Intimidating Words

The hypothalamus transforms emotions into physical responses, which are communicated throughout the body in the form of neuropeptides… Did you get all that? I have to admit, my eyes glazed over before I was halfway through the sentence. I’m doing some research for a book on “vision boards” for John Assaraf, and sometimes find myself wading into the deep end of the scientific swimming pool. I need my water wings. Do you get intimidated by terms like “hypothalamus” and “neuropeptides”? Most people do. For some reason, scientists love to use multisyllabic Greek and Latin terms for the things they study—but there’s nearly always a simple meaning behind them. Just watch: Neuro means have to do with nerves, the tiny threads in our bodies that transmit thoughts and feelings. A peptide (which is Greek for “little digestible thing”) is a tiny fragment of protein. (Protein, by the way, comes from the Greek word proteios, which means “primary,” which comes from the Greek word protos or “first.” In other words, protein means “a very important thing,” or, “the thing we’re mainly made of.” Got the sophistication of that definition?) Voilà: a “neuropeptide” is simply your thoughts and feelings, transformed into digestible little bits of the stuff you’re mainly made out of. And what about that pesky hypothalamus? It’s a lump of tissue located right under your thalamus, another lump of tissue that sits deep in the middle of your brain. Thalamos is Greek for “inner chamber,” and hypo means “under.” Presto: “hypothalamus” means the lump of tissue that sits right under that deep inside part there. Now, put it all together:...

How to Start Writing

A reader asks: How did you get your start writing? I would love to do some of that, but have no confidence in my ability to express myself in print. I didn’t plan to grow up and become a writer. In my twenties, I did some editing and writing for some small journals. (Full disclosure: I’m sure it helped that both my parents were writers and editors.) Probably 95 percent of my “writing” career has been editing other people’s writing. It’s a great way to learn how to use the language. So is writing marketing copy, web site copy, and any other sort of writing where there is a compelling practical reason it has to be clear and effective. These days, I think one of the best ways to get started is through blogging: you’re basically publishing tiny essays, about whatever you like, and to whatever standards you set. (Present paragraph being case in point.) And the risk factor is virtually nil. Of course, the goal would be to write a blog that people actually read. (You’ll find good tips in Seth Godin’s ebook on the topic, which I’ll get to in a second.) My advice for any would-be writers today would be: 1) Read a lot. You can’t write without reading. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. 2) Start a blog. And maintain a pace of posting to it at least twice a week, and no more than once a day. 3) Stay hungry. Hungry to learn, to experiment, and to improve. 4) Repeat point #1. Two of my favorite readings on writing are: On Writing: A...

What Happens When You Intend

Working on a second book for John Assaraf, I was doing a little research today on the word “intention,” and discovered a few fascinating points. The word intention literally means “to stretch in a certain direction.” It comes from the Latin tendere, meaning “to stretch,” and is related to the Sanskrit tantram, meaning “loom,” as well as the Persian tar and the Greek tono, which means “string” and therefore also “sound” or “musical note.” So, put that together: To create an intention around a thought is to take that thought and stretch it out like the threads of a loom and weave a picture of the future—to stretch it out like the string of a musical instrument and play the melody of your heart’s desire. Suddenly, it’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? Intend. Bonus point in the “food for thought” dept.: The word “goal” is thought to derive from the Old English word gal, which means “barrier” or...

The Changing of the Guard

The other day I was set up to do an interview with Arjuna Ardagh, a most fascinating author and teacher. A few minutes before the time, he called: he had just returned from London, where he’d been to his father’s funeral, and wondered about the possibility of postponing our interview. After setting a new date, Arjuna and I conversed briefly. I mentioned that in the last few years, my father had died, and my fiancée’s father, and two of her best friends’ fathers, and just last month, my little brother’s fiancée’s father. “We’re at that time,” he said. “Yes,” I agreed, “it’s the changing of the guard.” The other day, I heard on NPR that a 106-year-old man, a veteran of World War I, had just died, and that his passing left alive one solitary veteran of the U.S. forces in that war. Something on the order of a thousand WWII vets die per day. It’s the quiet departure of an entire generation. And as they leave, we are becoming them. This is startling to me, because while I am about to turn fifty-four chronologically, my internal clock still think I’m existing somewhere in my thirties. Every time something significant happens—a book sells, a child has a crisis, I hear an especially hilarious joke—my first impulse is to go tell my dad. Now, we’re becoming the ones others come tell. I remember as a child, feeling upset about something (I don’t remember what), and lying down outside under a tree. Lying there, smelling the smell of the grass, and especially the patient, comforting scent of the earth underneath, made...

Impressive Achievements

As my bio says, I have a passion for great writing, and that passion compels me to share the following essay, which was possibly [see end note] written by a high school student as his college admissions essay for NYU. 3a) ESSAY: In order for the admissions staff of our college to get to know you, the applicant, better, we ask that you answer the following question: are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realized, that have helped to define you as a person? I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst,...