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Friday, July 29, 2011

The Hoarder In Me

I know the kind of hoarding many of us know of or have seen depicted on reality TV is a genuine psychological illness. But lately, in going through boxes of curriculum from 1991-2010 that I wrote or helped write, I'm having real difficulty discarding much. That has me reflecting on the hoarder in me.

What do you hold onto that you know, logically, makes no sense? Aside from my recent discovery described above, I've always had difficulty parting with books I've finished (and sometimes even with ones that I've only started.) Parting with a book I finished feels a little like letting go of an old friend. I invested time. I learned something. I laughed or cried or was bewildered. I don't want to forget how I felt. And besides (here comes the really illogical part), I might re-read it "someday". Of my entire book collection, there are probably less than 20 books I've ever re-read. But still...

I'm not in danger of appearing on a reality show. But as I've continually re-learned, it's just a matter of degrees. Every time I look at those boxes of curriculum or my books I need to remember that.     

Thursday, July 28, 2011

61? or...16?

Prompted by a brief scene from the touching documentary "Young At Heart", I've been messing around with reversing the digits in my age. Try this, if reversing your two numbers results in a lower age for you. I hope you're as pleasantly surprised as I've been.

* At 16, music consumed me. Then it was drums and the Beatles. At 61, I'm still consumed. Now it's guitar and Thelonious Monk.
* At 16, I loved the movies. Then it was "The Magnificent Seven" and "West Side Story". I still love movies; last one that grabbed me in a big way: "Nowhere Boy".
* At 16, via watching my sisters, I began to understand the power of books. Now, I simply can't read enough. Today I will finish Christopher Hitchens 2010 memoir "Hitch-22".
* At 16, despite being miserable to them all, I really knew how lucky I was to have a family like mine. At 61, my best friends are my wife, daughter, my two sisters and brother and my grown nieces.
* At 16, I felt physically terrific. Then it was High School cross-country. Now, when I'm on my bike, playing tennis, skiing, or just walking I can't claim I feel 16. But I sure don't feel 61 so I'm ahead of the game.

I'm hoping I'll forget I ever wrote this when I'm 68. If I happen to be having a bad day, I'm concerned what I'll come up with in a "68? or...86?" post. If you see a post with that title in the future, caveat emptor.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Act Of Simple Courtesy

When was the last time an act of simple courtesy prompted you to speak to a total stranger?

While engrossed in a book on a train ride into NYC, the cell phone of the man sitting directly across from me rang. I sighed, anticipating a scenario that has frequently happened to me: My reading reverie would now be interrupted by a conversation of indeterminate length that I had no interest in overhearing. Instead, this gentleman said quietly - "I'm on the train; I'll call you back when I get to the station." And then he hung up.

I was almost too stunned to talk but soon realized this act of simple courtesy must be acknowledged. I said - "Thank you for being a gentleman and not prolonging that call; that was courteous and respectful." He smiled at me and I returned to my reading.

I know this is not profound; perhaps it's not even unusual. Nevertheless, when he said to me "have a nice day" as he left the train and I said "you do the same" in return, I felt something genuine had occurred. And I smiled to myself as I reflected on how his act of simple courtesy had been the catalyst for our interaction.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Good Old Days? Well....

Got one of those forwarded e-mails recently about all the things the sender misses from the "good old days". Here's just a few things I don't miss from those same good old days:

* Stepping in excrement a lot more before people were forced to clean up after their dogs
* Enduring smoke in restaurants, the hospital (!), anywhere
* Having a daughter (sister, mother,etc.) subjected to vile jokes in the workplace
* Purchasing a sub-par album for the one good song on it
* Waiting in longer lines at the bank (pre-ATM), supermarket (pre-barcodes), toll booths (pre-EZ pass)

Come on, tell the truth. You've got a list like this in your head. Suggestion: The next time you get one of those Paul Harvey or Golden Years or Good Old Days e-mails, share your list with the sender. Unless, you think that's too negative. In that case, just share it with me; I'm a little crabby today.   

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Blogdreams

Aside from the times this hosting site has been non-functional, the Friday and Saturday just past represents the first time I've missed posting for two days in a row since I began. I know my unconscious noticed - more on that. I'm sure my legions also noticed; cue the cymbal crash.

