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Friday, December 30, 2011

Thanks Bruce!

How many times has a song lyric or another piece of musical magic lifted you from a funk?

Early this morning I was driving and feeling a little low; fortunately, I had my I-pod cranking. With over 500 songs on there, I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised at a song coming on that I haven't listened to in a while. When "Better Days" from Bruce Springsteen's 1992  recording called "Lucky Town" played, I picked up on this lyric - "Every fool's got a reason for feeling sorry for himself...". Although I've always loved the lyrics to "Better Days", somehow that particular phrase had escaped me until this listening. But it was just what I needed to hear at that moment. What was the last piece of music that had a similar effect on you?

I've often read and heard it said that popular music (like Springsteen's) is, by definition, fleeting. I suppose there's some truth in that and it's possible not many people will be listening to "Better Days" 50 or 100 years from now. No matter - I get this kind of lift all the time from music and remain grateful this is so. Today it was a lyric; a few weeks ago it was listening to the musical telepathy between trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his father Ellis on piano playing "The Very Thought of You"; next week it will be something else. Fleeting? Maybe, but isn't a lot of life about fleeting moments we need to be paying more attention to?      

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Empathy Gauge

Sometimes my empathy wears me out.

Although I don't believe it's possible to be too empathic, there are times when I tire of walking in other people's shoes. I'm not claiming to be an unselfish person; I have at least one good friend who fits that description and I'm not at all like her. But I often feel the pain of other people enough that I become emotional. Consequently, I've embarrassed myself more than once as well as making others uncomfortable. I guess I'm searching for some middle ground and looking for help.

I've also fantasized it would be neat if I could have an empathy gauge that others could easily see. If my gauge read "full" (like the gas gauge on a car dashboard) then others would know they might be in for an emotional reaction if they shared a story of hardship, discrimination, or loss with me. If my gauge was closer to "empty" then there could be less chance for tears from me. Or, I can check the imaginary gauge myself whenever anyone starts that type of story and then issue a warning, when appropriate. Actually, the idea of  people having a visible empathy gauge might be pretty cool all the way around. Those of us looking for  empathic responses might have a better shot getting what we need from others during difficult times.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quiet Doppelganger Vs. Admitted Wonk

Given the limited reach of my blog, I doubt few have noticed (or will remember), but my doppelganger Mr. Id has made only about half a dozen appearances here since I introduced him in early May. And I have yet to post any of my evil twin's missives via Facebook. However, over the same 7 months, I've routinely referred to myself as a geek or nerd in several different contexts. A few of those postings have gone to my Facebook network. So, what gives? And, who cares?

Well, I guess I care. As I near the finish of an excellent 2003 book called "How To Read Literature Like A  Professor" by Thomas Foster, I thought about blogging about my enjoyment of it. Then I stopped. Wait a minute. Blog about how I enjoy reading books about reading books? I mean, how geeky, nerdy, wonkish can I be? Will anyone care to read about me reading about reading?

So today's decision was not easy- whether I would be public (send to Facebook network) about my geek cup running over again. Or, remain semi-public (as I have with Mr. Id), just post and let the chips fall as they may. Now that I've made that decision, I'll  begin the harder work, i.e. the "what gives?" part - that's where I need your help. What do you suppose prevents me (you) from being more public about the Mr/Ms. Id many of us have bottled up? Put another way, how come it's easier to sometimes characterize ourselves in an unflattering way (me - geek, nerd, wonk; you - fill in the blanks) vs. sharing things that get under our skin?    

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The First Noel Blog

For many years, Christmas day has been among my favorite days of the year. I'm guessing I'm not alone and curious, as always, to hear why this might be so for you. For me?

No work? Cool. The family time? Nice. Giving gifts? Satisfying. Receiving? Also satisfying, especially any unexpected books or music. Charity extended to commemorate the true spirit of the season? Need some improvement there but terrific when I get to it as I did this year, thanks to my wife. Religious rituals? Sorry,  secular blogger here. Food and drink? No-brainer.

But #1 for me? No one, most significantly Pat Barton, has any expectation that I will accomplish a single thing. I can sleep late, stay in my pajamas, nap on & off, continue eating all the leftovers from yesterday when we entertained my family. I feel no need to practice my guitar, exercise, meditate, journal, attend to any other discipline, or even necessarily to read. The phone will not ring, there will be little e-mail to look at, no snail mail delivered, no recycling or garbage to take to the curb. All day, without guilt, I ignore my "to do" list, along with all my other lists. And the final bonus? Outside it is quieter than any day of the year.

