Bitterness, Sweetness, and Bittersweetness

Bitterness, Sweetness, and Bittersweetness

My mentor and friend Bernie has been told by doctors that he has a year left to live. Thanks to Bernie, I’m now aware that I—like him—have a choice here. Each new day now, actually, I have this choice: will I choose Bitterness, Sweetness, or Bittersweetness as my companion today? Luckily, thanks to Bernie, I don’t have to face this choice alone anymore.

Bernie has been playing, studying play, learning about play, and writing about play since the 1960s (as an adult, that is—I’m sure kid-Bernie did more than his fair share of playing, he probably drove his folks nuts). It didn’t occur to me until just last week that I should search his ginormous and playful database of deep fun ( for the word “bitterness.” But then I did. So I did. And I was stunned by what I learned. Which is this…

I learned that playing, studying play, talking about play, thinking about play, and writing about play and deep fun and all the ways in which they manifest themselves around the world is a damn fine way to spend your life. There is a Sweetness in Bernie’s life that shows up in my imagination as a small, slightly goofy, and often mischievous creature sitting just above his right, and sometimes left, shoulder. Sweetness is an angel and a devil combined, the dappled color of a turning fall leaf, and he whispers “Let’s play!” and “Oooo, let’s try that!” and “Come on, let’s go there!” into Bernie’s ear every day. How Bernie spends his time here—the playing and the studying and the talking and wondering and the writing—all these things do a remarkable job of keeping Bitterness from stepping into his life uninvited. All those decades of writing—writing practically every day, WOW—and it’s almost as if Bitterness was listening for places to enter, waiting for just the right moment, but very few Bitterness-warranting moments appeared. So he contentedly sat on his swing, swinging.

You see, in my imagination, Bitterness sits swinging on an old tire swing dangling down from a tree branch, watching Sweetness and Bernie race around the world, and, like children playing tag at twilight. Bitterness is smiling, watching, patient, and waiting. Bitterness isn’t sinister: more like the introvert kid content and enjoying the solitary swing and happy to have the more rambunctious others just slightly farther away but still in plain view. Bitterness doesn’t need to step in much at all, because clearly Sweetness and Bernie have got this. Because Bernie listens to Sweetness most days, Bitterness knows that Bernie is ok. Bernie invites Sweetness in to play most days, or vice versa. So much so, that they’ve even started to look a little bit like each other. And some days now, I notice, it’s Bernie who is the dappled angel-devil creature sitting on Sweetness’ shoulder, not the other way around. (Bernie also married Rocky, who comes from strong Sweetness-embracing stock. Lucky, lucky Bernie.)

As I wade through his six decades of writing, I notice that Bitterness moved visibly onto the playground just six times. Go and look and see. And wow. Each time Bitterness stepped in, it was to visibly demonstrate how to invite Bitterness in and how to play with Bitterness. Bitterness, I learned, wants to play too. He’s just different. He’s not Sweetness. Not so easy to play with. Here’s a summary of what I learned. To get the full demonstration, search for “bitterness” yourself on

