Explorations

Explorations: 3D Chessboard

Just one of many Explorations, I designed this chessboard after wondering why chessboards have to be flat. Start with “why?” and you never know where you’ll end

Here you’ll find insights and observations on what I’m learning as I try new experiences and offer exercises, experiments and expeditions for you to try as well.

Think of it as behind-the-scenes explorations on new ways of learning by learning new things.

Our starting Explorations are in FoodPhotographyThe Art of Craft and, of course, Travel.

Come back soon for more.

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How to travel like a beginner – Part 2

Travel like a beginner: Airline seats

Even veteran flyers can find wonders in the often cramped space of an airline seat

How to travel like a beginner…or maybe not

This past week, I attempted to travel like a beginner, a novice unfamiliar with words like bulkhead, elite line or overhead bin.

I tried to view air travel as a newbie.

I failed.

Why it’s hard to travel like a beginner

I think I was doomed before I ever threw my carryon into the trunk of my car. While I laud the ideal of “beginner’s mind” and the underlying desire to experience afresh all the novelty of the first time, I believe I went about it the wrong way. What I found is that you cannot unknow what you know.

I tried to picture how a less experienced version of me would have reacted to travel. But instead of a deeper appreciation for the now and a deeper awareness of the experience as I had it, I spent more time in my imagination, filtering and speculating. Better would have been to concentrate on simply noticing more.

Boo hoo for me and my experiment to travel like a beginner. However, my efforts helped remind me of a few insights about air travel both good and bad that may be helpful to you as well. Let’s start with the challenges.

The hard part

  •  Airplane travel is a pain in the rear. Literally and figuratively. With newer seats being narrower and older seats having virtually no bottom cushion left, sitting for six hours leaves certain areas of one’s anatomy feeling like they’ve been dry iced. And then there’s the issue of proximity. Where else in our modern lives do we let complete strangers into our personal space for hours? Not seconds in a cramped elevator, or minutes on a crowded bus or subway car. Hours. As the shuttle driver kindly informed me on the ride to the airport, “You’d be amazed how many people never shower before getting on a plane. I had a guy here last week that made the shuttle bus wait so he could get one last toke on his joint (it’s legal here in Washington). I would not like to have sat wedged in next to him on a long flight.” And yet we do.
  • The airlines seem intent on making travel harder for us. Check out this insightful article on how the airlines’ make you suffer and see if it doesn’t resonate.
  •  Solo travel is better for noticing. On the first of many flights last week, I traveled with colleagues. We had some wonderful conversations. But my ability to be present and pay attention to the experience of travel crashed. You can’t pay attention to your surrounding and your conversation at the same time. Or at least I couldn’t.

Now on to the positives.

The good part

  •  Airplanes gets me where I want to go. Pretty obvious, but important. As my friend Al has told me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Me too. But we forget that 100 years ago the same trip that takes us five hours would have taken five days and two hundred years ago, five months or more.
  • I can’t recreate a first-time thrill, but I can relive it. The few times I was able to travel like a beginner — but only with conscious effort — were on takeoff and landing. Try it. Next time the wheels leave or touch the runway, remind yourself of how amazing it is, what you feel in your stomach and what a marvel for something as big and heavy as a plane to fly.
  • I get to meet some wonderful people. That forced intimacy makes conversations easier. I can participate in the life of a stranger in ways I never would in other settings. And while most chats are superficial, some of those conversations can be life-changing.
  • I realize how entitled I am. The hassle of travel makes me aware of how much I take space and “my rights” for granted. Discomfort can be revealing.
  • I find space to reflect and create. I intentionally do NOT use wifi on a plane unless in a business “emergency” (determined by me, not by others). Airline cabins are one of the few locations you can’t be called or, without wifi, bothered. How many places do we have left for quiet reflection and concentration? When I see my airline seat as a sanctuary—albeit a very crammed one — it changes how I view my entire trip.

What might change your view of travel? Try being present to the experience of it. You too may find more to air travel than just getting to your destination. Just be aware about those seat cushions…

 

How to travel like a beginner…even if you’re not one – Part 1

Latte: How to travel like a beginner

The next time you eat or drink something familiar, try and imagine what it would be like doing so for the first time.

I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost four months. I haven’t gone for this long being grounded in over four years.

At first, I thought I would go stir crazy or miss airline travel. That never happened. Perhaps it is because I look to travel for novelty and adventure and day-to-day life has kindly been supplying more of both than I either anticipated or, in some cases, relished. But in less than 48 hours, I will once again be plane-bound.

This gives me an opportunity — a boost really — to try something I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. The concept of “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin in Japanese derives from Zen Buddhism and is often associated with the book by Shunryu Suzuki where he states the famous line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But “beginner’s mind,” like the quote itself, extends far beyond it’s Zen roots and can be applicable to all of us today.