On my next Noel, I think I'll extend my Christmas "do nothing" pledge and also skip blogging. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

New Worlds And Words

Some months ago I was describing the volume of my recent reading to an old friend. He asked me "What's that doing for you?"  I  recall being taken aback by his provocative question but don't recall exactly how I responded. How would you answer? Then a little while following that conversation, I met Little Bee.

"I do not know if you have a word for this kind of singing".

That sentence is from "Little Bee", a 2008 novel by Chris Cleave. The context: The eponymous narrator, a refugee from Nigeria, is trying to describe to readers the sound of a woman singing. The singing woman is attempting to console a mother who lost her daughter during an escape from the chaos that ensued in Nigeria after huge oil reserves were discovered by the multi-national oil companies. Little Bee has a word for the singing from her native language (Ibo) and she also speaks perfect English, the official language of Nigeria. But she can't find a parallel word in English to describe the singing she is hearing.

The passage in "Little Bee" that included that sentence helped me formulate a partial answer to my friend's provocative question. Reading introduces me to worlds and words I might not have otherwise encountered. And to paraphrase Little Bee, I do not know if there is a word for this kind of magic. What would you call it?         

Thursday, December 22, 2011

For My Future Reference

Has anyone out there ever known a person whose life has not been touched in some way by alcoholism or substance abuse?

To me, the near universality of this human experience is notable. Family members, friends, work colleagues & neighbors of mine have struggled. As often as not, I've been uncertain of the approach to take with these people in my life. Talk about what I've observed? Avoid the person and issue? Offer help? What kind of help? A support group? A counselor or therapist? Stage an intervention? Though I've studied this a bit and even briefly taught courses on alcoholism & substance abuse, having someone in your life is altogether different than teaching about some vague "others". Even knowing that an addict needs to hit their own bottom before they're ready to climb out feels like a platitude when it is someone I care about.  

In my experience, even though most of us have had to deal with this issue, few of us agree what action to take; often we strongly disagree. Some of us believe alcoholism is a disease; some do not. Some of us believe stopping is a matter of will for the alcoholic or addict; some of us believe stopping is about more than will. But these disagreements or discussions of different beliefs are of no use to the person who is struggling. So, how best can I be of use? Because I don't need it right this moment, this is a good time to ask for your help.


  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Blur Of Time

The blur of time going by gets to me some days. What patterns (if any) have you detected relating to this condition many of us experience?

This particular time, the thought crept up on me as I was writing little notes to some family & friends on our holiday letter. Another year coming to an end; this probably happens to many people around now. Being as introspective as I am also contributes, no doubt. And a conversation I had last weekend with my daughter about defining success probably got me started on this path, though I didn't know it at the time.

For my almost 23 year old daughter what success means is front and center right now. It's possible this is related to the fact that her chosen field is more about passion than it is about security; that puts her at odds with some of her peers. But since we spoke, our conversation has gotten all tangled up in my head. Today it's mixed in with the blur of time. I'm remembering my almost 23 year old self thinking about success and struggling to land on that concept. 39 years have gone by - I'm still working on it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Out Of It On Africa

Though I'm a geography nerd, I'm continually surprised how little I know about most of Africa. And my sister, one of the smarter people I know, struggles trying to match up country names given a map of the continent. So I suspect my shortcoming is not that unusual.  

A few weeks ago, I asked a NYC cabdriver where he was from. When he answered Ghana, I realized I knew nothing about his birthplace, except that it is in Africa. I could not name one city, the name of any country bordering it, wasn't even sure if Ghana is landlocked or not. Eddie was friendly & willing to educate me a bit but my ignorance annoyed me. How did I get to be 62 and know so little about the 2nd largest continent?

A few years ago I watched a really good, little-seen film called "The Visitor", starring the always reliable Richard Jenkins. I recall at the time laughing at a minor character in that film when she showed her ignorance of Africa, mistaking Senegal for South Africa. My self-righteous laughs came back to haunt me following my recent encounter with Eddie from Ghana. Time to break out the Atlas.

 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tis The Season For Decisions

How do you decide when to discontinue sending a Holiday card to someone?

As the person in my family responsible for cards, this has been left up to me. But each year as I pull out our low tech address book and stamps, I'm faced with numerous choices. To cite just one example, our current home is the third my wife and I have owned. In each of our two previous neighborhoods, we were friendly enough with several of our neighbors that we had dinner at some of their homes, they came to parties we hosted, our children played together. So when do I stop sending a holiday card to neighbors from our first home that we left in 1999? Is there a statute of limitations? It costs so little and it's a nice gesture, I know. And sending cards to only those who send to us is way too Scrooge-like. But at this point I'm not sure why I'm doing this with ex-neighbors (and many others) aside from habit.