  1. October 13, 2003. In a post called “The Dancing Referee,” Bernie links to a video where we get to watch a man bring grace and exuberance to the difficult role/job/profession of sports (soccer, in this case) referee. Bernie notices “The officials are there, not to have fun, but to keep the way clear so that fun can be had by others. They allow the players to leave aside concerns about fairness and safety, so that they can focus everything, everything on the game. But refereeing is often a difficult role, one that leads to argument and bitterness, insult and injury. To find a space for joy in all this, to transform yourself from an official to a performer, requires courage and commitment and deep enjoyment. It kind of makes you think that anyone, regardless of role or position or function or job, can find fun, if fun is what that person is ready to find.” He ends by reflecting on a sport that doesn’t require referees (Ultimate Frisbee asks players to be their own referees) and on one that does, saying “To understand fun, we must find ways to celebrate both.” Celebrate both even though I’m not a fan of both? Hmmm. Deep fun, indeed.
  2. May 13, 2008. In a short post called “Pangea Day,” Bernie shares a link to a movie in which people reimagined a border wall into a volleyball net. Hmm. So Bitterness and fun belong together? Even in the presence of the worst humanity has to offer? Hmmm.
  3. June 28, 2008. In a post called “Sneaky Fun,” Bernie shares a link to a site designed primarily for people feeling bitter at work. People who work at computers, that is. The site transforms the Internet (a virtual place where people sneak away from tedious real-world work to explore and play) and makes the Internet look like a boring Word document on your monitor, so that you can sneak in a bit of fun under your bosses’ noses. Helping the Bitter at work be a bit naughty? I love it.
  4. April 25, 2011. In a piece called “Backstory,” Bernie talks about getting overwhelmed by the world and its cruelty and messes. “I want to rant and rail, to make sounds of fury, to bite the bullet of bitterness and spit it in the face of stupidity, in the hands of brutality, in the eyes of cruelty and stuff.” Damn. Wish I’d written that. And he follows that with writing down his own purpose so he can more fully look at it—simultaneously giving the world something better to read about themselves: “I write these posts to help make things a little more fun. That’s exactly, precisely what I’m here for. Fun for me, for you, for anybody who isn’t finding enough light to delight in their days… For me, play is a political act. This is what I truly believe. Playing, celebrating everything with everybody, anybody. It’s as revolutionary as a protest song, as government changing as a rally. For me, fun is healing, is health made manifest. Body health, social health, mental health, soul health.” As he writes, I think to myself “Play is an act of revolution, and clearly I’m all in.” And suddenly the whole world, and Bernie, and I are so beautiful that it makes me cry. Dammit Bernie. When did Sweetness jump onto my shoulder?
  5. October 20, 2015. In a post called “Elder Fun,” Bernie plays with a distant friend recovering from a stroke, demonstrating how to let go of old patterns of fun to embrace new patterns and deeper fun as we age. Fun and Bitter. Bitter and Fun. Hmmm.
  6. May 8, 2017. At this point, Bernie and Sweetness are living with the reality that he has less than a year to live in this beautiful, beautiful world of ours. And so am I. After reading his essay, “Play a little, talk a little, play a little, talk a little, play, play, play, talk a lot, play a little more,” (Damn, dude, your headlines just keep getting better) in the comments following the post, a friend describes the piece as “Bittersweet.” After so many years of watching Bernie and Sweetness play together, Bitterness himself, it seems, has been transformed. Finally confident that he will be invited to play, he steps onto Bernie’s own page now, feeling mostly lucky and just a tad regretful, saying “Thank you, friends, you’ve changed me. I’d like to join you in the fun. But please, call me by my true name: Bittersweet.”

And so we welcome Bittersweet into our play—a rag-tag group we are, fond of fools and filled with accidental genius—playing tag and giggling again, as glorious and warm and present now as Twilight herself.

P.S. Speaking of swings and playgrounds, Bernie has gotten a lovely company to donate some really cool swings to his local park, but they need $4,500 for the installation. If you have a little extra money, consider donating it to this most playful of causes. Go here for more details:

How to find Oddball Empire

How to find Oddball Empire

Bas did a really brave thing this week.

And given that he is so beautifully Dutch–reserved and humble and whatever the opposite of self-centered is—he would never toot his own horn about this. But I’m an American, dammit. My friend deserves a bit of frickin’ horn tooting.

For years, Bas researched, wrote, spoke, and breathed project management. He worked as a PM. I’m certain that he got things done more efficiently and better and faster and all those other things PMs care about. And his blog, the Project Shrink, was very popular in PM-land. He had those thousands and thousands of followers that most other bloggers secretly long for.

But he grew weary of his expertise. Tired of the PM box he’d built for himself.

Over the past few years, Bas has been moving in new directions: trying on different hats.

His Project Shrink blog eventually became Shrinkonia, the name of his own created-via-imagination country, as he embraced more of his true, PM-box-smashing self.

He’s been Project Ethnographer. Story Home Builder. Geographer-at-Large. Story Wrangler. And Writer that Draws.

And all the while, he’s been studying and talking about what he himself is doing: from the struggle to answer the question “what do you do?” to letting go and savoring transitions, from storytelling to map making, from identity crises to recovering your sense of direction.

Growing ever more playful, lately he’s also been Wile E Coyote. Metaphor Man. Faux Travolta. And The Guru. And my personal two favorites—At Dawn We Ride guy and fellow wandering Chicken Pirate—both of whom feel most like the fun, smart, brave spirit that I spend time with and know best.

