creativity dogs

day 31: startling thoughts

Man Coughing simple line style icon. Medical concept illustration

During this COVID-19 quarantine, we’re all enjoying hearing more birdsong, as the noisy workaday world has quieted down. But along with that lovely chorus, certain sounds have begun making us jumpy. That reminded me of how babies flail around; are we adults still prone to such panic when we feel unmoored and unsafe? Paradoxically, as our lives are quieter, we’re becoming more anxious… about certain sensations.

It’s called the Startle Reflex. As the Wikipedia article on the “Startle response” tells us, “In animals, including humans, the startle response is a largely unconscious defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli, such as sudden noise or sharp movement, and is associated with negative affect. … it serves to protect vulnerable parts, such as the back of the neck (whole-body startle) and the eyes (eyeblink) and facilitates escape from sudden stimuli.”

Just as our dogs startle when we (almost) step on their tails, the startle reflex “is found across the lifespan of many species.”

But the most intriguing thought is this: “A variety of responses may occur because of individual’s emotional state, body posture, preparation for execution of a motor task, or other activities. The startle response is implicated in the formation of specific phobias.”

I find the sound of a cough or a sneeze, even heard from across the street, is now becoming alarming. I wonder if that will continue? If so, we may have a new pandemic to worry about: misophonia (the fear of certain sounds).

Hoo boy, I need to go for a walk.  A solitary walk in empty streets!!! with a mask in my pocket just in case I encounter another humanoid. Strange times we’re living in…

Anyway, here’s a pic of yesterday’s mask production, fyi.

Masks made on April 18 2020



art happiness health work

day 20: on buoyancy and a good omen, maybe?

Hello!  This morning began slowly. I felt utter despair while perusing the testimonials in the New York Times Magazine from Sunday, “Exposed. Afraid. Determined,”  where ordinary working people–“essential” people like cleaners, delivery people, pharmacists and E.R. doctors– explain how the crisis has impacted their daily lives. It is a heart-breaking revelation of our broken system, which should be required reading for all elected officials. Anyway, after feeling hopeless and shedding too many tears, I went out.


The day is cool and windy, and the walk down our steep hills to Alki Beach was bracing. Little by little, however, my spirit rebounded. For some reason, it just happened. Like these seagulls, we humans have the capacity to bounce back endlessly, even with the weight of gravity pushing us down and without that nice salty water to hold us up.

Buoyant [Etymology: Old French bouyant or Spanish boyante, light-sailing, pres. part. of boyar, float, from boya BUOY noun + ant]*

  1. Able to float; tending to float or rise; floating; lightly elastic; resilient; able to recover, light-hearted.
  2. Able to keep things up or afloat.

As my spirits rose, my eyes rose too, and saw things I’d never noticed before, like the cool street art hanging from a wire at the corner of Harbor Ave SW and California Ave SW.  Would love to know who created that: so cute and colorful!

It’s fitting that the final image of today’s walk captured an accidentally funny or possibly prescient icon seen here:

Funny street art at Alki April 8 2020

This juxtaposition of images could be a good omen! It could mean that the coronavirus (the creature hanging from the wire) which has been devouring our population (the pedestrian with his head in the creature’s mouth) is on the way down (the arrow pointing down) here in Seattle (the ferry boat and Space Needle).  It’s a floating totem, twisting in the wind, telling us what we want to hear…

Finally, here for the record is a pic of the face masks produced yesterday. Got to get back to work now; more people are waiting. (I am loving this work actually, so thanks, customers and neighbors, for letting me be of service!!)

Masks made on April 7 2020

May all our spirits be buoyant!

*The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), vol. 1, p. 308.



American literature conflict creativity English literature wisdom

day eleven: to cope, verb


What’s so bad about coping? Must a coping strategy be a vice? As much as people talk about “positive” and “negative” strategies, the entire concept of coping seems somehow tainted by failure or inadequacies of some sort, as if life ought to be easier and one shouldn’t fret about it so much. I disagree with that punishing attitude toward human frailties. The walk I took this morning—as per yesterday’s realization of how anomie was eating away at my mental health, and the subsequent commitment I made to walk every morning—was bracing, energizing, and invigorating!  I plan to use that coping strategy as often as I can—ideally every day, even after this crisis has passed.