I recall my Mother being very proud of how many Holiday cards she sent and received. She would tape them all around the door frames in our home. I also remember being impressed how many there were. Am I perhaps channeling my Mother's generous spirit? Or... her need for approval? Over the years, I've tried to invent logical systems for deciding who to send to. This year I began by thinking I'd send cards to people either my wife or I had seen over the previous year. I got as far as the "B's" in our address book before abandoning that system. So, any ideas for next year will be appreciated.            

The Future Of Privacy

How long will it be before privacy is an antiquated concept? I understand anyone thinking a blogger asking this is a little suspect. But after finishing Gary Shteyngart's prescient 2010 novel  "Super Sad True Love Story", I'm having a little trouble escaping this question.

Shteyngart's book is not for every taste. It is smart, imaginative & romantic. In equal measure it is also profane, relentless & depressing. Released more than a year before Occupy Wall Street became news, this NYC-based novel anticipates that civil unrest in an uncanny fashion. In "Super Sad..." the tents and protesters are in Tomkins Park but the economic issues OWS is trying to highlight are eerily similar to those depicted in the book. Because the author was so spot-on there, I wondered how far off he is in his dystopian view of the future of privacy. I mean, does it make anyone else nervous how much information about all of us is readily available?

I'm a blogger so I'm obviously not real secretive. But I have been genuinely surprised how easy it is to find someone and get information, lots of it, about them. "Super Sad True Love Story" has me re-thinking where this might all lead.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Non-Caffeinated Recipe For Energy

My abundant energy is a trait people seem to notice. That energy is a gift, especially when I'm able to point it in positive directions. But there are still times when my energy flags. I've noticed it usually has little to do with how much sleep I've gotten or how much I've exerted myself.  What do you do when you feel out of gas?

I've used many tried and true methods like more exercise, better diet, positive self-talk, etc. Lately, I've also observed how just being around young people gives me a jolt. Without being a creepy old man, I try to engage these folks and learn about them - what they do for a living, what they're reading, listening to, the recent films they've enjoyed. My young adult daughter is a helpful but not critical entree into this world. Because I invariably walk away from these encounters more juiced, I just try everywhere I go. What's the worst that can happen? The person won't talk to me? So? To me, the potential benefit outweighs the risk.

In addition to the infusion of energy I get, the possibility of making a genuine human connection is always present. As recently as yesterday, a short interaction with a college student in a local coffee shop gave me a boost, several nuggets I might use in a future blog post, and reminded me of how much I love the word "savor". Small pleasures, no doubt. Where did your last boost come from?   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mr. Id, Food Ethnocentrist

Mr. Id is unafraid of being called an ethnocentrist for this narrow circumstance: Don't ask him to patronize an ethnic restaurant when those preparing the meals have no trace of the ethnicity in question.

Although Mr. Id doesn't necessarily need to hear Italian spoken by the cooks in an Italian restaurant, it is preferable to Russian or German. Because Mr. Id speaks only English (giving him added credibility as an ethnocentrist) he might have difficulty differentiating some languages from others. However, Polish or Slav cooks working in Mexican, Thai, or Lebanese restaurants are advised to remain silent; even a mono-linguist can usually pick out auditory clues that blatant.

The ethnicity of cooks in a diner remains an open issue. Given the number of choices on diner menus, a United Nations contingent would be necessary in those kitchens to fully satisfy Mr. Id's requirement. But just for the record, Mr. Id usually bypasses any diner that doesn't feature Spanikopita. And he also pays careful attention to the name of the proprietor when advertised, looking for first names like Stavros or Eleni. Last names for women proprietors in diners - not real reliable. Try instead asking for the pronunciation of "gyro" and if a man or woman proprietor says "jiro" (hard "J" and long "I") instead of something close to "yiddo" (rhymes with "kiddo"), run the other way. Guaranteed the Spanikopita will stink and much else will be sub-par.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Adding To The Bookends

Of the questions I was asked when I was young, the one I recall giving me the most difficulty was "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Despite my own discomfort, I've probably repeated the mistake and asked a few young folks the same thing. When you were young, how prepared were you to answer this? How many people have you met in your life who later "became" what they said they wanted to be?

