Insect Omen: Wooly Bear Caterpillar A Sign From Above?

When life gets confusing, sometimes you look to the universe for answers or a sign. This is especially true if you’re facing a big life choice, making a major decision, or, like me, looking for a new job.I took our dogs out for a midnight bathroom break the other night, and I noticed a small, black shape on our landing. At first I thought it was a blackened leaf, or maybe a little “gift” from one of the dogs. I bent down for a closer look and the black shadow wiggled.

It was a big, thick, fuzzy black caterpillar. It was equal parts creepy and beautiful. I’d never seen one like it before.

Where did it come from? Maybe it fell from the trees above. It certainly didn’t belong on our back landing; that was way to close to being inside our house. This multi-legged, furry-backed creature belonged deep in the Great Outdoors. I helped Mr. Caterpillar get one step closer by flicking it into the grass with the end of a broom. It was better suited there among the roots, shoots, and dirt.

But after giving the dogs their biscuits and locking up for the night, I wondered if the mysterious black caterpillar wasn’t the heavenly sign I sought. Caterpillars represent change. They mean fall is coming.

Good Luck, New Birth

Some cultures consider caterpillars a sign of good luck and new birth. Caterpillars mean it’s time to start a new project or endeavor, shed the old and welcome the new.

Old farmers claim you can predict the severity of next winter’s weather based on the amount of fuzz on a caterpillar’s back. According to the guy I met the other night, we’re in for a rough one.

Caterpillars transform themselves like no other creature in nature. They’re built for change. Trading in ten little legs for a pair of colorful wings is what they do. Caterpillars become butterflies, and butterflies are free to fly, fly away. (Though I’m pretty sure the “wooly bear” caterpillar I met the other night will become a Giant Leopard Moth, but you get the idea.)

An Internet hippy named Presley Love puts it this way:

“Caterpillar holds the grand dream of becoming all that it can be, with no limitations. It reaches out to become its greatest expression of self, spirit, and soul. Putting everything aside, it follows the drive to evolve. Caterpillar teaches us to do the same, to find our power to transform in deep meditation, to go into the cocoon and emerge as a greater aspect of self…believing in the possibilities that with faith all things great and small are possible and to remember that the grand and beautiful things have very humble beginnings.”

Creepy Bug At The Door

What was my role in Mr. Caterpillar’s future? Did I sentence him to death by flicking him into our yard, where he might fall prey to birds and other wildlife? Or did I provide him with a “relocation opportunity,” a chance to start over someplace new, a place he’d never considered, a place he would have never reached, without my intervention?

Being unemployed gives you time to think (maybe too much!) Sometimes you feel like a caterpillar, or some other creepy bug, lying on a stranger’s doorstep, waiting to be either crushed or brushed aside. Other times you can feel the wings growing on your back, waiting for the right moment to break free and send you soaring skyward.

Either way, it’s time for a change.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2015

Zen and the Art of the Adult Coloring Book

11201723_669770653154420_2144179061_nRemember “The Secret Garden?” No, not that stodgy old children’s tale. The adult coloring book!

I’m not talking about funnyman Colin Quinn’s latest literary effort, “The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America,” either. That’s a funny book, but not the kind of coloring book I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a grab-your-crayons-and-find-a-sunny-place-to-work kind of coloring book. Adult coloring books are topping bestseller lists around the globe. “The Secret Garden” recently topped the New York Times Bestseller list. French publisher Hachette has a collection called Art-Thérapie with 20 volumes including all kinds of drawings from butterflies and flowers to cupcakes, graffiti and psychedelic patterns. In the United Kingdom, illustrator Mel Simone Elliot’s “Colour Me Good” series lets you color-in pictures of celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Kate Moss. Spanish cartoonist Antonio Fraguas, or Forges, published Coloréitor, “a de-stress book.”

Grown-up coloring books are marketed as a way to escape the media bombardment of the digital world and rediscover the do-it-yourself joys of something simple and stress-free. According to psychologists, coloring activates both halves of the brain, stimulating creative skills as well as a sense of logic and reason. Coloring can bring a sense of relaxation that lowers activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion and is affected by stress.

