The Compartments We Devise


We never know the full story when we look into someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t matter who it is. Our spouses, our children, our friends, our business colleagues—we all have chapters in our stories that are as yet untold or never told. It will always be that way. The best we can do is get better at listening, remain open to compassion, and craft compartmentalization strategies to balance the myriad conflicts that attempt to overrun us even when we appear to be at our best.

Appearance is always deceptive. It’s why writers have something to write about. It’s why most of us like to read stories, see plays, and watch movies. We trust storytellers to reveal to us the points of backstory we need to piece together a coherent narrative. Sometimes we call that entertainment. Other times we call it the awakening inspired by a cautionary tale.

Life instruction is much harder. Think about the people you will encounter this week. Which of the following might they be experiencing and trying to integrate into the disjointed career demands of their workplace and the to-do lists filling their calendars:

  • Might they have a dear friend in the hospital with a terrible disease?
  • Might they have just learned one friend is getting divorced and another divorced a year ago in silence?
  • Might they be looking for ways to support people living far away whose lives are being devastated by a natural disaster?
  • Might they have bet heavily on a seemingly safe investment and lost enormously in its bankruptcy?
  • Might they have heard from the IRS that no matter how careful they were on their tax filings they are being audited?
  • Might they have recently discovered their retirement savings will not sustain them as they had planned for decades?
  • Might they have signed up for a critical deadline at work that is no longer achievable?

Don’t fret; odds are not all of this is likely to happen, at least not at the same time. Yet no matter how well things may be going or appear to be going for someone, you can be assured strife of some sort is lurking behind the curtain. None of us are invincible. None of us can entirely hide from adversity.

You never know any of this is happening to someone until it is revealed—and often it is never revealed, or revealed so long after it occurred you can be of no help. Other times it is you who are overwhelmed by the conflicts hidden from others. Life’s twists and turns find us all. We all have stories no different from tales we read, built on conflict, secrets, revelations, and resolutions.

Some people are better at maintaining the status quo no matter how hard they are being side-swiped in the dark. You know that person at work who seems superhuman, who just keeps delivering and never utters a peep about any kind of distraction or digression. You ask yourself how that person pulls it off. You wonder if such stoicism is sustainable.

Often these “superheroes” (or robots) are not as bulletproof as you think. They might just be very good at separating their life into components, ruling out clouding aspects of conflict to focus on the task at hand. That’s a skill, one that can be developed. Those who are particularly good at it know one thing for certain: it is not a magical power. It does not come with unlimited gas in the tank. It’s a bridge, and while it can be a long one, the beams supporting it are not infinite in strength.

Devising compartments is a coping strategy. Almost everyone figures out how to do this to survive, some better than others. When someone is too good at it, we might think them cold-hearted. That may seem an apt critique in the throes of emotional exhaustion, but it may not be a warranted conclusion.

When we segment our lives into compartments, we attempt to deal with difficult things separately, one at a time, one hour and one day at a time.

The problem with these compartments is that no matter how well we think we construct them, they all have not-so-secret wormholes connecting them. They send messages to each other through an impenetrable network. They shares walls of the same real estate. Those walls are thin by design.

Compartments are awkward. The storyteller knows this, which is why we listen to the storyteller. When the storyteller is ourself, there is all the more reason to listen.

Sometimes I think of song lyrics that have resonated with me and helped me develop perspectives on the compartments of my own life and those I observe in others. In his first solo album in 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote a very simple phrase that has stuck with me:

I recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.

These simple words of reflection and contemplation put us all on the same playing field. When you take in the faces you pass along the street, each one constitutes a life that likely contains the same levels of success and failure, bonding and betrayal, health and illness, triumph and capitulation. The same holds true for school, for work, for community service, for the organizations you join for camaraderie and insight.

You don’t know the stories of the people around you any more than they know yours. Those stories are difficult and complex. The question is whether the obstacles in those stories will be overwhelming.

Sometimes you can help. More often you really can’t. When you integrate the compartments of your life with theirs, you can always move toward a path of shared understanding.

If you recognize the breakdown of artificial deconstruction in tales of fiction, you can recognize it in the real people around you. More important, you can trust yourself to see it in your own machinations. When you acknowledge the connections in your own compartments, they cease to be traps. That’s when compartments become shared spaces. That’s when real character building begins.


