Cultivating a (Wise) Sense of Humor

Becoming Wise

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

We are made by what would break us.  In every life, inexplicable things happen.

It is difficult to respond to these challenges, but I’ve noted before that we learn to walk by falling down. The beginning of wisdom often results from “the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world.”

Those words were written by Krista Tippett, the Peabody Award-winning broadcaster of On Being and a 2014 recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President ObamaShe has published a new work based in part on her years of conversation with poets, scientists, philosophers, theologians, and activists.  Becoming Wise:  An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, is a thoughtful book, full of insight. Tippett indicates she wrote about wisdom because “one of its qualities…is about joining inner life with our outer presence in the world. The litmus test of wisdom is the imprint it makes on the world around it…”

In this new work, Tippett writes about one perhaps surprising aspect of a wise life.

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself.  A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do.  It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”

I like the idea of making unlikely connections in the brain, and then “leaning into them with joy.”  A sense of humor doesn’t always revolve around a back-slapping joke, although I enjoy those as much as anyone.  But a wise sense of humor can be as complex as delighting in paradox and as simple as a smile in the voice. It is not cynical, but instead might be described as generous or nourishing.  I am certainly nurtured by those colleagues and friends who are wise.  Consider reaching out and telling someone with a generous sense of humor how much you appreciate their wisdom!  You’ll both have a good week.

More to come…


How We Spend Our Lives

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

In her 1989 collection of essays entitled The Writing Life, Annie Dillard has a wonderful meditation on the life well lived.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.”

 Dillard’s essay contrasts different daily schedules and the “existential tension between presence and productivity.”  She then adds these words to prod us to think of how we spend our days – and lives:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

Here’s to having a good week lived in a way that produces a well-lived life.

More to come…


Observations from the Road (Or the “Has It Been Six Weeks Since I Was in Milan?” Edition)

Villa del Balbianello view

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

In mid-September I published a post from Milan that promised “Lake Como and more still to come.” Next thing I know, we are pushing toward Halloween and the things I’ve wanted to post have been piling up in my brain.  So with the first open weekend in about six weeks, I’m going to catch up by using my trusty “Observations from…” catch-all post.

This edition will include photos from the second and third days of my quick trip to Milan in September for the Executive Committee meeting of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO).

Speaking of Lake Como: 

Lake Como is beautiful.

Lake Como panorama

Lake Como panorama

We were there to visit the Villa del Balbianello, a property of FAI, the Italian National Trust.  Commissioned in the 18th century by Cardinal Durini, the villa “has hosted literati and travellers up to the time of its final owner, the adventurous explorer Guido Monzino.”  Throughout the house are travel mementoes and art objects from his 20th century life.

Villa lakeside entrance

View of the Villa del Balbianello from the lakeside entrance


Villa del Balbianello writing room

Villa del Balbianello writing room


Travel momentoes

Travel mementoes and awards


Garden view from Villa del Balbianello

Garden view from Villa del Balbianello

This is a remarkable home in a stunning setting.  It is easy to see why this is FAI’s most popular property.

Villa e Collezione Panza – Contemporary art in a historic villa:  As the day turned from bright blue to rainy gray, we stopped at FAI’s historic Villa Panza to view the contemporary art collection of American artists that had been assembled by Giuseppe Pana di Buomo beginning in the 1950s.

Villa Panza courtyard

Courtyard of the Villa Panza

The villa’s windows open onto a wonderful Italian garden, making for a beautiful setting for more than 150 pieces of American contemporary art.  While our National Trust in the U.S. has several historic sites that serve as settings for contemporary art (e.g., The Glass House, Chesterwood, Kykuit), many of my colleagues on the INTO Executive Committee were surprised to see the juxtaposition of old and new.

Skyscape at Villa Panza

James Turrell’s Skyscape 1 at Villa Panza


Villa Panza artwork

Villa Panza artwork, historic and contemporary


Villa Panza parlor

Villa Panza

The Last Day (and Supper) in Milan: 

We spent the last day in Milan touring some of the city’s most famous buildings and sites.  The Duomo and square are wonders of Italian architecture.

Duomo towers

Duomo towers in Milan


Milan Duomo

Milan Duomo, looking across the great altar


Duomo details

Duomo details

The Galleria, also on the Duomo square, is a hub of commerce next to the spiritual center of the city.

Galleria hall

Galleria hall


Central skylight in the Galleria

Central skylight in the Galleria

And finally, thanks to the good folks at FAI, we were able to acquire much sought-after tickets to see the Last Supper.  The experience – with only 30 or so visitors allowed in the room for 15 minutes – is very moving and satisfying.  The stewards of this priceless treasure could teach the Vatican Museum – with the over-crowded and wholly unsatisfying Sistine Chapel experience – a thing or two.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper


This was a great bookend to our time in Rome in the spring, with many thanks to FAI and my colleagues at INTO.  Milan is yet another international treasure, and I’m delighted I had the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of our Italian preservation colleagues.

