Italy is in a class all by itself.

The incomparable Vespa is known around the world, but that’s just one minor detail in the vast array of Italian accomplishments. The distinctions are many, including: food, art, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, the Vatican, incredible villas, world-class fashion, fast cars (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati ), passionate lovers, espresso, the original organized crime group (a dubious distinction), beautiful cities, culture, opera, and the list goes on and on. But, in addition to the many significant accomplishments over literally millennia, there is nothing quite like the unique Italian personality—a tireless energy, generosity and unmistakable presence, easily seen in their facial expressions, synchronized with flamboyant gestures or easily heard in their voices, as they speak. Spoken words sound like poetry, lyrical and lilting. The Tuscans are particularly proud of their language, since their favorite son, Dante Aligheri, invented it.

Traveling around Italy, wandering the towns and narrow back-streets, one can find all sorts of clever, cute, hilarious and sometimes downright unbelievable Italian sights. Following is a gallery of some surprising and often quirky discoveries we’ve made over several decades of living amongst the amazing Italians. They offer a seemingly endless source of inspiration, and yes, humorous, free entertainment. Their most fascinating contributions can be found scattered around in the every-day activities. You absolutely have to love the Italians!

 

 

San Diego is a multi-cultural city.

How do we know that? Just listen! Aside from English, and of course Spanish, you’ll hear Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Tagalog, along with other Pacific Island and Asian languages. You’ll notice that the air is laced with spoken melodies of French, Italian, Portugese, Armenian, Persian, Greek, German, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew. Various African words and phrases also float about, intermixed with Navajo and other Native North American languages as well. Some, of course, are more prevalent than others, but they all have their day in the California sun, and they all have their “say.”

“Soul” of the city

In addition to hearing the multi-cultural diversity, you can now actually see it, thanks to Jaume Plensa. He is a world-renowned sculptor from Barcelona, who has bestowed his sculpture to San Diego, representing his interpretation of the “Soul” of the city. His multi-lingual expression graces the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway, just outside the new Pacific Gate Tower. The work is an every-day reminder of the importance of diversity in creating who we all are—together.

The human figure, titled “Pacific Soul,” appears to be crouched down, gazing west into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The figure seems to grasp a knee with each hand, adding tension to an otherwise serene form. About this work, Plensa explains, “The ocean is always in movement, always changing; we never know precisely where a drop of water will go, or where it has been before. It is filled with potential.” San Diego is much like its ocean companion—always changing and full of possibility. Serenity and tension co-exist.

Roots to the Pacific

As you approach the imposing figure, you may be drawn to step inside. As you stand there, an infant in a womb, centered in the body, just imagine the magnitude of the idea—The life-giving waters of the Pacific are being drawn upward through the massive “roots” of the sculpture, giving strength and sustenance to anyone inside. We have a sense of being forever linked to the sea. As a baby is linked to its mother, we too are directly connected to the vast ocean beyond.

Looking skyward

The brilliant blue sky creates stark contrast as we gaze upward. Woven together are seemingly random sweeping white ribbons and a variety of shapes. Quickly, letters come into view. These are the lines and figures that enclose us. The myriad diverse letters are gathered from many languages heard within and around the city. Words seem to float in the very air we breathe. You become, and remain an integral part of this bustling metropolis whether living here or just visiting. You can feel the ocean breeze wafting past you, like a balmy current through a screen door on a warm summer day. You are changed.

You begin to understand that your very presence makes you part of Plensa’s multi-cultural “Pacific Soul.” In addition to becoming part of the sculpture, you are also part of the unique, evolving and diverse collective we call San Diego.

Welcome!

Tuscan Hills

We wrote another story and song about diversity in 2011, called “Layers” that you might enjoy reading. Instead of the warm San Diego sun, we were inspired by the hills of Tuscany, where centuries layer upon each other to create a rich history and incredible landscape. That layering deepens individual lives, as well as the texture of generations, forming unmatched magical diversity.

Something happened as we drove  home the other day.

Skinniest two-way traffic in Borgunto

Returning from a routine visit into Fiesole to buy a few groceries and for Em to get a haircut, we rounded the curve just beyond the small town of Borgunto, home to the “bottle-neck capital” of Italy. To our surprise, an oncoming car flashed its headlights. It was broad daylight and we wondered, “What’s that about?  Was that a friend and we just didn’t recognize their car?” A few more yards and we encountered another oncoming car. Again, headlights flashed. “What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with the car that we don’t know about?”

