It’s a nice place to visit but…

Frozen Fountain New York

What follows are photos I’ve taken on various trips to NY at various times of the year. Some are things you’d see as a tourist and some are less so…

New York is a nice place to visit but…

View from the High Line

View from the High Line

I love New York.

Usually for about a day.

I get to New York every two years or so for business. And each time, whenever I arrive, I’m like a little kid. I scan the skyline for outlines of familiar landmarks. I get caught up in all the things I could do here if I only had more time. I even, if I’m arriving at night by cab, look up to the warm lights of windowed brownstones and wonder what the people who live there are doing.

Playing chess in the park

Playing chess in the park

Once there, I usually sit through long days of meetings and, in most cases, enjoy a nice dinner with the client or with colleagues. And then I’m left with the after hours, the time when the stores (except for the tourist shops) and museums are closed. It’s too late to see much but too early for the nightlife of New York to kick in (as if my work-worn body and mind could remain awake that late anyway). So what do I do? I wander.

Store Display

Store Display

That first night of wandering is magical. Even familiar places like Times Square seem so full of life that I think, “What a great place to live.” And then, if I’m there for more than one day, I find that that same magic wears quickly. The next evening, Times Square is just another over-commercialized tourist trap.

Times Square

Times Square

It’s not just New York. Many locations are fun at first, but if you spend much time there, they lose their charm. They are a nice place to visit, until they aren’t. I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d discover new interests not available to the typical tourist. But I have no intention of finding that out. Instead, I treat New York like so many other places and leave thinking, “Nice place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.”

Cloisters Entry

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in NYC

But what if I did?

Instead of burning out on a place by exhausting all the tourist activities, here’s a new approach I’m going to try and I invite you to explore as well. If you’re in a location that feels stale because the touristic novelty has worn off, ask yourself this: What would I do if I lived here?

The Cloisters

I like the Cloisters (a museum of medieval art in north Manhattan) because it is such a peacefully different place.

It’s an intriguing question. On first thought, I start checking off all the things that a local can do that I can’t: meet with friends, take care of daily routines, visit special places I’ve only discovered by being a place for a long time. But then I think, “Okay, how do I translate those into something that I, as a traveler, might partake in?”

NY at Night

NY at Night

Some of this takes advance planning like asking friends for contacts in the city you’re visiting. Having a local guide can completely change both your experience of a place and how you think about it.

Central Park Singer

Musician in Central Park

Others simply require a bit of ingenuity and effort. You may not be able to take care of routine issues, but then why would you on a trip? Instead, what about hobbies or other interests? Find stores, museums, sporting venues, places to run, festivals or other events that align with your interests. A little effort goes a long way.

Finally, in terms of the “special places” simply ask around. Go online or ask friends or acquaintances. Ask the bartender in your hotel bar for his favorite hangout. Ask a work colleague about some undiscovered gem. Ask the concierge not for the best restaurant but the one he’d take a friend to from out of town or where she might go to on a first date. Simply asking the right questions can uncover a wealth of options.

30 Rock

30 Rockefeller Plaza

So next time you think, “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” think again. Think about if you did live there. And that can open up a completely new way to see what has become old and familiar.

 

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.

 

Collect, connect and share

I recently read The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer. She’s a musician who achieved a great deal of notoriety by being the first performing artist to raise over $1 million on Kickstarter to fund an album of hers. The book came as a result of a popular TED Talk she did on the same subject.

I doubt I will ever be able to apply all the principles of trusting and letting others help in the way Amanda has. But it’s a wonderful challenge to consider. She sums up the book and this need to trust, connect and simply ask for help this way:

“…this book is not about seeing people from safe distances—that seductive place where most of us live, hide, and run to for what we think is emotional safety. The Art of Asking is a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close. And uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust. Distance is a liar. It distorts the way we see ourselves and the way we understand each other.”

What I found particularly relevant in the book was her approach to capturing the creative process as being one where you collect, connect and share. As she puts it:

“You may have a memory of when you first, as a child, started connecting the dots of the world. Perhaps outside on a cold-spring-day school field trip, mud on your shoes, mentally straying from the given tasks at hand, as you began to find patterns and connections where you didn’t notice them before. You may remember being excited by your discoveries, and maybe you held them up proudly to the other kids, saying: did you ever notice that this looks like this? The shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice which look like the veins on the back of my hand which look like the hairs stuck to the back of her sweater… Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing. “

She goes on to note how some people are best at collecting — noticing the details others miss, having experiences that then become the raw materials for poetry or songs, examining a scene until the truth of the place is revealed.

Others thrive on connecting the dots:

“…think of a sculptor who hammers away for a year on a single statue, a novelist who works five years to perfect a story, or a musician who spends a decade composing a single symphony—connecting the dots to attain the perfect piece of art.”

Collect, connect and share - The Art of Asking book coverFinally, there are those who most enjoy sharing: the writer who puts her work out there in print or online, the painter who hangs his work for others to see, the performer who reveals aspects of her own life and ours as well through a live show.

