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New Jersey, United States

Friday, November 9, 2018

50-50 And The Slow Learner

Aren't most of us usually pleased with even odds? I know I am although, those odds don't guarantee I'm going to predictably land on the right answer encountering one of the many either/or dilemmas each of us routinely face. Caught yourself hesitating when told the meeting will be on the bow? Wait, am I headed toward the stern? Never been on a ship? Forget I asked.

How about this: Ever felt a bit doltish thinking you might be confusing concave for convex? Would you be 100% confident describing a person as an ectomorph vs. endomorph? How about the whole longer winter Pennsylvania groundhog shadow deal? Which way does that go again?

OK, if I share a few of my 50-50 tricks, do you promise to share a few of yours? Nothing is too silly to offer, as you're about to soon discover. Think of the public service you're providing saving readers public embarrassment.  

Port vs. starboard? I think of LP (for youngsters out there, I developed this device during the heyday of long-playing records, aka albums). Left is Port, get it? Don't laugh, it's worked for over fifty years.

The stalactite is the one hanging from the top, vs. the stalagmite. Learned that never-to-be-forgotten tip from either a science teacher or another nerd.

Stationery is for letters, not stationary. I just figured that one out while writing this post. Who said I was a slow learner?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Between Ta-Nehisi Coates And Me

Right after finishing "Between The World And Me" (2015) late last year, I knew I'd be returning to the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. What I didn't expect was to be more blown away the second time around. It appears I've found an essayist to fill the gap left by David Foster Wallace.

Soon after beginning the fifteen page introduction to "We Were Eight Years In Power" (2017), I knew only the necessities of life - eating, sleep, basic interactions with my wife - would interrupt my reading. The eight essays forming the centerpiece of the book - each written between 2009 and 2016 - are each preceded by a new introduction Coates wrote specifically for this collection. It's a skillful device that permits the author to retrospectively frame his work using the context of the Obama years and the 2016 election. And throughout the entire book the prose is as muscular as the insights are powerful. The passage below from the sobering epilogue may help you decide if this is a book you want to try.

"There is nothing done in the service of whiteness that places it beyond the boundaries of human behavior and history. Indeed, what makes the epoch of Indian killing and African slavery, of 'war capitalism' as Sven Beckert dubs it, so frightening is how easily its basic actions cohere with all we know of human greed and the temptations of power."

In the NY Times feature called "By The Book", authors are frequently asked "If you could require the President to read one book, what would you select?" "We Were Eight Years In Power" would be my selection.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Benefits & Costs


Although it's possible I was premature congratulating myself in the above post from three years ago today, many of the lessons I've learned over the last several years about being more judicious with my words are clearly linked to the discipline of regularly writing this blog. In some cases, the impact on my  personal interactions has been dramatic. What are your strategies for making your words less loaded?  

The other benefit of repeatedly whispering to myself - "Be careful, Pat"- has been how much more attuned I am when others appear to be using words that inflame rather than inform. It's easy to get caught in an escalating battle with people of differing views when distancing adjectives get casually tossed around. In my experience, as soon as I begin using more neutral language, the heat in most conversations diminishes. Your experience?

But, benefits are often accompanied by costs, right? So far I've detected two costs associated with the benefits I derive from being more careful in writing and in person. The first has been an occasional sense that I'm walking away from too many battles with intolerant people. The second cost is feeling like I'm sometimes being a bit too meek expressing opinions about things that matter to me. A partial list of those things: persistent racism, dog whistling by public figures who can wield significant influence with their coded messages, climate change denial. What costs have you encountered that go hand-in-hand with being more circumspect with your words?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Person In This Room

Join me in a brief but provocative thought experiment. If any reader shares a response to any of the questions below - via a comment here or offline - I'll gladly reciprocate. I'm sure regular readers will not be surprised to know I've completed the experiment before asking anyone else to do so.

Imagine you are not yourself. You're looking carefully at the room in your home where you spend the greatest majority of your waking hours. You are not yourself. What would be your guesses about the person who spends a lot of time in this room?

