Being the change

DENVER, COLORADO. It’s not your usual story about restaurants, food, or about prices and cash registers.

It’s about serving people, serving dignity, and serving hope.

You see, when you have lunch at SAME Café, you become part of a larger mission of helping others, So All May Eat.

picture-201SAME Café, sandwiched between local bars, thrift stores and tattoo parlors on East Colfax Avenue, is the loving work of Brad and Libby Birky. “We think that everybody deserves to eat well,” says Brad. They started the small restaurant by borrowing from their own retirement accounts when no bank would lend them money.

The menu changes daily and features soups, salads and pizza, using mostly organic ingredients prepared fresh by chef Brad.

Customers place their food order and receive a small envelope in which they put their donation for the food they eat. There is no cash register, credit card machine or change drawer. Some pay sparingly. Others are extremely generous. Others can’t pay. They are encouraged to donate an hour doing dishes, sweeping floors, wiping tables, doing some mopping.

Today, with the economy, SAME Café finds more people volunteering.

Despite that, affluent couples mix with those in need. Each enjoys the good food, the chance to be warm and to sit and chat.

One news reporter likened SAME to Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Brad and Libby are inspiring builders of a better society. One thing we know is that there are many other Brads and Libbys out there. Their spirit of giving is part of who we are, too. The question is how we will pass it on to others.

You can visit to learn more or make a contribution and you can watch the NBC News report on SAME Cafe here.


Creating art from words

Thanks to a friend, I was introduced to this really cool website that literally turns words into an art form. creates “word clouds” in which the most used words take a more prominent place than lesser used ones. Commonly used words like “a,” and “the,” are left out, leaving only the major ones to find their place in a Wordle.

The program is the brainchild of Jonathan Feinberg who, on IBM’s nickel, produced this amazing piece of code that’s entirely free to all of us. Feinberg, who claims the site gets about ten hits a second, collaborated with a couple dozen people-among them artists, software developers, Java experts-to visually depict the power of language.

Although uses for Wordle seem more whimsical than practical, a word cloud, if studied, can say much about the meaning of a speech, phrase or letter, etc. Here, for example, is a word cloud of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech using the program’s standard setting which automatically filters out commonly used words.picture-14In this rendition, “new,” “nation” and “America” seem to be the most frequently used by the new President.

However, a different pattern emerges when automatic filtering is turned off.

picture-15In this version, “our” (used 68 times in the address) and “we” (62 times) are most prominent.

And, it would seem that Obama is saying…?

The (sometimes) wisdom of reader boards

I’m not usually one who pays attention to reader boards and the sometimes successful (but not usually) attempts to be funny or clever in 20 words or less. But while visiting a local gas station this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a pithy one outside a Days Inn. “The years teach much which the days will never know,” it read. “Interesting,” I thought and turned away to find out how much gas would cost this time around.

Then, I turned back and re-read the board. What a commanding ten-word reminder that perspective, the ability to put events in context, is a powerfully freeing skill—though it often eludes us in the press of daily life.

Turns out that the words are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, the mid 1800s author, poet and philosopher.

I think there’s a difference between gaining perspective and “rolling with the punches” or “letting water run off your back.” While there’s something to be said for lightening up and not taking things seriously all the time, there’s a certain beauty or wisdom in being able to rise above the moment to see how it fits with days and weeks and years. It promotes a kind of learning that helps us see how all the dots actually connect together.

Yet, that’s not easy to do sometimes, especially if something feels personal, emotional or if the skin that’s in the game happens to be yours.

Several years ago, I was faced with a difficult job and an equally testy boss. The whole situation became so complicated that I could see no way out. I temporarily lacked the insight to see what was really going on, my role in it, and any possible future that could be less miserable. Things were not only unhappy, I was beginning to lose energy and enthusiasm.

Then I recalled working for a boss who was in charge of testing some very complex, expensive equipment. On the late shift one night, technicians incorrectly programmed a computer. The result was that the equipment literally dropped several inches resulting in perhaps catastrophic and expensive damage.

I learned about the problem the next day. The office was buzzing with engineers forecasting dire consequences for the program and for some of the leadership, my boss included.

In one meeting, men were wondering how our boss could remain so centered and focused. In his characteristically thoughtful and unflappable way, he reached into a drawer and pulled out what looked like a very large aspirin pill about three inches across. It was made of Styrofoam and covered with paper on each side. On the paper were written these words, “Anti-glum pill. Take with a large dose of perspective.”

We all laughed, in part to break the tenseness of the situation, but more because it was funny. He went on to say, “All we need do is our best. That’s why we’ve been successful in the past and what will make this project work. Let’s focus on the future because it’s darned sure to be better than the past couple of days!”

