What is Love? Looking for a Definition of Love

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty rational guy. I’ve prided myself in a scientific mind, one unclouded by spirituality and mysticism. Yet as I’ve experienced profound personal changes over the past few years, I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by abstract (or “spiritual”) questions, the likes of which I haven’t thought about in decades.

One topic I find especially fascinating is love. What is love? What does it mean to be “in love”? What are the different types of love? How can we show others that we love them? And what does it mean to love yourself?

While most of my exploration of love has taken place slowly and internally, I’ve also had some interesting external experiences with the notion of love. First, and most obviously, I chose to end a long-term marriage. That event forced me to dive deep into the nature of love. But there have been other experiences as well:

  • I have a friend who is conducting what she calls a “love project”. She’s methodically watching every movie she can find about love. She’s also reading books and talking to people. This project has no real purpose other than to help her understand what love is and how it manifests. Her only conclusion after six months of study so far? “Love is messy.”
  • I have another friend who seems to manifest love in nearly everything she does. It’s a very subtle thing, but if you watch her closely, you can see that in her interactions with strangers, in her relationships with friends, and even in her career choice, she’s motivated by love. A few months ago, I told her what I saw. She was surprised. “It’s true,” she said. “I do act out of love, but nobody’s ever noticed it before.”
  • As part of my work, I’m involved with a couple of large projects. One of them — which you can probably guess, but which will remain nameless — seeks to edify people, to move them to positive change. I was speaking with the man behind this project last summer, asking him what the project’s true purpose was. “It’s about empowerment,” he told me. “And love. Without using those words.” Suddenly everything made sense. Our work with this project is to spread love.

All this thinking about love has come to the fore recently because I’ve been reading (and enjoying) M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I’ve mentioned this book before, and I’m sure to mention it again. It’s had a profound effect on me. It articulates much of my personal philosophy in ways that I’ve been unable to do. Plus, it’s pushing my own personal development in new and exciting directions.

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott PeckBriefly put, The Road Less Traveled is about love and spiritual growth.

To begin, Peck explores the idea of discipline. “Life is difficult,” he writes, but we gain purpose and meaning in life through meeting and solving life’s problems. Mature adults are disciplined, and this discipline manifests itself in the following abilities:

  • Deferred gratification, the ability to put up with discomfort in the short-term to obtain a reward in the long-term.
  • Acceptance of responsibility, the ability to own up to your thoughts and actions instead of blaming others.
  • Dedication to reality, the ability to deal with the world as it actually is, the ability to be completely honest.
  • Balancing, the ability to be flexible, to handle conflicting demands and desires.

But why be disciplined? What is the motive to develop self-control? Peck says that the bottom line is love.

What is Love?

The first part of The Road Less Traveled is devoted to discipline. The last part explores the notion of religion (or, more properly, spirituality) and “grace” (or luck or happenstance). But the middle of the book is one long lecture on the nature of love.

According to Peck, Love is not a feeling. It’s an action. It’s an extension of the self, a conscious effort to grow the self — or someone else:

I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

I love this definition because it moves beyond the idea of romantic love (which Peck calls a myth) to something more profound. And because the definition emphasizes the importance of self-love. Peck writes:

We cannot forsake self-discipline and at the same time be disciplined in our care for another. We cannot be a source of strength unless we nurture our own strength.

I’m reminded of something my friend Sally once said to me: “Self-care comes first.”

Peck stresses that love is not dependency. It is not self-sacrifice. Nor is it the same as “being in love” (which he calls cathexis, or a collapse of ego boundaries where you lose your sense of self). Instead, love is a choice. It requires effort. Peck says that love is a form of courage directed to nurture spiritual growth in ourselves and/or another person.

The principal form taken by the work of love is attention. When we love somebody — ourselves or another — we set aside other concerns to devote attention to the object of our affection. When we love our children, we give them attention. When we love our partner, we want to spend time with them. When we love ourselves, we spend time on personal development. The most important way to express love, to give attention, is to listen.

But love involves more than just attention. Love also requires independence. When you love yourself, you develop the courage to leave behind the parts of your life that were broken. It also requires the courage to spend time alone, by yourself, apart from the ones you love. “Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss,” Peck writes.

It is only when one has take the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence, and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still higher paths of spiritual growth, and free to manifest love in its greatest dimensions.

Commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any loving relationship. You cannot foster growth in yourself or anyone else if you are not constantly concerned with that growth. This reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and Jonathan Fields’ writing about uncertainty. In order to love, you must be willing to be vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, you must give yourself without the expectation of anything in return.

Peck argues that love also entails the risk of confrontation, of criticism. “Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships,” he writes. “Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow.”

He also says that love is disciplined. To love well, you must properly manage your feelings. You cannot love everyone. And, as has been said, you cannot love others if you do not love yourself. When you love, you must “order your behavior” in a way that contributes to your own (or somebody else’s) spiritual growth.

All of this builds toward one interesting argument: Peck believes that psychotherapy — the work of counseling — is love:

For the most part, mental illness is caused by an absence of or defect in the love that a particular child required from its particular parents for successful maturation and spiritual growth. It is obvious, then, that in order to be healed through psychotherapy the patient must receive from the psychotherapist at least a portion of the genuine love of which the patient was deprived.

Love in the Larger World

The Road Less Traveled starts with discipline, moves to love, and ends with religion. Peck writes:

As human beings grow in discipline and love and life experience, their understanding of the world and their place in it naturally grows apace. Conversely, as people fail to grow in discipline, love and life experience, so does their understanding fail to grow.

Peck says that this “understanding” is each person’s religion. You might call it spirituality. Or a blueprint for life. Peck says that our blueprints are constructed primarily from our childhood family life. Our maps of reality are “microcosms of the family”, and they’re useful only insofar as these maps reflect the realities of the world around us. The problem is that often these maps only work for the particular family in which we were raised.

Note: Long-time readers will recognize this as being exactly like the notion of financial blueprints, which I’ve written about for five years now. Our attitudes about money are formed largely by our parents’ attitudes about money. What Peck is saying is that our mental blueprints are about more than money. They’re about all of life.

Ultimately, Peck argues, our aim in life is continued personal development, continued spiritual growth, ongoing self-love. As part of that, “a major and essential task in the process of one’s spiritual development is the continuous work of bringing one’s self-concept into progressively greater congruence with reality.”

Over the past five or six years, I’ve been on a mission to discover who I am. I’ve been learning to love myself. And I’ve been learning how to love other people. It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m fortunate to have (or, in Peck’s words, “grace has provided”) friends who are in similar journeys and who are willing to share the experience.

This process isn’t over. It never will be. My aim is to continue learning until I die. Next up, I’ll be reading Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person and How People Change by Allen Wheelis. When I’m finished with those books, I’ll share what I learn with you. Because I don’t just want to nurture my own spiritual growth — I want to nurture yours too.

The Cinnamon Bear: A Classic Old-Time Radio Christmas Show

Because I love The Cinnamon Bear so much, I post this same article every year. This year is no different, except that I’m posting it here instead of at Get Rich Slowly. If you have young children — and even if you don’t — I encourage you to listen to these old radio broadcasts with your family.

When I was a boy, Christmas meant The Cinnamon Bear. During the weeks before Christmas, a Portland radio station (KEX) would broadcast a fifteen minute episode of this story every night.

The Cinnamon Bear chronicles the adventures of Judy and Jimmy, and their fantastic trip through Maybeland as they search for the missing Silver Star that belongs atop their Christmas tree.

I loved the cast of characters and the exotic locales: the Root Beer Ocean and the Inkaboos, the Wintergreen Witch, the Looking Glass Valley, the Crazy Quilt Dragon. And, of course, I loved Santa Claus and the North Pole.

Because of the vagaries of copyright law, most old-time radio broadcasts are now in the Public Domain. The Cinnamon Bear is freely distributable. Some radio stations still broadcast the show every year. But don’t worry about hunting for it: I’ve gathered all of the episodes here for you to download.

Collected below is every episode, in order. The program is meant to be heard once per day between November 29th (that’s Thursday) and Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorites when I was a kid, and modern parents tell me their children love it, too. Enjoy!

