Category Archives: Life

50 thoughts on turning 50: #2 We’re just frosting on the cake

Who knows what's actually out there, in a galaxy far, far away ...

Who knows what’s actually out there, in a galaxy far, far away …

I was fascinated last year to hear astrophysicist Adam Reiss on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, explaining (with great humor, I might add) about how much we don’t really know about the universe. Talking to the show’s host Peter Sagal and panelists including P.J. O’Rouke, Reiss said:

SAGAL: I mean, isn’t it bizarre though to find out that 73 percent of the observable universe is actually invisible; we have no idea what it is?

RIESS: You know, it’s not just the 73 percent, it’s the other, there’s a 25 percent chunk in there called Dark Matter. We don’t know what that stuff is either. So…

SAGAL: Well wait a minute, 73 percent of the universe…

P.J. O’ROURKE: Plus.

SAGAL: So you’re telling use that everything that we see in the universe when we look out and we see all these galaxies and all this stuff out there, that’s 3 percent?

RIESS: That’s right. We’re really just the frosting on a cake and we don’t know what’s inside the cake.

Think about that: of the part of universe that we know about, 73% is invisible to us. And of what we can see, 25% is made up of stuff we don’t even understand. We can only see and understand about 3% of the known universe.

We don’t even know what’s beyond what we know – dark holes, other universes, infinity.

We like to think that with all of the advancements in science, medicine, and technology that we’re pretty darned smart. But the reality is that, when it comes down to it, we don’t know squat. We are, in fact, just tiny dust specks on a little pebble, floating around out there in a universe so mysterious and enormous that we don’t even know how much we don’t know.

It’s “Horton Hears A Who”, the reality show.

Think about that the next time you want to puff yourself up and proclaim there is no God. The truth is, you don’t know. You can’t know. You’re just frosting. Pretty, but also pretty tiny in the whole scheme of things.

Does that depress you? Not me. To quote Walter Bishop on “Fringe”: “Where would the fun be if we knew all there is to know?”

You can listen to the episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” here.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #1 Be nice. It’s contagious.

I love this video making the rounds online, mostly because it exemplifies something I’ve learned over my life about being nice: you have to be nice without expecting anything in return.

You can’t “do good” to win favor, raise your standing in the community, earn points you can cash in later, or pat yourself on the back. If you give of your time, energy and money for any of those reasons, you’ll drain yourself dry, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Neither you nor anyone else will be better for it.

Instead, “do good” because it’s who you are, and let the satisfaction from “doing good” be your reward. It’s a far greater return than you could have asked for … and it can change the world.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

50 thoughts on turning 50: intro

Yup, its true. In a few weeks, this little chickadee celebrates a milestone birthday: the 20th anniversary of my 30th birthday.

Or if you want to be more specific, I turn 350 in dog years.

I’ve been thinking back on my life, as old people do, and thought it would be fun (ie: work) to share 50 things I’ve learned about life, writing and myself to celebrate turning 50. It might be a video, a quote, a joke, a photo. Some I’ll explain; some I’ll just throw out there and let you figure out how it applies to your life.

The original plan was to share one thing for the 50 days leading up to my birthday. But we all know how undependable I am, so I’ll just start sharing and when I get to 50 things, I’ll be done. Hopefully, that’ll be before my 60th birthday.

Stay tuned for $#1 …


When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Here’s the thing about death: it’s permanent. Regardless of your beliefs about the afterlife, in this life, when you take your last breath on earth, the story is over.

Think about it. In 100 years, with the exception of a handful of those who will defy the odds and live beyond a century, every single person on the earth will be dead.

Everyone. Gone. Me. You. Babies born at this exact moment, whether here in America or in India or China or Europe. In 100 years, billions of new humans will walk the earth, and while they’ll share our DNA and genealogical ties, none of them will be us.

How’s that for putting your life into perspective? It’s true. When you’re dead, you really are dead a long time.

