5 Surprising Observations About Italy

It was the trip of a lifetime. My wife and I just got back from visiting two places we had dreamed of going our entire lives. First we spent a week in London. Then we had another week in Italy, or more specifically, Tuscany. The whole trip was really beyond words. But as we experienced another country and another culture, I couldn’t help but notice five specific things about Italy.

It’s a whole other wonderful world:

  1. Driving is a real life video game. You know those lines in the middle of the road called lane markers? In Italy they are only suggestions. People disregard them willy nilly. There are automated speed traps that record your speed without an officer being present. I did have the pleasure of driving an Audi with a manual transmission. It was a blast! I just had to keep my eyes open for cars coming straight at me around those hairpin turns in the hills of Tuscany.
  2. Air conditioning and refrigeration is at a premium. While we were there the weather was hot. It got up into the 90’s. Even so, there was very little air conditioning to speak of. When there was it was only slightly cool in a train car or restaurant. Refrigerated bottles of water were only lukewarm. And if you want some ice cubes in your drink you have to ask. Even then you’ll only get a cube or two.
  3. Waste is at a minimum. In the city of Florence there are waste receptacles that go right down into the ground. They come together in groups of three. One is for regular waste, and the other two are for various types of recycling. In addition, cars tend to be very small and economic when it comes to gas. We could learn a thing or two here in the United States.
  4. Stuff is old. One of the first things one notices about Italy is the age of everything. Here in the U.S. we consider something “old” if it’s been around 200 years or so. But in Italy many things are centuries old, and some are millennia old. It’s mind boggling to think that the places we walked have been living, active places for centuries more than our home country has even existed.
  5. Views are spectacular. Drive up to San Gimignano, or Volterra, or Montalcino, and you will see picturesque views worthy of the finest photographers eye. In fact, you’ve probably seen these views in photos at one time or another. But photos don’t do the views justice. It’s breathtaking to see it in person.

Oh, how I’m looking forward to going back. There’s so much more to see and do.

What have you noticed when you’ve been overseas?

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When God Gives You a Miracle Without You Asking

Have you ever been surprised by a gift for which you never asked? You’re happily (or not so happily) going about your life when all of a sudden it plops into your lap. It’s a miracle so precious that you could have never imagined your life without it. Sometimes God makes the world a better place and it’s a complete surprise.

For years people have told me how great it is to be a grandparent. “You get to go visit them and then leave them with their parents ho ho ho…” they would say. “It’s like a brand new part of your heart,” they would say. “You don’t know how wonderful it is to be a grandparent until you become one,” they would say.

Well, now I know. Crosby Benjamin is the miracle that came into our lives at the beginning of January. Every day since then my love for him has grown exponentially. I miss him when I can’t see him for more than a day. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to live in a separate city from him. Those poor grandparents that have to do so. It’s got to be difficult.

We recently left for a vacation. Before we did I told Crosby that the world is a much better place now that he is a part of it. Six months ago we didn’t even know him. Now here he is growing, learning, reaching, playing, crying, and loving. None of us knew what we were missing. Now we move heaven and earth to spend time with him. What were we going to do two weeks without him?

Alas, we will survive. But we will never take for granted the gift God gave us that we didn’t even know we were missing. We didn’t even ask, and He provided. And what a gift Crosby is.

When has God given you a miracle for which you didn’t even ask?

How Stephen Schwartz Uses the Unconscious Mind to Create

For a man I’ve never met, Stephen Schwartz has had a profound impact on my life. Schwartz is the brilliant mind behind Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and Children of Eden, amongst many other musicals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the highlights of my life was the first time our family saw Wicked on Broadway. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that it involved winning a last minute lottery for two tickets and scoring two other tickets in the twelfth row center as the curtain was about to go up.

If you’ve never seen it, Wicked is both funny and poignant, it tells a great story, and the music is more than memorable. It is the clever backstory of the Wizard of Oz, based on the book of the same title. But Stephen Schwartz has had an impact on me because I’ve had the chance to perform in more than a few of his musicals over the years. I have studied his art. I have literally acted it out. And I have read the book, Defying Gravity, that tells his creative story from beginning to end.

One of the things that fascinates me most about the man is his exceptional creativity. In an interview with musicalwriters.com he gives a little glimpse into his creative process:

For me it is a matter of doing a lot of preparation and then getting out of the way of my unconscious mind. If I have a specific assignment, I will do a lot of research, read a lot of related material and just jot down ideas and phrases that strike me. I may look at visual images — paintings or photographs. Imagine myself as the character and see what words or phrases, rhythms or sounds come to me. Just a lot of things to get my mind in the right place. Then I will let go of all of it consciously, and try to let my unconscious mind go to work. Sometimes I will do things like take a walk, take a shower, go for a drive, or even hit tennis balls or play solitaire, anything to get out of the way of my unconscious. And almost always, the creativity just starts to flow.

