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New Jersey, United States

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Starting To Close A Gap

Frequently while reading "The Lotus Eaters", I was forced to acknowledge my limited understanding of the way the tortured colonial history of Vietnam shaped our later military misadventure there. How is it I know so little about a country that dominated the news during the most impressionable period of my life? How many of you near my age share that gap? Gen X and millennials: How well are you tuned in to the complex histories of Iraq or Afghanistan and how that shapes or distorts our misadventures there?

"During the heat of the day, the air was so thick it tasted green on the tongue, like swallowing a pond." Throughout Tatjana Soli's gripping 2010 novel, evocative prose like that put me in country. And the compelling story of three people - each fighting a human battle as the war rages on around them - puts Soli's book in great company with classic war novels like "For Whom The Bell Tolls."  "Like a snake swallowing its own tail, war created an appetite that could be fed only on more war."

Though I haven't yet begun watching the Ken Burns documentary series on Vietnam, "The Lotus Eaters" has inspired me to do so. I'm also returning to Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History", a book I've started at least once before but now feel compelled to finish for my own education.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Old Becomes The New

The first time I heard Otis Redding sing "Try A Little Tenderness", I thought I'd discovered a new raw gem. I recollect how disappointed I was when my parents told me Otis had wrecked a song they'd enjoyed many years before. What songs do you recall knocking you down that you later learned were not "new" when you first heard them? What impact did learning that they were "old" songs have on your subsequent enjoyment? Did you go back and search out the earliest recordings of the song(s)? If you did, how did the original version(s) - in your listening - compare to your "discoveries"?  

Nowadays, I routinely experience kind of an inverse musical dislocation whenever my twenty eight year old daughter discovers songs from my formative years. Recently hearing "Long Long Time" for the first time - a Gary White composition made famous by Linda Ronstadt in the early 70's - my musically astute daughter was, quite justifiably, blown away. She asked if I'd learn it to accompany her. Though I have not played "Long Long Time" one time since my solo years playing in bars ended in 1978, the chords rolled effortlessly from my hands, in Linda Ronstadt's original key. That would be the key of "A" for the music geeks out there.

Accompanying my daughter is always an unmitigated joy. Hearing her sing this "old" song - and who needs a lyric sheet when you've got an I-phone? - made me miss my parents. I want to tell them how all "their" songs - "Til There Was You", "Where Or When", "I Only Have Eyes For You", etc. - might have initially come to me via the Beatles, Dion & The Belmonts and the Skyliners. But I've returned to the originals, Mom & Dad. And even if I still like Otis's read of "Try A Little Tenderness" more than you two did, I've had a musical lifetime of pleasure enjoying the old become new over and over.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Searching For Peace

I've lost count how many posts about the word success I've written and then not published.

The first fundamental problem is the way most standard dictionary definitions connect the word success to concepts like prosperity, wealth, position, honors. I know that we the enlightened disdain such superficial notions. And we've got lofty philosophers by the dozens - cue the Emerson poster here - to support our view that success is so much more. Still, the dictionary is a primary source and a logical starting point so ...

The second problem has been the way many of those earlier discarded posts about this irksome word rapidly deteriorated into either a shrill whine or a semi-socialist rant. Long time readers, old friends, and family members will be relieved to know I exercised good editorial judgment junking those.

The last problem? My own shifting view of what success means, dictionary and Emerson aside. Each time I land on a reasonable formulation, something upends my complacency - most recently, a provocative conversation about success - and I start over, again. How about you? Have you found peace with the word success?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

#50: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Inspired by a recent re-reading of "The Old Man And The Sea", I settled on devoting this iteration of my long-running Mt. Rushmore series to the four best short novels I've read in the 21st century. As always, I hope some of you will chime in with your nominations. Only two requirements: Must be a novel published after 1999 and shorter than 200 pages, i.e. able to be read by most in one long sitting. Mine are listed alphabetically by author.

1.) The Sense of An Ending: Julian Barnes (2011) - I've read this jewel three times since its release and each time my awe deepens. Since Clive Owens didn't get the role of Tony Webster in the recently released film version that came and went without a trace, I'm pretty sure I didn't miss much.

2.) Signs Preceding The End Of The World: Yuri Herrera (2015) - The shortest book here - just under one hundred pages - is a stunning and graphic story upending many closely held and virulently ugly immigrant clich├ęs. Two years later, I still haven't gotten the narrator's voice out of my head.