Lollipop police

Then, just after the last turn off (and the final escape route) we saw them: Two police officers were randomly signaling cars to pull over for a routine check. Their style and flair in doing such a mundane task was actually a thing of beauty. They each wore the recognizable uniform of the Carabinieri, local police—navy blue head to toe, single-breasted blazer, silver braid around the red and white collar and cuffs, red piped epaulets on each shoulder, single red stripes down each trouser leg, a dramatic white diagonal sash, and black boots, where they store their little hand held “stop sign on a stick” when it’s not in use.

Carabinieri in action

We amuse ourselves by calling those ridiculous signaling devices “lollipops,” and so of course we refer to the historically significant and highly esteemed carabinieri as the “lollipop police.” Oh yes, they carry another piece of equipment at all times, a holstered pistol, which is classified as an “ordinary” weapon. But, as beautiful as they are, these dedicated enforcers of the law are far more than “eye candy.” They are the keepers of all things lawful.

We thought little of the request since we had all the necessary documents—title, registration, and international driver’s license—neatly stashed and at the ready in the glove box. We were seasoned “residents,” models of perfectly honest, part-time Italians with flawless organization skills. We had been randomly pulled over before, so this seemed somewhat routine. We soon discovered that it was anything but!  

The rule book looked sorta like this

One officer strolled over to the driver’s side window, while the second remained at a safe distance, evidently serving as the back-up “protector” just in case a fight broke out. The impressive figure at the window examined the neatly stacked documents in his gloved hand, and then without a word, walked over to his colleague. Together they looked at our documents as we watched their faces change from “cool Italians” to “puzzled police officers.” Then, after several minutes, they opened the trunk of their subcompact Fiat squad car and took out a voluminous book of rules—so massive, it took both of them to pick it up. One started leafing through the pages and then turned it over to his partner, pointing to a particular place on the page. His forehead wrinkled and eyes squinted. We laughed to each other thinking that maybe we had a couple of trainees on our hands. In previous checks, the officers had only made cursory glances at the documents. These guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing—or so we thought.

The first officer returned to our car and said, “C’è un problema. Parlate italiano?”  “There is a problem. Do you speak Italian?” Since our language skills were iffy at best, we said, “No.” We thought under-stating was the best strategy—they might feel sorry for us and let us go. 

Sidelined—our little car given a “time-out”

Without hesitation, the officer continued his explanation in full speed Italian. We clearly understood key words like, invalido, invalid, and knew that we indeed had a problem. We just didn’t know exactly what, yet. Time to call our friend and attorney, Barbara. After about 5 seconds of hearing our explanation, she asked to speak to the officer. We heard her muffled chattering and his responses. We understood quasi niente, almost nothing. The officer handed the phone back and Barbara’s instructions were clear, “You have no chance. You must pay il multo, the fine, sulla strada, on the road. And you cannot drive la macchina, the car—ancora, again. 

WHAT?!! A FINE?!! CAN’T DRIVE THE CAR?!! BUT, BUT .  . . 

A lot, but not nearly enough

Once we realized that we had to pay, we asked, “quanto costa, how much?” (Even tourists can ask “how much” but usually to buy souvenirs and pay the check after lunch). 275 euro was the reply, plus an additional 73 euro for something else, yet unidentified. Nearly 350 total! We asked, “How do we pay?” “In contante, in cash,” came the answer. 

Okay. Let’s review.

We just received a fine of over 300 euro that must be paid in cash right now. We usually have about 40-50 euro between us on a good day. We can’t drive our car to the bank in Fiesole to get the money. Our international driver’s licenses were useless. The only choice was to ask the carabinieri to give us a ride to the bank. 

