Archive for the ‘Activities & Techniques’ Category

Zen and the existence of vending machines

December 20, 2010

Wherein the happiness assembly line seems more like a vending machine & furthermore wherein that turns out to be OK because vending machines are so awesome.

Vending machine, metaphor or both?

So I constructed this metaphor a while back about happiness being an assembly line — it takes work to build the life you want. It takes making deliberate choices to embrace what’s good in the world, while not turning away from what’s not so good like an oblivious jerk. Still true.

But it also turns out that life can be all devastating and stuff. I know we all knew that already. But let’s say you find yourself in the most painful, raw experience of your life. The gears of the assembly line get stuck. Actually, the whole thing sort of breaks. You still have to show up for life every day. But your heart might be busy for a while as you reassemble yourself. You might have to settle for a vending machine instead of an assembly line.

Know what I mean? You do what you can, in small pieces. You kick the machine when the things you want get stuck in there. Then you take the other thing that falls out instead.

Or so I decided this weekend when I saw this Santa vending machine. What I love about this temporary change of metaphor is that I love vending machines anyway. I mean, I love the weird ones. I’m assuming you know about the canned bread vending machines, the hot ramen vending machines and the Hello Kitty popcorn vending machines, not to mention the vending machines for unmentionables, umbrellas, fine china and what have you. And I’m assuming you also know that in Japan, you can get, like, tons of varieties of Kit Kats. Which would be an entirely different story except that I decided a long time ago to just go ahead and assume that a Kit Kat-only vending machine also exists somewhere. I guess I don’t need to mention that it’s probably shaped like a cat.

Anyway, it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around the last months waiting for another metaphor. I’ve been doing my best to summon happiness and to deal with my situation by such old standbys as…

  • Sitting with the pain and identifying patterns I see in my life, sometimes while curled under a faux fur blanket.
  • Deciding to be compassionate at every turn, no matter how hard that is.
  • Distracting myself by making art and by watching entire seasons at a time of Veronica Mars and The Wire.
  • Forcing myself to fill my car with gas (um, most of the time) and to walk into grocery stores even though I feel like boycotting life’s details as a way to register my protest with the universe.
  • Letting go of the pain, then picking it up and letting go again. Accepting things as they are, then not and then accepting them again. Repeat.
  • Remembering to live in the moment and appreciate it.
  • Listening to old favorites like Green Day and Spoon when my usual funk-world-hip-hop soundtrack sounds a little too happy to bear.
  • Meditating when I can sit still (brain science!) and saying mantras to myself when I’m about to careen off-track (even if it feels cheesy to admit) (which it does).
  • Wandering outside while appreciating the trees or the night sky.

And I guess it turns out that even if you’re struggling in a way you hadn’t thought possible, you can usually find some change in your pocket for whatever vending machine is in front you — you can muster some interior currency, even if it’s just the choice to get lost in the night sky.

So this particular vending machine that showed up in my inbox is a Santa that walks around with holiday presents inside. And when nothing else all season quite could, this thing registered as nice amid my distress-induced holiday ennui.

I didn’t write a charm-i-days gift guide again this year, but I hereby give you instead a vending-machine-Santa. I think you’re in good hands. Yes, that thing has hands. You’ve been warned.

Two other neat things I’ve recently discovered:

  • Yoshitomo Nara, one of my favorite artists, has a smartphone app. See?
  • A Mary Queen of Scots-themed restaurant opened in New York. See?

A glossary of niceties

July 28, 2010

See letter K. Tastes as good as it looks?

At least one thing that makes me happy for every letter of the alphabet. (Sometimes, a return to fourth-grade formats is in order.)

Ampersands. At once old-fashioned and modern. Efficient and handsome. Sometimes they seem pretentious, and sometimes they seem overly casual. How can all of these things be true of a little symbol? Semiotics. It’s the new “plastics.”

Breathing in the smell of wood smoke in the crisp fall air.

Brain research. Two words: neural plasticity. Good news. (Also two words.)

Cooking. I was staring into my freezer a few evenings ago wondering if it had a meal to offer me when I remembered, “Oh, yeah — I know how to cook.” Suddenly, I was making a roux and unwrapping cheeses. Then 30 minutes later, my cupboards and fridge were emptier, my pans were dirtier and my hunger was gone. All-around satisfying.

DVRs. More focused, commercial-free TV-watching segments of my life.

Experiencing a thunderstorm.

Fonts are fun. Mid-century fonts are perhaps the most fun. Some people enjoy railing against particular fonts. Others simply gaze fondly at the beautiful shapes of certain letters and numbers.