At its heart is the idea of approaching anything, particularly a subject or skill which you have already mastered, with the openness, excitement and receptivity of a beginner. Beginner’s mind is less about memory — remembering back to your first experience with something — and more about confronting that now familiar experience as if it were completely new to you.

You can try this with any familiar object or experience. Take, for instance the act of tasting your favorite food or drink. Let’s say it’s a cup of coffee. The next time you sip a cup of coffee, consciously engage the experience. What are you really tasting? What is it like? Do you taste the bitterness (assuming you haven’t overloaded the drink with sweeteners)? Can you recall how you first reacted to that bitter taste? It likely wasn’t pleasant. So can you now consciously try and imagine what this sip would be like if you’d never tasted coffee before? Feel the liquid warmth. Be aware of how you swallow. Try to describe the aroma to yourself.

You may be wary of the Zen roots or think the whole notion is New Agey, silly or too esoteric. But try it. Because just the act of trying it will reveal how much we have lost our ability to experience the wonder that daily surrounds us. We have become so familiar with the marvels of technology and of nature that we blithely march through our days unaware of all the experiences that would blow our minds if we encountered them all in one day as a complete beginner.

I plan to do my best to approach air travel like a beginner this week. Likely, work pressures and habits will kick in and the best intentions will yield few results. But who knows?

To be continued…

Food tour of Seattle’s International District

Chinatown on a food tour of Seattle's International District

Hing Hay Park was one of our last stops on the food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown

We started our food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown a few weeks ago with, naturally, food.

Cream puffs to be exact.

Our tour, led by Taylor Hoang and assisted by Rayleen Nguyen both of Pho Cyclo Cafe, departed from the Huong Binh Restaurant in Little Saigon. This Vietnamese dining place is run by Taylor’s mom and is, as we’d soon find out, amazingly good. First stop from there: Saigon’s Bakery and Bubble Tea where we tasted scrumptious cream puffs; light and not too sweet.

Cream puff's on food tour of Seattle's International Disrtict

The best cream puffs I’ve ever had are found in Little Saigon on this food tour of Seattle’s International District

I think some of our fellow guests on the 12-person food tour of Seattle’s International District could have gladly just spent the rest of the day there in cream puff heaven. But onward we pressed.

Time to go shopping on the food tour of Seattle’s International District

From there we visited Lam Seafood on King Street near 12th. If you live in the Seattle area and you want fresh produce or seafood, come here.

Indian Bittermelon on the food tour of Seattle's International District

Indian Bittermelon was just one of many fruits and vegetables we don’t see too often at our local grocery store

The prices are in many cases half to a third of what they are in the grocery stores and the selection, at least for Asian foods, is unbeatable.

Taylor explaining Caro on our food tour of Seattle's International District

Here’s Taylor our guide explaining how to look for and prepare caro root at Lam Seafood

We came back later on our own to shop and stock up on sauces, as well as buy from a huge selection of mushrooms, vegetables and fresh fish.

Fish on display at Lam Seafood on food tour of Seattle's International District

At Lam Seafood, you just point to the fish you want and then point to a sign that tells them how you want it prepared.  Compare the prices here with where you normally get your seafood…

Next stop, Thanh Son Tofu. Even if you don’t like tofu, you should check out the very affordable sub sandwiches and other treats they have in this brand new facility. And if you do like tofu or soy milk, well, this is your cream puff of a place…

Sesame balls on food tour of Seattle's International District

These sesame balls are just some of the tasty goodies you’ll find at Thanh Son Tofu even if you don’t like tofu

Back to the Huong Binh Restaurant for a wonderful soup of wontons, pork, shrimp, squid and quail eggs along with celery leaves, chive and fried shallots in a pork broth. That alone could have been lunch enough, but then came the “main course:” Rice noodles, grilled pork, pork meatball and grilled shrimp garnished with lettuce, peanuts, herbs, onions and a delectable sauce. Oh, and cookies for desert. Delighted and satisfied, our food tour of Seattle’s International District could have ended there.

Huong Binh Lunch on food tour of Seattle's International District

Our first course for lunch at Huong Binh. Delicious.

But wait (as they say in infomercials), there’s more on this food tour of Seattle’s International District!

We headed from lunch down to Chinatown where we tasted dim sum, stuffed buns, barbecued pork and coconut-infused rolls. We learned of other places to shop, restaurants to try and gift items to purchase. By the time we finished, we were full. OK, more than full. Stuffed. And not just of food.

We learned so much that day from Taylor that we’d never have uncovered on our own, at least not without considerable time and effort. It reminds me that sometimes a guide can make all the difference in your experience of a place.