The Shaq in action

At first they seem surprised, but soon realized that it was the only possible solution. So we climbed into the backseat of the subcompact Italian squad car, sequestered criminals locked in, and headed in the direction of town. One officer apologized for the inconvenience. “Mi dispiace per questo, I’m sorry for this.” Then, the other officer decided that small talk was in order, probably since they didn’t often have captive Americans on board. “Gioca pallacanestra?” We gave each other blank stares in disbelief. Then he offered in stilted English, “Bahs-keet-ball, you play?” Oh yeah . . . that question. Em is 6’5” and so it’s the single most-asked question of his entire life. (But in Italy, his height earns him the distinction of fetching top-shelf items at the grocery stores for many Italian mammas). The officer went on to say that it was his dream to play basketball—with Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is 7’-1”. Mr Carabinieri is  maybe 5’-8” in his police boots. The idea made us chuckle but we didn’t let on—B-ball talk or not, we were still in trouble with the law. 

As luck would have it, the local carabinieri headquarters is directly across the street from Banca Toscana. Once out of the car, we headed into the bank before returning to finalize our paperwork at the carabinieri headquarters. Fiorella, our favorite teller saw the looks of dismay on our faces and immediately asked, “Che è successo, what happened?” We mumbled our new vocabulary words and phrases, “la macchina, multo, sulla strada, carabinieri.” She said, “Mamma mia! Quanto costa? She shook her head side to side, grimaced and offered her condolences with a deeply sincere sadness, “Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.”

Off to Driver’s Ed—Italian style

After making the report and paying the fine, we were told that neither of us could drive the car. The car documents showed that we had not done the mandatory revisione, which is the bi-annual service/safety check required by Italian law. Unfortunately, we didn’t know such a law existed. The car was to be parked until the revisione could be scheduled. In addition, they confiscated Em’s US driver’s license just for good measure, since we had resident status and were required by Italian law to have patenti italiani—the much dreaded Italian driver’s license. Oops! 

So here’s the riddle: Can a car, that can’t be legally driven, arrive across town for a scheduled appointment, when driven by people who can’t drive because they don’t have valid driver’s licenses?

Answer: Maybe.

This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.

A friendly hello, or goodbye—you choose

The two pleasant carabinieri officers kindly returned us to our car with strict orders not to drive it—except for our immediate drive directly home (that favor required some significant begging and groveling). We were under strict orders that the car was to remain parked until we were legally able to drive it again. We promised to comply as we climbed out of the back seat of the tiny squad car. Then, in one wonderful moment of total linguistic confusion, rather than saying “Goodbye,” Mr Carabinieri extended his hand, and in an effort to close on a high note of international accord, simply said, in English, “HELLO.”  Then he turned in confident military fashion and climbed back into his government-issued Fiat squad car. Their work was finished. 

They surely went immediately to Riccardo‘s bar for coffee, but as for us, our “problemi“ problems had just begun!

This is a true “Italian Moments” story that took place in Fiesole Italy in the spring of 2005.

You might be interested in another kind of “Italian car story,” except this one has a happier ending—called “True Italians.”

Rose Louise Kleis Martlage Henneke.

Rose at home

Wow! Quite a powerful name, don’t you agree? Of course, it is fitting, since she’s such a powerful individual. She’s definitely one of a kind, and today is her 99th birthday. If you were to meet her, we think you’d like her. Oh, sure, she has a few little quirks and peccadillos, but who doesn’t? And if you were to tally the pros and cons of her life, it would be HEAVILY weighted toward the pros—thereby making her an absolute “PRO” at this messy business of living. We’re impressed with her stamina and desire to achieve the sweet age of 99, and offer our congratulations along with a few hearty compliments on her admirable style as well.

A part of the dream come true

Born on April 3, 1922, she was Alice and Will’s third child making her the lucky last one in line to get the lion’s share of abundant parental doting, with the bonus of a big brother and sister adding to the dotage. She set-out to create the best possible version of the “American Dream” (which was impressed onto everyone’s psyche at the time). Her goals were simple: deep and sustaining faith, member of a church that she cherishes, a loving husband, healthy and happy children, and of course a safe and beautiful home in the suburbs. For her, it was a fairy-tale come true, and couldn’t get any better. Even as she lived her dream, she saw her fair share of sorrow and heartache, as well. True to  the custom of the day, when troubles arose, she just prayed, shed a few tears, then propped herself back up and started in again—powered by undaunted drive and persistence which was her hallmark.

