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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best of 2012

Unless plans change, it could be difficult to post tomorrow so I'll use this penultimate day of 2012 for a brief retrospective of the year past. I'd welcome hearing your "Best of 2012", using my categories or better yet, your own.

* Best time away: Bike riding in Tuscany. Actually, this might be the all time favorite for this category.

* Best time with friends: An adult sleepover! Early on a Saturday the four of us worked with Habitat For Humanity. Next: Our local coffee shop, then a matinee of "Lincoln". Played some guitar, had dinner, talked into the night. Started all over Sunday morning - breakfast, sharing the Sunday NY Times, more conversation & guitar. What a gift having such an extended interaction with other people.

* Best book club meeting: Discussing "The Tattoo Artist" by Jill Ciment.

* Best concert: Tie - The Dukes of September at NYC's Beacon Theatre and Joe Jackson at the Count Basie Theater.

* Best discovery: The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver.

* Best family event: My niece's wedding in Alexandria, dancing so long to the great live music my green shirt turned translucent.

Happy new year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Tangled Up In Kudzu

This bookworm is semi-evangelical when considering which books to give as gifts. There's even a taxonomy (no laughing!) of sorts in my head:

1.) A book worth discussing with others.
2.) A book worth recommending to someone vetted as a discerning reader.
3.) A book worth buying as a gift for someone I care about.

While shopping for readers in my family this season, I realized Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" (2010) had in fact ascended to level three in my taxonomy. Though I finished it almost two years ago, it has remained with me. And my wife, the person I most rely on vis-a-vis steps one and two in the taxonomy, shares my passion for Franklin's tale of two men sharing a deep history.

Novels squarely facing how black and white people in the U.S. consistently miss each other are, in my experience, pretty rare. What was the last book you read that did this well? Often, I'll turn to non-fiction when looking for this kind of reading. "Crooked Letter..." not only nails this charged subject many of us avoid, it engages a receptive reader emotionally, without cheap manipulation. This novel works in a big way because it's near impossible to remain in your head while reading it - you're compelled to examine your heart.

Now about the title of this post. If you get around to reading this wonderful book, let's talk about all the kudzu, OK? That will mean you're joining me on step one of my taxonomy. I'd welcome that.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Optimism

Optimism: A disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of happenings or possibilities.

How would you grade yourself so far on this most prized of attributes? Before you answer, read that definition carefully. And try to forget the hackneyed (dare I say half-assed?) "glass half full vs. glass half empty" metaphor. That's semantics and less than half the story.

"Happenings or possibilities" from this Random House definition makes grading myself for optimism very challenging. So far, I give myself a "C-" or "D+" when it comes to the former; I seem to have significant difficulty with the "silver lining" model.

On the other hand, I'm quite likely to look at the favorable side of possibilities. On that end I'd give myself a "B+" for optimism. So, split the difference and I'm in "C+" territory. The phrase "cautious optimist" fits me, at least at present.

Given today's attribute, now seems like a good time to respond to an old friend who thinks I've been too hard on myself in this series. Beginning with "ambition" on February 23, I've graded myself (and asked you to join in) on eleven attributes. My report card to date is two "A's", one "B+", four C+'s", two "C's", one "C-", one "C-/D+" split; sorry old friend, this feels about right to me. What does your report card look like? Which of the eleven attributes needs more homework?  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Solipsistic Season

solipsism: the theory that only the self exists or can be proven to exist.

First things first. Blogging is arguably the personification of a solipsistic activity. So the line I'm about to pursue could be adding insult to injury, solipsism-wise. But here goes.

When was the last time you gave yourself a Christmas gift? Maybe you did this as recently as yesterday. Or maybe it's been a while. Me? Never, that I can recall. Now before anyone goes all sanctimoniously "spirit of the season" on me, I'm not claiming to be unselfish or looking for a martyr medal.