Ten Benefits of Using a Guide

In fact, here are ten benefits a guide provides in a new place (or at least did in this situation):

  1. They make you aware of places you’d never find on your own
  2. They introduce you to new people
  3. They introduce you to new food types and sources of ingredients or new products and even ideas
  4. They show you how to use the things (ingredients in this case) you find there that may be unique to that place.
  5. They keep you from getting lost
  6. They vet the good from the bad and show you the best
  7. They make you feel like an insider or like you belong there or have a right to be there
  8. They create a sense of community, with your other group members on the tour and with the people you meet along the way
  9. They increase the number of customers and business for mom and pop stores: You know where your money is going and that it is a good deal. (Unfortunately, with some guides overseas, you are channeled to expensive tourist traps where the guide gets a kickback. Here, the guide does it out of a sense of community and desire to share what is good.)
  10. They show you how to do this yourself next time on your own
King's Barbeque House on food tour of Seattle's International District

Here Taylor explains the various types of roasted meat you can get at King’s Barbeque House on 6th Ave.

And in this case, they also give you a little goody bag with containers for all the food you can’t possibly eat at the time, as well as a coffee press that Taylor showed us how to use at the end of the tour.

This food tour of Seattle’s International District was a wonderful experience that revealed a hidden world in our own neighborhood. It also showed how valuable a guide can be to any place that seems foreign to you…even ones so close to home.

 

Chemo Gifts: When delight and need intersect

Chemo Gifts

This is a painting I did for the nurses surrounded by the bags with encouraging verses and the gloves for chemo patients. The rest are the medical supplies there in the treatment center.

Lately I’ve realized that things which interest me most deal with the head, heart, hands and feet. Creativity, for example, does involve our head, our thinking. In the best cases, however, our creative efforts stem from and touch our hearts (and those of others) as well. Art, craft or the act of making usually requires using our hands. And travel – the simple movement from one point to another – utilizes our feet. Head, heart, hands and feet; all can be used for our own sakes. But they can also be employed to help other people.

I’ve long wrestled with this notion of using the things I love for others. It’s much easier to think about volunteering in areas of great need – homeless shelters, food banks, retirement homes, neighborhood clean-ups, mentoring, etc. – than in areas of great passion. But what if you could do both: help others and live from the place of your greatest joy?

Sometimes we find answers to such questions in the oddest places. I found my answer in a chemotherapy treatment center.

No one goes to such places for fun. In my case, it was to accompany my wife who has had to undergo both chemotherapy and radiation treatments this year due to breast cancer. She’s almost done with the year-long process and we’re incredibly grateful all has turned out well.

Yet in the midst of this, I got to know other patients going through chemotherapy. Out of that sprang the idea to create small presents – Chemo Gifts – to encourage those still in the midst of what can be quite brutal therapy. You can read about these Chemo Gifts here.

Creating these Chemo Gifts would have seemed borderline useless had we not just gone through chemo ourselves (and yes, while my wife took the brunt of it, it is a joint effort) and realized how meaningful small acts can be when life is stripped to its essentials. So I encourage you to read about my response but most of all, think about your own.

What do you love to do? How could you leverage that to help others?

These aren’t hard questions. But they are ones we often put off and never address. As we come out of Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to reflect on all we’re thankful for. It’s great to count our blessings. But even more meaningful is to be a blessing to others.

So take a minute or two and ask yourself, “What could I do? Who could I help?”

You might be amazed at what happens when you apply what brings you delight to what others need.

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood like this scene from Seattle's Chinatown

A chance discovery led me to this scene in Seattle’s Chinatown of a store-by-store ritual involving firecrackers and elaborate dances…

How do you discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood? As we saw last time, part of it means being open and paying attention to what goes unnoticed even around your own house or backyard. You can also take this one step further and discover other neighborhoods that you’ve either not known about or ignored for years.

Such was the case for me with Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I’ve never felt like I really understood the place.

So when I read the Seattle Time’s article about guided food tours in this neighborhood, I was intrigued. What better way to discover a hidden world in my own neighbor than to go with a local guide who knows all the best places?

Taylor Hoang is such a guide. I’ll explain more about her next time and tell you my story of discovering the secret gems of the International District. For now, let me share with you some ways that you can discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood. Let’s look at some reasons why we don’t explore these close-by places and what I’ve learned to do about it.