But the word to cope gets a bad rap. Describing a character’s alcoholism, one writer notes: “A coping strategy, Margaret Cleary had called it. The only problem was, when your whole existence is something you have to cope with, you look back one day and find that your strategy has become a way of life.”*

Aha! The dictionary once again comes to the rescue. Reading the definition of to cope below, you realize this author’s error. It is erroneous to pit “to exist” against “to cope (with)”, because life is sometimes excruciating. In other words, the two verbs sometimes designate the same action. As the third definition of exist reminds us: “3. Continue alive or in being; maintain existence. Also, live, esp. under adverse conditions.”

Conclusion: Whatever you are doing to cope with the annoyances, anxieties, and confinement of life during this coronavirus crisis, if your strategy is helping you to “deal competently with your life or situation,” then more power to you! Maybe you’ll find that your new activity actually improves your situation, if you stick with it over the long term.

Still searching for the best way to cope?  For some great ideas, see the brief testimonials in “How We Got By: Advice for Getting Through a Crisis, by Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg, from the New York Times, 3/29/20; p. BU3.)

Till tomorrow, cope on!


Cope, verb intrans.**

[Etymology: Old French co[l]per (mod. couper) strike, cut, from co[l]p blow from medieval Latin colpus; see COUP noun]

I. 1. verb intrans. Strike, hit; come to blows with; engage or meet (together) in battle, archaic & dialect. ME [Middle English]

2. Contend successfully with (an opponent, difficulty, situation, etc.); colloq. deal competently with one’s life or situation

3. Have to do with; come into contact or relation with. archaic.

4. verb intrans. Match (something) with an equivalent. rare (Shakespeare)


Exist, verb intrans.***

[Etymology: Latin ex[s]istere emerge, present oneself, come into being, (in late Latin) be (aux.), formed as EX- + sister take a stand]

  1. Have objective reality or being.
  2. Have being in a specified place or form or under specified conditions. Of a relation, circumstance, etc.
  3. Continue alive or in being; maintain existence. Also, live, esp. under adverse conditions.


*Joanna Cannon, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, (New York: Scribner, 2017), 213.

** The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), vol. 1, p. 514.

*** Op. cit., vol. 1, p. 889.


Chinese literature death health humor meditation nature wisdom Zen philosophy

day two: time for a talking goldfish, and more viral humor!

First, here’s the viral humor (we need it), brought to us from a friend in cyberspace.  (Thanks, Tom!)

Bookstore sign March 20 2020

Second, a good message from one of the books I love, as promised yesterday, to help us cope with this weird health crisis. The story below tells of an encounter between a typical bureaucrat and a magical, yet very anxious goldfish.

Depressed goldfish

“One day, when I was walking along a road, I suddenly heard someone calling me. I looked around, but saw nobody. When I looked down, it turned out to be a carp calling me from a dried rut. I went over to it, and asked, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ The carp, gasping, replied, ‘I am a minister of the God of the East Sea. I was swept here by a rainstorm, and now I cannot get back. I will soon die, unless you bring me a pail of water and put me in it.’ I said, ‘Of course, I can do that. But you must wait until I persuade the sovereigns of the states of Wu and Yue to allow me to use water from the Xijang River.’ Hearing this, the carp said, ‘Distant water cannot quench present thirst. You’ll find me in the dried fish market tomorrow!'”*

This cryptic fable was written some 2,200 years ago, by a writer unknown by most of us  (Zhuang Zi, c. 369 B.C. — 286 B.C.) who is very famous in China as a chief representative of the Taoist School.

You gotta love a talking goldfish, of course! How even cooler is it that this goldfish is shrewd and critical. For our purposes, the fable provides moral urgency and a sober punchline. “Distant water cannot quench present thirst.” Take it to mean anything you need: if you’re angry about the government’s actions, it works for you. If you’re in despair over getting access to a mask or test, it works for you.

However, it could be a more uplifting lesson too. If you, like me, are staying home to “shelter in place” and allow the coronavirus time to sweep through your region without adding to the casualties, give yourself credit. You are, in effect, giving water to present thirst. You’re feeding the quotient of healthy people so that we can resist the invisible enemy.