During the lead up to my retirement celebration in March 2010 and since, the most common question I've been asked has been some variation on "What will you do/are you doing with your time?" For a number of reasons, I've had less trouble here. I've begun thinking of the questions from these first two paragraphs like bookends of a work life.

For me it was 40+ years between these bookends. And that has me reflecting on questions to begin asking others in between, questions I would have welcomed, questions asked much less frequently.  Like..."What kind of work are you going to/might you do next?" Or, "What are you passionate about ? How can you turn that passion into an alternative career?"  Your ideas?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Exploring A Tension

Tradition plays an important part in my life; I suspect this is true for many people. I enjoy most traditional American holidays and I look forward to traditions my family of origin has, some of which are related to those holidays. And I like the silly traditions my wife and I have developed over our years together.

Since preserving tradition is one important element of conservatism, I'm beginning an exploration of my longheld resistance to that word. To those out there who share my resistance, I'd like to hear how you deal with the tension between these concepts. To those out there who identify with the word conservative, which tradition(s) have you willfully abandoned and how difficult was it to do so?

In the nearly 200 blog posts I've written, I estimate less than 5% have had anything even remotely political and I plan to keep it that way; I've been largely apolitical since 1972 and I usually find the public discourse on politics much too shrill. But as I reflected yesterday on this tension between my enjoyment of tradition and resistance to conservatism, I realized I needed help from others on the bell curve. I hope you'll share your thoughts. It's safer here than on talk radio.

 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Gift Of Music

What is your first memory of music that made a lasting impression? What musical memories do you closely associate with certain family members? What place did music have in your home or neighborhood? Much of the research I've been exposed to says lasting musical memories begin building when we're between 12-15 years old. Based on my own life, this rings true. How about for you?

I was fortunate to have two parents who enjoyed music. My father played the ukulele and my mother had a nice singing voice and good ear for harmony. When Dad would play something from the 1930's (when he and Mom were in that 12-15 year old range) and my Mother would sing, the songs would be unfamiliar to me. But songs like "Embraceable You" or "I Get a Kick Out of You", and others written years before I was born, occupied as much of my early musical landscape as "Where Did Our Love Go" or "Surfin USA", songs popular when I was 12-15 years old.

Now? A good deal of my 2011 guitar repertoire includes songs Dad played on the uke while Mom sang all those years ago. When Mom died in 1977 I was still singing rock n' roll in the bars. Dad lived almost another 20 years and by then I had switched to playing some of those early standards in a jazz style so he got to appreciate this turn in my music. And though both of them always loved and supported my rock n' roll ambitions, there's something comforting about my current life taking me back to music from my parents impressionable years. To those of you who still have your parents: Why not ask them to share with you the music that made an early impression on them? Then go on I-tunes, spend $15-$20 and make a CD for them; what a gift.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

(Semi-Public) Pontificating Re Public (vs. Private) Pontificators

pontificate (v): to speak in a pompous or dogmatic manner.

I like to hear myself talk as much as the next person. I have noticed, however, that my patience for public pontificating is beginning to wear a little thin. I'm not talking here about our ubiquitous political pontificators, although I'm confident some of you may be getting tired of those people as well.

Instead, I'm talking about restaurant, coffee shop, movie line, book club public pontificators; you know this type. You're trying to have a nice meal or cup of coffee; maybe you're with others, maybe alone. Nearby is someone who speaks not in sentences but pronouncements. What they say is not their opinion - it's the Truth or a Fact. Does this person ask questions of the others they're with? Not on your life. The book club variety pontificator shares similar features with an added annoyance - this person is also clueless that they're monopolizing what is supposed to be a discussion. And beware extraverted English majors in the book club scenario - pontificating run amok!

As someone with a voice so loud I've been accused of shouting when I thought I was speaking sotto voce, I suspect I've annoyed a fair share of people - maybe they even thought I was pontificating (GASP!). So it's possible my increased impatience about others' public pontificating will help me restrict mine to the private variety in the future. I hope so. Because I don't ever want to be humiliated like that guy in the Woody Allen movie "Annie Hall". Remember that scene? This public pontificator is prattling on about Marshall McLuhan and Woody (Alvie Singer) is nearby getting impatient and annoyed. Then Woody magically produces McLuhan himself who tells the pontificator - "You have no idea what my theories are about". Ouch!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Not That Story Again!

What is a reasonable number of stories any partner in a relationship should be able to re-tell, no matter how many times their partner has heard them? How about one story for each year the partnership has existed?