One of the most common symbols found in adult coloring books are mandalas, spiritual symbols from India that represent the universe. Mandalas have circular designs with concentric shapes and geometric symmetry, like the intricate patterns of a flower. One of the first psychologists to use coloring mandalas as a relaxation technique was Carl G. Jüng in the early 20th century.

abstract-coloring-page-by-thaneeyaThe first time I saw an adult using a coloring book was during an early episode of the reality show “The Osbournes” back in 2002. Here was Ozzy Osbourne, the Dark Prince of Rock-n-Roll, sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by foul-mouthed chaos, calmly working a color-by-number landscape with a package of magic markers. He looked like an overgrown child, carefully selecting each color, and staying within the lines. Evidently the Ozzman was ahead of the curve when it comes to unwinding through art.

The Zen-like instructions for one of Amazon’s bestselling adult coloring books tells the story:

  1. Break out your crayons or colored pencils.
  2. Turn off your phone, tablet, computer, whatever.
  3. Stop thinking about your job, your credit score, your reputation with your co-workers, your goals, your waistline, your retirement savings, etc.
  4. Remind yourself that coloring is like dancing, or being alive. It doesn’t have a point; it is the point.
  5. Find your favorite page in the book. That is the beginning.
  6. Start coloring.
  7. If you notice at any point that you are having fun, forgetting your worries, daydreaming freely, feeling more creative, excitable, curious, delighted, relaxed or any combination thereof, breathe deeply and take a moment to enjoy it. Then, gently return your attention to coloring.
  8. When you are satisfied or don’t feel like it anymore, stop.

Adult coloring books are a way to recapture the innocence of youth. They also give artists a sense of control; everything’s got a specific shape and color, just follow the key and stay in the lines. Color-by-number and fill-in-the-blank style artwork offers a “shortcut” for artists of all skill levels. You can create your own artistic masterpiece without the talent and/or training of a fine artist!

ccd4f8667217a6ef737ed2bb0a25e777Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” This is why adult coloring books are so popular. They can cleanse the soul, or at least give your mind and spirit a rest, a chance to create something colorful, pretty, and uniquely your own.

Plus, it’s good to get your fingers working at something other than a keyboard, touch screen, or remote control.

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Facing 2014 with resolution, resolve

New Year Fresh Start
New Year Fresh Start!

I‘m heading into the New Year with a new attitude, because, in all honesty, I need to get a grip on myself.

In many ways 2013 was the best year of my life. Unemployment was a godsend. I love being home, spending time with my wife and kids. Grocery shopping? Laundry? Picking the kids up from school, and helping with homework? Count me in!

My wife and I had time to return to animal rescue this year. We fostered a pregnant stray, and helped find excellent homes for her and all her puppies. Our current foster, a sweet Cairn terrier named Enzo, is still looking for his forever home.

I spent the year rebranding myself as an author. I promoted my books, built a few web sites, and dipped my toe in the blogging sea. I’m not earning enough (yet) to make it a full-time profession, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying.

A lot of fun … that was 2013. A little too much fun.

I let myself go in 2013. I ate like an animal, and packed on pounds. I fell off the no smoking wagon months ago, and can’t seem to find my way back on. I’m indulgent, gluttonous, living too high on the hog.

Mick Jagger once said, “It’s all right to let yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.” But it’s more difficult to get back on track when you’re older, (Mick also noted, “What a drag it is getting old.”) It’s fun and scary living a decadent lifestyle, like riding a roller coaster. But it gets old and pathetic.

If the body is a temple, then mine is a battered old shack, a handyman’s special in need of TLC. I’ve had a lot of fun in this house — it was a 24/7 party palace in 2013! — but I’ve neglected the maintenance. I need to turn it around. I need to dig deep. I need to refurbish myself. I need to get control of myself and get healthy.

Most important, I need to set a good example for my children.

All success in life stems from self-control. When you’re out of control, your world spirals out of control, too. Control your inner self, and you control the world around you. As Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho writes in Aleph: “If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.”

It takes discipline, but as a wise man once said, “Discipline weighs ounces, regret weighs tons.” Unhealthy lifestyle choices lead to a world of regret.

But it’s never too late to change. As author C.S. Lewis noted, “You are never too old to set another goal, or dream a new dream.”

May all your dreams come true in 2014!

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A New Year, A New Attitude, A New You — 5 Easy Steps

I published this feel-good, self improvement piece in January 2009. I thought it was pretty schmaltzy, but people seemed to like it, so here it is. The advice is still sound, and will work just as well for you in 2013 as it did in 2009…probably even better! (Your results may vary.) Happy New Year all!

Laughing Budda knows the secret to true happiness. I knew a guy in college who believed the laughing, standing Budda was celebrating after exhaling a massive bong hit. College was fun.

I avoid self-help books like the plague. Who needs some sanctimonious moron telling you how to live, offering up a bunch of Dr. Phil-type platitudes that are either meaningless or obvious or both?

