A Decisive Moment


While best associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson, the term “decisive moment” is actually a quotation from Cardinal de Retz:

There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment, and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.”

We go through lives in a stupor, and don’t see this truth. When this truth becomes evident with startling clarity, often, it is as it applies to our health.

Health can change very suddenly, and then nothing is the same. An illness that turns out to be more than just a cold. A diagnosis of an unknown chronic disease. An accident.

When this happens, we look for causes, because human beings are storytellers. We create these elaborate chains of causality, trying to find the decisive moment. We try to explain, deny or fight what happened. We look for excuses or visualize alternate pasts, hinging on alternate actions at a particular moment .

“If I hadn’t stepped off the sidewalk, the car wouldn’t have hit me.”

“If I had been paying attention, I wouldn’t have cut my tendon.”

“If I hadn’t shared the ……., I wouldn’t have picked up ………”

But this dissembling hides the truth. The deep truth is, sometimes, there is no cause. The links of causality could not have been any different. There is no one decisive moment, a moment when everything changed, that can be pulled out and examined, revisited and relived with exquisite care –– every moment is a decisive moment.

It is only when we accept this truth, that we can find a way forward. Every moment of our lives, is a decisive moment.

We cannot explain it, deny it, or fight it. We can only accept it. And when we accept it, we can find a way forward. Because then we give up the self-indulgence of an alternate past. Because then we give up the hope of a prior imagined future. We stop blaming ourselves and others for what happened.

We face the reality of this immediate moment, every moment, a decisive moment, with gratitude for what we have, without blame for what could have been and without regret for what wasn’t.


The Tillerson Tragedy

How does a person rise to the top of a large company and then behave like Tillerson in this article? How does one become a CEO while being so tone deaf? How does one lose all ability when moving from a company to government?

Tillerson rose through all those different levels, to become CEO of Exxon for 10 years. Almost surely, every time, he had to have been selected over another person, because of his personal characteristics, or the business results he delivered. How could he such a poor manager at State? How could he not realize the impact of his actions or non actions? Could Exxon have been making an error, every time, by continuing to promote Tillerson?

Humans are truly unknowable if they are able to behave like this. Human processes are so error prone, if they could deliver this result.

What a sad state of affairs! For Tillerson to go down in history as the worst US Secretary of State. For his tenure to be an unmitigated disaster. All citizens of the USA, and people of the world deserve better!



Thanksgiving Day Observations


Yesterday seemed like a good day to think about what I’m grateful for. These would be adversity, family and my puppy (dog).

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”

Adversity grounds and challenges us. One aspect of adversity is that it is nothing more than missing future expectations. We lost the round in the debate tournament, and won’t go on to the elimination rounds. The contract went to the other team. The offer extended was turned down. The meeting didn’t go as planned. At this point, we can resist and feel sorry about the adverse circumstances, still desiring the missing future. Or we can accept, and see what information this holds. How can I improve my performance in the debate round? Why did we lose the contract? What was missing in our offer? Why did the meeting go off track?

As we think about these reasons, we challenge ourselves for the answers. This requires examination of the evidence, creativity in coming up with solutions, and the drive to change our behavior for next time. These hard but necessary steps keep us motivated, help us grow and change for the better. All due to adversity, and so I am thankful for its “sweet uses.”

I’m thankful for my family. My immediate family that supports and loves me. My extended family that I only see from time to time, and talk to, infrequently, but still has warm feelings towards me. My friends with whom I have shared experiences and have common past. They infuse my life with richness and joy, and I am thankful for their presence.

Finally, my new puppy. Always happy to see me with his wagging tail, a welcoming sniff, and numerous licks of affection. Ready to offer his belly for a belly rub. Curious about every sound, smell and new individual he meets. He is full of life, and he reminds me to appreciate every day.

Thanks to adversity, my family and my puppy, for enriching my life by adding experiences and joy to all the moments of daily life!

A Futile Endeavor


“I love my children so much, but I am not with them most of the day. They go to school and I see them for a few hours every morning and evening. How do I protect them? How do I ensure that they do not suffer, they are not hurt?” I asked the resident Monk.