More to come…


I Want to Live in a Real Sports Town

BaseballI’m sitting in the bar of Michael Jordan’s SteakHouse (in our Historic Hotel of America, the Intercontinental) watching Chicago vs. the LA Dodgers with dozens of passionate Cubs fans. Stores and offices throughout the cities are hanging the iconic “W” flag in their windows.  Hell, even the University Club has a decorated bear in Cubs attire. I am texting with my Dodger daughter Claire in Southern California. Life is good.

Except…this isn’t my normal life.

I want to live in a real sports town. After spending portions of my life in Atlanta and Washington (neither of which is a real sports town), I am tired of the wimpy sports culture that comes from people who think that policy debates tell you more about life than arguments over baseball. I’ve been in Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philly in the past two weeks.  All great sports towns. Cleveland – another passionate sports town – is in the World Series and has suddenly become the city of champions.

D.C. needs some of that passion. But people leave games in the 7th inning.  Bars show the miserable Washington football club owned by the only man who might give Donald Trump a run for his money when it comes to mismanagement, while the Nats are in a playoff series.  We can’t get our Metro to stay open past midnight to take passionate fans home.  Don’t talk to me about a world-class city if mass transit closes at midnight.

I really don’t care who wins these games, but I love the passion!

Cubs Fever

Cubs Fever at the University Club in Chicago

Go Cubs/Indians/Dodgers!

More to come…


Loss, Rebirth, Baseball, and Why Old Places Matter


National League Division Series 2016 Game 2 at Nats Park

You may have heard that my team – the Washington Nationals – lost last Friday, a loss which ended their season.  You may be surprised to know that while disappointed, I can live with that outcome. After 50+ years of watching sports, I find that low expectations are the key to happiness.

In my mind, baseball – with its timeless, cyclical rhythms and its “symbolic and literal journey ‘home’” – contains values and appeal that overshadow mere winning and losing and match the values and appeal we espouse in discussing why old places matter.  What touches many in both fields is a sense of the familiar, the building upon the past while adding new meaning today, and a reality that recognizes difficult as well as celebratory history.

A. Bartlett Giamatti – PhD professor in comparative literature, president of Yale University, commissioner of baseball, and a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox until his untimely death in 1989 – understood both accomplishment and loss. In A Great and Glorious Game, Giamatti said of baseball,

“It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

The team that defeated my Nats – the Dodgers – had fans during their years of futility in Brooklyn that actually coined the famous cry “Wait ‘til next year.”  That resilience – the desire to get up off the mat and try again even in the face of the game’s challenges – is what makes baseball so intriguing for so many.  For a game where successful batters fail 7 times out of 10 and even the best teams lose at least 60 games every season, baseball cultivates a sense of humor and makes self-deprecation a survival tool.  As New York Mets manager Casey Stengel said to his barber during the team’s hapless early years, “Don’t cut my throat.  I may want to do that myself later.”

Saving Jewelers Row

Saving Jewelers Row in Philadelphia


Historic Deerfield street

Historic Deerfield, on a beautiful fall day

The stories of the places we love – like the games we love – can help us understand what it means to be fully alive and living in community.  Let’s embrace those stories – both celebratory and difficult – and work to hear, understand, and honor the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.  Oh, and as for the Nats, “Wait ‘til next year!”

Have a good week.

More to come…


Oh Well…


I came into this season and this series with the same low expectations.  So 2016 wasn’t as gut-wrenching as 2012.  And since Dusty didn’t make any obvious mistakes (expect for keeping Danny in the lineup), it wasn’t as infuriating as 2014 (when Matt went brain dead).

Still, the Nats should have won this series.  Even with season-ending injuries to Stras and Ramos.  Even playing a shortstop in center field.  Even with Bryce having the worst follow-up season of any MVP in history.  They still had this series won…until they didn’t.

At critical times – and especially in the last three innings last evening – their big guns didn’t come through.  They didn’t score enough runs to give Max any cushion on a night he was pitching well. They didn’t…

Oh, well.  Baseball is meant to break your heart.

More to come…


Allow Yourself the Uncomfortable Luxury of Changing Your Mind

Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey Garden, Cambridge, England

Writer Maria Popova speaks of our need “to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, and to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas” if we seek to be creative and truly want to contribute to the world.

To reach this level of creativity and understanding of our beliefs, it is important that we be open to change.  After noting that we should allow ourselves the “uncomfortable luxury” of changing our minds, Popova writes:

“We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our ‘opinions’ based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

Here’s to taking the time to be truly informed and – when the situation calls for it – to change our minds.  Have a good week.

More to come…