Me and BasHis shadow side shows up too. Often in Darwin, his snarky blog who calls him a Hippie and Sherlock and Sparky, lest he get so far out into woo-woo land that he can’t ever catch the boat back to Normalsville.

I don’t think anyone has told him yet that that ship has sailed.

Personally, I keep waiting for the day The Dude shows up, a version of Bas from one of his favorite movies.

But I digress.

Everything that Bas has been doing the past few years is brave. However, what happened this week is bravery of the highest degree.

Bas removed all of the PM books and PM talks from his Web site.

Those last links to his former professional self.


By his own hand.

In Lori Land, bravery doesn’t get much more impressive than this.

This is believing that your world will reward you, eventually, for being the real you.

This is believing in your quirky self and quirky ship mates, even in the face of your fears.

And despite the fact that what you’re doing is so very different from what the rest of the world seems to be doing. And what the old you did.

Believing even in the face of your own loud and snarky shadow-side voice. Walking away from the boxes of the corporate world, the boxes that you yourself helped build and that you yourself must tear down. Walking away from dreary work that you know people will pay you for toward creative play/work that far fewer people may recognize as valuable, at least at first.

This is walking your walk.

Dancing your dance.

Disco-ing your duck.

When people learn what I do for a living, and that my creative partner lives on a different continent, many ask me how Bas and I met and how we ended up working together.

I usually tell the long story, as is my way, that involves him writing about my blog, new-blogger-me being so thrilled that I offered to do his laundry for him, and how we started talking regularly via our blogs until we decided to work together on our first book.

I now see the shorter story.

I knew the moment I met Bas that he was doing exactly what I was trying to do: creating worlds in which who we really are—the whole quirky, smart, oddball us—is terrific. And documenting the journey as we go in case our experience proves useful to others.

Together, it seems, we’re finding those worlds. First Shrinkonia, then Lori Land, and now Oddball Empire: a whole real world of quirky, brave souls that were here all along, patiently waiting for us to trust ourselves completely, do what we’re called to do, and join the fun.

My advice now for anyone trying to find Oddball Empire is simple…

Find the person who hears your crazy story for getting there, jumps on the tricycle next to yours, tilts his/her paper hat into the wind, and shouts “At Dawn We Ride!” Stick together.

Everything else you can invent as you go.

Goodbye too-easy TV!

Goodbye too-easy TV!

Today Daniel and I cancelled our satellite TV package. We noticed this fall that:

  1. When we’re tired after work, we often plop down onto the couch and mindlessly watch TV for no other reason than that it’s the easiest thing to do. Sometimes for hours.
  2. We don’t even like the programming on about 190 of the 200 channels, and we spend a ridiculous amount of time flipping around for something better to watch. Flipping through all the crap TV makes me feel worse about human kind, and myself, not better.
  3. The satellite makes mindless couch plopping/TV watching far too easy. During these cold winter months, we’ve started spending more time in front of the TV each evening than we do with our friends and neighbors and family. This is not ok with us.

The final straw for me came when I noticed that I’ve started sitting with a book or laptop in my lap while I watch TV. Wow. Just how many signs did I need that I’m not getting the best humanity has to offer most nights by sitting in front of the TV for hours on end?

In Seattle we regularly run into people who don’t watch TV at all as a choice. Often something that feels like self-righteousness to me seems to ooze out of these people. I think it’s the horrified eyes combined with the whispered “Oh dear! We’d NEVER watch TV!” Bleh. It’s as if the rest of their planet is populated by couch potato zombies that they’d kill off if the zombies ever got off their couches and actually left the house (which, fortunately, they don’t, apparently as long as you whisper). 😉

Given these two choices—horrified self-righteous TV denier or couch potato zombie—we’ve stayed firmly in the couch potato camp to date, because we a) generally like our fellow human beings, b) have never actually met a zombie, and c) have a really comfortable couch. But this fall, we finally figured out that we have more choices than just these two extreme ends. As the Buddhists would say, we have found our middle way. For us, this is it:

