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New Jersey, United States

Friday, May 18, 2018

Making The Payoff Worth Your Time

Which first - bad news, good news or dilemma?

Bad news? If not for my recent re-read of JM Coetzee's "Disgrace", these past several weeks would qualify as the most dispiriting period of reading in my post full time work life. Several OK books and a few more that required some slogging, without much payoff; thank goodness for Coetzee.

Good news? The current drought gave me a legitimate excuse to review my notes from all the worthy books I've finished since last June. Why? Because of how many books from that pre-drought period went unmentioned here given my reduced blog post output.

The dilemma is, of course, what to feature today. Drum roll, please ...

Partial to memoirs? With or without a soundtrack? "Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink" (2015) by Elvis Costello and "Beautiful Boy" (2008) by David Sheff, respectively, should scratch those slightly different itches. Prefer novels with multi-cultural overtones? Straightforward or challenging? For the former I'd recommend "The Leavers" (2017) by Lisa Ko;"A Brief History of Seven Killings" (2014) by Marlon James takes a lot more attention, but the rewards are significant. Something light, but not lightweight? "I'll Take You There" (2016) by Wally Lamb combines a fantasy about stepping inside the movie of your life with a strong feminist message. Prefer gravitas in your novels? Walk on "The Green Road" with the 2015 Booker Prize winner by Anne Enright or "Salvage The Bones" (2011) with Jesmyn Ward. Non-fiction, you say? How earnest? "The Working Poor" (2004) by David Shipler is highly educational, flawlessly researched, deeply unsettling. "Complications" (2002) by Dr. Atul Gawande helps the learning go down a little easier.

More where these came from but, it's a start, right? Considering the significant exposition overload of the second and third paragraphs, giving you more for your money is the least I can do.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Centennial Celebration (Better Late Than Never)

Using my wife and daughter as the centerpiece of my post to commemorate Mother's Day this past Sunday had a predictable effect - guilt about no mention of my own Mother, even in passing. Only a smattering of my Jewish friends have ever disabused me of the notion that we Irish Catholics are the World Series champions of guilt.

The idea of writing a redeeming post on May 30 - Mom's birthday - helped me get the green monster under control, briefly.  But, because thoughts of Mom are often accompanied by thoughts of Dad, guilt now had me back in its grip.

I've memorialized many dates on this blog over the past seven and a half years. But as March 25 2018 was approaching some time ago, the right tone to mark the centennial of my Dad's birth stubbornly eluded me. I tossed around dozens of ideas, started no fewer than fifteen posts, abandoned every one before hitting "publish". Too maudlin, too trite, too ... inadequate. When my sister commented a few weeks after March 25 that she was surprised I'd let that date pass, I offered my explanation, pushing back the guilt, again. And that months-old conversation with my sister came rushing back soon after I began thinking about what to say about Mom late this month.

Although I've frequently disdained "better-late-than-never" birthday cards and sentiments, it may be time to re-think that position. My Dad - my hero - deserves no less.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

That's Me You Don't See In That Brochure

Not long after our daughter embarked on her acting career in 2011, a modeling agency requested she bring her parents with her to a photo shoot. Imagine the fantasies I entertained in the days leading up to my time in front of those cameras.

Needless to say, none of you have subsequently seen my mug in any brochures like the one being worked on that day, let alone the cover of a magazine or two. In fact, after the first series of photos were completed covering all possible combinations - my daughter and I, my wife and daughter, the three of us -  the photographer returned to the waiting area and asked my wife and daughter only to return for round two. I was sure there was a mistake. The photographer politely- if a bit sheepishly - explained what he'd seen in those initial shots of my wife and daughter. And he believed others would see what he had if he staged the next round well. As the three of them returned to the staging area, I told him to expect a call from my lawyer. Then I continued nursing my wounded ego, alone. Even the yummy refreshments provided no solace.

Mother's Day, several years later. I watch my wife and daughter as they laugh and talk. My life has been immeasurably enriched by these two women with a bond so intense a camera readily detects it. Meanwhile, I anxiously await my first opportunity for a close-up.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Second Time Around

During the full time work years, re-reading a favorite book wasn't an impulse I often indulged. But doing so these past eight years has been one of the singular pleasures of my life. Which re-read has most recently given you a fresh jolt?