I'm guessing my wife will object to me having 33 stories I could re-tell indefinitely. Come to think of it, I'm tired of several of hers as well and 33 is a big number. So how about one story that can be told in perpetuity for each decade a partnership has been together? That would limit each of us to 3 stories apiece. Not bad, even if I do think my stories are better. Since I'm 4+ years older I think I also deserve at least one more for seniority. But.. How about for partnerships under 10 years in duration? I need your help there.

Next questions: Who gets to choose which stories get told - teller or pained listener? In our case, maybe I pick 2 of mine (+ 1 more for my seniority) and she gets to pick my fourth. Then she picks 2 of her own and I pick #3. That seems fair, right? Do all the stories have to be from the time period since we've been together or do we each get 1 or more that pre-dates the partnership?

Last: Should there be such a thing as an expiration date on any story? How old must that story be? For my wife and I this is not a major problem; some of our stories are now so old we have trouble remembering them anyway. And the really old ones have changed so much, they're new now.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fridays With Mom & Dad

I've now been a volunteer farm hand every Friday for about 6 months. Although my tasks vary, most involve manual labor of some type with a recent heavy emphasis on manure.

Much as I'd like to validate the oft-repeated notion about this being honest, ennobling work, I'm afraid that's not what usually runs through my mind. Instead, I find myself recalling what my Dad, a talented carpenter, many times said to me:  "Patrick, you're going to get an education so you can use your brain to make a living, instead of doing what I do".  I was proud of my Dad; his work was easy to describe to my friends; and when he finished, there was frequently an end product you could touch. But he wanted more from his work life and often told me so.

And when the tedium of my volunteer work sneaks up on me, I better understand what my Dad felt, notwithstanding the romance some people have with a "working class hero" archetype. It's not as though I was never bored in my work life; I'm confident my sisters and my brother, all college-educated like me, would say the same. Still, I'm grateful for the education my parents made sure all four of us got, giving us more choices about the kind of work we could do. My parents didn't have that same range of choices and I'm now reminded of that each Friday. I'd like to claim this was my original "plan" but it was not. But it is a great reason to hang in there - Mom & Dad are right there beside me once a week.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Atlas Riffing

As a kid in school, I really liked geography (in those days a piece of "Social Studies") but did not let on - it wasn't then considered a very "cool" subject. But it's possible that early enjoyment of geography contributed to my strong adult interest in other cultures, travel, perhaps even my enjoyment of ethnic foods.

Now that my time is more flexible, my continuing interest in geography gives me the latitude to do a fair amount of what I've termed "Atlas riffing". When I'm reading at home my Atlas is close by. If a locale described is unfamiliar to me, a fairly routine occurrence, I will often locate it in my Atlas. But once I step inside that book, all bets are off. I begin bouncing from place to place like a deranged but happy pinball.

To wit: Early last night I finished a novel called "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell. The book takes place in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Florida Everglades, a part of that state I've never seen. After locating it on my Atlas and reading the page of text, I flashed to another novel I'd finished earlier this year called "In The Lake of The Woods" by Tim O'Brien (See the connection? Water). So...my Atlas now took me to Northern Minnesota to find the Lake of the Woods. And so on.

Bottom line: When I finished this particular round of Atlas riffing, 4 glorious hours had gone by. My travels had taken me to Ghana, the Solomon Islands & the Yukon territory to name just a few. And this Atlas has so much more than just maps. Now that I'm old enough to not care about peer pressure as much, I'm unafraid to say this - it's a very cool book. Call me a nerd if you must; geography makes me happy.  

 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time Alone

How important is it to you to have regular time alone? What happens if you have difficulty finding that time?

My daughter has been on the road working since early October. She and five other young adults have driven from New Hampshire to New Orleans to St. Louis doing a small theater production.  Though she's enjoying her work immensely and the six get along very well, she misses her alone time. They work together (often 2 shows a day), room together (to save $$), eat together & spend lots of time in the van together. Difficult for an only child. Would it be difficult for you? 

I did my own share of tight quarters, close to the vest, rock n' roll roadwork as a young adult; I don't recall it being hard. Could be that coming from a family of four kids all born in a 49+ month timespan, I didn't have a high expectation then about having much time alone. But I sure need that time now and get cranky when I don't get it. Like many people, I occasionally struggle with balance but I feel pretty good about the amount of alone time vs. people time in my life. How is your balance in this important domain? What do you do when you feel out of balance?

Of course, it's very possible my need for alone time will shift yet again as I get older. And I also fully realize how fortunate I am at present. When I don't want to be alone these days, I have a rich network of family & friends who are close by. It's quite a gift; I hope I don't ever take it for granted.