It was the last evening of a week long Zen meditation retreat. We had been meditating daily for hours, in the morning, afternoon and evening. Now we had the opportunity to ask questions, and my question was about my children.

The Monk looked at me and smiled. “I can see you love your children, and you want to protect them. But it is a futile endeavor.”

“What do you mean?” I asked bewildered, “How can I not protect them?”

“You cannot be with them forever. You already know that,” he responded. “They have their own journey through life. They will be happy and sad and hurt and joyful, and you cannot prevent their suffering. But there is something you can do,” he added.

“What is that?” I asked, still confused.

“There is only one person you are with 24 hours a day. Do you know who that is?” he asked.

I pondered his question for a moment, and then I got it. “The only person I am with, 24 hours a day, is myself.”

“Very good,” he responded. “You are the only person you can affect in this world. You cannot change someone else. You cannot protect someone else. But through the example of your life, you can show your children, how to live. How to be happy. How to deal with disappointment. How to love. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I replied. It was all, suddenly, very clear to me.

I am reminded again of these words, today, the first day of 2017, when we think of our resolutions.

We cannot change our children.

We cannot change our spouses.

We cannot change our parents.

We cannot change our friends.

These are all futile endeavors.

We can only change ourselves, the person we are with, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Grab the opportunity with both hands. Change yourself this year!



The Meaning of Family

Luxury Restaurant Tableware

“Slow day today?” I asked the attendant who had just refilled my glass of water.

“So far, but it will get busy very soon,” he replied.

I was sitting in an Indian restaurant, in a nondescript strip mall. The restaurant was tastefully decorated with photographs and fabrics, a cut above the standard Indian images of the Taj Mahal. There was just one more table occupied by another guest, from the more than a dozen tables in the restaurant.

“The food is really good,” I complimented him.

“Thank you,” he replied, “That is really meaningful to hear. This is my restaurant and I’m proud of it.”

“How long has it been open?” I asked

“Just six months,” he replied, “And I am learning something everyday.”

“Your first restaurant…?” My question hung in the air.

“Yes,” he responded, “I graduated six months ago with a BS, but rather than a job, I always wanted to start a restaurant. When I told my parents, they supported me and provided the financing for this restaurant. My parents are partners with me in this restaurant.”

“Wow, that is great!” I exclaimed, “It must be wonderful to have such supportive parents!”

“You don’t know the least of it,” he said. “Earlier this afternoon, my Dad called to check and see how things were going, and I told him that my two attendants had called in sick. Without saying anything else, my Dad and Mom came over. That’s my Dad at the filling water for the other guest. That’s my Mom, cleaning the tables over there.” He gestured to the older Indian gentleman and lady that were absorbed in their work in another part of the restaurant. I had noticed them earlier, but had not paid them any special attention.

“Well, enjoy your food,” he said, and walked away to greet another couple that had just entered the restaurant.

I sat there, ate my food, and thought about families. Parents buying into their child’s dream, financially. Pitching in to help without making a fuss, yet doing so from the background, not trying to steal the limelight, nor talk up their son. Demonstrating by deed, more meaningful than any words, what support, love, trust, and belief, truly mean. Families can be so powerful in shaping our world.

I Was So Afraid I Would Die


“I was so afraid I would die, you know,” said my barber as I sat in her chair, while she cut my hair.

We all have these moments when we are not in control.

I sat down in the barber’s chair, politely asked her, “How have you been?” and then relaxed as she started her story.

She tied the neck strip, and draped the barber’s cape around my body. “Oh, I just came back from Vietnam. I was visiting my family there, you know. I had just got there, when I started getting pain in my stomach,” she said. “It was so bad, I thought I was going to die. I thought, ‘Am I having a heart attack? I’m vomiting, I have a fever. Why does it hurt so much?'” The scissors clipped my hair as I saw her reflected in the mirror.

“I went and saw a doctor, and he said, ‘You have gall stones, and need to have surgery right now.'” Her eyes were focused on my head as she kept going around the chair, her hands darting and taking off errant hair, the click-clack sounds creating a rhythm, puffs of hair dropping in my lap, onto the barber’s cape.