Rose and sweet daughter Sue

She always told us she was going to live to be 100. We believed her, but never quite imagined what that prediction really meant or would look like. Now we’re beginning to get an inkling. So, in anticipation of her upcoming 100th year, it seems appropriate to honor her magnificent dream as she charges forward toward achieving her goal. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her this morning and she giggled. We don’t question whether or not she’ll celebrate the next one, because knowing her, she WILL, and possibly even set a new goal. She lives life with a Master Plan—the way she wants things to turn out. In fact, we always joked that she was a “dessert-first planner.” When creating a menu for a dinner party she would consistently decide on the dessert, then make the rest of the meal play toward that end. This upcoming 100th birthday is her “icing on the cake,” and you can be sure she’s in the “kitchen” making everything just right!

Cheers!

This story isn’t just about Rose, or the magical age of 100, or the goodness of a life. Rather, it’s about the power of vision, commitment and determination. Those qualities are readily available to all of us no matter what our name, stage or age. They’re free. Please join in a metaphorical toast to all of us—our hopes, dreams, visions and goals. “Here’s to the power of positive thinking!” Mom’s will-power and the way she lives her strategy is a model for us all. That unmistakable approach and style remains simple. She merely sees this complex world through “Rose-colored glasses.” Well done and happy Birthday!

We love you!

Note: The photo of the 99th birthday party was taken by T.C. Christenberry

The Espresso experience is so much more than drinking a cup of coffee.

Of course the ultimate espresso can only be found in Italy. Case closed. Nothing can match the total experience of the morning espresso and pasta, pastry at a real Italian neighborhood bar. What makes it unique? Hmm, well . . . we’ll take a shot at it?

Caffè Lorenzo

It all starts at Caffè Lorenzo, in the small burg of Pian di Mugnone just outside of Firenze, Florence. In this example, the barista is called Fiore, standing in position wearing a black apron, facing the beautiful stainless steel espresso machine with his back to us as we walk in. A quick glance into the gleaming mirror alerts him of our arrival. Without a second’s hesitation, he slides two more mini saucers with bitsy spoons onto the counter and continues his finely choreographed moves in pursuit of the “real” thing. No motion is wasted. Time is of the essence.  He prides himself in knowing what each of the regulars drink, so the option to change-it-up is pretty much nonexistent, unless you yell it out immediately. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Fiore and his cohort Marta both know that we’ll be choosing a delicious pastry as well, and Marta stands poised with tongs in hand to claim our prize. 

Artistic expression

There’s a captivating rhythm to the process—a morning cadence of steady percussive sounds: the hissing of milk being steamed; constant clinking of the tiny ceramic cups lined up like soldiers guarding the bar; the relentless banging of the spent grounds into the handy pivoting bin; all punctuated by random plucky calls of completed orders. Ahh, music to our ears!  

Okay, but what’s so compelling about such an ordinary “Italian breakfast” experience?

Well, all of the regulars are there with warm greetings as we walk in the door. Some, inevitably offer our little doxy Sara a handy, pocketed doggie treat. If no goodies are forthcoming, Marta may disappear into the kitchen to fetch Sara some pastry scraps. She’s done this so often that Sara watches for Marta to duck into the adjacent room. Intense excitement ensues.

Tasty treats from the kitchen

People are packed into the small space, so there’s a sense of being in a tiny kitchen, having to turn sideways to let someone by, or carefully reach over people to grab an extra napkin. Of course, the true Italian downs a classic espresso within two quick sips—maybe three. Any longer and you risk having your cup swiftly swooped away to make room for the next one. So, we’ve learned never to take a finger from the cup until we’ve completely finished our morning elixir. The staff watches every move to insure that each customer’s completely satisfied.

Since there aren’t any rules about lines in Italy, it’s a bit of a fast action free-for-all where courtesy counts and patience matters. Italians typically don’t queue in any obvious order, but are quite generous in letting someone ahead of them at the cashier (their least favorite part). It’s a messy process for sure, but maybe that’s what makes it so endearing. 

No Roberto today

Although the coffee is delicious, it’s just one small piece of the overall experience. An image of the coffee bar is the first thing that comes to mind whenever Italy is mentioned. It’s definitely the first thought upon waking up to an Italian morning. Strangely enough, it takes us 20 minutes just to get to Caffè Lorenzo, and we’re only there about 15 minutes max. As we leave, we look for our friend Roberto, sitting on his balcony above the bar, waving friendly hellos and remarking about the day. We always leave smiling, satisfied and certain that everything is right in the world, or at least in that small part of Italy—and that’s well worth the hour spent and the 2 euro price tag. 