But I promised myself (there it goes again!) when starting this blog I'd reflect on stuff average people like me sometimes have on their minds, warts and all. So... Twas the night after Christmas and I thought of me, and buying a gift to put under the tree.           
 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Journey

A powerful editorial by Frank Bruni entitled "A Father's Journey" in today's NY Times has me reflecting on my own journeys.

How often do you muse about how you've arrived at your current view on any issue? Bruni's editorial about his Father's struggle with a gay son caught me a bit off guard. Discussing it with my wife, I clearly recalled a time in my life when discomfort was my usual reaction if sexual orientation came up. When did that change for me? Was my evolution gradual like Bruni's father? How much thought went into my shift? I honestly do not know.

But I do recall one conversation in the early 90's with a work colleague who had either spent more time than I with gay people or, he had educated himself more. And I'm grateful that colleague took the time to gracefully point out something ignorant I said. Call it an "aha" moment for me. Was that the beginning of my evolution toward more tolerance? Or was my colleague's gentle coaching the only thing required? Again, I do not know.

What I hope I do know is to be as kind to others on their journeys, whatever they are, as my colleague was to me.   

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Apres Apocalypse

The world did not end, again. So, I've decided to rub my crystal ball. How much more wrong could I be than many others who've tried this? Why not join me? Following are just three of my more snarky predictions - what are yours?

* After being released, Lindsay Lohan will be back in jail before another year passes.

* In order to sell more needless product to us narcissistic baby boomers, marketers will find at least three more "Fiftieth Anniversary Of..." non-events to celebrate in 2013.

* The 2016 presidential campaign will begin within weeks of the Oscar ceremonies.

Come on, let's not let the Mayans have all the fun, shall we?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Givers And Takers

Imagine a continuum from one to one hundred. A one equates to someone so selfish they take but never give to others. One hundred equates to someone so selfless they give but never take from others. Where would you plot yourself on this continuum? Where would others place you?

In my last seven years working full time, one of the tools I used was a 360 degree assessment. The people in my program were asked to assess themselves on about 60 different skills, using a scale of one to five. Example of a skill to be assessed? Handling conflict. Supervisors, subordinates, colleagues and others then used that same scale to assess (anonymously) the people in my program on those same 60 skills. Part of my job was to debrief with these people a printed report showing how their own perception of each of their skills lined up with the perceptions others had of those skills. As I'm sure you'd guess, some of these conversations were difficult.

Following a recent interaction, it occurred to me how instructive it would be to have a 360 assessment on just the one issue posed in my opening paragraph. Where would family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, others place me on a taker vs. giver continuum? How aligned or mis-aligned would my view of myself be with others? And, who would be brave enough to show me my report and offer to debrief it with me? 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

That Mysterious Threshold

How many books must you love by an author before declaring that author a "favorite"?

Ludicrous question, you say? With "Homer and Langley" (2009), author EL Doctorow has reached this reading nerd's ludicrous threshold and become a favorite. Doctorow's fictionalized account of the famously eccentric Collyer brothers of early 20th century NYC managed a remarkable feat - it made me care about them. In less skilled hands their story could have evoked pity, scorn, or even disgust. Instead, using Homer as his narrator, Doctorow turns the focus from their odd behavior to their love for each other.

One reason Doctorow has become a favorite is his respect for my intelligence. I noticed the dialogue in both this book and "The March" (2005) assumed I was paying close attention; the author often doesn't say who is speaking. I've also come to appreciate his lack of showiness. At least in these last two books I've read, the writing is largely metaphor-free with the emphasis foremost on his characters, many of whom are memorably flawed. That skill was the first thing that drew me to Doctorow. The blistering and fatal pride of Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime" is seared into my memory.

Still there wondering what my threshold is? You'll have to comment either here or otherwise or my lips remain sealed. A guy has to retain some mystery, no? A clue? OK - I've read more of Doctorow's work than is mentioned here but not ten of his books. Your turn.   