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #1: “Paddy O’ Cinnamon”
[Originally broadcast 29 November 1937 — 2.59mb, 11:18]
Judy and Jimmy write letters to Santa. The Silver Star Christmas ornament is missing and the kids go up to the attic to find it. They meet Paddy O’Cinnamon (The Cinnamon Bear) who tells them the Silver Star was taken to Maybeland by the Crazy Quilt Dragon.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #2: “Weary Willie”
[Originally broadcast 30 November 1937 — 2.59mb, 11:44]
Paddy O’Cinnamon shows Judy and Jimmy how to de-grow so they can follow the Crazy Quilt Dragon to the Lollipop Mountains. They climb into Paddy’s Soda Pop Airplane and fly through the tunnel.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #3: “Crazy Quilt Dragon”
[Originally broadcast 01 December 1937 — 2.71mb, 11:51]
Feeling remorseful for drinking their Soda Pop and stranding them in Looking Glass Valley without fuel, Weary Willie has the Stork fly them out on his back. They catch Crazy Quilt but he drops the Silver Star in the Root Beer Ocean.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #4: “The Inkaboos”
[Originally broadcast 02 December 1937 — 2.70mb, 11:46]
While they try to find the Silver Star, Judy and Jimmy are captured by the Inkaboos. King Blotto is insulted and sentences them to die in the Immense Inkwell.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #5: “Weasley the Wailing Whale”
[Originally broadcast 03 December 1937 — 2.84mb, 12:25]
Crazy Quilt comes to the rescue. The children escape to the Root Beer Ocean, where they see the Silver Star floating on the waves.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #6: “Samuel Seal”
[Originally broadcast 04 December 1937 — 2.91mb, 12:43]
Wesley the Wailing Whale swallows the Silver Star. Samuel Seal recovers the Silver Star from Wesley, only to have Penelope the Pelican carry it off.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #7: “Presto the Magician”
[Originally broadcast 05 December 1937 — 2.85mb, 12:26]
Judy and Jimmy meet Presto the Magician. He pulls Penelope the Pelican from his hat, but she has dropped the Silver Star on the Island of Obi.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #8: “Candy Pirates”
[Originally broadcast 06 December 1937 — 2.73mb, 11:55]
Judy and Jimmy are captured by Captain Taffy and his Pirates. They take the kids to the Magic Island and loan them a rowboat.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #9: “Roly-Poly Policeman”
[Originally broadcast 07 December 1937 — 2.83mb, 12:21]
Judy and Jimmy are on the Magic Island, where the Roly-Poly Policeman has taken their Silver Star for his uniform. But before the kids can get to him, Crazy Quilt Dragon runs off with the Silver Star again!

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #10: “Professor Whiz”
[Originally broadcast 08 December 1937 — 2.79mb, 12:10]
Paddy O’Cinnamon, the Cinnamon Bear has disappeared. Judy and Jimmy are chasing Crazy Quilt Dragon to get their Silver Star. Professor Whiz tells them about the Wintergreen Witch. They follow Crazy Quilt into the Picture Forest, where they meet Fraidy Cat.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #11: “Fee Foe the Gentle Giant”
[Originally broadcast 09 December 1937 — 2.91mb, 12:41]
Fee Foe the Gentle Giant shows Judy and Jimmy the Goody-Goody Grove and invites them for lunch. They start to follow Crazy Quilt when it suddenly gets very, very dark!