“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Virginia Woolf  1882 – 1941

Hilma in her studio

Hilma af Klint, born in Stockholm in 1862 was an individual who demanded the freedom of her own mind. While it was still mostly unfashionable for women to be trained in the arts, she studied at the city’s Royal Academy, graduating with honors in 1887. She soon established herself as a respected painter, realizing the power of her spirit and the elegant expression of her own hand. She had a natural talent for realism, deftly rendering figurative paintings. But her heart wanted free reign with authentic originality, and in 1906 at the age of 44, she turned to colorful raw expression. From that point forward, the ground shifted and her life was never the same.

Group V The Evolution – 1908

A member of the Association of Swedish Women Artists, af Klint enjoyed camaraderie with like-minds. But the art world has a long history of male dominance, which caused Hilma to struggle to secure exhibition space. In fact, records show that she may have displayed some of her striking abstract works only once during her lifetime. Despite the challenges, she persisted, creating major stylistic advances ahead of her male peers, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimer Malevich and Piet Mondrian, well-known abstract expressionists at the time. They created their groundbreaking style, rejecting “reality” literally years AFTER af Klint had already quietly invented such radical new forms.

The Ten Largest #1 Childhood – 1907

Af Klint produced ten massive pieces that were artistically and spiritually significant between October and December in 1907, calling them The Ten Largest. They “focused on the stages of life and humanity’s connections to the universe.” She was truly channeling spiritual energy into forms that had never been seen before. Hers is a magnificent story full of light, power and mysterious messages. She belonged to a group with four other women who used psychic abilities to create innovative paintings. In one of their meetings she was inspired to create The Ten Largest, to be displayed following a spiral path in a “Temple.” Coincidentally, 75 years after her death, The Ten were shown in a major exhibition at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City—famous for its unique art display surface on a descending “spiral path,” as mysteriously foretold.

Guggenheim exhibit – 2019

Sadly, her work was destined to be misunderstood and cast aside by the power structure of the time. However, she never wavered from her mission, having ultimate faith in her art. It was then, in that moment of dogged determination that she made an important decision that would literally change the world of art. She of course, decided to continue her life’s work undaunted, BUT, refused to sell any of her art. She intentionally devised a plan to deprive the male dominated art-collecting-world any profit from her work. Upon her death in 1944, her estate was sealed at her bequest. She stipulated that her work could not be seen until 20 years after her death, and absolutely never sold. 

Eros Series #2 – 1907

Her incredible plan was successful and the majority of her work remained largely unseen until 1986—locked away in a storage room miraculously withstanding wide temperature and humidity fluctuations for decades. She was certain there would come a time when people would be able to appreciate what she had created and the story she was destined to tell. Hilma was right. Seventy years after her death, more than 1200 pieces were uncrated to reveal a treasure trove of unimaginable significance—finally receiving the much deserved serious attention that she longed for throughout her life. After so many years of being hidden from public view, the magic and mystery of her life’s work has finally come to light!

Hilma af Klint

The amazing abstract body of work by Hilma af Klint has emerged from the musty crates in the cellar vault, confirming that she clearly predated any early abstract paintings by Kandinsky, the “Father” of abstract art. One big question remains: Will we have the courage to rewrite the story of art to place Hilma af Klint at the center as the true creator of abstract art? After all, she was the “Mother” who invented the movement!

“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”
Michelle Obama

The work of Hilma af Klint can be seen: in the extraordinary documentary of her life called “Beyond the Visible“; in the video covering her past exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York; and in the book called Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future by Tracey Bashkoff. In addition, you can visit the Hilma af Klint Foundation for additional and ongoing information about her life and work.

The featured image at the top of this post is called “Group VI The Evolution #9 – 1908. All photographs of Hilma af Klint works shown here were originally from either the Guggenheim.org exhibition or artblart.com—thank you for your generosity.

The Ten Largest #3 Youth

The magical, mystical allure of Dominoes.