“I had to go in for the surgery, and I thought – if I die, what will happen to my clothes, my shoes and my handbags? All my things, you know? Back in the United States? Who would take care of them? Where would they go?”

We don’t like to think of what will happen after we are gone, and when we do, there are more questions than answers. Answering these questions requires too many hard conversations with loved ones. So we maintain the patina of normalcy, and don’t have the conversations – unless, of course, we cannot ignore the premonitions of mortality provided by our bodies. Then, all of a sudden, the questions are irresistible, overpowering, suffocating, beating down the carefully maintained door of our consciousness, demanding attention.

“I had my surgery and it went well, and I am back here, you know, but I was so scared of dying in Vietnam.”

As I sat and looked at her reflection, I suddenly saw her as a full human being. Not just with physical scars visible on her body, but also hidden psychological scars on her mind, received through her experiences.

Just like all of us.

What To Do When Feeling Stuck?

The feeling of being stuck, with no escape

Stuck, with no escape

photo credit: Pozzo di San Patrizio via photopin (license)

Just over the last few weeks, in several conversations, the same theme has emerged:

“I feel I did the wrong course. What I want to do is different from what I’ve studied.”

“I have anxiety and I cannot sleep. I wish things were different.”

“I am in this job, and cannot quit. Because how do I find something comparable?”

” I wish I could lose 50 pounds. But it is so hard to lose weight.”

These are the times when we find ourselves “stuck”, when change is hard and feels impossible. We wish we were somewhere else, a different place, a different time, in a different relationship, a different body. That we had done something different in the past, so we wouldn’t be here today. That only if we could make someone do what we want them to do, our life would be so much better. That only if we had something – a new status, a new possession, a new development in a relationship, a new job, we would feel OK.

That the present moment is not OK.

I am familiar with these feelings. I have struggled too with this thinking. The feeling of being wronged, being misunderstood, being in a place where I don’t want to be, or think I deserve to be.

My words below are the opposite of a recommendation for passivity. Instead they are a clarion call for action with compassion and courage, for beginning, and beginning again and again, not giving up.

Imagine, yourself, “stuck.”

Recognize you are suffering. That you are worthy of compassion, sympathy, love and caring, just like you would help a friend who came to you with such a problem.

Accept the situation you are in. The present cannot be any different, because we can’t go back and change the past.

The future, however, doesn’t have to be the same as the present. That, you, yourself, decide your destiny. Change lies in your hards, and you need the courage to start and move, even if it seems impossible.

Most importantly, to make a change, even if it is a small beginning. To be consistent with this change, even if you fail and have to start again. The biggest danger is to stop because you did not see any results. Your responsibility is just for action, without negativity or blame for failing, with kindness and compassion for yourself.

Don’t let others get you down with criticism or find fault in your progress. You have the responsibility to act, no matter what.

Finally, every day is a new start, a new opportunity. Make the most of it. Just begin again.



Meltdown in Snow

“Get away from me! GET AWAY FROM ME!!”

The voice was loud, angry and quivering with emotion. I turned around on my skis to see what was going on. There it was – a snapshot of a domestic distress at the entrance to the ski lift in Park City, UT.

The woman had two small children clutching each of her legs. She was crying. Both children were crying. Their skis were lying haphazardly on the ground around them. Her partner was standing 3 feet away, gesturing as if he wanted to help, but being told to stay away.

The meltdown of self control that typically happens in the privacy of our homes, away from prying eyes, was happening in front of the transfixed crowd.

“GO AWAY! GO AWAY!!”, she continued yelling at him. Everyone paused to see what he would do. He stood there, looking at her. Her hands tried to comfort the two sobbing children. “Don’t touch me! I don’t want you here! GET AWAY”, she shouted, ignoring the crowd, her eyes flashing at him.

What had snapped her reserve? With two small children, they had to have been together for several years. How long had this been going on?  Or was it just a bad day due to the accumulated stress of the ski vacation – flights and cars, a new hotel room, getting the children dressed, the heavy boots, the cold weather, the falls of beginning skiers?