What I love about this construct of collect, connect and share is that it applies not only to creativity, but to travel. One of the best points of synthesis between what occurs on a trip and what changes in us when we return is our ability to take what we’ve collected while traveling, connect the dots in creative ways when we get back and then share the result with others.

Too often, we think that the sharing part only applies to showing our photos or having others read our travel blogs. But the wonder of great travel is that the experience seeps into every aspect of our lives. Thus, when you come back and make all the unlikely connections between what happened on the trip and where you are now, you begin to see how your travel experience affects how you relate to others, how you go about your work, how you spend your leisure time and even how you learn to serve others in new ways.

Sharing can manifest itself in every area of your life. And you’ll be better at sharing if you’ve been more intentional in collecting and connecting along the way. It’s a rewarding way to think about trips and creativity and frankly, a better way to travel.

Thanks, Amanda.

 

Look for the who behind the where

The who behind the where: El Albergue

Here’s a small hotel in Ollantaytanbo, Peru where the people were as nice as the rooms

Want to make planning a trip easier?

Sometimes I am most lost on a trip before I ever leave.

Whenever I start planning to visit a new place, particularly a new country, I go through a three-step progression.

  • First, I get excited by the possibilities of what I think might await me there.
  • Second, I get informed through guidebooks, friends and websites about what actually awaits me there.
  • Third, I get overwhelmed by the first two.

The result? I end up playing possum with the details. Sure, I’ll book my flight and make any other reservations that require advance notice. But after that, I sometimes do nothing until the looming departure date requires action.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered a new approach or rather, a more intentional utilization of an old approach: Let someone else take care of things for you.

No, I’m not talking about a travel agent, though good ones can be invaluable (which may explain why there’s a surprising growth in that field). Nor am I suggesting you pass on the planning responsibilities to another member of your traveling party, though sharing the task can be rewarding on a number of levels.

Instead, I’m recommending you find a local resource. Someone in-country who knows what’s hot, what’s not and what’s just off the beaten path but not so far off that you’ll never find your way back.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a person?

Find the who behind the where

Ironically, they out there just waiting for you. I’m referring to the friendly owner, manager or employee of a hotel, B&B or apartment where you plan to stay. Unlike tour companies or guides who may have vested interests in you booking other travel services, most small hotels or B&B’s are busy enough with managing their own properties. Their entire focus is on making their guests happy.

As a result, if you find the right who behind the where, the person behind the place, they can be a wealth of valuable information.

I uncover the helpful ones by emailing various places where I’m considering staying. I ask a few questions about their place. See how they respond, how friendly they are and how good their English is. I also look for how responsive they are: Do my questions seem like a hassle to them or do their responses indicate an enthusiasm and genuine desire to help?

The who behind the where can make all the difference

It’s been a revelation for us to find truly helpful owners of small hotels from Scotland to Peru to Belgium who go out of their way to answer questions not just about their hotel or B&B but to ensure we have a great overall experience in their country. Many have connections with other hotel owners across the country (like the secret concierge society in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Thus, they can recommend from firsthand experience other places to stay, which routes to take, the best time to visit certain places, as well as hidden sights to see and local restaurants to consider.

Sure, you risk not knowing if their place is any good since you haven’t yet been there, but usually you can determine enough from online reviews to figure that out. And even if it isn’t (which has never been our experience — the most helpful hosts tend to run the best properties) you still win by gaining all their insights before you even arrive.

So try it. Next time you’re planning a trip, pursue the who behind the where. Start with a search for a more personal accommodation in one city or area on your itinerary. Large chain hotels won’t work for this nor will locations where language is too much of a barrier (though never underestimate the power of using Google Translate in your emails!). But hunt around. Focus on finding not only a great place to stay but a great host. And then listen to what they have to tell you.

You may end up making a new friend and having not only one of the best vacations, but one of the easiest to plan.

 

Why originality doesn’t matter

Why originality doesn't matter: Gorilla

“You want to paint my face? Really?”

Why originality doesn’t matter

I used to worry about being original. I also used to worry about acne.

I’ve outgrown both concerns.

Age took care of the acne.

Reality took care of originality.

That reality led me to these conclusions:

First, on one level, there’s nothing new under the sun. So I find striving for newness itself about as successful as mentally willing my acne to disappear back in middle school.

Second, originality is the wrong goal. Instead of striving to be original, seek to say or do something that matters to you and will matter to someone else. Write or create to help others, to add value, to make a difference, even if for only one person on one day. Pursue helpfulness and saying what you need to say over originality. If you pursue the latter, you will likely end up doing something crazy like trying to face paint a gorilla while dressed as a gondolier, reciting Tang dynasty poetry and simultaneously trying to record your work with your iPhone. Upside down. Original? Yes. But good and useful and helpful? Ask the gorilla.