Be Nice: you make it a wonderful life

I just posted a new column on my website, as part of the “Be Nice Project”. The topic: how many people do you interact with every day that you don’t even realize you interact with?

After I posted that question, I took some time to think about who I’d interacted with yesterday. Turns out, more people than I’d realized:

  • The cashier and cart guys at the grocery store;
  • a woman I kept running into at the store who was perpetually blocking the aisles and apologizing for it;
  • a stock clerk;
  • the staff at the pet store;
  • the girl who waited on my at Tim Hortons, along with the rest of the staff who waved from behind the counter;
  • my husband before he went to work;
  • my daughter on the phone;
  • and scads of people online.

But if you’d asked me who I saw yesterday, I probably would have told you “No one”.

The point of yesterday’s post was to get people thinking about how many people we actually interact with every day – because every single one of those interactions changes both people in some way.

I’d love for you to join me for this little adventure in 2014, to think about what it means to love your neighbor, put out positive energy, do random acts of kindness, or just be nice. You can read all of the Be Nice Project posts on my website.

Be Nice: Do I need a receipt to return my spiritual gifts?

sample spiritual gifts

This is a sample of questions on a spiritual gifts test.

Once upon a time, in a religious galaxy far, far away, I took a quiz to determine my spiritual gifts. It was part of a Sunday School class at a church I’d just joined, and I was looking for some guidance about what God wanted from me.

For those of you outside the world of Christianese, a spiritual gifts test (or assessment; there are no wrong answers on a spiritual gifts test) is designed to evaluate what talents and abilities God has gifted you with to benefit the church. You might be suited to teaching, for example, or evangelizing, or serving meals, or opening up your home to people for Bible studies. It’s all designed to help a Christian grow in their faith and better serve his faith community.

The quiz usually asks questions like “I feel that I have a message from God to deliver to others” or “It makes me happy to do things for people in need” or “I often think about how I can comfort and encourage others in my congregation”. You assign it a number from, let’s say 0 to 5, for each statement, depending on how well you think it applies to you. There are no wrong answers; at the end you add up the score and, theoretically speaking, you should have some insight into how God has gifted you to serve Him and the church. Your gifts could be exhortation, giving, shepherding, prophecy, teaching, leadership. Stuff like that.

On my test, I got zero points for hospitality and serving others. Zero. Nothing. As in, I had no gifts relating to being nice or giving to others.

I don’t remember what my other scores were – I think I had some points for administration, which, given my inability to organize my own sock drawer or get my dog to sit even if I was holding a steak, should have been a clue the quiz was faulty). But overall, I wasn’t feeling very gifted. (And while there are technically no wrong answers on a spiritual gifts test, try sitting in an evangelical Sunday School class and telling the leader you have zero interest in helping other people.)

You can continue reading this post on my website, but for those of you with short attention spans, here is our first Be Nice Project Discussion Question:

Is being nice – or generous or giving or helpful or kind – something innate, or is it something we learn? How nice do you think you are right now and how nice do you actually want to be – in other words, are you as nice as you feel you can be, should be – and if not, are you desiring to be nicer? And honest, there are no wrong answers.

The Be Nice Project: A challenge for 2014

Most of the action has been moved over to my new website, but I want to invite you to join me on this new project: to be nice in 2014 …

That's me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt ... and from what I've heard, the building is still standing ...

That’s me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt … and from what I’ve heard, the building is still standing …

I’m trying to be nice. Honest. But it’s not easy.

For years now, I’ve been working on a book idea about loving your neighbors. The idea came to me after I went on a mission trip to Mexico in 2004. At the time, I hated flying, didn’t speak Spanish, knew zero sign language and was completely inept with both ball peen hammer and ball point pen. And yet I got on a plane and flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children.

It’s not as if I hadn’t volunteered before. I’d done a local mission project for several years, sponsored children through a Christian organization, and supported many charities. But getting out of my comfort zone and allowed me to get a better understanding of my place in the world.