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #12: “Rhyming Rabbit”
[Originally broadcast 10 December 1937 — 2.88mb, 12:34]
Judy and Jimmy meet up again with Crazy Quilt, who says the Wintergreen Witch forced him to steal the Silver Star. While trying to find their way back to the Wintergreen Witch’s house, they encounter the Rhyming Rabbit.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #13: “The Wintergreen Witch”
[Originally broadcast 11 December 1937 — 2.85mb, 12:25]
The Wintergreen Witch tries to take Judy and Jimmy’s Silver Star and change the kids into mice, but they get away. After their hurried flight, Crazy Quilt sits on the Silver Star and breaks it.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #14: “Queen Melissa”
[Originally broadcast 12 December 1937 — 2.81mb, 12:16]
Crazy Quilt suggests that they all visit Melissa, the Queen of Maybeland, who can tell them how to fix the Silver Star.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #15: “Snapper Snick”
[Originally broadcast 13 December 1937 — 2.78mb, 12:08]
Judy and Jimmy learn that they can only read Queen Melissa’s magic instructions in total darkness, which only occurs in the Wishing Woods. On the way there, the kids meet Snapper Snick the Crooning Crocodile, who swallows the magic instructions.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #16: “Oliver Ostrich”
[Originally broadcast 14 December 1937 — 2.85mb, 12:26]
Snapper Snick explains that he reads by eating and that’s how he is able to read in the dark. Judy and Jimmy learn that the magic instructions direct them to the the Wishing Well. On the way, they meet Oliver Ostrich who eats alarm clocks. Oliver directs them to the Wishing Well — Paddy O’Cinnamon, the Cinnamon Bear, falls in.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #17: “Muddlers”
[Originally broadcast 15 December 1937 — 2.83mb, 12:22]
Judy and Jimmy use their one wish, given by the Wishing Well, to get rescue Cinnamon Bear, and now they can’t fix their Silver Star with the Wishing Well’s magic. While trying to get out of the Wishing Woods, they encounter the Muddlers and the River of Mud.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #18: “Cocklebur Cowboys”
[Originally broadcast 16 December 1937 — 2.82mb, 12:18]
Slim Pickens and the Cocklebur Cowboys of the Purple Plain come to the rescue of Judy and Jimmy, Cinnamon Bear and Crazy Quilt, pulling them from the mud.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #19: “Wooden Indian”
[Originally broadcast 17 December 1937 — 2.82mb, 12:19]
Judy and Jimmy are being chased by Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, a wooden Indian who wants Crazy Quilt’s pelt for his girlfriend Many Happy Returns. Judy trades her looking glass to him instead. After he leaves, they encounter the Wintergreen Witch again in the Golden Grove.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #20: “Flying Hat”
[Originally broadcast 18 December 1937 — 2.79mb, 12:10]
The Grand Wonky arrives in the nick of time to banish the Wintergreen Witch to Looking Glass Valley. While searching for the Singing Tree, they find the Flying Hat and it has a mysterious note attached.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #21: “Snowman”
[Originally broadcast 19 December 1937 — 2.74mb, 11:59]
The mysterious note invites the crew inside where they find chairs just the right size for all of them. The Flying Hat carries them to the Land of Ice and Snow to get the Silver Star fixed. They ask the Snowman how to find Nicki Froodle, as Queen Melissa told them. Nicki turns out to be an Elf, and he takes them to see Santa Claus.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #22: “Santa Claus”
[Originally broadcast 20 December 1937 — 2.78mb, 12:08]
Santa Claus welcomes Judy and Jimmy and introduces them to Jack Frost who repairs the Silver Star only to have it vanish again.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #23: “The Bad Dolls”
[Originally broadcast 21 December 1937 — 2.90mb, 12:39]
The Bad Dolls have stolen the Silver Star. Santa orders out the Tin Soldiers to capture the Bad Dolls and return the Silver Star.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #24: “The Parade”
[Originally broadcast 22 December 1937 — 2.86mb, 12:30]
The Wintergreen Witch appears again aiding the Bad Dolls in defeating the Tin Soldiers. Santa orders out reinforcements while Judy and Jimmy watch the Christmas Parade. After the Parade, Captain Tintop brings back the Silver Star.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #25: “Captain Tintop”
[Originally broadcast 23 December 1937 — 2.87mb, 12:30]
Captain Tintop tells how they defeated the Wintergreen Witch and then the group goes to a grand banquet hosted by Santa Claus. After the banquet, Crazy Quilt runs off with the Silver Star once again.

The Cinnamon Bear, episode #26: “North Pole”
[Originally broadcast 24 December 1937 — 2.78mb, 12:09]
Crazy Quilt heads for the North Pole with Santa Claus, Judy, Jimmy, and Nicki Froodle in pursuit. They catch Crazy Quilt and tackle him to recover the Silver Star. Then they wake up in the attic just in time to decorate the Christmas Tree.

When I was a boy, my brothers and I huddled around the wood stove and listened to the show on AM radio. Now, through the magic of technology, you can download these mp3s, curl up under your electric blanket, and listen on your iPod. Better yet, tuck your children into bed and listen to the story with them. This is a wonderful no-cost holiday tradition.


Desiderata: A Poem of Thanksgiving

I’m the kind of guy who likes traditions. I like familiarity and routine. Despite having made many major changes in my life over the past few years, I still find myself drawn to certain rituals, especially around the holidays.

For me, Thanksgiving Day is especially full of meaning. It’s my favorite holiday. I think it’s wonderful that we set aside a day each year to remember the good things we have. And I have many good things in my life.