See letter M. And please eat while sitting in pickup truck.

Having time to think about life and stuff. Sometimes while staring at trees, sometimes while driving around, sometimes while cutting out pages from a 1902 Sears catalog or a 1964 magazine and using them for (art?) projects. Sometimes doing those things while not bothering to think at all.

Imitation fur blankets & such. All the softness of rabbits, none of the harming of animals.

Japanese notebooks.

Knowing the center of our galaxy might taste like raspberries.

Loopy. It’s just a great word is all.

Macarons. When possible, by Pierre Hermes. When possible, in Paris. When possible, a box with lots of flavors, such as pistachio, rose, chocolate-passion fruit and salted butter caramel. When possible, also vanilla.

Noticing the place where the sky meets the trees. Seriously, has this juxtaposition ever caught your eye? It catches my breath sometimes, the way it always looks just right. Green leaves against a stormy, gray sky? Yes. Yellow leaves in fall against a bright blue? Yes. Stark, brown branches in winter against white clouds? Yes. I’m telling you — it’s perfect every time.

Orgone, Ozomatli, other funky world music.

See letters P and Z. Me with my brother on our front porch. Yep, it was the '70s.

Oh, what a handy exclamation.

Pickup trucks. Old ones, that is.

Pretty plus. On a childhood back-to-school shopping outing, my brother was miffed that I couldn’t shop in the “pretty plus” section. I explained that it was for people who needed bigger sizes, but he still thought I thought should be able to shop in a section called that. So even though he has no memory of this exchange, he must have thought I was a nice little sister. Sweet.


Really sharp pencils.

Root beer floats. AKA black cows. What’s not to like?

Sunlight streaming through a few nearby trees to achieve slight dappling effect. Best enjoyed with eyes closed to feel nuanced interplay of breeze, shade and light.

Things that fit in pockets. Also, pockets.


Venturing into the unknown.

Waking up to what’s true. Also, waking up to who you really are.

X. Even pirates know it marks the spot.

Yipee, yee-haw and other sentiments of unabashed joy.

Zick it. When my brother and I were in elementary school, we decided to invent our own language so we could communicate privately in any situation. We decided “zick it” was an essential phrase but one that we never would use harshly on each other, as it meant “shut up.” I wish I could remember what “comosito” meant.

Photo credits: Milky Way photo by NASA, macaron photo by Pierre Hermes.

When ‘normal seemed precious’

June 28, 2010

A videographer finds natural rhythms in the mountains again and asks for no other heaven than that.

Eric Rorer's 'I Ask No Other Heaven' captures springtime in northern California.

My friend Eric Rorer lives in northern California, and he’s an incredibly talented photographer, not to mention travel writer. He created a video this spring about the rains returning to Mt. Tamalpais after a drought, and I thought of it again this weekend during a storm here in Tennessee. He talks about how normal things like rain floating in off the ocean can feel precious during uncertain times — and how the return of those natural rhythms makes you want to remember them.

So if you happen to, you know, enjoy nature and stuff, you might want to spend a few minutes watching his video, “I Ask No Other Heaven.” Connecting to the natural world feels so important in our increasingly complicated society, so I was happy to look through Eric’s eyes for a few minutes at wildflowers and mountainsides and waterfalls and mist and the wind rippling through tall grass.

I love that he captures how the mountain’s pace can vary so widely, from moments full of stillness to those that feel quick and eager. And, of course, it makes me think of John Muir, who once wrote:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

Watch Eric’s video
See his other work

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A videographer finds natural rhythms in the mountains again and asks for no other heaven than that.

My friend Eric Rorer lives in northern California, and he’s an incredibly talented photographer, not to mention travel writer. He created a video this spring about the rains returning to Mt. Tamalpais after a drought, and I thought of it again this weekend during a storm here in Nashville. He talks about how normal things like rain floating in off the ocean can feel precious during uncertain times.

So just in case you, you know, like nature and stuff, I’m pointing you toward his video, “I Ask No Other Heaven.” I don’t think we can really overstate the importance of connecting to the natural world in our increasingly complicated society, so I was happy to look through Eric’s eyes for a few minutes at wildflowers and mountainsides and waterfalls and mist and the wind rippling through tall grass.

I love that he captures how the pace of mountainside can vary so widely. And, of course, it makes me think of John Muir, who once wrote:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into

you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

Remain on high alert for visionary impulses

January 31, 2010

Four ways to stay inspired, even at the end of January.

William Blake's visions await ...