In the hills of 12th century China, domino tiles were purportedly invented. That said, there are pesky rumors of earlier Egyptian and Arabian origins that have persisted over the centuries. Everyone wants the prestigious honor of having dreamt-up one of the greatest games ever made. But regardless of the domino creation story, it’s fair to say that Italy was the first country in Europe to adopt and adapt il gioco da tavolo, the table game, with its irresistible ivory tiles. Let’s fast-forward 500 years from the hills of China to Italy in the 1600s and take a closer look. 

Early game of Dominoes

The game of Dominoes mysteriously appeared in 17th century Italy, in a “new and improved version.” With Italian enthusiasm behind it, the popularity of the game spread across Europe and the rest of the world like wildfire. In China, the game had been called “Pupai,” which means to “lay out.” Although somewhat descriptive, that name was less than dazzling. So, some Italian marketing minds, eager to claim the game, apparently came up with the name Domino to give it more popular appeal.

Palazzo Vecchio Florence- Medici Stronghold

The Latin word dominus means lord or master, which makes some sense since the first player to use all of their tiles becomes the “MASTER” of the game. In addition to the Latin, the Italian word dominare means to dominate, so domino il gioco would literally translate into “I dominate the game.” Given the many power shifts throughout Italy’s history, that name would appeal to those living in the shadow of the forceful Florentine Grand Dukes de’ Medici, or the Vatican’s powerful presence in Rome. Imagine the vicarious sense of strength and authority that dominating a game would give to the powerless in those historic times. So, even though the Italians didn’t invent Dominoes, they did rename it and went on to introduce it to the rest of the world, making it a remarkable success. 

Clergy in hooded black cloaks

There’s another theory in favor of Italian authorship of the game name. Since the Vatican has been the heart of Christianity for centuries, it makes sense that the church would influence the naming of an important cultural pastime. Dominus, meaning Lord, was a pretty direct God reference to the Church. After all, there was nothing much separating Church and State at that time—they were essentially one and the same. The Church wanted the association between the Divine and everyday, ordinary life to be emphasized. 

Fresco of the Dominican Order with dogs

The traditional garb for priests and monks were hooded black cloaks. Curiously, early European game pieces were made with an ivory or bone front with a contrasting back made from ebony. In the mind’s eye, the subtle association was made to the black-shrouded clergy—creating Holy intrigue for the popular game, complete with spiritual force, mystery and authority. Even more specifically, one religious order followed the teachings of Saint Domenico, and so became the Dominicans, a relatively austere order (often contrasted with the Franciscans). Their order name was frequently slurred to Domini-Canes, dogs for God, due to their stringent adherence to scripture. Once again, the connection to the church is quietly reinforced.

The Domino of Carnivale

A third theory to support the Italian influence over the game is based in Venezia, Venice. During the famous Carnivale, costumes are traditionally worn so that the wearer remains anonymous. The cloaks and masks underscore elements of adventure, intrigue, and mystery. Questionable behavior is protected and class differences dissolve for a time. The traditional black-hooded robe with a white mask called a Domino is worn by both men and women. Just by donning a small covering across the eyes, anyone could change their gender and status. The Church obviously frowned upon bad behavior, so wearing a disguise was flaunting individual action over authority. During Carnivale, anyone can be powerful and influential, or at least present the illusion!

Domino theory in action

Even though Dominoes seems old-fashioned today and most likely a relic to be discovered in Grandma’s closet, the game remains compelling. There may be a sentimental longing for the tactile, a need to physically lay the pieces on a table. There’s something soothing about the unmistakable click and clatter of the tiles. In fact, there seems to be a universal compulsion to line the tiles in vertical rows and then listen to the staccato percussion as they knock each other over. In fact, the tiles have gone from simple games at Grandma’s table to complex displays in huge auditoriums. We now have “Domino Competitions” where they’ve become strategic, artistic, mechanical creations. Just tap the first tile and watch the lines of standing pieces cascade into one another.

Then in 1954, President Eisenhower christened the “Domino Theory,” suggesting that a series of countries could also fall in rapid succession to political power. The once humble game of Dominoes has literally shown-up in so many aspects of our lives—our homes, churches, classrooms, thoughts and war rooms. 