As I always do at Thanksgiving, this year I’ll be reading and remembering and reaffirming my dedication to an 85-year-old prose poem from a man named Max Ehrmann. It does a fine job of encapsulating my life philosophy. A couple of years ago, on a whim, I de-versified it and converted it to prose paragraphs. It reads better this way:

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others — even to the dull and the ignorant — they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

This year, for the first time in my life, I won’t be spending Thanksgiving with my family. I’ll be with Kim’s family instead. But I’m okay with that. One of the many things I’m thankful for is new friends, and Kim has been the best new friend I’ve made in 2012.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Be well. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Famous First Lines

On Saturday, our book group met to discuss Ernest Hemingway’s 1941 classic For Whom the Bell Tolls. Most of us thought it was great. I loved the language in the book; I hadn’t read Hemingway since high school, and I’d forgotten that he used to be one of my favorite authors. Here’s how he opens For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.


Even lovelier is how he ends the book, bringing everything full circle, returning to the pine-needled floor of the forest:

Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

Grammar nerdery: Okay, see how Hemingway used “pine-needled floor of the forest” to start the book? And see how he uses “pine needle floor of the forest” to end it? That’s a lovely circle, and I like it. But why on earth didn’t he (or an editor) keep the same structure. I mean, shouldn’t that be “pine-needled floor of the forest” both times? God, I’m a grammar geek.

Admiring the opening to For Whom the Bell Tolls reminded me a of a contest I ran nearly ten years ago at my old personal blog. Because I doubt any of you were around then — and because I think it’d be fun — I’m going to re-run the exact same contest today.

Below, I’ve collected twenty-four famous first lines from novels. Or, more precisely, first lines from famous (and semi-famous) books that I love. Some are well-known. Others are relatively obscure. How many of them can you name? (Please google only as a last resort.)

I love books

  1. This is not a conventional cookbook.
  2. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
  3. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  4. My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and I was born.
  5. Call me Ishmael.
  6. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
  7. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
  8. The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!
  9. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
  10. She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.
  11. Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file.
  12. It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days.
  13. The British are frequently criticized by other nations for their dislike of change, and indeed we love England for those aspects of nature and life which change the least.
  14. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
  15. Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.
  16. The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.
  17. The primroses were over.
  18. The music-room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C-major quartet.
  19. For a long time I used to go to be early.
  20. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.
  21. At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring.
  22. Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
  23. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
  24. “Sleep well, dear.”

I’ve always wondered how important first lines really are. There’s no doubt that some just reel me in. And when I revisit books I love, their openings have real power, which stems from the weight of memory. For instance, reading #17 above just gave me goosebumps. Why? Because it’s the beginning of one of my favorite books, because I know everything that comes after, all the pain and sorrow and struggle and joy. All from this short sentence: “The primroses were over.”

How many of these can you name? And, more to the point, how many of them can I still name? I’m not sure, actually. I’ll go through and try my memory now and then post my results after others have stopped posting theirs. The prize for the person who guesses all of these openings? One brownie point (cash value: 1/20th of a cent).

(Also, what are your favorite first lines from literature?)

House Hunting, part one: Setting the Stage

It’s been a year since Kris and I began the divorce process. For most of that time, I’ve been living alone in a 700-square-foot apartment in northeast Portland. It’s not a bad place, but it’s never felt like home. Plus, it’s noisy. It’s noisy from the neighbors (and their dogs!), but it’s also noisy from the traffic and from the donut shop outside my window.

This summer, I finally got the itch to move someplace more permanent. Mortgage rates were at all-time lows and I began to get the sense that the real-estate market in Portland might have bottomed out.

“I think I want to buy a condo,” I told Kim before I left for Turkey. During my last few days in town, I began to do some research. I found some places I liked, but prices still seemed pretty high, especially in downtown Portland.

While I was traveling, Kim did a little research of her own. “I think you might have missed the bottom,” she told me. “The market is really picking up.”

When I returned from Turkey, I met with a real estate agent (a Get Rich Slowly reader!) who confirmed what I’d already figured out. The real estate market in Portland had indeed bottomed out, and homes in the city were selling especially quickly. (One place that I really liked sold in just 24 hours. That’s just like at the start of the housing bubble!)

My real estate agent told me that there’s very strong demand in Portland itself, which has kept the prices inflated. But that also means that areas outside of Portland are cheaper because there’s less competition. Good ol’ supply and demand!

I met with my real-estate agent a month ago. We spent two hours talking about what I need in a home, and at the end of it all she seemed to have a pretty good feel for my lifestyle. “If we could find you a small little hobbit home somewhere with low maintenance, you’d be perfectly happy with that, wouldn’t you?” she asked. Yes, I would.