Navigating the post-holiday, pre-Valentine waters of late January can be tricky. But the solution is quite simple, as it turns out: Just remember how many options you have for staying amused, engaged, inspired and otherwise satisfied.

1. Find visionaries at the push of a button.
As if it weren’t gratifying enough that we can now learn astrophysics whenever we please, as of this month, we can peruse – or even just glance at – William Blake’s notebook on the British Library’s website.

Think of it: the notebook he actually used for 30 years at our fingertips. How amazing is it that so much scholarship is so accessible these days? No one will judge you for feeling breathless.

2. Engage in some artful commerce.
Take your art with you throughout the day instead of leaving it at home on the wall. What have those walls done for you lately anyway?

Hewitt’s darlings

3. When confronted, make no excuse for watching cute animals.
The opportunity for a moment that warms your heart is never farther away than the nearest internet tube. Are there too many animal videos? Yes? Are most of them worth the effort? No. Don’t argue. Don’t discuss with friends. Just watch one now and then, especially if it’s a Japanese commercial with a cat on a business trip or a New York lottery commercial for cuddly animals sleeping or enjoying carnival rides.

4. Let the sandwich be your canvas.
Seriously, have you invented a good sandwich lately? Why, just the other day I mixed mayonnaise with crumbled goat cheese and quite enjoyed the results. Imagine what you could do this time of year if you kept a jar of chutney handy.

The portable art
SFMOMA artist T-shirts, $24.50
Catalina Estrada bowl, $16
Catalina Estrada gel skins, prices vary
Fiona Hewitt small bag, $6.50
Mayonnaise, prices also vary

Charm-i-days: Beyond trinkets

December 19, 2009

Make like Santa without the aid of trimmings or trappings.

Cow-shaped happiness.

While the Charm-i-days gift guide mostly falls on the Things & Totems end of the spectrum, the intent with everything the Charm-o-Matic generates is meaningful celebration. Not the kind of glib obliviousness to the world’s suffering that gives happiness a bad name, but an intelligent way of finding what’s good in the world and making more of it.

Gift-giving also taps into the Activities & Techniques end of the spectrum; sharing is one of the most vital ways of experiencing the world. It’s fun to find little bursts of goodness that appeal directly to each person on your list. And attention, holiday shoppers: Those bursts need not be tangible. If buying presents this year comes from a sense of obligation or creates a sense of budget anxiety, give gifts that don’t cost a dime. Or even a nickel. And while you’re at it, use a few dimes and nickels to help someone who’s hurting.

Finding hope and authentic joy while remaining realistic about the many problems in our world is a challenge. One way to bridge this gap every day is to do small, delightful things purposefully. I hope these trinket-free ideas take you in that direction.

One: Go bauble-free. Last year, the Charm-o-Matic recommended cookie exchanges and homemade coupons to celebrate. You can make those seemingly old chestnuts fresh every year. Consider devising some kind of Friendly Lift of the Month Club. Maybe one month you can cook dinner for someone and another month you can plan an outdoorsy hike for a group of your mutual friends. Gifts that promise togetherness throughout the year highlight (and strengthen) the distinct bond you have with each person on your list.

Two: Go world-wide. Give not only to people you know but also to others who share our pretty little planet.

Heifer International helps families in developing countries. For $20, you can give a flock of chicks, which will add protein-rich eggs to a family’s diet and leave plenty of eggs for them to share or sell as well. For $120, you can give a goat, which supplies milk. Cow-shaped happiness costs $500. If you want to give in the name of someone on your list, you can also send that person a Heifer e-card when you make the donation, which is a sneaky way of giving a last-minute gift. Not that I’m suggesting you would need such an idea. I’m sure you’ve thought everything through, you master planner, you.

Another personal favorite, has a holiday shop of calendars and T-shirts you can buy to support their work helping women and girls around the world get educated and escape poverty. Dozens of fancy studies show that empowering women and girls creates ripples of positive change around the world.

Finding someone in your community who needs help is also frightfully easy these days. Maybe someone in your neighborhood would appreciate a bag of groceries. In The Hope, Andrew Harvey recommends finding the cause that breaks your heart and dedicating yourself to it.

So baubles or not, happy, merry, sparkly wishes to you … and, you know, the world.

Give animal-gifts from
Give goods from
Find another cause at Network for Good

Get high on charm

October 27, 2009

James Nestor, illustrating the highest of writing techniques

Using brain science, not drugs, to create highs of mystical proportions.

All the recent, fascinating research about the brain changes that meditation creates is alluring. Knowing that you can actually alter your brain state gives off rays of hope in all kinds of directions. This kind of change is at the heart of the Charm-o-Matic, after all.

