of Buddhism if not the actual practice of Buddhism. I have not really been exposed to it very often, and honestly most of my knowledge of it comes via movies like Seven Years In Tibet and Little Buddha. I also was very fond of a book, Zen Buddhism, which helped me learn the practice of clearing my mind before sleeping. I don’t think that was the point of the book, but the ability to fall asleep in 5 minutes or less every evening has been a great gift throughout my adult life.

There are a number of things that appeal to me about Buddhism. There are, however, just as many aspects of Buddhism that don’t appeal to me. Buddhism still has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural, an area that I more or less completely reject. I find that the Great Story, for example, is a million times more awe-inspiring. I look at the Pillars of Creation and think that if something like that is the result of the unimaginable complexity of the universe rather than simply the plot and plan of a supreme intelligence it’s actually more amazing rather than less so. That’s my own interpretation.

The current Dalai Lama – who for all intents and purposes is the Pope of the Buddhists to someone like me – seems to be a man of the political/temporal world rather than a truly religious person. The idea of a truly religious person, to me, summons up a hermit. If you truly believed in prayer/meditation/etc. as the instrument of God, why would any fundraising or speeches or anything like that be necessary? Specifically for the Dalai Lama, why should he care about Tibet’s independence as a political entity? It seems to me that freedom of religious practice for all people would be a better cause, even if Tibet remained part of China, or an autonomous region like Hong Kong or Macau. In any case, the Free Tibet movement, to me, is about as meaningful as a Free Texas movement. That ship has sailed on off into the sea of history.

That having been said, the Dalai Lama has some great quotes. I first read this one a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but for some reason recently it has spoken to me a lot more:

Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.(link).

That’s a nice thought. It’s probably as much as many of us can hope to achieve, and really other than maybe throwing in a little more family-specific phrase to be a good father and husband and son and brother and grandson and whatnot, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I think enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is a pretty tall order out of that list. I think it encompasses vegetarianism and pacifism, achievable goals, and maybe some sort of benign spiritual missionary type thinking, which for me isn’t so achievable (or desirable).

Buddha himself had a great quote which irritates Bubelah to no end (I paraphrase): “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I think about this quote a lot. It directly contradicts the fundamental premise of creative visualization, a school of thought she follows. Creative visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts. Although various spiritual traditions claim that our thoughts affect the outer world, the phrase “Creative Visualization” came from the New Age Movement. (from Wikipedia)

Any way you look at that, it’s certainly not saying that desires (for love, for health, for security, for wealth, and so on) are something to be avoided and put aside if possible. So to my mind it more or less contradicts the Buddhist ideal. The question then becomes whether you can integrate these two philosophies into your life, or whether you should strive to attain one and reject the other.

I look at it this way (today). Ask me a year from now and my mindset may have changed. I apply the Buddhist principle to the concept of wealth, and the creative visualization to health, lifestyle, goals and so on. I try not to desire material things. I do, because I buy new shoes or get Netflix or any one of a number of things. But I do make an effort to consume out of necessity (or what I perceive as necessity) rather than out of pure and simple desire.

On the flip side, I may want a bigger house, or a different job or a stronger ankle. These aren’t bad things to want. Buddhism just argues that WANTING them is bad. Maybe the Nike “Just do it” slogan is most applicable – rather than desiring health, go exercise. Rather than desiring wealth, go invest or be frugal or whatnot.

Everyone has to get to a point where they are comfortable with their desires (or lack thereof). Failure to do this will just make you miserable. I have desires which are somewhat unrealistic that cause me a great deal of stress, and I try to eliminate them. Some are very petty – I’d like a neat handheld computer or the full HBO package. Those desires cause a great deal of stress, since you know they are “doable” and only your own self-discipline prevents them from becoming reality. Other desires, like the desire to be fit, may actually be good since the stress derived from them could drive you to overcome obstacles.

To separate desires, there are a few tests you could apply (bad desire, good desire):

  • Is this something other people would consider selfish or altruistic to desire? (a CD of music your family doesn’t like vs. a CD of singalong songs)
  • Does this desire require a material thing or an action in order to be fulfilled? (wanting to buy a new chair versus learning for yourself how to upholster an old one)
  • Does fulfilling this desire create a new desire, or will it end this ‘type’ of desire? (wanting a new video game machine, creating an unlimited desire for new games for it, vs. buying a book you’ve wanted for a while)

I’m sure there are other tests, but I think the pattern is clear.