As I say, I met with her a month ago. I had hoped that now, a month later, I might be deep in my house hunt. Unfortunately, it hasn’t even started yet. I hit a snag.

You see, although I have enough money in the bank (or invested, actually) to purchase a home outright, I don’t actually have much of an income. As a result, I’m unable to qualify for a mortgage. Banks don’t care if you have the money in the bank to make the house payment; they want you to have the income to make a house payment. So, after a month of jumping through hoops, the conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to pay cash for a house or not buy at all.

That’s too bad. I had really hoped to take advantage of the low mortgage rates. It’s a perfect opportunity to exercise leverage — to borrow money at a low rate (my mortgage) and make money at a higher rate somewhere else (take your pick of any number of investments that ought to return more than 3% annually, including many dividend stocks).

I haven’t given up, though. I meet with my investment advisor on Monday to see if we can create some sort of income-like money stream. And in case that doesn’t work, I’m talking with Kris about getting my half of the equity out of our house. (We maintained joint ownership even after the divorce.) It’s possible that I could find enough cash to buy a modest place outright. I’m not sure that’s something I actually want to do…but it’s a possibility.

Meanwhile, I’m about to move to a month-to-month lease on this apartment, which isn’t something I really want to do. (It costs an extra $50 a month to do so.) But I feel like my living situation is in complete flux right now, so making firm decisions is tough. It’d be so much easier if the bank would just give me a mortgage!

On the Link Between Careers and Passion

“The path to a passionate life is often way more complex than the simple advice ‘follow your passion’ would suggest.” — Cal Newport

As one of my tasks for World Domination Summit, I recently rewatched recordings of every main-stage speaker. Though all of the speakers were great, Cal Newport’s talk has been most on my mind over the past couple of weeks.

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s the author or several books, including the recent So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He also writes a blog called Study Hacks, where he explores best practices for work and learning. (In his words, he’s attempting to decode “patterns of success”.)

At World Domination Summit, Cal explored the age-old wisdom to “follow your passion” when choosing a career. You’ve been told you should follow your passion, to do what you love and the money will follow. But how sound is this advice? He argues that it’s astonishingly wrong: It’s not age-old wisdom; in fact, it’s a recent idea, and one that does more harm than good.

Here’s his complete talk:

For a quick highlight from Cal’s talk, watch from 7:56 to 14:43, where he describes how Steve Jobs did not follow his passion when building Apple Computer into a world-wide brand.

As a young man, Jobs was passionate about philosophy and eastern mysticism — not electronics. Building computers was just a way to make some quick cash. But eventually, this scheme morphed into something more. And eventually, Jobs did become passionate about computers. He didn’t start out that way, though, and he certainly wasn’t following his passion when he started Apple.

In much the same way, I fell into writing about personal finance.

Money was never a passion of mine. Even today, I don’t really care about the stock market or budgeting or how to find the best savings account. I care about writing. I like to tell stories. Somehow I fell into a career of writing about money, of telling stories about personal finance. For some reason, I’m good at this, and I’ve been able to make a career out of it. But it’s not my passion.

I’m not ready to argue that you shouldn’t follow your passion. I still think that’s good advice for many people. But I think Cal Newport is on to something when he says that happiness and fulfillment are much more complex than adhering to a simple maxim. In reality, if you choose to excel what you do, the passion will often follow.

Cute Airline Safety Videos

My friend Jen (well, one of my friends Jen — I have three…or more) sent me this video, which you’ve probably already seen. It’s a New Zealand Airline safety briefing with hobbits and elves and orcs. And Gollum.

Cute. (And, in one place, with double entendre!)

But I’ll tell you what. Nothing beats the safety video I saw on Pegasus Airlines in Turkey. It was filmed using children of Pegasus employees and is so flippin’ cute!!. Here’s a short version from Pegasus itself:

The whole thing lasts four or five minutes and is cuteness overload. So much better than the dull instructions on American airlines.

Escape from Freedom

“We cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them.” — M. Scott Peck

One reason I enjoy dating Kim is that although superficially we’re unalike, and although we’ve had vastly different life experiences, deep down we have similar values and life philosophies. This means we have some interesting conversations about the way the world works, and we each bring a different perspective to the discussion.

Last weekend, the topic turned to the nature of personal responsibility. Both of us believe strongly that each person is responsible for her own happiness, that each person is responsible for his own success. Yes, life deals better hands to some people than to others. Plus, some people seem to be luckier than other people. Ultimately, however, you are responsible for improving your own state in life. You cannot expect anyone else to better it for you.