Photo: Pixabay


Records So Good We Bought Them Again (and Again)

Fleetwood Mac - RumoursI guess for me this is turning into The Year of The List! Earlier this year, inspired by a Writers Guild initiative, I catalogued a suggested collection of the Funniest Screenplays of All Time. Right around that time, inspired by the Fleetwood Mac reunion tour, I found myself thinking about musical recordings so beloved I had purchased them multiple times on replacement platforms. While the records stayed largely the same (yes, I will keep calling them records as long as I am listening to them), a series of innovations in consumer technology offered us relatively inexpensive access to personal libraries of vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette, reel-to-reel, DAT, CD, DVD, and MP3-like digital hard drive storage along the lines of iTunes. Here I am considering what I would call three-buy and above purchases for personal use, which of course live alongside AM & FM radio broadcast, satellite play, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and any number of less legitimate ways to file-share.

While I was pondering all thatand readying myself to attend Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour at the recently refurbished concert-only Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles (remembering I had attended in 1990 what I believed was the final performance of the farewell Fleetwood Mac Word Tour)what should be playing in our living room but Rumours. Yep, at home in 5.1 Dolby Surround played an album so impossibly fantastic I had bought it at least five times with each subsequent technological improvement, including the remastered scratch tracks on the latest Expanded Edition, which chronicled the development of each song. I sat there listening again to this marvel, no regrets of any kind for the many dollars spent. I have extracted so much entertainment value from this record I would gladly purchase it again. And again.

Thus it occurred to me that Rumours was not alone, and that I was not alone in the three-buy, four-buy, and even five-buy serial record purchases. Rather than pencil out my own list, I went to my social network and asked friends where they had repeatedly dumped their dough buying the same thing over and over. Below you will see an unedited list of those records, some of which I also bought a bunch of times, others of which I have never heard but may sample now. Rather than allow this list to expire in the ephemeral Facebook news feed, I decided to recreate and share it here. I think it’s a cool list, one you should feel free to expand upon in broadening our spirit of sharing.

There is definitely a late Baby-Boomer Bias to these confessions of multiple repurchase, represented no doubt by my circle of social media friends, along with our age and taste. I think you will find the publishing dates stamped for the most part between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s, when the formative years of my contemporaries had disproportionate influence on our modest discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, in the “nifty fifty” albums reported here entirely unscientifically and in no particular order, multiple appearances are logged by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John.

If you’re looking for any connective tissue in all these, I think you’ll need more than the music to draw a speculative conclusion. Here is my one linking observation to the extent that I recognize most of the titles: they are in one way or another albums, curated collections or song cycles of various sorts that weave into and around themselves. Much has been written about the demise of the album in this day of pop streaming shuffles. For a while when we were younger, there was a wild notion that a record album could be something of its own as a form of, dare I say it, art.

I’m not sure I have the intellectual fortitude to plow through the art manifesto, but let me just say that when I play Abbey Road I don’t skip tracks, I play it through beginning to end. Okay, on The White Album I do skip “Revolution 9” most of the time, you got me there. But Dark Side is beginning to end, Hotel California is beginning to end, and Rumours is beginning to end. Remember, when these were vinyl, that meant getting up and switching to the flip side—yes, getting up physically to hear the rest!

There is a “something of substance” in these picks that a lot of us find missing in contemporary LP equivalents that don’t even try to compose, let alone somehow unite, a dozen or more flowing songs. I think that’s why a lot of us miss the days of AOR—album oriented rock—and why we’re willing to spend anew when landmark records with recurring motifs and thematic resonance repeatedly make their way back to the virtual shelves. These albums age well, a bit like fine wine, and seldom seem dated. Absent historical and social context, most of these carefully crafted works could just as well have been recorded today and simultaneously sound modern and classic. They were expertly written, performed, and engineered with creative courage that resulted in textured, lasting impact. Good is good, great is great, and unforgettable is, well, just what the word says.