  1. We can require mindfulness of ourselves. By giving up the satellite and moving to a hodge-podge combination of Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Smart TV, we will make it so that watching TV programming requires much more conscious effort and a conscious choice every single time.
  2. We can ensure that we consistently prioritize real human interactions over TV entertainment by making real human interactions the easier of the two choices. Removing the satellite removes the after-work mindless couch plop as an option. This automatically frees up 10 hours of our time/week by my calculations. With all this new free time, I suspect it’ll feel much easier to invite friends and neighbors over more often, to schedule myself into that martial arts class I’ve been meaning to take, and so on. The bottom line for us is that we want spending time with people we love and meeting new people to be easier than watching TV. We can make that so for ourselves.
  3. We can save money. A bonus perk is that Daniel figured out we’ll save $80/month. Wow.

It’s interesting the amount of fear there has been within me behind a simple decision to switch off the satellite. Will we still be able to find and watch the things we really want to find and watch? Will we still be able to have our household’s beloved “SciFi Friday” tradition? Will we be able to translate this action into improving our lives or will we just become some new sort of hybrid self-righteous couch zombie that just pisses EVERYBODY off around us?

I strongly suspect that we’ll be ok. For one, the more real human beings we surround ourselves with, the less self-righteous we tend to become. Also, despite all my years of TV watching, I still don’t actually believe in zombies.

Learning about myself through the doorway of self-organizing groups

Learning about myself through the doorway of self-organizing groups

Thanks to Doug Nathan for pulling these experiences out before my eyes where I could see them, and thanks to my community for teaching me that no matter what I say as an individual, that I’ll be supported and loved. 

Consciously studying my own and close others’ self-organizing groups has changed me and just keeps on changing me. One of the biggest, scary-to-say-out-loud changes for me is that now I consciously move in the world from three different places of self-recognition and can imagine a fourth place. I use metaphors here because the experience goes beyond what words can convey, and I use fish metaphors because I come from a family that loves fish.  

Places of self-recognition: 

  • My individual self (fish)
  • My self-organizing groups self (school of fish)
  • My self-organizing community self (river)
  • My self-organizing planet self (ocean) (Frankly, this one is still more imagination than reality for me, but I figure if Maya Angelou and His Holiness the Dali Lama can pull it off, then it’s within our grasp too.)

This summer, I learned that as I move through life, regardless of what happens in the moment, I always have a choice. I get to choose how to experience and see what’s happening. Will I opt for my individual perspective? Will I think from the effective-multi-perspective of my close, trusted and respected others (my self-org groups)? Will I recognize what my community as a whole would say and do? I didn’t use to have these options. I used to have just one perspective: my individual perspective. 

I’ve learned that moving into, through, out, and back into these places doesn’t mean that I give up what I was at the previous place. One place isn’t better than the other. If it was, I figure, the less-useful-perspective would eventually disappear. But that doesn’t happen. So they aren’t stages. They aren’t steps in maturity from which a lucky few get to look down onto others. They are landing points. They are places where consciousness can sit, view itself and the universe, and make sense of itself. Each one is what I already am and awareness of myself at a new place just adds to the perspectives and options that I have available to me as I move through the world. Today I imagine that all human beings have landed their consciousness at these places, at least for a moment. 

Through no insight or skill of my own as an individual, I stumbled into spending extended periods of time within self-organizing groups. These groups gave me the courage and time to finally notice that such a thing as self-organizing community exists. The more conscious I grow of my self-organizing community, the more I am able to simply float along within it, as it, releasing the burden of my individual worries, most days. The more individual worry I release, the easier it is to experience that these places—fish, school, river, ocean—are available to us all the time. I’m not an expert at this; I’m a learner. Everything I learn today, I learn from/within/as my community. I’m sharing what I know of these four perspectives now, because it’s never been more clear that my own life, work, freedom, and joy are directly connected to yours—to that of my community.   