It was a life changing experience, and it gave me the idea to write a book about how to love your neighbors. I figured if I could do it, anybody could. Although I still hate flying, don’t know sign language, can’t speak Spanish and can injure myself with writing utensils and screwdrivers with equal severity, I learned how to be giving and how to love my neighbor.

I tried to write. Tried for almost 10 years. But every time I got in front of the computer I went blank. I kept notes, clipped stories from the newspaper, did research, even had an agent interested in the project. All I had to do was send him the first three chapters. But no matter how hard I tried to write, it just never came together.

Then I realized why: I’m not very nice. Continue reading

Oh, just be nice

So I’m doing some research for my next book – yeah, I’m on a roll – and I think I’ve decided to explore The Golden Rule.

Do unto others, don’t do unto others, be nice, love your neighbor, what goes around comes around. The problem is that the more I muse about what it means to “do unto others” the more others … well, really annoy me.

More people seem to be cutting me off in traffic. Almost every restaurant or fast food place gets my order wrong. My neighbor walked her dog to my front yard, then let the dog meander in my garden and pee on my flowers – while I was standing there.

I don’t know if I’m noticing more how irritating life with humans is, or if I’m just more sensitve to it because I’m thinking about it.

I think that I’m generally one of those “be nice” people. I go out of my way to write positive comment cards when I go to the grocery store, for example, because I believe that if I look for positive I find positive. Plus, I know more people complain than compliment so it feels like I’m somehow balancing out the universe. I wave “thank you” when someone lets me in their lane on the highway or stops to let me cross in a parking lot.

Of course, I called some guy an idiot today  when he turned right in front of me at an intersection when I had the right of way. And every morning I mutter curses when I’m awakened from a sound sleep by a guy on our street who lets his dog out at 5 am and shouts “Go poo poo!” for several minutes.

I’d like to think I’m a nice person. But maybe I’m just a persistant bitch, and I’m only seeing it now because I’m looking for it.

Either way, for a the next month or so I’ll be exploring the concept of being nice and asking for reader feedback. You can share here or on Facebook at

And for today? Just try and be nice.

Missing: my pants

Missing: one pair of jeans. These are not the missing jeans. These jeans shrunk drastically while in the dresser since last fall.

Missing: one pair of jeans. These are not the missing jeans. These jeans shrunk drastically while in the dresser since last fall.

I’m missing a pair of jeans. Not my favorite pair of jeans. But considering that the weather is getting colder and they are, at the moment, the only pair of jeans into which I can fit my fat arse, they are currently my most essential pair of jeans.

I can’t imagine where they are. I’ve looked in the obvious places, including the clean clothes piles, the dirty clothes piles, the “I can’t remember if I wore these or not so I’ll pile them here until I decide what to do” piles, and in my Jeep.

I don’t remember when I wore them last, but I can only assume that I wore them someplace, took them off, and then came home wearing no pants. Although you’d think I would remember that.

In any event, I’m not sure how to go about finding my jeans. So if we went someplace together and you remember me leaving my pants there, let me know.

Reflections on a fallen tree and the brevity of life

This is one of the trees that stand tall over my house. The trees shield us from rain and snow and the sun's rays, provide a home for squirrels and birds. I've never realized how incredibly gigantic this tree is or what power it holds for both life ... and death. Photo (c) Joanne Brokaw

This is one of the trees that stand tall over my house. The trees shield us from rain and snow and the sun’s rays, provide a home for squirrels and birds. I’ve never realized how incredibly gigantic this tree is or what power it holds for both life … and death.
Photo (c) Joanne Brokaw

Coming home from today from a walk at White Haven with Bandit, I took the detour down Main St in East Rochester (they’ve got the street to our house completely torn up with construction) and came across what was clearly an emergency situation.