Note: This belief is built into my tenets of personal finance. When I say “nobody cares more about your money than you do“, this is exactly what I mean. Yes, take advice from people. Yes, take advantage of the resources available to you. But ultimately, you are the one who responsible for building and growing your nest egg.

This discussion was reinforced on Monday as I continued to read through M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. The entire first section of The Road Less Traveled is about personal responsibility, and there’s a great chapter on what Peck calls “the escape from freedom”. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):

…Almost all of us from time to time seek to avoid — in ways that can be quite subtle — the pain of assuming responsibility for our own problems…

The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior…Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity, be it “fate” or “society” or the government or the corporation or our boss. It is for this reason that Erich Fromm so aptly title his study of Nazism and authoritarianism Escape from Freedom. In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions and even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom.

As children, by virtue of our real and extensive dependency, our parents have real and extensive power over us. They are, in fact, largely responsible for our well-being, and we are, in fact, largely at their mercy. When parents are oppressive, as so often they are, we as children are largely powerless to do anything about it; our choices are limited. But as adults, when we are physically healthy, our choices are almost unlimited. That does not mean they are not painful. Frequently our choices lie between the lesser of two evils, but it is still within our power to make these choices.

…There are indeed oppressive forces at work within the world. We have, however, the freedom to choose every step of the way the manner in which we are going to respond to and deal with these forces.

…One of the roots of this “sense of impotence” in the majority of [people] is some desire to partially or totally escape the pain of freedom, and, therefore, some failure, partial or total, to accept responsibility for their problems and their lives. They feel impotent because they have, in fact, given their power away. Sooner or later…they must learn that the entirety of one’s adult life is a series of personal choices, decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent that they do not accept this they will forever feel themselves victims.

Again, I’m reminded of Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. That entire book is about letting go of the idea that other people control our destiny, that we’re handcuffed to our past decisions. Browne, like Peck, argues that we’re responsible for our own freedom, our own happiness. But too many of us say “I can’t because…”

The reality is not that we can’t, but that we choose not to. It’s a subtle shift in framing things, but it’s an important one.

Election Night

This morning, I drove half an hour from Portland to Canby to run a bunch of errands. I stopped by the family box factory to do some computer programming (paper prices have risen), had lunch with my accountant (who is also a close friend), and had my girlfriend clean my teeth (she’s a dental hygienist). I left the dental office at about 4:30 and was stuck in traffic for almost the entire drive.

“This sucks,” I thought, as I sat on the freeway with everyone else. “Plus, I’m hungry.” I hadn’t eaten much despite the fact that I’m supposed to be increasing weight.

“Maybe I’ll eat at Screen Door,” I thought. Screen Door is one of my favorite Portland restaurants. It features great southern food, including the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Fried chicken has a lot of calories. And there’s lots of protein there, right? It seemed like a great way to get my daily dietary intake up to where it ought to be.

Screen Door is usually packed. Not tonight. Tonight, there were maybe five tables full, plus one fellow at the bar. Two fellows at the bar after I sat down.

“I don’t need a menu,” I told the bartender. “Just give me the fried chicken and a Rhett Butler.” A Rhett Butler is like an old fashioned, but with ginger puree. I pulled out my notebook and prepared to take notes on this month’s book group book, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

“What are you reading?” asked the fellow seated next to me at the bar.

“Hemingway,” I said.

“Can I see?” he said as he picked up the book. He leafed through the pages. “John Donne,” he said, noting the inscription at the front of the book. (“For whom the bell tolls…” is a quote from Donne’s famous mediation on death.)

Note: As some of you may know, I am a poetry geek. Always have been. One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. “Thy firmness makes my circle just, and makes me end, where I begun.” Great stuff.

“That’s very buddhist, you know,” my companion said, handing Hemingway back to me. “‘No man is an island’ and all that.”

“Is it?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Nothing in the universe stands alone. Everything is connected. Everything can be broken down into something smaller. Everything arises from causes and conditions. All things that are born are subject to death.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s interesting.”

“You know what,” my companion told me. “You ought to go online. Go to YouTube. Look up this guy Dzongsar Khyentse Ripnoche. Look for the videos where he answers questions.” I offered him my notebook and he wrote it down for me.