The best way to be original

Pursue originality and you may get, well, something you may not want to show your parents (or a prospective mate). Pursue doing something that matters, that is helpful and strives to say something in the best way possible and guess what? You may just end up being original.

To prove my point, here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis I found after writing all the above:

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

See? Nothing new under the sun. But let me add a few other points.

When you cease striving to be original, you take a lot of pressure off yourself. You back your way into quality and freshness rather than obsessing and freezing up. Thus, you end up doing better — maybe even more original — work.

You may be the one

Most important, however, is this. If you’re a writer, even if what you write isn’t original or new, it may be new to your reader. In advertising, they say it takes six or more impressions (exposures to say, an ad) before a person even consciously registers that she’s ever heard of the product. That means that a reader may have read about a subject multiple times before they come across your take on it. But you may be the one writer who cuts through the clutter and makes sense to that reader. Your voice, your unique take on the same subject that dozens of others have addressed, may be the one that resonates with that reader at exactly the right time.

So don’t worry so much about being original. That will come with time and discovering and writing in your own voice. Instead, figure out what you want to say, what you’re meant to say and then say it. Write it. Proclaim it in your own best words and then trust it will find the right readers when they most need it.

And watch out for gorillas with face paint.

 

How to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

How to make Brussels Sprouts taste delicious

My now not-so-secret ingredients to make Brussels sprouts or other bitter vegetables quite tasty.

The mystery of memory, scent and taste

This morning, as I ascend the stairs, I encounter a scent at once delightful and curious. Delightful because of the wondrous aroma. Curious because none of the supposed ingredients are currently in play at our house. What wafts my way seems to be a delicious blend of Chanel Number 5 and bacon. To my male olfactory receptors, this is clearly what heaven will smell like. The combination evokes both hunger and romance, a savory/sweet blend that brings to mind Christmastime, dinner parties and awakening ravenous after arriving home from abroad. And yet, my wife has not applied the suspected perfume nor have we cooked any bacon lately.

The phantom scent, while welcome, reminds me that when smell and memory collide, the results frequently defy logic.

Scents are famous for triggering memories, even if we don’t understand why or can’t pin down the direct connection. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to tastes. But with tastes, I’ve found that not only can they evoke memories, they can also spark new ideas.

Take, for example, our food tour of Seattle’s International District. There I encountered a taste — the sweet, delicate and clean flavor of the salad dressing/dipping sauce used for our lunch. Later investigation revealed the contents to be fish sauce, scallions, ginger and sugar. Hmmm. Sugar.

In that one taste, I had the beginnings of a plan. A dream really. A nutritionist’s nirvana: Make palatable the very vegetables that so many people hate to eat.

Can you actually make Brussels sprouts taste delicious?

It started with broccoli. As a kid I always wondered how something could be good for you that, when cooked, smelled like the substance you clean off your shoe. And not just broccoli. All the cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Let’s face it. They stink. They are also an acquired taste (bitterness does not come naturally to the human palette).

So how do you get around the smell and the bitterness?

For the smell, simply don’t overcook them. Al dente means “no stinky” in my kitchen. The longer most cruciferous veggies cook, the more they smell like a frat house bathroom. Don’t overcook them.

But what about that bitter taste? That’s where my fish sauce and sugar moment kicked in.

Why try and simply overpower the bitter taste of broccoli by drenching it with a cheese sauce as so many parents do when there’s a more elegant approach: Offset bitter with sweet.

General Tsao's Sauce to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

If you want a simple one step way to make Brussels sprouts taste better, here’s your solution in a bottle. And if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you have my heartfelt condolences…

To do this, get a bottle of General Tso’s sauce (Orange Chicken sauce will do and even Hoisin sauce works in a pinch). Trader Joe’s has their “General Tsao’s Sauce” and many supermarkets and Asian food stores carry the other two. Add about a tablespoon per two person serving to Brussels sprouts as you stir fry them or mix in before serving if you steam, boil or roast them. Viola! No bitterness! And if you need pointers on various ways to cook Brussels sprouts, check out this helpful article.

The secret formula to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

The success of this simple approach led me to experiment with other recipes. Here’s one that has become my favorite. Assuming you like spicy foods, even the most cruciferous hater out there may think differently about Brussels sprouts after trying this approach. It combines a subtle sweetness with more punch than the above options. The proportions are mere estimates:

  • 1 tablespoon Caribbean jerk sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

This is meant to be a light additive, not a heavy sauce. The amount listed is enough to cover (or rather, infuse) a serving for four. I cut the Brussels sprouts into slices or quarters (they cook faster this way, so remember, don’t overcook) and, for the final touch, I add the piece de resistance: some crunchy bacon bits.

The slightly sweet, spicy and flavorful combination does something amazing to the Brussels sprouts: It makes them something you actually want to eat.

And of course, the bacon helps. Bacon always helps (unless you’re a vegetarian).

Wearing Chanel No. 5 while you cook, however, is optional.