So here is a compilation of fifty records my friends found so remarkable they bought them on three, four, or even more platforms (not to mention extended or remastered versions), and will probably continue to play until their last days on the planet in whatever form they may become available:

1) Abbey Road by The Beatles

2) Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

3) The Beatles (The White Album) by The Beatles

4) McCartney by Paul McCartney

5) Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings

6) All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

7) Imagine by John Lennon

8) Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

9) The Wall by Pink Floyd

10) Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

11) Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

12) Madman Across the Water by Elton John

13) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

14) Hotel California by Eagles

15) Quadrophenia by The Who

16) Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

17) Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

18) Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

19) What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

20) London Calling by The Clash

21) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

22) The Joshua Tree by U2

23) Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin

24) Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin

25) Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen

26) Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs

27) The Point by Harry Nilsson

28) After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

29) John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic

30) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show by Dr. Hook

31) Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

32) Cheap Trick at Budokan by Cheap Trick

33) Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath

34) Candide by Leonard Bernstein

35) The Lady and the Unicorn by John Renbourn

36) Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla

37) The Remains of Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer

38) The Doors by The Doors

39) Tapestry by Carole King

40) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

41) Berlin by Lou Reed

42) Wheels of Fire by Cream

43) 21 by Adele

44) Crime of the Century by Supertramp

45) Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

46) Graceland by Paul Simon

47) Dreamboat Annie by Heart

48) Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

49) Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren

50) Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Which “greatest albums of all time” did we miss? Probably a lot. Add your favorites in the comments below and if there is anything you discover new in the suggestions provided, let us know what it sounds like no matter the player you choose as a conduit.

More on Why Teachers Really Matter

Dr. Berit Mexia: Being and Time
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 1997

Now we come to what could be called the most characteristic element of Taoism-in-action. In Chinese, it is known as Wu Wei. It is also the most characteristic element of Pooh-in-action. In English, it is not known as much of anything in particular. We believe that it’s time that someone noticed it and called it something, so we will call in the Pooh Way.
Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

In your life, you should only be so lucky as to meet an individual who can teach you something no one else can. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to study under someone who can bring you to think in a way you previously could not imagine. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to have a friend share with you the true gift of learning, to know a person who knows what it means to see things differently, to spend time with someone who truly changes the way your mind works and sends you down the roads less traveled. If that happens to you just once, you have had the good fortune to experience a miracle.

I was that lucky. I was a student of Berit Mexia.

In the Spring of 1979, in the second semester of our Junior Year, a few of us disco children were sitting around trying to figure out yet another way to beat The System at Iolani. Of course no one could ever really beat The System at Iolani, but that never stopped a few of us from trying desperately year after year. The question at hand was how we might be able to get through the semester elective in the Religion Department we owed the school for graduation without actually taking any of the classes offered in the catalogue. There was no particular reason for this act of intellectual rebellion, other than the fact that we knew we could cause a stir if we actually made it happen.

Now it came to pass that this same Buck-The-System group of us had in our Sophomore Year been assigned to a study hall under the tutelage of one Berit Mexia, Ph.D. It was mostly in our procrastination around getting through daily trigonometry drills and chemistry problem sets that we would strike up conversations with Frau Mexia, and it was in these same conversational travels that we learned she had studied under someone named Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest of Germany. We also learned that she had written a doctoral dissertation on the meaning of subjectivity in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, and that when she wasn’t brushing up on her Plato and Aristotle she was delving into the role of Zen in the advancement of western thought.

What I remember most was the gold pendant she wore most days that displayed the three words that told her whole story: “Live Love Laugh.”

It was always that simple. No matter what we talked about, no matter how serious the stream of consciousness or how complex the logical argument, the take-away was always one of heart. The subject of which we were getting a taste was known as Philosophy, which previously had meant little more to me than deconstructing the lyrical refrains of “Brain Damage” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Frau Mexia put it to me in a different way, she asked me one question: “How do you get a goose out of a bottle?” She said that one would keep a highly disciplined student busy for perhaps a year, maybe two.

So that would be the ticket, we would get Frau Mexia to take a one period break each day from teaching German to teach us Philosophy, and we would convince Headmaster David Coon to let us take that class as our religion elective. When we asked Frau Mexia if she would teach us, she naively agreed, mostly because she knew we didn’t have a prayer at changing the Iolani curriculum in both creating a class that had never been taught and in shoe-horning it into a department where it was a stretch at best. But we got her promise to teach us a survey class in Philosophy if we got it approved, and when twenty of us signed a petition and said we needed this course for own personal well-being and presented it to Headmaster Coon, he of course said no.

That is, he said no the first time we asked. He also said no the second time. And I think the third. His primary concern was that at our tender age we could not yet appreciate the depth of the material that would be put before us, that we had not yet achieved intellectual context in our lives to put in perspective the heresy of Socrates or the torment of Nietzsche. The reason that I know this was his concern is because he told me, and I was appalled, not so much because of his lack of faith in our intellectual development to date (which was well warranted, we were after all rebels) but because he had not yet considered the gift of the teacher who would teach us. Heck, I was in sell mode, I had to get this deal closed. Don’t ask me how, but somehow he said yes.