How do I know my unconscious took notice of a two day (unforced) absence from the blogosphere? Last night I had blogdreams. In the interest of maintaining my meager readership, I won't detail the content of those dreams here. But, I was struck by how vivid they were - seemed more like daydreams. And there was none of the ambiguity night dreams often have.

So, if anyone is interested in making one of last night's blogdreams come true, comment on this posting, despite your past frustrations using that feature. A long on-line conversation was part of one of my blogdreams, honest. And be grateful I'm sparing you the descriptions of any of the others; TMI as my daughter sometimes says.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

When Talk (Really) Is Cheap

I don't often use the expression "talk is cheap", probably because I like to talk and also because I believe words matter in many circumstances. However, I have to agree that the common expression "I'll try" is a prime example of when talk really is cheap.

An old friend of mine taught me about what linguists call a "word-to-world" fit. Part of what that means includes keeping the promises you make to others, even if you don't think you're making a promise. When someone says "I'll try" to me, I hear that person making a promise they will sincerely attempt to do something. But my experience with people who regularly say "I'll try" is, more often than not, nothing comes of it. I do not have the expectation people will always deliver on what they say they will "try" to do. But I do expect to know at least what became of the attempt. In other words, some follow through, at minimum. Even better for me would be if the person simply told me up front  "No, I can't/won't/don't have the time to do that". Those statements at least have integrity.

I have a few other examples of when talk really is cheap to me but I'd rather hear yours. Please share some with me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reconsidering Patriotism

Most of my adult life I haven't felt very patriotic. Some of my resistance can be traced to going to college during the turbulent 60s; some of it to a general tendency I have to be contrary; some of it because I've never wanted to seem aligned with people who strike me as using the flag and their own patriotism as a blunt instrument to attack those who don't agree with their politics.

Lately I've found myself reconsidering the whole concept of patriotism. I trace my reconsideration to three things. First are two books I recently finished: Laura Hilldebrand's bestseller "Unbroken", which tells the incredible saga of Louis Zamperini, and the late Tim Russert's memoir "Big Russ and Me", which recalls the less "heroic" life of Russert's own Dad.

Both books are worth reading although neither is on my Top 10 of the past year. Despite that, I found myself strongly identifying with the bedrock values both men personify - hard work, loyalty to family. I also saw so much of my own Father in Zamperini & Russert Sr.; all 3 were working class, WWII vets. In addition, while reading, my Father came to mind more and more as the authors described the strong patriotism of Zamperini & Russert Sr. I sensed a shift in my longheld resistance.

Then, just before Father's Day, my sister sent me a music video called "Before You Go" that reminds people to thank WWII vets before they all leave us. And my reconsidering of patriotism continues.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Missing Piece

Being the oldest of four with the youngest born just a little more than 49 months after me, my Mother had her hands full. Remember: This was in the days before washing machines and disposable diapers. I have pictures with my Mother holding two of my younger siblings, one in each arm, me standing at her side.

Over my lifetime, I've recognized a tendency I have to seek attention in many situations. I think it's no coincidence I've gravitated toward work that would put me in front of people a lot, i.e. being a musician, a teacher, etc. Like almost everyone I've ever known, I think my choices have been, at least in part, driven by a search for a missing piece from my early years. My Mother was consumed raising four kids very close in age; my Father worked two jobs to support the six of us. How could I have possibly gotten enough individual attention? I have never felt, in any sense, deprived. If any of you read my postings on Mother's or Father's Day you'll know this to be so. And this posting is not meant to make anyone who reads it uncomfortable. If it has, I apologize.

Instead, as always, I'm hopeful that my story will prompt you to think about your own. What is a missing piece for you? And if that probing question strikes anyone as a "glass half empty" approach, again, mea culpa.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mr. Id & The "S" Word

Since Mr. Id's last appearance on May 25, Robert Reich's 2 minute video on why the economy continues to falter has gone viral. The video has spurred Mr. Id to wonder, once again: What rationale could convince anyone that CEOs of corporations deserve to earn (on average) 700 times what the lowest paid person in the corporation earns? Can anyone work 700 times as hard as someone else? Is anyone's education or experience worth 700 times as much as someone else's? Do CEOs have 700 times greater IQs? Is it possible for someone to have 700 times as many working hours available to them? Or to sleep 700 times fewer hours? How many cars, boats, homes, shower curtains does 700 times as much salary buy? And, can anyone use that many shower curtains?  