What? You like self-help books? You want to be a better you in the New Year? Well, fortunately you’ve come to the right place.  I’m no good at taking advice, but I’m a whiz at dishing it out. Heck, give me enough time and I’ll solve everybody’s problems…except for my own!  Here are five self-help tips that will get you “feelin’ fine in ‘09”:

1)    Get Your Head Together – Get your priorities straight. There are only three things that matter in life: health, family and inner peace (aka happiness). Stop worrying about money – it’s not on the list. As Marlon Brando says in The Godfather, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” The same goes for women (except, you know, they’re not actually men.) The point is you have to value and cherish the people in your family – they are the only things in your life of any real worth. That’s where you should invest your time and effort.  Rich is the man who discovers the treasure of love under his own roof. If only family wasn’t so expensive

2)    Get Your Body Together –I’m not going to pitch you on a fitness kick. (Ha! Talk about a sanctimonious moron!)  If you’re happy where you’re at, then so am I. Getting to the Happy Place is all that matters. But you have to be comfortable in your own skin, and in order to do that you have to do something physical on a regular basis. It could be a sport or a physical hobby or a walk around the block; what’s important is feeling connected to the body that surrounds you. If you want to get spiritual, the body is the vessel of your soul. If you want to get literal, the body is the input device for your computer brain.  Either way, you deserve to treat it right!

3)    Laugh More – Is it the best medicine?  Don’t know, but a good laugh sure can pick you up. Sometimes my wife will scowl at me. “Everything’s a big joke to you, isn’t it?” she’ll ask. Actually, honey, life’s a big joke on all of us. You have to learn to roll with the punch-lines. We’re all bewildered extras in a Monty Python sketch. Life’s funny…laugh ‘til you puke.

4)    Feed Your Head – Learn something. Read a book. Watch a documentary (though this is the most passive—and lamest — way to learn).  Take a course and acquire a new skill. Age doesn’t matter; neither does the skill as long as it challenges you. The important thing is to stay sharp and keep the brain active. Do Sudoku…but only as a last resort. A trusty crossword puzzle is a healthier choice for your mind diet.

5)    Stay Positive – Think you’re going to have a lousy year? Then you probably will.  Doom and gloom has a way of begetting doom and gloom, and negative thoughts have a way of manifesting themselves. But if you’re optimistic you’re open to new experiences, new potentials. Anything can happen. Contrary to what you might think, reality is quite malleable. It’s like one of those optical illusion tricks you find on a diner placemat; look at the drawing one way and it’s a beautiful young lady, look at it another way and it’s an ugly old crone. Perception is everything — it shapes your reality. Start looking for the good in life every day. Pretty soon you won’t have to look. The good will just be there.

As comedian George Carlin said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Hope your 2009 is filled with breathless moments!

And your 2013 is even more magical!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2009

A Dignified Death For Man And Man’s Best Friend

Our dog Barnabus was dying.

Miss you, Barnabus. You’re a good boy.

My wife and I both knew it, though we didn’t want to say it aloud. We’d been involved with animal rescue for many years, and we knew what the final stages of a pet’s life looked like: the loss of appetite, the incontinence, the restless wandering. No matter how Barney stood, lay, or sat, he couldn’t seem to get comfortable.

Barney was the fifth dog we needed to put to sleep. My wife and I aren’t serial killers…we often adopt elderly dogs and they sometimes don’t remain in our family as long as we’d like them to. Euthanizing a pet doesn’t get easier the more you do it, but it gets easier to recognize when the end is near. We waited too long three of the four times we needed to do this before. We knew our pets were sick and suffering, but we didn’t want to say goodbye.

From Homeless To Our House

Barney was with us for nine years. We adopted him from the Jersey City animal shelter when our son was only three months old. We saw a beagle on the Jersey City shelter’s web site that we wanted to adopt. But when we got to the shelter, we found the beagle had already been euthanized. We asked who was next to go, and were directed to a skin-and-bones shepherd mix crammed in a tiny cage.

“He’s been here ten days. His time is up.”

A few minutes later Barney was riding in the backseat of our Geo Prism, on his way to a new home. For the next nine years, he was one of the most faithful, most loyal, most loving dogs we ever lived with. He was gentle with our kids, protective of our home, and tolerant of the other dogs that came to visit (and stay!) It didn’t take Barney long to learn that this was his home, too, his kids, his family.