Thank you for helping, in any way you can!  And hang in there; we’re in it for the long duration, I think.  I’ll be back tomorrow with another good thought (and more humor, I hope).

*Zhang Fuxin, The Story of Zhuang Zi, trans. Zhang Tingquan (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003), pp. 183-184.

art children creativity design French literature friendship wisdom

taming our fears — and back to school

Shooting Stars Tranquility Pillows Aug 9.jpgI just reread The Little Prince slowly, over the course of the last three days here and there. What a great vacation read! Along with bemusement over the clever wording and adorable illustrations, I was left with a sense of awe at the way the author weaves moral philosophy into a classic travel tale to make a story that has much to say to readers of all ages. Few “children’s books” can do that so well.

The concept of taming–spoken by the lonely fox whose ears are too big– knocked me over again, just like it always does.

On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise, dit le renard. Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchand d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi !*

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where you can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me!”

To tame is to “make less dangerous or frightening,” according to the dictionary. But for Saint-Exupéry, taming is the basis of friendship: we allow each other to depend on each other, and the world becomes less dangerous and frightening. Pictured here are the pillows I’ve been making during this same time period, which feature hand-made shooting stars designed to resemble  Saint-Exupéry’s. I make them to help people tame their fears. And maybe the making helped me tame my fears of being suddenly in this new place with a new name, no job, and starting over again…

Taming fear is what Tranquility Pillows allow us to do.  By expressing an emotion–by snapping on one of three stars–you can put that feeling at arm’s length, or make it into an external object. If you snap on the scary black star, your fears wield less power over your mind, because you can see that they are just a little black star.  They exist out there in the air, like the Little Prince on his planet, and you may or may not ever encounter them in person during this life. And maybe a friend or parent will see you’re worried and lend a helping hand…

So this year as you head back to school, why not get a Tranquility Pillow?  Let the pillow  help your mind rest now and then, while you are working so hard…

Back to school with Tranquility Pillow Aug 9


*Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince, 1st ed. 1946 ; (Paris : Gallimard, 2000) 69.

children conflict creativity T'ai chi wisdom

avoiding eye contact for mental health and energy


This title sounds strange, yes. But I was moved to write in defense of deference by two things: 1) my recent experience doing T’ai chi at the Seattle Kung Fu Club; and 2) an article in the New York Times, “How to Meet Autistic People Halfway”.

It has been a dream come true to discover the Seattle Kung Fu Club and to become a student of Sifu John S.S. Leong and Sijeh Paula.* The exercises are rigorous and hard; it is not really fun, let alone for 90 minutes. But in that room, surrounded by symbols telling the history of the art and a great sense of human dignity and discipline, you are inspired. Paradoxically, it is a place bursting with concentration where it is very difficult to concentrate. People on the Kung Fu side of the studio are loud, dramatic, and fascinating! People on the T’ai chi side of the studio are practically silent, but they move around in fluid and overlapping ways. You have to remain aware of what is going on so you don’t get in the way.

During these times, I think always of the Zen saying, “Just Don’t Wobble!” But it is hard, and avoiding eye contact is imperative for me, so I don’t wobble and fall down off the one leg where I’m standing with knee outstretched,  or tip over from a stretched-out stance near the floor. When I read yesterday’s article which explains how autistic people use similar avoidance strategies, a faint insight emerged.

People engaged in the intense mental effort of T’ai chi, which requires extremely precise actions executed slowly, are accustomed to avoid eye contact with each other. I guess the eyes are too powerful a force of …   what exactly? Energy? emotion? intention? impenetrability? All I know is that looking into someone’s eyes can make you lose your balance and wobble. No need to apologize. We just don’t do it.