There was a man directing traffic as a fire truck came towards the intersection, and a crowd of people stood staring at a giant tree that had fallen across the road. I could see the front of a car under the tree. I waited as the fire truck was in place, until I was given the go ahead to turn.

My first thought? I should run home and get the camera. It was a big tree (100 years old, I later learned) and there are always cars parked on that street. It seemed like one of those “moments in history” when it seemed appropriate to capture the images on film (digitally, speaking). I’ve taken lots of nature photos like that- trees down in cemeteries, a train derailment just a block from my house, snowstorms that shut down our town, and the like. I think I’m drawn to the power of nature vs. man in those situations.

But when I got home, I could hear my neighbor telling someone there were people trapped in the car and I decided to skip the “isn’t that interesting” picture-taking opportunity. A giant tree falling is opportunity for photos of nature; people trapped in a car is gruesomely voyeuristic.

Then I saw tonight on the news that the tree fell on a car that was driving down the road, killing the driver and sending the passenger to the hospital.

Imagine for a moment what exact timing there has to be for the tree to fall on the car at the precise moment the car is driving past. In a fraction of a fraction of a second, you’re before the tree, then under the tree, then past the tree. It took longer for you to read that sentence than it takes for you to drive past the tree.

What are the odds?

And what if, under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t have been driving down that road? With Lincoln Rd. under construction, all traffic is routed through town. What if you weren’t really supposed to be there to begin with, but on that one day you happened to drive down that road, a tree happened to fall?

What are the odds?

A few years ago, a train derailed just up the street from my house. Cars were hanging over the overpass, had fallen onto the road below, and had skidded just feet away from homes in the neighborhood where the trains speed by several times a day. While there was damage to cars parked in the lots right next to the tracks, no one was hurt. Which is a miracle, when you consider how much sustained traffic is on that street, how many people are walking to and from cars, up and down the road. And yet no one was hurt.

What are the odds?

But today? Someone is driving down the road and BOOM. Under bright sunny skies, a tree falls on their car and they’re dead. It’s sad and eerie and a little difficult to comprehend.

Even eerier for me was to realize later that, had Bandit and I left our walk at the park just a few minutes earlier, we’d have been driving down that exact street, possibly at the exact moment when the tree fell.

Who decides when it’s your moment to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? What supernatural forces are at work that keep you just a few minutes longer where you are or that would have you be in exactly one place in exactly a specific moment?

I wondered later about a giant BOOM Bandit and I had heard while walking. At White Haven (which is a cemetery memorial park; ironic) we’re just a mile or two away (as the crow flies) from where the tree fell.  It’s possible that what we heard was the tree falling, based on witnesses who heard it fall and said the sound was terrifically loud. In fact, the BOOM scared Bandit because it sounded a lot like thunder. It’s what actually ended our walk. Bandit is frightened of thunder, and given that we’ve had two days of storms, when he heard the BOOM, even though the skies were clear and sunny, he made a beeline back to the dogmobile.

I’d wanted to stop walking a few minutes earlier. I’d been feeling a little queasy all morning and was ready to head home. But at a fork in the road in the cemetery, Bandit (in what is a very regular occurance on our walks) stopped, and when I said, “OK, you pick which way we go,” he opted for a longer route back to the dogmobile – until he heard the BOOM.

What are the odds?

I wouldn’t normally dwell on my own mortality, except that last week I celebrated my 30th birthday for the 19th time. Last night darling husband and I were out to dinner and I was musing about how I’ve accomplished nothing of value in my life, left no mark, and wasted much time and opportunity. And really have no prospects that things will change in the near future.

I suppose birthdays are like that, especially as you get older, moments for reflection and a little bit of self-pity.

But I think today the lesson learned is that there’s no value on worrying about the past or fretting about the future when you don’t even have control of this exact second. There are no odds. There is force at work greater than our desires, our plans, our wants, who controls the moment for reasons we will never understand in this life. The only moment we have is now. That is the only thing we can be sure of.