We have a hand-held video game box that plugs into the TV. It has arcade games from the 1980s hard-wired into it. It has Dig Dug, Pole Position, several versions of Pac Man and a few shoot-em-up space games.

I never was any good at arcade video games back in the day. The only one I’m any good at on the hand-held version is Bosconian, one of the shoot-em space games. On a good day I can get to level 15, which scores in the 300,000s.

The backstory of the game, and many like it, is that you’re saving the universe from an evil space empire. That’s great. You get to be the hero. You against the universe. The point of the game implied by the introductory screens is to get to put your initials in one of the high score slots.

But couple weeks ago, it dawned on me that as you progress in the game, the opposition only gets stronger and stronger until eventually you lose. No matter how many points you score, no matter how many levels you clear, you always lose.

It’s a good business model for an arcade game. If you always lose, you always have to put another quarter in the machine. No matter how good you get you always lose your quarter.

In one way, the game reflects the way life is. No matter how well you play your life, there is always trouble and you eventually die.

Unlike Bosconian, in life you only get one quarter. But in exchange for only having one quarter you get to choose the terms for how you win or lose.

You might choose to live the story of “You against the increasingly evil world.” Or, you might live with the goal of having your initials, maybe even your name, engraved on a scoreboard. Maybe put your name on lots of buildings. Play it like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

You might choose a role playing game. Pretend to be anyone you want. Live in the past. Or in the future. Or as a spy embedded in a CIA cell half way around the world.

You might lock yourself away in a tower as if you were the prize.

Maybe winning is seeing how many people you can make happy. Or how much suffering you can alleviate. Or how much you can contribute for the next round of players to have a better game.

Who am I to say which of these is best? I have my preferences. But the only thing I know is you and I each get to choose what’s winning.

So, what’s your game?

Zen Shorts

5 years ago, someone gave us a couple children’s picture books. She bought them for her grandchildren, but her grandchildren hadn’t shown any interest. We had a 7-year old at the time, so she gave them to us.

One of those books was Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. It’s a Caldicott honor book. Watercolor and pencil illustrations on some pages. Ink drawings on others. The book came with a plushy panda wearing shorts.

3 children, Michael, Karl and Addy, make friends with Stillwater the panda. When they visit him he tells them stories from the Zen tradition.

It has become one of my favorite books. I keep it on the lamp stand next to my chair. I never get tired of looking at it.

The sequel, Zen Ties, is also good. Stillwater’s nephew who speaks in haiku comes to visit. That one is on the shelf nearby, too, and I sometimes look at it.

But the first one is essential.

Good Question

You’ve probably heard someone say, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.”

People who say that are wrong. There are lots of bad questions.

The Trivial Question

This is the question that could be answered by keying it into Google. Or looking it up in a dictionary.

The Impossible Question

The opposite of the trivial question is the question that has no answer. “What is the meaning of life?” falls into this category. The best answer is always 42.

The Thoughtless Question

Some questions have been given so little thought and are so poorly worded that it’s impossible to tell what they’re asking. If you’re going to ask someone to take the time to think through an answer, at least have the courtesy to take some time to make the question thoughtful.

The Implied Question

More often than not, this kind of question comes in the form of a statement. “I have such and such an issue.” It’s bad because there is no way someone answering can be sure she’s addressing the real point of difficulty or uncertainty.

The General Question

Similar to the Impossible Question, the general question is one that is so broad that it can only be answered by a platitude or by an answer so broad that it had no useful application.

The Multi-Question

A variation on the General Question, this is the question that tries to ask too much all at once, usually conflating two or more issues. This kind of question can sometimes be turned into a good question by rethinking it and sorting it out into two or more distinct questions.

The Overly Specific Question

This is the opposite of the general question. It’s the question that is so tied to only to one specific instance of a problem that an answer can’t be applied to any other case. Usually, these questions are an indication that someone is looking for a shortcut instead of doing their own work.

The Opinionated Question

This question is the one that demands (or implies a demand) a certain answer. Any question ending with, “isn’t that right?”

The Misdirected Question

This is not necessarily a bad question, per se. It’s the question asked of the wrong person. The wrong person might attempt an answer, but it’s really a situation of “your guess is as good as mine.”

