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New Jersey, United States

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Making My Week

Teaching continuing education classes about music for the past several years has been a highlight of my post full time work life. I walk away from each experience buzzing and look forward eagerly to the next chance I'll get to share my passion with other music lovers.

But a few weeks ago, a devoted student took me to another level. Her e-mail asked if I would mind sending the then as-yet-unpublished dates for an upcoming class on singer/songwriters. And why did she want the dates in advance? If possible, she wanted to avoid a conflict with my class while making travel plans for a fall vacation. Would I mind? Oh, please!

It's difficult to convey how much that affirming e-mail meant to me. Publicly acknowledging an act this kind is the least I can do. I'm now also inspired to be on the lookout for a way to make someone else feel as good as this thoughtful person made me feel. I hope you'll join me and tell me about it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Leopard Seeks Assist

For you, which comes first more often, the tendency to judge yourself or to judge others? Zen masters: Before you say these tendencies are one and the same, let me save you some time - I'm not as evolved as you and my guess is I'm not alone on the bell curve there. In my experience, the whole judging thing - in both directions - is a struggle for many folks. I'm grateful to people I've known who have assisted me with this struggle and I also try staying mindful by using techniques I've picked up from books.

Still, I have also wondered if some of us are simply hard-wired to judge more. I've tried to resist that notion because it would give me a neat rationalization; like most of us, I've already got plenty of those to help me excuse my bad behaviors. The psychometric assessments I've taken that purport to measure tendencies or preferences or personality traits? Those muddy the waters even more. How much credence do I attach to the results of those assessments? Can this leopard change its spots? How about your judging spots? As difficult to remove as mine are?

So, a few twists on my opening question. Which kind of judging have you had more luck beating back? The tendency to judge yourself or to judge others? What strategies have been the most effective?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Synaptic Sparks With A Low Flame

Should any of author Marilynne Robinson's quiet books ever get made into a film, Andrew Haigh - the Director of "45 Years" - is the man for the job.

The mute intensity of this 2015 film meshes perfectly with Robinson's spare dialogue. As I was being mesmerized by the silence enveloping Charlotte Rampling as she meanders through the countryside near her home, I envisioned the rural sprawl of Gilead, Iowa - the locale of Robinson's trilogy. And the concluding shot of the film, with the entire story expressed in Rampling's face as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" plays, was as masterful as Robinson's concise prose.

If action, noise, or dragons are your thing, avoid this film. If stillness - in acting, writing, or directing - suits you better, this is one to see.  

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Three

"You don't need a Weather Man to know which way the wind blows." 

Bob Dylan was likely referring to the countercultural radicals, not TV meteorologists. But either way, his lyric above from "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has even wider applicability in our current age of alternative facts than it did in the turbulent 1960's. As such, I submit this is Dylan at his aphoristic best, the lyric of his that might live the longest. With the thousands of lines Bobby has unleashed on the world, I hope a few readers - especially Dylan fans - will make some alternative suggestions.

How much do the "Weather Men" in your life shape your views? If there is another mental exercise that has occupied more of my reflecting, I can't say what it is. When reading or listening I'm acutely aware of my biases. That doesn't mean I transcend them very often. Based on years of teaching the subject, I also know how each of us work harder to confirm our biases than we do to upend them. We seek out information that reinforces our views, often unconsciously, and also screen out whatever doesn't conform to our already constructed mental models. What are your strategies for escaping this human trap?

"So, after checking with others, it remains the responsibility of each individual to sift through the received wisdom, insofar as possible, and decide what's worth holding on to." That sentence, from Barbara Ehrenreich's brilliant 2009 book "Bright Sided" is one of the best I've read in recent years to help me fight the "Weather Man" embedded in my brain. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich goes on to add this caveat. "This can require the courage of a Galileo, the iconoclasm of a Darwin or Freud, the diligence of a homicide detective."  Shit.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Age Of Miracles

Sometimes a well told story is enough.

Author Karen Thompson Walker constructs her 2012 coming of age tale - "The Age Of Miracles" - on an intriguing premise -  the earth's rotation begins slowing soon after Julia starts 6th grade. As school recesses the following summer, the days are seventy two hours long.

Using Julia's authentic and unmistakably adolescent voice, Walkers builds a tender story onto her dystopian foundation. Her solid debut novel is bleak but never immobilizing  - " ' I bet things turn out OK'  I said, gripped by an urge to say some cheerful thing - it rose up from my throat like a cough. ' I bet it will be fine'."  As Julia and everyone around her tries adjusting to the "new normal", this young and talented author uses her central conceit to reflect on the remarkable resilience of the human race, all while skillfully balancing the cataclysmic and the quotidian. "Meanwhile , the oceans are shifting, the Gulf Stream was slowing, and Gabby shaved her head."

I took very few notes reading this book. The prose is sturdy, but the story and Julia's voice were far too compelling to leave. What was your last reading experience like that?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Family Values

My life experience has both confirmed and refuted the conventional wisdom claiming that opposites attract. Putting aside the initial attraction piece, I've met many couples with opposite temperaments that appear to get along very well and others who are miserable. Some couples with widely divergent interests seem to make that work, others, not so much.

But how many successful partnerships have you come across where the two people have opposite values? How would you fare in a relationship like that? Not everyone in my family shares the values that underpin my worldview. In fact, more than a few of those values are diametrically opposed. But I don't live with any of them and the values I hoped to pass onto my daughter, embodying my hope for a better world, are values her mother and I share. I have difficulty imagining it having been any other way.

I've known several people who have let differing values destroy their family of origin relationships. The stability those relationships give my life is too important to allow that to happen. I choose to remain attached to the opposites in my family. At the same time, I'm also grateful my values have always been, and remain to this day, closely aligned with my partner of thirty nine years.

Monday, July 3, 2017

My House & Your House


Although reading to her when she was young was an important part of my life, it was my wife who led our daughter through the Harry Potter series beginning in 1997. I eavesdropped enough to glean a few tidbits but most of that magic unfortunately bypassed me. Then, this week's Time magazine arrived and page ninety eight caught my eye - Hogwarts, here I come.  

How can any self-respecting geography geek overlook a map of the US, color coded to correspond to one of the four houses at Hogwarts? As someone who spent years administering and interpreting instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, how can I resist taking a personality quiz to find out which Harry Potter house fits me best? Can you resist that temptation? If not, click on the link at the top of this post.

Most significantly, I needed to know how closely my quiz results - which would determine which house I'd reside in - either supported or refuted my self grade on three of the four attributes, each of which was featured in my long running series called "My Grade (So Far)". Back in February 2012, I gave myself a "C" for ambition (The House of Slytherin). Then a month later I gave myself a "C" for bravery (The House of Gryffindoor - where Harry resides). In October that same year I gave myself an "A" for loyalty  (The House of Hufflepuff) , leaving only studiousness (The House Of Ravenclaw) as an attribute that escaped my long running exercise in self-scrutiny. And though I never graded myself on studiousness, if the sorting hat did work, I suspect I could have ended up in the House of Ravenclaw had the House of Hufflepuff been at capacity.

How about you? Which house do you belong in? Take the quiz and tell me how your self-grades for each of the four matches the quiz results. If you do, I'll reciprocate. Otherwise, I'm keeping my wand to myself.