And that was when my life changed. I sure hadn’t planned on it.

Remember, this started as a way to Beat The System. So when Frau Mexia showed up to teach us Philosophy in the fall of 1979, in the first semester of our Senior Year, and handed us Plato’s Apology for our first night’s reading, imagine our surprise. This was not going to be a cake walk. We were going to work. We were also going to learn.

I could take you through that class and tell you all the things we learned because I remember most of them. I could name for you all the writers whose works we read because I still have their books on my shelf. I could tell you how Frau Mexia created a seamless arc connecting the ancient classicists to the modern existentialists and then bridged the gap between western linear logic and eastern mysticism. But that is not what you need to know about Berit Mexia. What you need to know about Frau Mexia was what she gave to us of herself, what she embodied that was unique, and why my debt to her will never be repaid.

First impressions in literature mean just as much as they do in social and business settings. The way in which an idea is introduced is every bit as important as the actual content of the idea. This is the difference between instruction and teaching. Any reasonably well-read or well-versed individual can usually be counted on to instruct, but it takes something much less tangible than memory to teach. Most people really do not “get” Zarathustra because their first impressions of it were not well framed, and they spend perhaps the next twenty years with a bad taste in their mouth for its core conceit because they have only a vague notion of its meaning. Too little knowledge of anything really is dangerous because in the end all we can retain are our impressions. This was Headmaster Coon’s fear, and it is legitimate. Enter Frau Mexia. She would not allow her students to spend their lives backing out of the confusion that too easily emerges as the result of careless instruction. She took us forward into each idea one layer at a time, continually took our temperature on meaning, and only then turned the page. That is what it means to teach, and it is a rare gift to have as well as to share. I don’t think she knew this, she just did it.

It is a loving demon, this thing called Knowledge. It is not a casual curiosity, it is a lifelong commitment. It will consume you if it is not guided by discipline such that it can become Wisdom. These are not just words. The Teacher keeps the demon at bay.

And then there is the person. Who was she?

As humble as she was, Frau Mexia simply refused to conform. She refused to see the world as you and I see it. She refused to accept cynicism as a given, she refused to seek selfish means, she refused to acknowledge the ordinary as anything but extraordinary. She knew that it was an honor to be a teacher, and she saw her opportunity in life to learn and teach as privileges one and the same. Her life was about sharing wisdom, and her life was about humor. Her mission (if she had one, and I don’t think she thought she did) was to get you to look at whatever you were looking at in a way you just couldn’t have on your own. And after a while you’d actually get so brazen as to think you were getting there on your own, and she’d just laugh an innocent laugh and suddenly you were humbled. You knew you had not arrived there on your own.

Just when you would capture the essence of Hegel she would rip the rug out from under dialectics and throw you into Kant. Were you to digest the categorical imperative, she might just point you to the poetry of Kafka. And lest you ever got too full of yourself, you were never more than a verse away from her favorite philosopher of all, Winnie the Pooh (I kid you not, pretty much everything you need to know is all there in the first four books of Pooh).

There was only one point–there was always another way to look at the world, and whatever you were thinking today, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t immerse yourself fully in trying to see the world another way. This was intellectual rigor, this was academic frustration, and this was the joy of going inside and making your mind work at the level God might have hoped or even intended when we were created. She taught us to think, to reason, to intuit, to never take our minds for granted, and to never take ourselves too seriously. In lesson after lesson we learned that wisdom is knowledge of our ignorance. Most importantly, she made it fun.

I know I have not said it right. I cannot say it right. I can only feel it. Every single day, I still feel it.

Philosophy means “the love of knowledge.” I was seventeen years old when I began studying Philosophy under Berit Mexia, she opened this door for me and my friends in the Class of 1980 and she went on to teach this class year after year, long after we disco-generation punks graduated from college and came out here in the world where life and business are too often about less interesting and less noble pursuits. I know she touched others as she touched me because it happened, and I know they are thankful as am I. It has been a lifetime of discipline and a lifetime of learning. This was what her life was about. That, and a light that emanated from her in a way I still cannot describe. She was just too unique, too brilliant, too different, too focused, beaming with too much joy.

I am still trying to get that goose out of the bottle.

Live Love Laugh.

Berit Mexia Peace Institute