The key for Schwartz is to fill his mind with all kinds of related material. Then he lets it sit there. When the time comes for it to be used his unconscious mind goes to work to make connections and bring ideas together. As much as we’d like our ideas to simply come out of thin air, they often require a great deal of background work.

Those of us who want to produce creative content should take a lesson from Stephen Schwartz. The lesson is this –feed your mind with the creative content of others:

  • See art at a museum
  • Read the classics
  • Watch documentaries
  • Attend a play or musical
  • Check out an Instagram account
  • Experience the culinary arts
  • Make a day trip

Fill your unconscious mind. Your creative self will thank you.

How will you fill your unconscious mind today?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Hemingway and the Simply Complicated Way to Creativity

Ernest Hemingway may be the 20th century literary creative icon that stands above all others. He wrote such masterpieces as The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms. When it comes to creativity you could do worse than to look to him. In 1934 a young man named Arnold Samuelson hitched a ride on a coal car from Minnesota all the way to Key West. His goal was to spend at least an hour with Hemingway trying to learn something about the craft of writing. He ended up spending a year with the master.

Amongst the many other things Samuelson learned, this was one that stood out. Hemingway said:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

I’ve heard it said (though haven’t tracked down a reliable source) that Hemingway would use a simple technique to keep his writing moving. He would apparently write half a sentence at the end of the day. He knew how it would end. So he’d be able to pick right up the next day where he left off. It sounds easy. But it’s really not.

The hard work of writing came as Hemingway would write and rewrite. It came as he would the morning hours writing what he had researched and dreamed up in his mind. Hemingway claimed that he rewrote A Farewell to Arms over fifty times. Nothing complicated about it. Write. And then rewrite. Not complicated, but very difficult and very hard work.

Two lessons from Hemingway:

  1. Quit when you know where you’re going next. Use your own trick to “stop in the middle of the sentence” and pick up where you left off.
  2. You won’t have a masterpiece on your first try. Don’t be afraid to tweak, rewrite, re-work, and do whatever you can to refine your work. It will be all that much better.

What tricks do you use to inspire your creativity?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Edward Hopper and the Repetitive Way to Creativity

Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. His attention to detail, straight lines, and use of color draw in my eye. But I think what really connects me to his paintings is his exploration of loneliness and isolation. Instead of making us feel sorry for the lonely subjects, we want to know their story. We feel an affinity to them. Their loneliness becomes ours. It doesn’t feel sad or depressing. It’s more of a thoughtful and pensive kind of isolation. That can sometimes be a good thing.

I imagine that Edward Hopper had more than his share of loneliness. But his loneliness was the productive kind. It’s how he fulfilled his unique creative process. The painting you see above is one of Hopper’s most well known. It’s called New York Movie. Before he painted it, Hopper drew 54 studies of movie theaters and his wife as the model. He would spend days and days visiting different theaters and doing drawings. Then he would come home and sketch his wife.

In fact, Hopper drew more than he painted. He painstakingly sketched people and places before he painted. He said that painting was a difficult process for him and he only painted two or three paintings a year. It took him six weeks to three months simply to produce one.

Funny thing is that modern day curators now see the drawings themselves as significant art. Hopper refused to produce a book of his drawings because he didn’t think they were good enough. Apparently others vehemently disagree.

Here are the lessons for anyone creating anything:

  1. We don’t always get to decide whether our art is good or not. Others sometimes see things that we can’t. To paraphrase a famous saying: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Background work is valuable to the finished product. Hopper’s paintings would never have been as good without the all the preparatory sketches. A first draft of your work will never be as good as a fifth, tenth, or twentieth iteration.
  3. Even difficult (for us) art is worth producing. Hopper had to work hard at his painting. But it made him money and it made him famous. Art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But sometimes effort is very much worth the result.
  4. Time alone makes for great productivity. With a goal in mind, isolation is time for hunkering down and doing the work that needs to get done. It’s what Hopper did with his sketching. And he produced some incredible work focusing on isolation itself.

So do the (sometimes) lonely work that leads to great art. We will thank you for it.

What lessons do you learn from Hopper?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

The Secret Power of Anticipation

Anticipation is a powerful thing. For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel to Europe. Specifically, I have wanted to go to England and Italy. It’s been my dream. I’ve been able to travel to the Holy Land, but never Europe. My wife, Tammy, has never been overseas at all. But in just a short while we will be visiting both London and Tuscany. The anticipation has been a powerful motivational factor.