Mr. Id recognizes these kind of impudent questions have helped pundits label our president with the dreaded "S" word. But Mr. Id is genuinely curious how anyone can justify this kind of disparity. Mr. Id also realizes some people who might read this blog may not share his confusion/outrage or, if they do agree, they might not want to be public for fear of being labelled an "S" themselves. Mr. Id wants to re-assure the latter group: Based the average number of daily views this blog gets for postings when not using Facebook (like today), your exposure is very limited.

Finally, Mr. Id wants to re-assure any CEO who might stumble on this blog: You're not at a great risk of a mass public outcry about your ridiculously inflated salaries. Not enough people are paying that close attention to Mr. Id, the "S".          

Friday, July 15, 2011

Assignment: Blogging 101

You've heard of Psychology or American History 101, right? Well, since this is my 101st blog posting, I thought I'd share what I've learned doing this for 4 months - i.e. Blogging 101. This won't take long.

Lesson # 1:  Be sure the site hosting the blog has an easy-to-use comments feature if you want to start conversations.
Lesson #2:  Refer back to lesson #1.

And I've tried several other hosting sites since my late May posting entitled "Searching For Greener Cyber-Pastures" to see if I can find a site with a better comments feature. Unfortunately, I've found the other sites have even more glitches than Blogger/Blogspot.

So, your assignment for Blogging 101? Suggest a hosting site other than Wordpress or Posterous or Wix. Although those aren't the only ones I've tried, they're the most common suggestions I've gotten so far.

Help!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raising Idiosyncratic To Art Form

Want a surefire way to get a conversation started? The next time you have guests, put any Tom Waits recording on as "background" music or create a Tom Waits station via Pandora radio. But, be sure the music is just loud enough to be heard. In a short time, I'm willing to bet someone will say "What are we listening to?". Presto = conversation.

For almost 40 years, Waits has been raising idiosyncratic to art form. He first came into the public ear as the composer of "Ol' 55" (on the Eagles third album), and also wrote a song widely thought to be Bruce Springsteen's - "Jersey Girl". Hearing those two songs (or several others Waits' songs made popular by mainstream artists) performed by their composer is an aural experience. I have a compilation recording called "We Get a Kick Out of Jazz" featuring Norah Jones, Liz Wright, and others doing fairly straightforward arrangements of jazz standards. On it, Waits does a song called "Little Man". It's a real attention grabber, I promise.

I have my brother to thank for turning me onto Waits and also for keeping this original talent on my musical radar. 28 years ago, at a party celebrating our private wedding the week before, my brother sang a Waits song called "Better Off Without A Wife" to my (then new) wife and I.  And this blog post was inspired by my brother singing Waits' "Shiver me Timbers" to our daughter at her college graduation party about a week ago. In between, many Tom Waits songs have enchanted me. And I keep a Pandora station (which I've named "other weirdness") that features Waits ready, in case conversation stalls. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In The Hands Of A Master

"All that we don't know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing."

I'm reasonably careful with superlatives, but while reading "The Human Stain" by Philip Roth, I felt very much in the hands of a master.

Roth can sometimes be difficult to read and has been widely chastised for his fictional treatment of women. Based on the few interviews I've seen with him, I'm not sure he would be good company. (Something I'll keep in mind when invited to break bread with him.) It was easy putting all that aside reading "The Human Stain"; this book demonstrates why he is among the most revered postwar American writers. When reading a novel, I'm in the habit of writing down phrases or sentences of power, beauty, or intelligence. Here, I copied whole paragraphs.

In addition to Roth's striking use of language, the main story (set in the Clinton years) and the back story (going back to the early 1940s) of Coleman Silk are rich, complex, & believable. For me, Roth has created a fully realized female character in Faunia Farley, Coleman's late-in-life lover. Faunia's tortured and menacing ex-husband Lester is also compelling. I knew for sure I was in the hands of a master when I recognized how effortlessly Roth juxtaposed the story of Coleman's secrets and lies with the inability most of us have discussing race in any meaningful way.

