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New Jersey, United States

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Antidote

A few reasons why "Hillbilly Elegy" (2016) by JD Vance would not have normally gotten into my reading queue:

* It's a memoir, a genre I've avoided lately. It's also the #1 bestseller on the NY Times non-fiction list, a distinction that often awakens my latent snobbishness.
* The author is a contributor to "National Review".
* The world of "hillbillies" usually does not entice me.

Finishing Vance's moving tale of a "... family and culture in crisis ...", I was again reminded how reading can be an antidote to narrow mindedness, especially my own. Although I didn't agree with some of the author's conclusions, and I don't share his faith in the role the church plays in helping rescue people from "learned helplessness", the book is a worthwhile and engaging read. Vance makes very clear he is telling his story, not presenting a research paper or sociological tract. And his story is a powerful one. He's careful to say there are "... no villains ...", while coupling that forgiveness with rich insights about himself. "Even at my best, I'm a delayed explosion - I can be defused but only with skill and precision."

I lost count how many times my parents crossed my mind as I read this book. I will never be able to adequately express how grateful I am for the stability they provided me. I'm very curious to hear what this memoir elicits in you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fifty Years In A Minute (Or Less)

Which significant milestone in your life have you most recently faced? How would you characterize your emotional or mental state regarding that milestone?

Half a century has elapsed? That was my first thought when a high school friend contacted me via Facebook about my 50th high school reunion this September. I tried recalling my 1967 graduation ceremony - no luck. I know I was still upset about the girl who'd dumped me not long before. I was looking forward to the graduation party my parents had planned at our home, knew I was headed to college that fall, sad my high school band was nearing its end. 

After that quick trip to the past - in quick succession - I ...

* Retreated briefly into a pity-pot cocoon
* Thought about whether I'd attend
* Began thinking of ways to convince the organizers to let me play guitar during cocktail hour

There's more, but in the interest of my pride and brevity, I'll spare you. Bottom line: I'm grateful to still be around and healthy fifty years later. And, if I do decide to attend, I've got months to work on my elevator speech, truncating fifty years into one minute or less.            

Monday, February 20, 2017

#47: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Following a three month break, seemed like Presidents Day was an appropriate time to return to this long-running series of mine. So, suppose a landslide destroyed Mt. Rushmore as it exists today. Which Presidents would you place on a new monument? For the purpose of this fantasy, no duplicates of the four who currently reside there are permitted. My nominations are ...

1.) John Adams: I freely admit David McCullough's biography of our second President had an outsize influence on this choice. That aside, if Adams had followed anyone but George Washington, I suspect history would have been much kinder to him. And first lady Abigail Adams - his most trusted political adviser - was a woman far ahead of her time.

2.) James Madison: Another early President whose legacy has suffered a bit partially because his fellow Virginians in that era were better grabbing the spotlight. If you have any doubt about Madison belonging on a new iteration of Mt. Rushmore, read "Founding Brothers" (2000) by Joseph Ellis. I think you might be persuaded.

3.) Franklin Roosevelt: What would have happened if FDR did not take charge in such a decisive fashion as we plunged into the Great Depression? He made lots of mistakes, not responding quickly enough to Hitler being the biggest. But, if the country had turned toward Lindbergh and the "America First" fringe, well ... Read Philip Roth's "A Plot Against America" (2004) and try not to shudder at what could have been.

Because I've purposefully avoided elevating any President who served after 1949 - the year of my birth - I can't come up with a fourth worthy of joining these guys up on my mountain. You can nominate someone from Harry Truman on, if you like. Because I've been around while #33-45 helped create history, my lens is foggy. But I'm interested in your perspective, foggy lens or not.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Committed To This Blog Graveyard

Since my initial aim - starting a robust online conversation - has never materialized, I have reflected a few times over the subsequent six years which need of mine sustains a continuing commitment to this blog.     

"I can hear your voice when I read your writing."

I stored that statement in a safe place when an old friend who lives far away said it to me a few years back. It's since come in handy during periods when my commitment to blogging is wavering. It also seems as though an astute online comment has a way of appearing at just the right time.