For more than a year now we have been planning, dreaming, and saving for this trip. We are using gifts we have received and the help of dear friends to make this dream a reality. The trip is going to revolve around the 60th birthday of a great friend. We’ll be able to share our experience with people we love, and will miss others who won’t be able to make it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, anticipating something is more than half of the fun. It’s such a blast to picture the places we will soon be. And then it will be fun to compare the way we pictured it with how it really is. The anticipation is so great that I almost don’t want our trip to start. But it must. And it will.

And it will make memories that will last the rest of our lives.

Here’s what anticipation’s secret power did for us:

  1. It helped us save. Goals are great things. When you anticipate something big it brings the willpower to cut back on certain things, put money in the bank, and delay the gratification.
  2. It helped us plan. Anticipation is a great motivator when it comes to education. It’s been so much fun to learn, to read, and to study the places we will be visiting.
  3. It drew us together with friends. We have come to know new friends amongst the group who will be traveling together. It will give a group of people shared memories and topics of conversation for a long time.

If you don’t have something to anticipate right now, try to find something. It’s a powerful way to keep life interesting. It motivates growth. Looking forward to something keeps you moving toward goals.  It will help you save money or move ahead in life. Anticipation even draws you closer to people.

What is it that you are anticipating today?

When Memorial Day Becomes Real

Memorial Day has, over the years, become increasingly important to me. The older I get the more I realize the cost of freedom. When freedom is taken away by terror it becomes even more precious. The price of our freedom has been spilled on acres upon acres of foreign soil.

My heritage doesn’t include anyone who paid the ultimate price for America. I am thankful for that. But it doesn’t mean that I appreciate any less those who have given me my freedom.

But this Memorial Day will be different for me. I now know someone who has sacrificed his life for me and my country. He was the friend of our two children. When he was in high school he came to our home numerous times. He was happy, friendly, gregarious, energetic, and passionate. The passion that he had for life translated to his love for country.

So he became a Green Beret and a medic. He always wanted to help and serve. That’s what he did for a living as he served the people of the United States on a mission in Afghanistan. On August 23rd, 2016, this young man was killed in action. A roadside bomb took his life.

Because of him and those like him we have the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom to bear arms, and the ability to freely elect our leaders. These are gifts that should never ever be taken for granted. They are paid for with the price of blood.

I hope and pray that my children and grandchildren will never have to pay this price. But I am hopeful that they will always know, enjoy, and appreciate the freedom that has been won for us. Freedom is far too expensive to ever take for granted.

Have a blessed Memorial Day.

And please, please remember as you celebrate this holiday in your own way, that America as you know it was bought on the backs of selfless citizens.

Ants Never Say “I Can’t”…Do You?

The ants are back. This time with a vengeance. A couple of months ago we had some ants on the counters in our kitchen. In a climate filled with all kinds of creepy crawlies, it could be much worse. The last time they appeared our exterminator came over, and in a matter of a day or two they were gone. But now they have come back. And it’s more than I’ve ever seen inside of a house. It’s really not good.

But our trusty exterminator has been called. I have every confidence that he’ll once again take care of it all. But in the mean time it’s been disruptive. We’ve had to spend time killing ants. Our cooking has been done to maneuver around those little buggers. We can’t wait until they are once again gone. They’re not really icky or gross. They’re just annoying.

These pests may be annoying to us, but they’re only trying to get their job done. They all seem to be carrying something. They’ve got some kind of project going. As they do so:

  1. they are persistent, and
  2. they are disruptive.

Sounds like a pretty good lesson in productivity and growth, doesn’t it? If you’re trying to make a ruckus in ministry or in the marketplace, you could do worse than to:

  1. be persistent, and
  2. be disruptive.

Those ants don’t quit. They just keep coming back. They will not be deterred. They keep going. Even when their mates go down the work continues. Nothing will hold them back (except maybe The Exterminator).

They’re also disruptive. They have our attention. We can’t seem to get around them. They are most definitely noticed.

Here’s your assignment for today:

  1. Be persistent, and
  2. Be disruptive.

In other words, keep going. Whatever it is you’re working on, it’s worth it. Someone’s going to benefit. If another person doesn’t, you most certainly will just by virtue of the work you’re putting in.

And be disruptive. Do something to draw attention to your important work. There are all kinds of tools these days to do just that. Just one example: Facebook Live. It jolts people into paying attention. They are naturally attracted to video. They can’t look away. I’m sure you can come up with other ideas.