Grandma’s game table

But for most of us, the notion of the original game is a sweet trip down memory lane—some family fun at Grandma’s house. Regardless of the origin or the evolution, Dominoes continues to exert a subtle presence in our lives. Even with a potent magic spell you probably couldn’t make that timeless, tried and true game disappear—hocus pocus domino-cus—It’s still there! 

 

Watch the highly evolved version of that simple 12th century Chinese game of Dominance.

Our granddaughter spent last weekend with us.

Her heartfelt message

One afternoon, during quiet time, she spontaneously declared that she’d like to send her mom and dad a text. So we opened a phone and set the screen for texting. She immediately started typing and talking. It was amazing to watch her dexterity with the phone, as she narrated her intended message. It was sweet, heartfelt and emotional as she spoke, “Dear Mom and Dad, I miss you so much and send you love from my heart to your hearts.” Her little fingers danced across the keypad. Then, tiring of the meaningless jumble of letters and pretend words, she tapped the emoji button and was immediately delighted with her discovery. She quickly scattered out a smattering of images. Her joy increased noticeably. After a few minutes with many rows of tiny icons, we declared the message complete. Smiling at her accomplishment, she intuitively tapped the send arrow.

Needless to say, her parents were both thrilled and a little confused with the missive. We actually had to do a followup text to make sure they knew it was Rosie’s message and not ours. They later admitted that they seriously thought we might have sent it, which was a bit disquieting (uh, oh, we’re worrying our children now). 

Our sad-face message to Rosie

That next day Rosie went home and early that evening we received her bedtime text. She had taken the liberty (with some supervision) to send us one of her unmistakable messages. Thrilled but not confused, we rapid-fire returned a similar style text to our little communicator. We thought it was great fun to have another way to “play” together. Later that evening, we talked to her mom who told us how excited Rosie was to get our follow-up message, and that she studied each and every emoji carefully to understand what we were saying. Then, she turned to her mom and said, “They must be sad about me leaving. The very first picture is a crying-face.” 

Ah, the power of the image.

Curious, we decided to dig a little deeper into the origin of those amusing little snippets that so frequently lace and illustrate our messages these days. The word emoji actually comes from the Japanese characters forming the word “picture” or “pictograph,” The emoji idea was born in 1997, and the mother of that invention was the company, SoftBank. Erroneously, emojis were thought to have been originally “invented” in 1999 by the Docomo company, but that credit was incorrect. 

2018 Apple Poo
’97 SoftBank Poo

The dispute was finally settled—the credit goes officially to SoftBank. They were the first to create and circulate the initial “emoji set” around the globe. Those little short-hand graphics have become well known and widely understandable icons no matter what age or culture. SoftBank also claims proud authorship of the most iconic original emoji of them all: the “Pile of Poo.” It apparently expressed an essential and versatile sentiment, qualifying it as one of the original 90 emojis. Even today, after nearly 25 years, it still garners ample groans, chuckles and poignancy every time it pops-up.

Pure emotion!

People often assume that the word emoji was derived from the word “emotion.” Not so. But since they can, in fact, capture a complex emotion with condensed accuracy, those clever little symbols are pretty much ALL about emotions. They are tiny compressed Rorschach blots of colorful information with the ability to convey far more than words. They are power-packed arrows that aim straight to the heart of the matter. Emojis communicate where words often fall short. The subconscious has an uncanny way of pulling the essence from a jumble of stuff. That’s exactly what happened with our granddaughter.

It’s true. We were absolutely saddened to see little Rosie June leave, but couldn’t capture the feelings in so many words, “We hate to see you leave,” or “Come back soon, promise?” or “Call us later!” Yet, she got the real message with unmistakeable accuracy since the sad crying face was the first emoji on the text. With such directness, the “true” message was both sent and received.

How simply elegant!

You might also enjoy a related story with music called “Without Words,”

Life is a puzzle.

Iris the Master Puzzler at work

Our daughter Iris has earned the moniker of “Puzzle Master—Master Puzzler,” for a simple and very good reason: that girl can really work a jigsaw puzzle like no one else! She’s been known to stretch across the table to pluck a piece right out of someone else’s hand if necessary. The small cardboard cutouts fly fast and furiously as she pops them in one right after the other. She uses color and shape seamlessly, rarely referring to the box lid for guidance. Upside-down, sideways, sitting or standing makes no difference. Oh, and by the way, she ALWAYS pockets one piece to insure that she gets to make the ceremonial closing play. That’s important to her for some reason, so we all automatically glance her way when searching for the last missing piece. She protests at first, then mock innocently checks her pockets, suddenly feigning surprise. Voila!! She produces the missing piece and righteously pops it into place—definitely one of our best family rituals! 