No one dared intercede. The woman shuffled over with her children to a bench at one of the outdoor tables. Tears were still streaming down her face as she hugged them. At that moment, my skiing group showed up from their run. I left with my group into the anonymity of the lift lines, leaving her sitting on that bench.

For the rest of that day, the woman and her situation were on my mind. Except for the public loss of self control, perhaps we have all been in her shoes. Memories of times where anger, frustration, fatigue, loss, misunderstanding, rejection, or unfulfilled expectations, have led to yelling and screaming. Not our proudest times, but these signs of pain and suffering are what make us human.

On that day, I wished that she and her family could find calm and peace, and I continue to wish for a better future for them.




Less Than Perfect



By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9576892

Wabi-sabi: Accepting transience and imperfection

What happens when you are not the best you can be with someone you love?

This evening, while driving N home, I asked if he had spoken to his coach about missing practice, like I had asked him to do. N replied that he had, but in his own way, leaving out what I felt was an important detail.

The frustration of a long day caught up with me. With a raised voice, I pointed out, where, several times in the recent past, N hadn’t done exactly what I had asked him to do. By the time I finished, N had tears in his eyes.

I remember a Q&A session at a meditation retreat. I asked the monk how I could protect my children from hurt and suffering, since I am not with them during most of their day. The monk replied that I couldn’t save anyone else from suffering. I could only save the person I was with 24 hours a day – myself.

Not only had I not protected N, I had contributed to his distress. I had modeled a focus on missing details, instead of complimenting N on his independence in talking to his coach. I had demonstrated how to carry troubles of the past, unresolved conversations, unfinished tasks, anxiety for the future, all the disappointments of the day; I had illustrated how to unload this ammunition onto an unsuspecting loved one.

After I apologized to N, because of his big and generous heart, he accepted my heartfelt apology.

But I carried the disquiet of my behavior into the evening. How to forgive oneself?

First, with acceptance of the hurt from my thoughtless words to my son.

Second, by letting go of the deep regret I felt for the way I had behaved.

Third, by resolving to be more mindful and in the moment, by not carrying the burden of a frustrating day into my next conversation.

Finally, by accepting that I am less than perfect, human, still a work in progress.


Show Up and Own It

Ergs ready for competition

Getting Ready for the Peninsula Indoor Rowing Championship


The Peninsula Indoor Rowing Championship took place last weekend at Canada College. All the prep work was done by parents and rowers from Stanford Rowing Center on Saturday, Feb 6.

A task list was circulated by the coach, and parents and rowers signed up for different tasks – loading the ergs, unloading and arranging the ergs, testing the ergs, etc. However, no one was directly in charge to issue orders and allocate work.

With this uncertainty on what to do next, some parents and rowers jumped right in and started doing something, even if they didn’t know exactly what to do. They saw someone working and said, “Can I give you a hand with what you are doing?” Other parents and rowers stood around, averted their eyes, and checked their phones.

Why would someone volunteer and show up at an event, and then not be fully engaged in the work? In no particular order, here is my effort to understand this behavior. I thought about this as I drove home after the prep work was completed:

  1. They didn’t really want to do work, but wanted to say that they had volunteered. They wanted to be seen as a volunteer.
  2. There was something more important going on in their life at that time – school, family, work, etc., but since they had committed to showing up, they did so. But their mind was elsewhere.
  3. They didn’t feel comfortable breaking the ice and introducing themselves to someone they didn’t know. Or asking a more experienced person what to do. Because of social anxiety, they retreated to their phones.
  4. The tasks they wanted to do were already being done by other parents/rowers. They didn’t want to do open tasks, and no one was there to tell them what to do.

Nonetheless, all the work got done on Saturday. Sunday was again managed by volunteers, and it was a spectacularly successful event, on-time and well organized.

To organize and run a successful event, doesn’t require everyone to be 100% committed. Even varying levels of engagement are enough, as long as a core group is fully engaged.

But it sure is more fun, if you Show Up and Own It!