I hope at least one reader of this blog who has already read "The Human Stain" (or someone who does so in the future) will share their impressions of this book with me.

Guilt

I usually don't think of myself as someone who is prone to feeling a lot of guilt; I can be pretty selfish and that seems to keep excessive guilt at bay. Laying guilt trips on others? I suppose I'm pretty adept at that.

However, guilt does enter my thinking whenever I compare my economic circumstances to people who struggle to get by. I'm not a person of great means but my volunteer endeavors put me in regular contact with people who have far less than I.  Today another volunteer and I were discussing the compassion we feel for the people we serve and I realized compassion and guilt were seeming like two sides of the same coin. What is the difference in these two concepts for you? When does one begin blurring into the other? If/when they do blur, how do you deal with the dis-connect?

I've worked reasonably hard my whole life and do not feel as though I did not earn what I have. And I didn't walk on any backs to get where I am. For the bulk of my professional life I was a musician, a teacher, and a public sector employee - not exactly big bucks professions. But what measure of luck & circumstance played a part in putting me ahead of others economically? And how useful is guilt as a response to that inequity?        

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Meeting New Smart People

What are some ways you've discovered for meeting new smart people?

Since my most recent move last year, I've tried several strategies. I've joined two book clubs & a Toastmasters group, gotten involved with two service organizations as a volunteer, gone to a few Sierra Club meetings, gotten acquainted with the local librarians, started this blog. I've had some success with each of these but I'm still looking for other ideas.

I realize it sounds elitist to restrict my search to "smart" people but I'm old enough now that my time is precious to me. And, my experience has taught me the most interesting people are the people who are the most interested; those people tend to be smart. So for this search I'm interested in the ideas of the interesting people who might read this posting. And if any of my strategies work for any of you, all the better.

Friday, July 8, 2011

And Now, For Something Completely Different

Although I've posted most days since starting this blog on March 15, I've limited the number of postings I send via Facebook (like today's) to about one a week. My thinking: I'd rather not inundate my Facebook friends; then maybe they'll want to STAY my friends and occasionally read the posting I send. I decided to use this week's Facebook posting for something completely different.

www.celticcharms.org

That link is for an organization I have been involved with for about a year as a volunteer member of the Board Of Trustees. I recently increased my involvement and now also do volunteer "handy-man" type work at the physical location in Howell Township. Celtic Charms is run and funded by an extraordinary husband and wife team named Bill & Christine Landuyt. I have learned two powerful lessons from Bill & Christine in the short time I have been involved with them:

1.) To paraphrase Margaret Mead - "Never under-estimate what one person can accomplish; all great things start with one person." Bill & Christine give of themselves tirelessly; it is hard for me to convey how hard and unselfishly these two people work. You just have to see it. And you have to see the results with the people they serve. I am humbled by their unselfish effort and exceptional generosity.

2.) Every time I watch Bill And Christine interact as a couple, I realize how far I have to go to be a better partner to my wife. I know being around them inspires me in this regard; I hope it rubs off a little.

Visit the website, please. And then tell me what you think. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Try, Try Again

How many times in your reading life have you returned to a book that stymied you the first time? Did you crack it the second time? What was different?

I'm more inclined to try try again when a reader I really respect tells me how much they loved a book I struggled to finish the first time. And I've found a very high percentage of those books to be worth the second effort. Despite giving up the first time, Ursula Hegi's "Stones From the River"  is in my queue now based on how much my wife loved it. And most recently, I returned again to "Great Expectations" after reading Pat Conroy's memoir and being evangelized by his passion for the classics.

Which books are on your list to try again? How did they end up being there? I've many times cited "100 Years of Solitude" (Gabriel Garcia-Marquez) as the prime example in my reading life of try, try again. I started this amazing novel 3 times before Marquez pulled me into the spell. Some would say we have no obligation to an author if their work doesn't immediately draw us in. I would submit much of how something lands with us has to do with timing. If someone whose reading tastes you admire suggests you try try again, heed that advice.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Elusiveness of Clarity

Some days, things get clear for me. I feel like I understand myself and have less trouble accepting my flaws.  Music is cleansing; food tastes better; I'm more focused. In between those days, clarity is an elusive quality for me. How about for you?