“You might also be interested in a couple of other books,” my new friend told me. “You should read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and On Becoming a Person, which is a great humanist book by Carl Rogers.”

“Wow,” I said. “My girlfriend really likes Paramahansa Yogananda. She says Autobiography of a Yoga was very influential for her. In fact, in my car I have a couple of his lectures on CD.”

“He’s the real deal,” my companion said as our dinners arrived. My fried chicken smelled delicious. He had ordered a cheeseburger, which I didn’t even know you could get at Screen Door. “He’s not a charlatan like a lot of those guys in the east. He’s a real avatar.”

As we ate, the guy next to me asked me a bit about my life, and I asked a bit about his. I told him that I make my living writing about money. He told me that he makes his by practicing naturopathic medicine. Or he used to anyhow.

“I was building my practice,” he told me, “and everything was going great. But then fate intervened. I got hit by a drunk driver. An eighteen-year-old kid t-boned my car and I lost everything to medical bankruptcy.”

“That sucks,” I said. “What a shitty thing to have happen.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It just reinforced how nothing is permanent. You can thing you have security, but it’s really just an illusion.” He paused for a moment, taking a bite of his burger. “But you know, there have been a lot of blessings that came from that. You’d be surprised.”

“From the accident?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself. I’m much stronger now. I’ve never been happier.”

“Good for you,” I said, stirring some of my mashed potatoes in the tasty tasty gravy. We sat in silence for a while.

“How old are you?” my friend asked eventually. “Forty-eight?”

“Forty-three,” I said.

“Forty-three!” he said. He seemed surprised. “You have a little grey hair there, buddy.” I was dying on the inside, and I wanted to laugh. Nobody’s ever thought I looked older before. Most people think I’m in my thirties.

“You eat paleo, don’t you?” he said.

I laughed. “I try to,” I said, “though I’m not sure fried chicken counts.”

“You should try the Cultured Caveman,” he told me. “It’s a paleo food cart. Also, take a look at Nora Gedgaudas. She wrote a book called Primal Body, Primal Mind. You might like it.”

“Well, I can’t eat any more of that,” I said, pushing my plate aside. “Who am I fooling?”

The bartender was standing right there. “You need to finish that, young man,” he said with mock severity. We all laughed.

My companion and I talked a bit more, and I mentioned that Kim eats paleo too. (In fact, she’s much better at it than I am.) I’d already told my companion that she was familiar with buddhism, and that she knew about Paramahansa Yogananda. He seemed impressed.

“Your girlfriend must be very thoughtful. How old is she?” he asked.

“She just turned forty,” I said. “And she is very thoughtful.”

“You’re lucky,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“To meet a woman our age who’s thoughtful is very rare. It’s unusual. It sounds like you found a winner. Don’t screw that up. If she actually believes and adheres to this stuff, it’s like finding a treasure buried under your kitchen floor.”

I nodded in silent agreement. I wanted to ask more — why is it rare to meet a 40-year-old woman who’s thoughtful? — but the conversation moved on. We talked about Tibet, about buddhism, about money, about divorce. We discussed John Steinbeck and Robert Kiyosaki.

“I wish I had unlimited time to read, study, and contemplate,” my friend said. “And to meditate.”

“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”

“I’ve traveled around,” he told me. “I’ve met a lot of thinkers. I knew I’d found the right teacher when he told me, ‘The ultimate goal is to become your own teacher.'”

“I like that,” I said.

We stood to go our separate ways. “You can write about this,” he told me (he’d seen me taking notes), “but please keep me anonymous.”

“I will,” I said. “Thank you.” We shook hands and walked out into the rain.

We Are What We Think

Today, while sorting notes for a big project I have planned for 2013 (my biggest project for 2013, actually), I found a scrap of paper on which I’d copied three excerpts of a buddhist poem. (Well, not a poem precisely, but close enough.) Each of these three verses comes from a different place in a single larger work.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Your worst enemy cannot hurt you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.

Love yourself and be awake —
Today, tomorrow, always.
You are your only master.
Drink deeply.
Live in serenity and joy.

Live purely.
Be quiet.
Do your work with mastery.

I copied these verses from Teachings of the Buddha, edited by Jack Kornfield. They’re each from the dhammapada, as translated by Thomas Byrom.

These sayings resonate with me; they encapsulate an important part of my world view. Namely, that we are each responsible for our own attitudes. How we see ourselves is how we see the world.

“We are what we think.”