Those of us who don’t spend hours sitting cross-legged in a cave every day can head to Get High Now for a mental break instead. The web site offers visual and audio illusions – including the much ballyhooed binaural beats – and explanations of the science behind them.

ReadyMade magazine recently interviewed Get High Now author James Nestor, who notes that “altered states of consciousness have been at the core of almost every culture (but modern Western culture) since pre-history.” Ever the skeptic, Nestor identifies these delights as “mystical crap” that we’ve replaced with working long hours and watching television.

“I know, this sounds flaky and super-cosmic,” he continues. “Trust me, I’m a skeptic. I don’t wear patchouli. I’ve done yoga three times in my life. But, brothers and sisters, all this tis true!”

You can read more of the ReadyMade interview or head right over and let the trippy brain science commence. Experiment with finding your brain’s charm center.

Get High Now online, Free
Get High Now book, $14.95

The most charming warrior of all

September 9, 2009

Ancient practices, deep happiness and the fresh, clean feeling after a shower.


Marks of a warrior

In Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa makes a point much better than I did in my charmifesto. He writes about the importance of understanding and appreciating our relationship with ordinary life, so that we can create peace and harmony in the world.

“When you experience the goodness of being alive,” Trungpa teaches, “you can respect who and what you are … Because we appreciate the world, we take better care of it and our fellow humans.”

There’s a basic goodness in his teachings that’s at the other end of the spectrum from the more prevalent religious concept of original sin. He reveals not only a beauty but also a discipline in embracing small pleasures, not as superficial indulgences but as portals into the basic goodness of the world and of ourselves. Trungpa goes on in the book to teach more traits of the warrior, but a steady sense of one’s own goodness is at the core.

“When we appreciate reality,” Trungpa continues, “it can actually work on us … We have an actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good. Shambhala vision is tuning in to our ability to wake ourselves up and recognize that goodness can happen to us. In fact, it is happening already.”

Trungpa mentions a sudden whiff of fresh air and the clean feeling after a shower and says, “It is worthwhile to recognize and take advantage of these moments, because they are revealing basic nonaggression and freshness in our lives – basic goodness.”

So right now I’m recognizing the sound of birds whooshing over my deck,  flocking in formation. I’m taking advantage of this moment in the fresh air and letting the goodness sink in. As for my shower, well, that’s between me and my crisp, white shower curtain.

Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, $10
Whiff of fresh air, Free

Saying something nice about July

July 4, 2009

John Adams: patriot & July inspiration

A few of my favorite things about my least favorite month.

Not that I’m one to play favorites, but summer just isn’t my ideal time of year. So in the spirit of Maria singing during the thunderstorm in The Sound of Music, I’m thinking up a few things to like about July. (Because I already love thunderstorms.)

1. Somewhere, history is happening.
As far as the history that’s already happened, July is the perfect time to revel in it. One of the fascinating aspects of our country’s lore is the friendship-turned-bitter-rivalry-turned-friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And how amazing is it that they both died on July 4, 1826? I sometimes get on a kick and read a couple of biographies in a row about a person, whether it’s John Adams or Marie Antoinette (also appropriate for July, given Bastille Day on the 14th). July is the perfect time for obsessive reading. A reading-watching combo would work too: The recent HBO special was based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams.* McCullough’s book 1776 is fascinating too, but you have to be ready to embrace a level of detail that includes the significance of the color of uniforms worn by the Prussian mercenaries who fought for the British.

To do: Read about the good ol’ US of A.

2. Somewhere, people are playing baseball.
When I was a kid, we dutifully endured “typing class” one school year, using old-fashioned, clickety-clack typewriters.  Whenever I had extra time at the end of class, I would type out the Chicago Cubs roster, including the height and weight of the players. I was completely enamored of the Cubs and have been ever since. I spent my summers going to hundreds of my brother’s baseball games, eating candy necklaces, learning to keep the official score and dreaming of the next time I could go see the pros in Chicago (yes, I think of the Cubs as professionals). I no longer watch many games, and I’ve given up my goal of marrying one of the players; but I’m still happy to know in July that somewhere, people are playing and watching baseball.

To do: Find a nearby major or minor league team and take in a game. If possible, also eat a hot dog and some nostalgic candy. In lieu of baseball, simply eat candy.