I'm not unhappy or angry on those in between days. But I come across a little less grateful and patient, so invariably people close to me will ask if I am (unhappy or angry). And though some would call this my "mood", that strikes me as an oversimplification. Today I don't feel at all in a bad mood. I feel pretty good, well rested and happy with the interactions I've had so far. But I'm not feeling particularly clear.

One of the benefits of being committed to keeping a journal is I have learned to wait out days like today, knowing a day of clarity is not far off.  When I go back and read my older journals there is a pattern even if I haven't yet fully uncovered what triggers those days of clarity or how to predict when they will occur. As always I'm curious what you have learned about this elusive quality. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Synaptic Sparks, Part 1

Thanks to my friend Sue, I now have the expression "synaptic sparks" when I want to blog about the experience of one art form jumping to another. In my March 17 post entitled "What Do You Call This?" I asked for help naming this phenomenon and Sue came to my rescue.

While driving today I was listening to a Jackson Browne song from 1986 called "In The Shape of a Heart". As I was pulled into the mournful lyric, the loss Browne describes brought me magically to the story of "Cutting For Stone", a sprawling novel from 2009 by Abraham Verghese I finished a few months ago. Although songs and novels about loss are fairly common both this song and novel are anything but. "In The Shape Of A Heart" simply must be on the soundtrack when "Cutting For Stone" is made into a film.

OK, your turn. What's been an experience you've had with synaptic sparks? Remember, any art form is fair game:  film, literature, music, architecture, photography, any of the visual arts, etc. The only requirement is that something from one art form must leap to a different form unbidden, e.g. you're looking at a painting and presto....a song won't leave you alone. Or, you're reading a poem and presto....a building comes into your mind's eye. What prompted the spark? If you have just 5 minutes, see if you can remain unmoved when Jackson Browne speaks about loss. If you've got a lot more time and/or you're looking for a book that explores that subject in depth, try "Cutting For Stone". Today, sparks flew for me between the two.      

Saturday, July 2, 2011

To List Or...Not To List?

I've just got to know - Is there anyone out there OR have you ever met someone who makes no lists? I can understand not making grocery lists or keeping a list of books you want to read or not having a list of personal phone numbers (hey, that counts as a list, whether you care to admit it or not). Although I use all of those (and others), I'm sure many people can live without those three types of lists. But, no lists at all? I have trouble imagining a person like that. Which of your lists would you have trouble doing without?

When I was a young boy, my sister once uncovered my "list of my lists". I admit this is excessive, if not necessarily certifiable, and we have since laughed about that list many times. I don't have that particular list anymore, but recently I did compile a list of all the ways/places where I write, including this blog. I suppose that is not real different than a "list of lists", so I guess it's safe to say I'll never outgrow this habit. Truth be told, I don't think I want to. How about you? Could you imagine yourself with no lists?

If your answer to that last question is no, as I suspect it is, I think you'll agree it's appropriate I borrowed from the Bard. My question is not as existential as Hamlet's but it is something many of us can relate to. Wait, I think I just stumbled onto another list - "Things many of us relate to". No, I think I'll just continue using my blog for that.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Re-Framing

Direct - blunt - tactless - obnoxious

A two day training program I just attended has helped me begin to re-frame my directness. The instrument I completed before the program called the trait of being direct one of my "talents"; that got me started on the re-framing process. When those of us with the talent for being direct were cautioned about over-using it and being perceived by others as blunt, I had an "aha" moment. I added tactless and obnoxious, additional words I've been called more than once in my life. As I continued to re-frame, I considered the possibility that those familiar words might be a consequence of this talent I have for being direct.

I've taken and administered instruments like this in my work life many times. Most people, including me, love completing them because they give us information about our favorite subjects - ourselves. This instrument was no exception. And although this was not the first time I've heard that an over-used talent (or strength or skill, etc.) can get someone in trouble, it was good to be reminded. Which of your talents gets you in trouble when you over-use it? Maybe start by thinking of some consistent criticisms you've heard and see if you can find a path back to some talent that perhaps you over-use. Then begin re-framing. And tell me about the results.