Each day a new piece

Of course, we see a similarity in our tradition of working family puzzles and working through the “puzzles of Life.” After all, every moment of every day we locate a new piece of the “Life picture”—like an opening into the future, an inviting doorway. We carefully check for fit and color-match, experimenting and perhaps asking, “Does that look right?” Even squinting or shifting perspective can leave us with doubt as we ask the person next to us, “I can’t tell, does that piece fit or am I forcing it?”

Rainy day discovery

While on an early morning walk after an evening rain, Em spied something curious on the brick sidewalk downtown. Oddly enough, it was a single jigsaw puzzle piece. How strange! But in that instant, the lonely lost part flipped a switch in his brain. He had been working through one of Life’s conundrums—searching for a clue, a missing piece or two that would lead to a logical conclusion. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Ahh! That’s the way it magically happens sometimes.

However, we’re not all master-puzzlers and we don’t always magically find the missing piece we’re looking for. Wouldn’t it be nice if Life came packaged in a box with a specific number of pieces and a picture on the front? Would you ever agree to work a puzzle without a picture? We think not. Yet, we patiently fit our lives together, piece-by-piece with very sketchy, if not absent information, all the while knowing that we basically have to work it alone. 

The missing piece of Life’s puzzle

Let’s face it, our little puzzling metaphor has its limits, but there are still some valuable insights: 1) Even though some pieces my be difficult to find, we have to be vigilant and patient to get just the right match; 2) don’t hesitate to reach across the table if necessary when you finally see what you’re looking for; 3) sometimes we need to shift our position to get a fresh perspective; and 4) humor with some good old-fashioned belly laughter is essential. But remember that there may be a trickster among us. Don’t get discouraged—because someone may have just slipped a critical piece of your puzzle into their pocket, momentarily hiding it from view. Rest assured that eventually all of the pieces will fall right into place. 

Following is a song we wrote a few years ago about this very process, called: “Fitting Pieces.” 

 

The tower-shell snail teaches us how to be human

A whole bunch of Tower Shells

The little turret-shell/tower-shell is the home of the common sea snail. They’ve spent millions of years perfecting the art of home-making and now they’re finally ready to pass their secrets on to us. Shhh—Here’s how it works: We civilized folk think in terms of “time-lines,” past, present and future—an abstraction of our lives. It’s easy to become untethered to those strand-ed “life lines.”

Nature’s spiral

The sea snail, on the other hand, thinks about “time spirals” that become tangible, functional objects—literal home-making. Every day, they are laying down new increments of a continuous spiral that will demarcate, protect and give meaning to their life. There’s never a question about where they started, where they are now, or where they’re going. Life is a tower. Life is a shell!

Artist/sculptor Joe O’Connell understands the lesson of the “tower-shell snail” very well. However, he also knows that the sea snail’s secret is so simple that it’s actually hard to convey to humans. Fortunately, he speaks a unique language that can communicate the story quickly and powerfully—spoken in a way that everybody understands the world around, all 7.6 billion of them. Art!

“Growing Home”

In 2018, Joe got the chance to speak to the world through his art of monumental sculpture, at a project in San Diego, California. Right smack-dab in the middle of a modern day “piazza” at the Park 12 Collection, he quietly placed his statement called “Growing Home,” for all to see—and what a beautiful story he tells. He speaks of people and their city in a way that even a sea snail would understand. This modern-day fable is told in the form of a tower-shell. We suddenly see ourselves like slow-moving sea creatures, rather than fast and frantic. We are methodically creating events that we instinctively lay down in a spiral day by day—building a beautiful soaring form around ourselves that literally becomes the shell/evidence of lives well lived. We magically become master-builders within a universe of master-builders. Meaning-makers on a grand and heroic scale. Most assuredly, we are spiraling down and growing home!

You might also be interested in another story with music that we wrote some years ago called “Homecoming.”