We never knew Barney’s exact age. He was at least three or four years old when we adopted him. The last few years he was on arthritis medicine. He struggled so much getting up and down the steps to the back yard the last two winters, I wasn’t sure he’d make it to spring. But he did.

Except this spring Barney started having intense seizures. He had several over the course of a week, but then they stopped for more than a month. We hoped we were in the clear, but then they started again, worse than ever. We seemed to lose a little bit of Barney with each seizure – it took him longer to regain his composure after an attack, and he remained disoriented and confused after his last serious seizure.

Goodbye, Barney … Goodbye, Jack … 

We decided to put Barney to sleep on June 3, the same day that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died. The irony was not lost on my wife and I.

Kevorkian, aka “Dr Death”, pioneered the right to die for terminally ill humans. He is reported to have helped more than 130 patients take their own lives, and is the inventor of the Thanatron (Death Machine) device, which can kill a patient by injecting a mix of chemicals in to the bloodstream, and the Merictron (Mery Machine) which causes death through inhalation of carbon monoxide.

Dying to read this!

A strong advocate of “right-to-die” legislation, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for helping a late-stage ALS patient take his own life. Kevorkian was paroled in 2007, and continued to be an advocate for patient’s rights until his death.

Barney brought joy and love into our family for nearly a decade. The last loving gift I could grant him was to end his suffering, and let him go gently into that good night. How sad that I could give this gift of peace to my dog, but not my father when he was suffering from the final stages of cancer 15 years ago.

Kevorkian was famously quoted as saying “dying is not a crime.” Maybe forcing a dying person to live in pain and suffering should be. If so, our government would be guilty a million times over.

This Is The End, Beautiful Friend

Barney had another seizure in the waiting room of the vet’s office. The doctor helped me carry him into the examining room, and gave Barney a shot of valium to stop the seizure. We discussed it for a few minutes, but the vet didn’t disagree with my decision. Clusters of seizures, coupled with Barney’s other behavioral changes, pointed to a probable brain tumor. The doctor put another needle into Barney’s arm, and before he had even finished injecting all of the pink fluid, Barney was gone, resting in peace.

I walked out to the waiting room a few minutes later carrying Barney’s collar and leash. A girl waiting with her cat took one look at me and started crying. I felt strangely apologetic. I’m sorry my dying dog bummed everybody out. He didn’t mean it. He was a good dog – a great dog — and this was really the best option, an option that should be available for man and beast alike.

Good night, Dr. Kevorkian. Thanks for teaching us all about dying with dignity.

Good night, Barnabus. Thank you for teaching me how to live with grace and appreciation.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, July 2011

Let’s Burn The Dead And Heat Our Homes

According to New York Daily News columnist, Jay Maeder, two high-tech crematoriums in Sweden are piping posthumous candlepower to local energy companies. In short, the bodies of the dead are now heating thousands of Swedish homes.

crematorium
DEAD HEAT — Using the heat from crematoriums to power homes? Dying to try it out!

This has caused quite a public uproar in Sweden, a controversy fueled all the more by the fact that the crematoriums kept their newfound energy source secret for six months. Company officials are quick to defend the practice.

“It only makes sense,” says Helsingborg crematory official Sorje Stolt. “It’s environmentally friendly and relatives can console themselves knowing that the death of a loved one benefits the whole community!”

Church leaders are rather put off by the whole deal (“No one wants Aunt Astrid heating up the living room!”), though some have to admit, the idea of harassing the power of burning corpses does  follow the old “ashes to ashes” schematic.

People Are The New Fossil Fuel

Adopting this “putting the dead to work” ideal globally makes a  twisted kind of sense. Hey, look at the dinosaurs; we use their remains to heat our homes every day. Using “fresher” fossil fuels is, well, you know, just forward thinking.

Besides, the results of burning the dead for fuel would be spectacular. When a beloved individual (like Mother Teresa or Princess Di) ventured to the Great Beyond, we could hold a magnificent public ceremony, dedicate a light bulb in their eternal memory, and then haul their carcass into the fire. It’s so primal, so…Viking. It is any wonder that this controversy originates from Sweden?

Although this “death warmed over” idea may appeal to energy conservationists, there’s something unquestionably ghoulish about it. It is said that a society’s compassion can be judged by how well they treat their dead. Burning them for fuel ranks pretty low on the scale, right above selling hunks of human flesh to soup kitchens and using severed heads as paperweights.

I’m not sure when these “burning” ideas will reach America’s shores, but I bet when they do, some people will be all fired up, while others will be dying to give them a try. Heh, heh, heh.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, Sept. 1997