Their hobbies?


Level of education?


Relationship status?


Income level?

Other suppositions about this person?  Remember: You are not yourself.

Final question: What do your guesses about this person reveal about your thought processes?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Magic And The Mystery

"Novel associations that are useful."

That definition of creativity - the most succinct one I've ever encountered - has been the guiding principle for my creative life ever since I stopped full time work in 2010. Without these words as my true north, I suspect my inner critic could have talked me into abandoning several creative endeavors, including this blog. How do you keep yourself creatively motivated?

The more time I devote to exploring these novel associations, the stronger my drive is to pay closer attention to them. That drive now has a primal feel to it, like eating or sleep. On the rare days I make no entries in any of my writing vessels - entries that can incubate indefinitely before becoming useful - I feel spiritually under-nourished or tired.

And on days when novel associations flow like an open faucet, energy and gratitude are released in nearly equal measure. It doesn't matter if the useful connections are minutes or years away. That's part of the magic and the mystery.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Giant Steps

Near the end of "Chasing Trane", author Cornel West comments on the difficult music jazz titan John Coltrane created during the last phase of his career. Although West does not deny Trane's avant garde explorations initially alienated him, he also speaks of how his struggles with Trane's late art are more about his own limitations as a listener. Many people I know would scoff at West's statement just as quickly as they would reject Coltrane's final recordings. But I suspect my own intellectual life would be richer if I routinely challenged my own thinking the way Cornel West does.

What did progress mean to Coltrane? And what is the alternative to progress when an artist reaches a level of technical proficiency like Coltrane had by the mid 1960's? Giants like Coltrane, Picasso, or James Joyce all could have chosen - as many have - to repeat their earlier successes, conserving their respective audiences via maintaining an artistic status quo. Instead, each began exploring the outer realms of artistic expression and accepted the commercial consequences. Brave, foolhardy, or both? Though not proud admitting it, in an alternate universe, I'm reasonably certain my own choices would have been conservative vs. progressive.

Still, I've repeatedly reflected on Cornel West's words in the weeks since watching "Chasing Trane". I'm now committed to holding onto his view the next time I uncomprehendingly stare at Picasso's late work or when I'm scratching my head attempting to crack "Ulysses", again. At least I'll enjoy my own company while doing so.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Tell Me About The Prose

Right after slogging through an atrocious memoir - recommended by someone who I'm sure meant well -  I began constructing a questionnaire for vetting all future book recommendations aside from those made by my posse. I welcome the input of any discerning reader who thinks they can help.

1.) Did you read the book yourself?

Third party recommendations can be problematic. I'm glad your sister liked it or … the NY Times praised it or … Philip Roth blurbed it but what, specifically, moved you?

2.) How long ago did you complete a book before the one you're now recommending to me?

I find it helpful to know how important reading is in the life of any recommender. Even more helpful is when the recommender can tell me what made a fictional character memorable - not whether they "liked" or could "relate" to the character - or, what made a specific non-fiction account provocative, challenging, elevating, especially for a recommended book.  

3.) How would you describe the prose?

At this point in my reading life, I'm OK with most subjects (I'll pass on the sexually abusive fathers preying on their daughters, thanks) and most genres (although fantasy, memoir, and historical fiction with the word "wife" in the title often go further down my list). My one non-negotiable is the prose. At the bottom of my hierarchy are books with groanworthy or featureless prose. If you didn't extract a single sparkling sentence out of a whole book, why would I waste my time? From there, we climb up to serviceable or sturdy prose. If a committed reader tells me most of the other elements in a recommended book worked, and the prose rises to those levels, I'll bite. Mostly, when someone describes the prose in a recommended book I long to hear words analogous to those at the top of my hierarchy like muscular (" We Were Eight Years In Power - Ta Nehisi Coates - comes to mind) rich ("News Of The World" - Paulette Jiles - for example) or masterful ("The Sense Of An Ending" - Julian Barnes).

Now if someone asks what I'm referring to when I say prose, well …