  • You discount the place because it seems irrelevant. To get beyond that, I tell myself that it may not seem relevant, but how do I know unless I explore it more? Don’t pass by a place and never even give it a chance. Drive through. Or better, get out and walk or bike the area. That’s the best way to discover what might be there that could end up being quite meaningful to you.
  • You never even knew it was there. The food tour revealed places in the International District, some just one block away from streets I’ve wandered along many times, that were revelations to me. One strategy is to look more thoroughly by getting off the main drags and exploring the side streets. Another is, as we’ll see next time, to find a guide who knows the hidden places. Yet another is to read up on the place. Get a guidebook of your own city. Read the local papers and magazines that talk about openings, tours, festivals and events. Or go online and check out these sites/apps:
    • TripAdvisor City Guides with user insights and ratings for key sites in some of the largest cities around the country…and around the world.
    • Here.com (or even Google Maps) which may not give you tips on sites to see, but shows points of interest and even street-level views of certain neighborhoods.
    • Sosh.com — This social networking site provides great insights and connections for a few major cities including Seattle.
    • Vayable.com — Probably the best of the bunch for finding local guides, Vayable offers access to people who know their neighborhoods and key sites in major cities all over.
  • You don’t know the good from the bad. This one is tougher. You almost need a guide or recommendations from locals. So do what we often do. Build on your connections. Meet a nice shop owner or person at the local museum. Ask where they’d recommend for lunch. Once there, ask the waiter about good places to buy food or other items. Once there…you get the idea. Sure, you’ll get subjective responses. But these are still more informed than your own limited knowledge of the place. Besides, they give you “next steps” for further exploration and you never know what that will lead to…including the simple delight in meeting all these new people along the way.
  • You feel like an outsider. Especially in ethnic neighborhoods, you can really stand out. Great. It’s good practice for traveling abroad. And in many cases, it helps you empathize with how people in these neighborhoods must feel interacting with the majority culture around them. Plus, you may quickly discover that your own curiosity and excitement about the place is contagious. In most cases, people respond well when they know you’re genuinely interested in the neighborhood where they live and work. Talk to a few locals, get some next step recommendations and soon you’ll feel like a native (or at least comfortable enough to continue).
  • You don’t know what to look for. You can simply explore and see what happens. I did this once in a park next to Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I had no plan, just an hour to kill waiting for my son at baseball practice. But then I heard a sound like gunfire and I went a few blocks to discover a ceremony going on complete with dragon dance and fireworks. So just exploring may open up opportunities. Or make a quest: Look for a certain kind of food or product or type of store. Seemingly silly “games” or “treasure hunts” of your own making can help you discover hidden worlds within the hidden worlds in your own neighborhood.

So give these a try. But most of all, follow de Botton’s advice and simply develop an attitude of receptivity, being open to everything that comes your way. You may soon discover more hidden worlds in your own neighborhood — literally and figuratively — than you ever imagined.

Discover hidden worlds in your own backyard

Snail drinking water: a discovery of a world in your own backyard

I ran across this thirsty little fella in Rothenburg, Germany, but it could have been in my own backyard…if I would simply take the time to pay better attention.

How many hidden worlds lie in your own backyard? More than you may realize.

Literally, if you were to pay close attention to all the details of your home or backyard, you’d be amazed by what you find. Xavier de Maistre did just that.

Journey around your own room

In 1790, de Maistre wrote a book, Journey Around My Room. According to Alain de Botton in one of my favorite books, The Art of Travel, de Maistre engaged in a different form of travel. No baggage, carriages or ships to deal with. Simply the decision to observe what was all around him but rarely noticed.

Locking the door to his room and donning a pair of pink and blue pajamas, de Maistre began to see the familiar in new ways, discovering hidden worlds in his own bedroom. De Botton notes that:

… de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of…South America.

That mind-set is essentially one of being receptive which is easy to do when we encounter the new and exotic. Less so in our own backyards. As de Botton comments,

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new in a place we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.

It starts with actually seeing what you see

Paying better attention and truly noticing the wonder in your own backyard is one way to overcome this blindness. Another is to seek out new places in your own neighborhood that you’ve never visited or observed closely before.

If you live in our near a large city, you’ll likely find many neighborhoods you’ve never explored in depth. Living near Seattle, one such area for me is Seattle’s Chinatown and International District.

This neighborhood is one of those places I normally just pass through on my way to some other destination. Or on the few times I’ve wandered through there, I’ve felt adrift, desirous of some new discovery but usually unsure of what to look for. At times, through no hostility but more a sense of disconnection, I’ve felt like I just don’t belong there.

All this changed for me a few weeks ago.

A glance at an article in our local paper started a chain of events that helped me to discover the hidden worlds in my own backyard so much better. I’ll explain more about this over the next few entries here. But for now, think about what it means for you to discover hidden worlds in your own backyard. It may be a neighborhood you’ve never visited before. Or it may mean opening your eyes — being receptive, as de Botton notes — to what surrounds you every day.

And no, you don’t need to don a pair of pink and blue pajamas to see it.