An ant never says, “I can’t.” Why should you?

What do persistence and disruption look like to you?

Are You Patient Enough to Let It Pay Off?

Last week my wife and I attended a Social Media conference. It was for businesses and non-profits that use social media to advertise, expand business, and spread the word(s). There were people who were wildly successful and people who were just starting out. I was there to learn how I could help our church’s ministry with online resources. My wife was there to learn ways to help her newfound business grow. What I noticed is that one has to be patient to watch risks pay off. A good number of business and projects aren’t built overnight.

To be completely honest, we’re in the “patience” phase of Tammy’s business right now. She quit her teaching job at the end of December with an eye toward starting her own thing. She was paid through the end of February. We have money saved up. But now we’re having to dip into that savings a bit.

We’re to the point where we’d really like to see the business begin to take off a bit more than it already has. Tammy asked me whether I thought it was a good idea to quit her job and take this risk. I responded that it absolutely was. She has more freedom. She’s been able to spend time with our grandson. We’ve been able to do things together that we never would have had she still been working.

We’re finding ourselves in the phase of Tammy’s business that Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” The dip is what happens when someone starts a business, a task, or a project and then doesn’t immediately experience the result that they had hoped for. The majority of people at this point quit. They can’t see their way through the dip. But those that push through often see success on the other side of the dip.

To make it through the dip requires one to be patient. It’s not easy when the money isn’t coming in or people aren’t responding to your project as you’d like. But if you keep creating, learning from mistakes, and refining on the fly, your patience will often pay off.

Patience doesn’t pay the bills, but it most certainly often pays off. Push through the dip with patience and you might just see results greater than you could have ever imagined. We’re certainly beginning to see signs that this could be true for my wife’s business. If we’re patient we might just see what’s on the other side of the dip.

What are you patiently waiting for? Can you find your way past the dip?

Advice for Your 21-Year-Old Self

One of the highlights of my life has been the opportunity to mentor people. A few years ago I created a mentoring group for four young men. They were all in their mid-twenties. We met together monthly for discussion, support, and prayer. Part of the time was reserved for advice-giving. I would share thoughts with the guys. They would share thoughts and ideas with one another. And though they learned a great deal, I’m certain that I learned even more in that year.

It’s been very satisfying for me to see where those young men’s lives have taken them since that mentoring year. One moved to a new city to take on a new job and became a father. One advanced in his career and is extremely happy with where his life has gone. One went back to school for a very specialized trade. And one purchased a van, traveled the country with his brother, and is now doing so on his own. You can follow his journey here.

Advice is a difficult thing. You never know when you should heed it…or from whom. It’s also sometimes dangerous to give. You never know how it might be misconstrued or misused.

But what if you could give yourself some advice? That’s what I asked my Facebook friends today: What advice would you give your 21-year-old self? The responses were fascinating. Here’s a sample:

  • Don’t be afraid to take chances. Be more confident. Buy stock in Apple.
  • Before you make a big decision, pray about it, ask 3 other trusted people, and wait a minimum of 30 days.
  • Go after your wildest dreams, and don’t get scared that you can’t handle them when they start to come true.
  • Don’t worry about what other’s think…be your own person!
  • Be sure to plan for your retirement. You never know what can happen.
  • Don’t waste time or mental energy worrying what people think of you. Everyone just pretends to know what they’re doing anyway.
  • Set better goals!
  • Get your butt back in church sooner!
  • Pick your battles wisely and fail fast.

And then there was this: 

Don’t let fear get in the way of pursuing your dreams. You know “you” better than anyone else. You know what you’re interested in and what you like to do. Talk to people who are doing it and ask for help. Get a mentor who will guide you along the way. Your parents may not understand what you want to do and may not know how to help you do it. Find trusted advice and make a path to your dream job.

An undercurrent of all of these responses could be summed up in one word: regret. One of the goals I had for the four young men in my mentoring group is that they wouldn’t live with regret. I sense that many of the people who responded to my Facebook question have regrets in life. They have learned from them. But some wish they had never done one thing or another. They wish they wouldn’t have done things just to please other people.

One person even messaged me personally to express regret. Advice to our 21-year-old selves reveals a great deal about our inner thoughts and where we wish we would have gone or what we might have otherwise done.

But here’s how to transform advice to your 21-year-old self: Take the same advice and apply it to your life today.

It’s never too late to reverse your regret. Live the life you’ve imagined. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Say “I’m sorry.” Take the class. Go on the trip. Buy the stock. Don’t worry about what others think. Buy the van and head out west.

It’s not too late.

What advice would you give to yourself today?