Still, there's more to my commitment than what others say (or don't). In last week's NY Times, author James Atlas wrote of how most books - including his own - are destined for a "... book graveyard ..." His phrase went immediately into my notebook. The conclusions in his article about his commitment to his writing danced in my head all week. Late yesterday, my commitment felt fuzzy, I picked up my notebook, saw that phrase.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two Books, Hip Place, Old Hippie

The dictionary defines the slang use of the word hip as "familiar with the latest styles, ideas, etc." So, in order to be hip a person must pay close attention to those styles and ideas, right? And, what about that pesky "etc." in the definition? What's included there? And, most pertinently to this reflection, can a place or something not the "latest" be hip?

Apparently, a place can be hip. Finding myself sitting alone in a NYC bar that markets itself as a "hip hangout" recently, that branding initially made me hesitate before engaging the young couple seated next to me, especially with the ski jacket I had on, surely ten years older than either of them. Would these folks in this hip place talk to an unhip geezer?

I learned where they went to college, what each did for a living, a little about how they met, the usual. When the young man told me his family was from the Dominican Republic, I asked if he'd read "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao" (2007) by Junot Diaz. Unhip ski jacket, hip hangout, my nearby notebook and pen, their I-phones - all irrelevant. My connection to the young man was cemented when he said "I'm getting goosebumps thinking about how great that book is." The story gets better; you tell me if it's hipper. 

The young woman lit up to see her beau so animated by a brief discussion about a book, although she first thought we were saying "Oscar Wilde" not Oscar Wao. Stay with me now. After she said something like "I love his book about that bridge!", I asked "Are you thinking of 'The Bridge Of San Luis Rey' (1927) by Thornton Wilder?", another - like "...Oscar Wao" - of my favorite novels. Now it was her beau's turn to light up as he realized she and I had also had a mind-meld moment about a book, even if we'd gotten there via a more circuitous route and the books each of them cherished were published eighty years apart. 

The next time I noticed three hours had gone by. I won't share any personal information I learned about Jorge and Jordan - from Brooklyn & Baltimore , respectively - but moments of connection like this, however ephemeral, are one of life's greatest gifts, hip or otherwise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Charmed Life

Though I haven't dwelled on holidays - Hallmark has that niche nicely covered - I have managed to at least cryptically acknowledge most of the major ones once since the inception of my blog in March 2011. I've also invented a new holiday for every August 1 since 2012, that lonely month without a single day that compels many of us to visit a card store or gift shop or florist. 

But somehow February 14 has slipped by five times without a bell curve nod to my Valentine of thirty nine years. What kind of romantic am I?  Still, it could be worse. Imagine the reaction of Simone De Beauvoir when she first heard Jean Paul Sartre - her lifelong companion - characterize love as "... the fleeting miracle of coinciding emotions..."

Though JP and I are pretty far apart on this one, I'll save the mushy stuff for a private moment with my wife; she prefers that. But on this Valentine's Day, I would like to know one non-mushy thing that reminds you why you once fell in love with someone - present or past tense. When my wife and I sit side-by-side in a room, each immersed in a book, and we glance up and smile at each other - as we have many times since 1978 - that's no fleeting miracle. That's my charmed life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Beautiful Ides, No?

The way I figure, writing something affirming on the ides of each month for the rest of the year might help remove some of the sting the Bard attached to March 15 all those years ago. Why not help me starting today - the ides of February - and share something soothing, silly, or sanguine right here? If it's less gruesome than the assassination of an Emperor, it's acceptable. And, please don't search for the profound or grandiose. For example ...     

The next time you want the attention of someone in your home or at the workplace, why not use a black magic marker and write on a banana? Or, instead of a perfunctory response to the ubiquitous "How are you?" why not say "I'm better looking than yesterday". At least come up with something that better grabs the listener's attention than "Fine, how are you?" The next time you're entertaining, try using Tom Waits as background music. Then, time how long it takes for someone to ask "What the hell are we listening to?" My record so far is 22 minutes, 33 seconds.

OK, I gave you three, now it's your turn. Even if you don't respond today you've got until March 15 to work on an idea or two. To those who've complained my more serious posts and the questions therein hurt their heads, now's the time to join the fun, whiners.