Applying that to my own situation, I asked myself what was the worst possible outcome, the most awful thing that could happen. That was an easy answer: I could lose my job. And, if that happened, what would I do? I’d sell the house, pack things up and go back to school. I could support myself playing the piano in clubs. Life would be okay.

That dose of perspective was what I needed to make a decision. I left that job within 30 days on a Friday. On Monday, I was doing consulting work for a large company.

Perspective is a great tool.

UPDATE: November 15, 2008. Today, the sign reads “Sofa for Sale.” Hmmm.

How do you maintain your perspective when things get tense? Add your comments!

When as good as it gets isn’t good enough

Actor Jack Nicholson is often cast as quirky movie characters and his take on Melvin Udall in the 1997 film “As Good As It Gets” is no exception. Melvin is the supremely cranky, obsessive-compulsive writer who finds his life totally uprooted when his gay neighbor/artist is hospitalized and he’s left to canine-sit the man’s small dog. To make matters worse, the only coffee shop waitress who can tolerate him must leave work to care for her sick son, making it impossible for Melvin to eat breakfast. At some point, we are left to conclude that this may be as good as it gets for him.

While Melvin might dream of a major, sweeping change transforming his peculiar life, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Truth is, for Melvin—and you and me—life is more frequently a series of incremental changes, not major transformations. And that has its plusses and minuses.

On the up side, small changes are easier to handle and keep things on an even keel. On the down side, by only making small changes in our lives we may become complacent and accept the status quo—a sort of “as good as it gets mindset” that keeps us from taking leaps of faith.

Here’s a question for you: If you could do anything in the world, without restrictions of any kind such as income or education or experience, what would it be? No limitations at all. What would it be? It’s a sort of, “If I could relive my entire life—wipe the slate clean, if you will—this is who I really want to be and what I really want to do” question.

Maybe you want to be an author, or design golf courses, or help kids in Africa stricken with HIV-AIDS. Or perhaps your other calling is to be a minister, to own your own coffee shop, or to become a famous chef.

Here’s a second question: What’s the essence of your first answer? What’s behind it? What would that mean to you?

For example, if your goal is to move to Africa and provide help to children suffering from AIDS, what’s behind that? Perhaps that would mean educating parents, to relieve suffering and reduce the number of HIV cases each year. In other words, you want to make a small difference in the lives of people who are largely forgotten in the mainstream.

Or, if you want to write a book, what would it be about? How would that make a difference to others? Why is that important?

Now, for most of us, pulling up our job-stakes and embracing a life changing transformation is not practical or doable. Lots of things stand in the way. But if your dream is big and would really energize you, is there a way to give yourself—and the world—its gift?

One last question: What can you do today to bring even a small part of your ultimate dream into your life? Not the whole thing, but a part.

If becoming a chef is your big dream, what about taking a cooking class? Or preparing a special meal for your family? Or volunteering at a local food kitchen?

If you want to help with AIDS in Africa, is there a way to contribute money to those who are doing such work today?

Or, if you really want to write a book, is there a way you can share your writing skills in a slightly different way? For example, there are literally hundreds of online, part time writing jobs on the internet. Many of them pay quite well.

The case can be made that we should always pursue our dreams and maximize the way we use our talents. No question about that. But a single step toward that dream is better than no step at all.

One last thought…it’s amazing that when we share our talents with others, everyone benefits.

Tell us how you are pursuing your dreams in the comments section.

Courage on the field

“He was an outstanding young man of great character who served—and my hope is, will continue to serve—as an inspiration to the young people of this country.”

…John F. Kennedy on Ernie Davis

The movie, The Express, came out this weekend. It’s the story of Ernie Davis, the young African-American football standout whose conviction, character and performance won him the coveted Heisman Trophy, given each year to the most outstanding college athlete. In the case of Davis, he was the first African-American to receive it.

The Express is a vivid and sometimes painful reminder of America in the late 1950s and how a man, determined to be the best football player he could be, helped our country move past its long-held views of people of color.

Davis was born in 1939 and was raised in poverty in Pennsylvanian coal mining country by his grandparents. At the age of 12, he was reunited with his mother and new stepfather. They moved to Elmira, New York where he became the star player on his high school team—a fact that did not go unnoticed by more than 50 college teams who offered him scholarships, something unheard of among Black players at the time. He chose Syracuse and went on to help the school achieve national status including winning the Cotton Bowl against the University of Texas in 1959.

As a movie, The Express is probably “just okay.” The acting is a bit stilted and some of the casting of the players is inconsistent. But as a story of determination and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) standing for the fair treatment of everyone, it’s unmatched and inspiring. As I watched the movie, in scenes of anger and hatred so strong that I winced at times, I couldn’t help but think about my biases, subtle and not-so, and wonder how they cloud what I see and how I think about others.

The Express stars Dennis Quaid as coach Ben Schwartzwalder and Rob Brown as Davis.