The Fish Place: Being an Individual  

If you were raised to recognize yourself as an individual, I don’t need to tell you what moving through life as an individual can feel like these days, but here are a few of my own experiences: 

  • Experiencing wonder, surprise, and delight
  • Making mistakes, being hurt by them, fearing making more mistakes, and pulling away from situations in which (and people with whom) I might make mistakes
  • Living in my own head, in the past and in the future, to the point that I miss a good deal of what’s happening around me and also misconstrue what’s actually happening around me
  • Struggling to make sense of the world around me and what’s happening
  • Making snap, not-well-thought-through judgments and decisions
  • Experiencing fear, disconnection, anger, destructive conflict, isolation, exhaustion, overwhelmed, depression, and frustration to the point that they seem to stop me from moving forward

The School of Fish Place: Being a Self-Organizing Group


As part of a self-organizing group, I get to practice—in a safe environment—moving in and out of my individual self and my group self. These groups demonstrate to us that we can be more and do more as collectives than as individuals. I get to practice becoming something more than my individual self and practice letting go of my individual self. The words in the following table describe the experience of moving in and moving out of an individual self and a self-organizing group self.

[table id=1 /]

The River Place: Being a Self-Organizing Community

With enough experience moving in and out of my self-organizing group selves and individual self, something new happened this year. I began to experience my “self” as a place within which my self-organizing groups and my individual self exist. I call this the self-organizing community self. This is something that I both experience within my own being and also that I experience as part of my actual communities (which I’m suddenly aware of in a much more concrete, real way than in the past when “community” was just a word and not a lived experience). 

This place is new in my awareness and experience, so forgive me if what I say here seems rough. As my self-organizing community, I am: 

  • Aware that community purpose is my individual and group purposes
  • Able to deeply value the community—including the people I don’t know personally within it—demonstrated by:
    • Showing up grateful and ready to learn
    • Listening first and often
    • Forgiving rapidly
    • Not feeling the need to attack other perspectives or to defend my own, recognizing that multiple perspectives are needed, welcomed, encouraged, and accepted in the community—my own and others
  • Able to trust all the individuals and groups within the community (whether I know them all personally or not) and many of the groups and people connected to the community
  • Noticing remarkable flexibility, agility, resilience, and grace all around me as a common occurrence and one day noticing that I myself can move in the world the same way
  • Allowing fear, disconnection, anger, negative conflict, isolation, exhaustion, overwhelm, depression, and frustration to be momentary flickers of their former selves, most days
  • Staying in the current moment (being the current) most of the time
  • Experiencing synchronicity as an everyday sort of thing and able to see more connections and opportunities than I could imagine
  • Receiving absolutely everything I need from the people and groups around me and being fully aware of this and grateful for it
  • Experiencing my old boundaries collapsing, regularly, and surprised by how little I’m worrying about it anymore
  • Daily giving thanks for the wonder within our individual selves, the courage within our groups, and the wisdom within our communities

The Ocean Place: Being a Self-Organizing Planet


As an ocean self, I suspect that one: 

  • Feels free and at peace regardless of circumstance
  • Spreads peace and freedom everywhere you go and with everyone you meet
  • Recognizes everything experienced as an important, necessary part of your own wholeness
  • Feels connected to everyone and everything
  • Leads with complete trust
  • Communicates with minimal or no words at all, for example through smiles, hugs, jokes, laughter, physical comedy, tears of gratitude, and stunning openness and honesty

I’m basing these bullets on the presence and actions of remarkable groups and people all over planet earth, not myself. I yelled at three people, two cats, and a dog last week long before I realized I had a choice in the matter. I appear to have quite a long way to go to be able to consciously move from this fourth place, but I’m starting to imagine it as a possibility, which I think is the most important part. Some may see this fourth place as an ideal, for example, as God or a god-like state that we humans should aspire to. My perspective is a little different. I see all four of these places as part of the wholeness that makes life work. After all, fish don’t just need rivers and oceans. Oceans and rivers need fish.

Goodbye Bonzai – a self-organizing group says goodbye to a critically ill member

Goodbye Bonzai – a self-organizing group says goodbye to a critically ill member

I just came across this picture of Bonzai from December 2010.

Like many indoor cats, she had a thing for lying near—and ideally laying on—laptop and computer keyboards. She preferred our older Mac laptop, which put off more heat that our PCs and newer Mac laptop. Like many cats of her generation, she felt that lying on newspapers was just too old school, too 1995 (although she’d curl up on a book or magazine in a pinch). This photo shows her amazing ability to be both sound asleep and watching you with one eye, almost as if that green eye was awake and standing guard while every other part of her rested.