JM Coetzee's "Disgrace" has occupied a spot in my top twenty-five novels of all time since I first read it near its 1999 release date. What most struck me on this re-read is how the hard earned wisdom that infuses the novel is masterfully rendered yet, utterly matter-of-fact. For example, the chapters bookending the day of and the day after the attack on David Lurie and his daughter Lucy each begin with three words - "It is Wednesday." & "A new day." The author's restraint - contrasted with the brutality and ugliness in between those two simple declarative statements - is just one example of the command he has of his craft. The book brims with writing that never draws attention to itself.

Aside from a spirited conversation about the use of third person voice in "Disgrace", a good portion of the discussion at my book club centered on the moral of Coetzee's tale. No surprise - the discerning readers at the meeting could not agree what the author wanted us to take away. Have I ever read a truly great novel that led me to a single this-must-be-the-point conclusion? Have you? FYI, the ending here won't make you happy if you like books that tie everything into a pretty bow. Also, you may not care much for David Lurie. But I'm reasonably certain you won't forget him either.

BTW, this re-read convinced me David clearly still belongs on my Mt. Rushmore of flawed Dads from literature.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Such A Simple Question

What recent experience taught (or re-taught) you how difficult it is to transcend your biases? Haven't had an experience like that lately? Allow me to suggest you volunteer - as I recently did - to register voters. If you pay attention to your thoughts while doing this, I suspect it will be revelatory.

Following a brief orientation and review of the relevant forms, I joined a few other volunteers at a local street festival. The simple question to be asked of people passing by our table was - Are you registered to vote? Although not instructed to do so, I responded to every "yes" with an enthusiastic thumbs-up. If someone was unsure of their registration status, the orientation had prepared me to ask clarifying questions. More experienced people were also nearby to assist me if need be. For anyone who was sure they were not registered, I had the necessary forms in hand. And our table was located about five yards from a US mailbox if any unregistered voter wanted to fill out the form right there instead of filling it in at home and mailing it via the postage paid envelope. Pretty straightforward, right?

Not so much. Not long after starting, I realized that although I was asking a lot of people if they were registered to vote, I was not asking everyone. My first thought was a logical and probably partially accurate explanation - no one would be asking everyone - some folks had to pass me by. But then I detected an emerging pattern connected to the folks I was asking vs. some who I let pass by. I also noticed I was paying attention to what was imprinted on the hats, T-shirts, etc. of certain folks. As my time at the table ended, I was exhausted from all the thinking about my thinking.    

Though what I'm revealing here isn't ennobling, I suspect my thought processes are not unique. But in my next turn registering voters, I'll be more on guard vis-a-vis my biases when asking others that simple question.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I Can't? Just Watch Me!

"The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do." - Walter Bagehot

This moment, I can't recall a specific instance when someone important to my development has spoken to me of things I couldn't do - another example of my good fortune. Are the people important to your development encouraging, discouraging, or somewhere in the middle?

And the rest of the voices over my sixty eight year journey? I suspect my chorus - a real mixed bag - has sounded a lot like yours. How successful are you at tuning out the naysayers? With me, it's all about timing.

I'm grateful for those times when Walter Bagehot's sage words come in handy. And he's right; it's a great pleasure to prove the doubters wrong. On other days, the negative chatter remains background noise; it may or may not interfere with what I'm up to. But infrequently - especially on those unhappy occasions when my own disappointment with what I'm doing coincides with a dissonant loud voice in the chorus - the "cannot" is more difficult to surmount. My strategy at those times? A quick nap.

Thankfully, that nap is usually enough to get me back on the job. Soon after, I hear my own voice saying - "I Can't? Just Watch Me!"

Monday, April 30, 2018

Surprise Endings

Think of a book published in 1970 that - for you- has retained its luster. Try doing the same thing for a recording.  If you come up with something from either category, share it with me and others.

How about a film? Fresh on my mind, courtesy of Netflix, is "Little Big Man". Wow. Much as I was blown away by Arthur Penn's movie as a college student, it packed even more wallop this time. With a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, a stellar supporting cast, and a script as sharp as it is funny (from the eponymous novel by Thomas Berger), except for a mildly stereotyped gay character, this treasure has not dated at all. Given her Chippewa heritage and the recurring themes in her terrific books, I lust for fifteen minutes with author Louise Erdrich. I'd love to hear her thoughts on this film. Maybe I'll time a visit to her bookstore when I'm sure she's there? Road trip, anyone?

Aside from the joy I derived watching the movie for the second time in almost fifty years, the best part of this story is the way I stumbled across it. Too tired to read or practice guitar, but too early for bed, I journeyed to the basement and turned on our only television, expecting at best to be distracted. I love surprise endings, don't you?