3. Somewhere, polar bears are diving off blocks of ice.
True, fewer polar bears are lounging around and diving off of sadly disappearing blocks of ice these days. But still: Imagine the frosty goodness. Just as the sun is still shining when it’s dark and the stars are still doing their thing up there when it’s cloudy … somewhere, even though it may feel hot and humid, polar bears are diving off thick, ancient ice into an impossibly blue ocean.

To do: Open your freezer and put your head inside for a few seconds. Withdraw head. Close door. Send a happy thought to your favorite polar bear.

Honestly, I was going to do five things to enjoy during July, but I think three is enough. It’s time to put my head back in the freezer anyway.

*For that matter, you could also extend the reading-watching concept to Marie Antoinette. Sofia Coppola’s movie about the much maligned queen was loosely based on Antonia Fraser’s excellent and somewhat revisionist biography. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution is also fascinating and full of unexpected political details.

Thank you note for a love letter

April 17, 2009

The love letter in question

How do I love Love Letter to Japan by The Bird and the Bee? I’m only a moderate fan of Victorian poetry, so let me count two ways.

First, the song feels happy and danceable, and who am I to argue with that? I’m always on the lookout for additions to the Charm-o-Matic manifesto soundtrack.

If I were a music critic, I’d describe the Bird and the Bee’s music as other reviewers have, using words like “buoyant,” “charming” and maybe even “immaculately produced.” If I were a real pro, I could refer to the group’s “pop pastiche” or even blithely mention “the synth-tinged retro pop brimming with kaleidoscopic detail.”

Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to Love Letter to Japan, so enchanting is it to my ears. The tune is a veritable prescription for high spirits. Perhaps you need something to induce dancing while you’re getting ready in the morning. Perhaps you need something for the heartache that resulted when this hockey season ended with your team just a broken cheekbone away from the playoffs. Perhaps you need a little sugarless boost to power you through the afternoon these days. In any case, have a listen.

Love letter of my own

The semiotics of cute?

Second, I frequently extol the virtues of various Japanese delights and have been composing my own love letter to the entire country for several years. These things take time. The Bird and the Bee are more succinct than I am and thank Japan “for the patience and the peace, cherry blossoms and the candy.”

That’s a promising start, although the mere word “candy” doesn’t begin to describe the odd wonders filling that aisle in any Asian market worth its soy sauce. My own love letter also includes bento boxes, Yoshitomo Nara and the nation’s inventive use of vending machines. One of Japan’s most monumental imports in my life, though, are notebooks by San-X that feature cats playing in food.

I’ve never been able to pin down the subtext of these little notepads and toys: Do the designers who create these tasty kitties revel in the irony of their work? Do they have conversations about semiotics during lunch? Are they evil geniuses with a subversive agenda? Or do they just think the little kitties are cute? (Cute enough to eat, you see.) My friend Jenner calls these characters “Hello Kitty in grad school,” so I’m going with the semiotics option.

So thanks for that love letter, The Bird and the Bee. Your cheerful tune is sure to inspire even more love letters in the future and lift moods across the country in the meantime.

Watch their Jimmy Kimmel performance on YouTube.

Mighty nice operation

March 18, 2009
Taking the world by nice.

Taking the world by nice.

When nice is more than just fine.

You know what’s nice? Being nice – that’s what’s nice. Not wimpy nice. Not namby-pamby nice. Consciously nice. Determinedly nice. Or as the Niceness Pro at Operation Nice puts it: “proactively nice.” We’re not talking about the kind of nice that stems from feeling obligated or from not standing up for yourself. We’re talking about the kind of nice that benefits everyone. It’s a win-win, I tell you.

I loved this site the first time I laid eyes on it a few months ago, and founder Melissa Morris Ivone is following up beautifully on her mission to make the world a nicer place. Her site is full of downloads, challenges, testimonials, tips and other niceties.

At its best, a commitment to being nice is about more than holding a door here and there or gracing the world with your smile when it occurs to you. When the amazing story of Jill Bolte Taylor started circulating, one of things she said that stood out to me is that we need to be responsible for the energy we’re putting out into the world. Lying in her hospital bed after suffering a stroke, the brain researcher was unable to communicate; however, she picked up on the energy of the various doctors and nurses who came in and out of her room. Some people made her feel cared for in her vulnerable condition, and some made her feel utterly insignificant.

We do this to the people around us every day. By taking responsibility for the kind of energy we’re transmitting, we improve the environment around us. That includes the other people within reach of our mysterious energetic vibes, and it includes our own state of mind, too. See, I told you it was a win-win.

Making Operation Nice a regular online stop will give you all sorts of gentle reminders to be nice on purpose. That’s the kind of nice that gets the Charm-o-Matic whirring.