When we got Bonzai, I was so excited to get a little girl cat that I had many pretty feminine names picked out ahead of time: I’d narrowed it down to Jane or Pru, short for Prudence. But in less than 3 hours with her, I knew my hopes of a pretty, feminine name would need to wait until the next little girl entered our lives. This kitten’s wild, rough, and tumble personality was no “Prudence.” She performed “flying headbutts of love.” She would run at you full speed, leap straight up your body (whether you were seated or standing), and mash her little face against yours, purring the whole time. She was half gray fluff ball of love, half kamikaze. So we named her Bonzai. We figured it would one day evolve into Bonsai (with an “s”) when she grew old and fat. (Bonsai means “potted plant” in Chinese.)

She loved the fireplace. And stealing stuffed toys from the dogs.

She spent the next 2½ years living up to her name and demonstrating to anyone she met that she was, indeed, half fluff ball of love (following people around the house like a dog, purring non-stop, and curling up on whatever lap or laptop was available) and half crazy cat (using our clothes closet as a climbing gym, running at breakneck speeds, and perfecting her “hit and run” play technique with any dogs, cats, or humans who came in our front door).

But in March—two months short of her third birthday—our crazy, bouncy, head-butting, energetic cat stopped playing the way she normally did. She was still alert—still mentally interested—but her body just stopped being up for the task. We weren’t terribly worried at first. After all, she was a young, healthy, indoor cat. We had no idea it would be something serious.

As she continued to get worse despite everything we tried, our vets finally ruled out everything else and told us the bad news. She had FIP, a disease that is 100% fatal, is very rapid in the most common form (which she had), and is worse than cancer because there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. She likely had only weeks or days left to live.

Friends stepped in to support us and help us. Letting go was hard. And sad. And joyful. And inspiring. And powerful. And connected us to each other and those around us in new ways.

Daniel and Bonzai comforting each other

Grady watching over Bonzai (who is under the blanket)

 Lori and Bonzai enjoying the spring sunshine


Grady offering Bonzai his favorite stuffed toy


Lori and Grady entertaining Bonzai (and Daniel)


Isabel and Bonzai comforting each other (anyone who says that cats fear or don’t comfort other sick cats hasn’t met these cats)


Daniel sleeping on the sofa to make Bonzai comfortable


The day that Bonzai passed away was tough. We moved through the experience as a group this time and that brought our focus wider—to the beauty and the love and the friendship and the fun we shared as well (not only on the individual pain we were experiencing).

I’ve been present at the deaths of others, but this time I had an unusual experience. As she passed away, an image of a large, well-lit castle (or maybe it was a hotel) came into my mind. I got the impression that the light was turned off in the room my friend was staying in as she left the room and closed the door. But I was certain that my friend was still there in that beautiful, well-lit castle. Sounds a bit strange to me, but that’s what I experienced.

A few days later, I told this story to a friend who was losing her father. A few days after that, she told me her amazing story. Both she and her sister woke up in the middle of the night—both knew—the very moment that their father was passing away. Exhausted, the sisters had fallen asleep on a fold-out couch in his hospital room. She got up to touch his hands and say goodbye.

In the weeks that followed Bonzai’s death, friends showed up from all parts of planet earth to help our family in the transition. Stories from other pet people came flooding in. A new blog commenter sent me his condolences. Sympathy cards showed up. I didn’t even know there were sympathy cards for cats…


My computer genius, IT guru, photographer husband Daniel stepped outside his comfort zone and used his photography blog to talk about Bonzai (and used our experience to improve his work as a photographer). Here’s his touching blog post:

This week, our artist friend Erik (who also sat with Bonzai in her last days while Daniel and I went out for groceries) gave us an amazing original piece of resin artwork with Bonzai as its subject. 

The people and animals who came together during this time of need for our family are a self-organizing group. I say this because within it I see so many of the things that I’ve seen in the other self-organizing groups I’ve studied. This group supported the individuals within it, taught us, laughed and cried with us, brought us closer, allowed us to find more in ourselves than we’d individually imagined was there, caused us to slow down and reassess what mattered most to us, helped us let go, and even helped us bring more of our whole selves to our work. It did the same for some nearby others as well.

So, thank you, group and nearby others. And thank you, Bonzai. We miss you.

Isabel has become a more patient construction-project supervisor (thanks for the photo Annie)