3.) The Illusion Of Separateness: Simon Van Booy (2013) - The immense craft of this gem escaped me until I tried capturing its richness in a brief book journal entry. If "It's A Wonderful Life" has touched you, this novel will rock you, guaranteed.

4.) The Maid's Version: Daniel Woodrell (2013) - I frequently find my way to excellent authors via paying attention to the source material of noteworthy films. When the credits for "Winter's Bone" told me it was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, he immediately went on my list. This later book of his is a nearly perfect examination of the class divide in rural America.

Though it's been a while since my last visit to the Badlands, it feels good to return. Will be better if some of you share your mountain - or just a part of it - with others.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Community Vs. Technology

In your view, which piece of technology first pointed us toward the world we currently inhabit, i.e. a place where people frequently choose interaction with their devices vs. interaction with the people around them?

I nominate the Sony Walkman. When that device first became popular in the 80's, my initial reaction was feeling disconnected from all those people listening in public to their own private concerts. But, like most everyone, I adapted to the new normal. Still, as I began extolling those earlier assaultive boom boxes over the musical isolation of the Walkman to anyone who would tolerate my rant, I soon realized my default contrariness only partially explained my counter-intuitive defense of being pummeled by music that could rattle my teeth. The shift underway in the public sphere - in my mind personified by the Walkman-  was affecting my sense of community.      

How much more can technology separate us from each other? Although I suspect we're a long way from the end game - and that scares me a little - I'm also grateful many people close to me respect my views. I prefer music that is predominantly audible to all, conversations with those present, going to a movie theater to hear communal laughter or gasps or boos. The technology genie is never going back in the bottle. But I hope I continue to choose connecting with people.      

Saturday, September 30, 2017

This Dissonant Blogger

Of the books I've read over six and one half years since the inception of my blog, only a dozen or so have been the subject of more than one post. There is so much to recommend "Quiet," I suspect this will not be my only post about Susan Cain's 2012 book, an exploration of "the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking".

Cain is not unkind to extroverts, but her mission to empower introverts forms the centerpiece of her persuasive book. As any skilled author must, she solidly builds her case throughout. After doing exactly that in  chapter two - entitled "The Myth Of Charismatic Leadership: The Culture Of Personality A Hundred Years Later" -  she concludes with this shot across the bow: "Just as Tony Robbins's aggressive upselling is OK with his fans because spreading helpful ideas is part of being a good person, and just as Harvard Business Review expects its students to be talkers because this is seen as a prerequisite to leadership, so have many evangelicals come to associate godliness with sociability."

Cain introduces each counter-intuitive premise with scrupulous research then convincingly presents her ideas. The prose is sturdy, the epigraphs used to open chapters are flawless (e.g. "Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything" - Robert Rubin - kicks off chapter four, entitled "Is Temperament Destiny?"), and the forays into neuroscience are delivered in manageable-sized pieces.

Finally, on a personal level, Cain's book was affirming. This extrovert has worked purposefully over his entire adult life on dialing it down and mirroring the behavior of the quieter folks I encounter. The author acknowledges the value of that kind of flexing, citing research on what Harvard professor Brian Little calls the "free trait theory" of personality. Then she says "... many of us have dissonant aspects to our personalities." Dissonant, huh? I like that.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Who's That In The Cheap Seats?

On a scale of 1-10 - "1" representing no confidence and "10" total confidence - how confident are you in knowing if a movie, book, piece of music or visual art is manipulating sentiment out of you? Is it easier for you to be more confident with one medium vs. the others?

As someone who cries easily, I've never been real confident knowing when any artist is aiming for the cheap seats. Even the obtrusive violins so loved by film composer John Williams work on me, unless my more discerning wife is at my side. And I'm a musician! I think I've made a little progress over the past ten years with books but even there my confidence level still hovers well below the "5" mark.

One of the most distinct and difficult movie memories of my life was sitting on my couch watching "Schindler's List" soon after it was released on video. I knew better than to go to a theater and have never watched it a second time. Would a different filmmaker have elicited less from me? Would that have made it a better picture? Was my intensely emotional reaction proportionate to the content? Or,  did master filmmaker Steven Spielberg so expertly use the tricks of his trade that the sentiment was manipulated from me? These days, I pay a lot more attention to this, across all mediums. But I'm still not reaching many conclusions. You?