The Good Question

Having cleared the deck of the bad questions, what’s left are the good ones. Asking these takes effort, but the effort pays off in the quality of the answers it makes possible. Sorting through the bad questions above gives a clue to what goes into a good question:

  • It’s well researched. You’ve done your homework and gone as far as you can at exploring the issue on your own.
  • It’s aimed at a solvable problem.
  • It is clearly worded to direct attention to the point where efforts to resolve the problem have hit a dead end.
  • It focuses the direction of inquiry on a single issue, and that issue is within a field of knowledge rather than a particular instance.
  • It’s directed toward a person or community that has the knowledge and interest in addressing the question’s field of knowledge.

Away with the “no such thing as a bad question” myth!

Ask better questions. Get better answers.


I forgot my mother’s birthday.

Actually, I remembered her birthday on at least three different occasions that day. Each time I said to myself, “I need to remember to call my mother today.” But then I never did remember to call. So I remembered her birthday, but I didn’t remember to call her on her birthday. Which amounts to the the same thing.

I remembered again two days later, just after I’d gotten into bed and, since it was late, determined to call in the morning. Then, in the morning I forgot to call again. Later in the afternoon I remembered and finally called.

Forgetting is easy. Remembering is hard.

On the evenings my wife and I watch the evening news there is almost always an ad for a new pill made from a chemical in jellyfish that’s supposed to help with memory. We can remember that there is a pill for memory advertised on the TV, and that it’s made from jellyfish.

(Or maybe it’s made from a chemical that they discovered in jellyfish, but they make it in a lab. I don’t remember. Where exactly the miraculous memory chemical comes from isn’t clear to me. Just that it has to do with jellyfish.)

Every time we see the commercial we tell each other, “We need to get that next time we’re at the store.” But we never remember it while we’re at the store. We can’t remember 15 minutes after having seen the commercial to put it on the shopping list. Let alone what it’s called. “You know, the jellyfish memory pills,” we say.

It seems like the jellyfish pills aren’t the first thing to come along with the claim to help memory. It might have been ginkgo biloba. Or any number of other herbal remedies. Before that it was snake oil.

Not to mention all the note-taking systems, both paper and electronic, on the market. When I was younger, I had a terrible time remembering appointments. I bought myself the Franklin Planner System (Later the Franklin Covey Planner System. I don’t know if it’s still even on the market. It probably is. You can look it up.) I can remember that it was fabulous. What I could never remember was to take it with me in the morning or to look at it regularly enough during the day to have it make any difference.

Now I have an iPod touch. I can remember to take the iPod with me because I’m a screen addict. It beeps at me when I need to look at it. It beeped at me on the morning of my mother’s birthday. That was one of the three occasions that day when I remembered. What I should have had it do was to call my mother as it was beeping at me.

With so many cures and other aids for forgetfulness on the market I’m sure I’m not alone in my forgetfulness. It’s at least common enough that venture capitalists invest in for jellyfish pills. (It was probably on an episode of Shark Tank.)

All the jellyfish pills and planner systems and electronic reminders are the tell-tale signs of how difficult and valuable remembrance is. It feels bad to have forgotten.

Remembrance is at a premium because it feels even worse to be forgotten than to forget.

It’s easy for me to wallow in how much I suck when I forget something important to someone else. But it’s really not about me. It’s about someone else. It’s about missing the chance to give someone else the gift of remembrance.

My mother called back later that afternoon. We had a good talk. She said she felt as good as when she was 20. Except she her balance wasn’t quite what it used to be. She was going to try riding her bike to test it out.

I hope she remembers to wear a helmet.

Mind Game

For the past few days I’ve been noticing the internal monologue going in my mind. Constantly. It flits from one thing to the next, mostly without any discernible logic in progression.

In the moments I’ve been conscious of it, it has become an internal dialog. A running commentary interrupts the monologue. And, logically, there’s at least a third me in there observing all of this.

From what I can tell, this internal monologue is pretty normal. Other people tell me they have it, too. So I’m not alarmed, even if maybe I should be.

I never took a psychology course. I think I’m experiencing what they call the ego observing the back and forth between the id and the super-ego. If so, I’m a textbook case.

To which my internal monologue says, “It figures.”

And my internal commentator says, “Now wait a minute!”

And you, dear reader, are now my ego.

Scary isn’t it!