Similarly, perhaps, autistic people must work really hard to stay focused and mentally balanced. It is curious to learn how they articulate and express the reasons why they avoid other people’s eyes. In the New York Times article, psychologists Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar write, “Take eye contact. Some autistic people say they find sustained eye contact uncomfortable or even painful. Others report that it’s hard to concentrate on what someone is saying while simultaneously looking at them. In other words, not looking someone in the eye may indicate that an autistic person is trying very hard to participate in the conversation at hand. Unfortunately, this attempt to engage often gets interpreted as a lack of interest.”**

Martial artist Peter Ralston explains the psycho-physical dynamic going on in eye contact avoidance. For him, as a proponent of the inner arts, an inner focus is the key way to remain aligned with your center, grounded in the present. Since we are constantly in situation, we need to be flexible to sustain unity. “Keep a balance of awareness on all sides. Whenever we focus a lot of energy outward (energy extension), that flow should be balanced by centering and grounding our feeling-attention.”***

Along with Susan Cain’s feisty defense of introversion, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which was a revelation and continues to be a source of sustenance to my gentle spirit, the work of Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar seems intriguing and worth pursuing too. We are all on a spectrum of some kind, as regards our social preferences and patterns of behavior. The more we realize and respect people whose ways of being are different from our own, the more peaceful our lives will become.

*Honorary terms for Teacher and Senior Student Teacher; on terms in T’ai chi,

**Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar, “Opinion: How to Meet Autistic People Halfway,” New York Times July 13, 2018.

***Peter Ralston, Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, 97.


health humor

What’s wrong with freaking out? dance therapy: try it, it works!

Follow-up thoughts on yesterday’s post:

  1. In one week from today, I will be somewhere on Route I-90 driving on the route shown here.freak out map image.jpg
  2. On that day, June 29, we will drive approximately seven hours through Minnesota and South Dakota en route to an exciting evening of entertainment with our dog in a room at America’s Best Value Inn.
  3. I have the right to freak out!
  4. Maybe that “Freak Out” Star I’ve been creating is not only for you, sad people on the verge of self-harm. Maybe it’s a metaphor of how I feel right now!
  5. Note to self: get interfacing asap and redo those stars so that they are less chubby and sleeker. Need to let the winsome lines be seen.
  6. We all have the right to freak out.
  7. As we used to say on the disco floor, “AHHH, Freak out!  Le Freak, c’est chic.”  Try and listen to this song without dancing! Freak.jpg
  8. get up and shake that booty!  I feel better already! do you?
health meditation T'ai chi Zen philosophy

day three: inaction in action

Another delightful paradox of preparing for a move: some days, all you need to do is to continue doing what you are doing. Nothing more is required.

As our agent wrote yesterday in response to last week’s house inspection, “So nothing to do now.”

This message reverberated with me deeply and made me feel very peaceful. I love it when someone tells me to do nothing!

(Now that I think of it, people have been trying to tell me this for some time: witness the black plastic wu-wei bracelet I’ve been wearing since a wise friend gave it to me back in February. Boy, can we humans be slow to catch on.)

It is all about responding appropriately to life’s events, instead of thrashing out blindly in fear and self-protection.

I read and pondered this while practicing today’s 30-minute standing meditation (part of the morning routine):

“The essence of the distinction between these two lies mostly in the quality and state of mind. If an action is free from fear and obsessive desire (and I do not mean free from feeling fear or having desire; I mean not bound to, motivated by, or influenced by them), and receptive to the real condition; and most importantly, if the mind and energy are not disturbed or disrupted in any way by the stimulus that calls for action; then it is responsive. Thus, if the stimulus does not call for action, no action is taken; whereas a reaction occurs whether action is called for or not.”

“Maintaining this condition of relaxed balance and postural integration is as delicate as it is effective.”*

If this all sounds too cerebral or abstract for you, try a living experiment instead. Stand up, put your feet together so that your heels touch, and bend your knees so they feel springy like in a jack-in-the-box. Put your feet at 90 degrees to each other, with your tail bone tucked under your spine. Feel your spine click into comfort. Hold that posture for a while.

(As per the advice of T’ai chi Master Peng, I do this while looking out a window every morning for 30 minutes. Although this is much less than the three hours he does each day, it has had miraculous effects on my balance, hip-joints, and all-around sense of well-being.)

As you stand, you will feel your balance shifting back and forth between your feet and legs. You will realize it is a continual movement that keeps you upright. You are always doing that thing; you are always staying upright! So give yourself some credit for that. Let your role in life slide into observing instead acting, when it is appropriate.

* Peter Ralston, Principles of Effortless Power, 48.