Monday, December 17, 2012

#6: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four musicians would be on your Mt. Rushmore? I've been postponing this entry in the series since  starting it; selecting just four is very hard for me. So, I'm hedging my bets by picking from  four different genres and also saving the Mt. Rushmore of bands for another time - that's just as hard.

1. Miles Davis: He was not a nice human being and his latter day output was uneven. But Miles covered so much terrain in his long career. If you own only one jazz recording it must be "Kind of Blue".

2. Paul Simon: I wouldn't argue with those who say Dylan is more influential, but would assert Simon is a superior musician, composer and singer. He's also grown more as a lyricist and been far more consistent.

3. Jeff Beck: I know Clapton & Jimi also sing & compose. Jimmy Page is probably faster. Then there's Carlos, Stevie Ray, etc. What can I say? This is my Mt. Rushmore - you'll have your chance. Jeff is more than a rock or blues or fusion guitarist; he's an artist who paints with an instrument.

4. Gladys Knight:  This was my hardest choice. Had I heard Aretha tearing up "Chain of Fools" or Natalie Cole belting "This Will Be" within the last 24 hours, my R&B Mt. Rushmore choice might have been different. But instead I heard Gladys wailing "Neither One of Us" and written in stone it was.

Thought about engraving Wolfgang Amadeus here. But I've spent a lot more hours of my life listening to the four giants above than I have to him so why the pretense?             

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Countdown

According to the Mayans, we've got about five days to go. If this were really so, what would I do? I quickly realized it's much easier to poke fun at this cheesy superstition than it is to answer that tough question. What would you do?

I'd surround myself with people I love and who love me. I'd put my I-tunes library on shuffle and let it play the whole time. I'd go through my library and read as many underlined passages as I could. I'd eat all my favorite foods and look at lots of pictures. I'd try not to sleep at all. Those are the easy parts; I'm guessing many people would share at least my first piece.

For me, the next part is uncomfortable but inescapable. Who have I hurt deeply? And, if I don't use these last days to try and make amends to those people, who am I?

Bottom line: Shame that it would take an apocalypse to propel me to ask forgiveness from those I've hurt and relief that I don't believe in the notion to begin with. Not a pretty picture either way.           

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Thank You Sergio, Salvio, Dan & Heather

After spending part of this morning reading about yesterday's horror, decided a walk could be a way to escape my own head. How do you get away from yourself at times like this?

Ended up in my local town, bustling with holiday activity. Picked up a few books ordered as gifts for my family, headed for the coffee shop, then stopped - live music coming from somewhere nearby. Approached four trumpeters playing Christmas carols, imaginatively arranged. Listened to several songs, then engaged these young musicians, all schoolteachers, about their music. Found out where they lived & taught & went to college; two brothers - Sergio & Salvio & a married couple - Dan & Heather. Salvio asked if I'd be interested to hear his arrangement of " O Come All Ye Faithful"; it was unspeakably beautiful. Walked away quietly weeping, unable to speak and afraid I'd embarrass myself. 

No respite from sadness lasts indefinitely but the music these four strangers made had helped rescue me from a morbid immobility and for that I am grateful. How does music speak to you?     

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I'll Take A Dozen, Please

Since most people reading this will not live another 88 years to see 01/01/01 (the next time month, day and year will coincide) why not join me on 12/12/12 and share markers from each dozen of your years? For those under 24, your job is brief. Me, not so much.

* In my 12th year (1961), two of my lifelong passions, music & reading, didn't yet have me in a viselike grip. Back then it was baseball, dinosaurs, "The Magnificent Seven". Of those three, only the movie bug held.
* 1973? Rocking n' rolling for the little $$$ I made; lots of peanut butter, potatoes & spaghetti - it wasn't "pasta" until later.
* 1985 was the year I began per diem work for the Commission For the Blind. No idea at the time my career for the next 25 years would be State Government - seven different jobs with three Departments.
* In 1997, I was halfway through my graduate program and sad my Dad left me late that year before his first born got a Masters degree.
* Barring unforeseen circumstances, 2009 will be the last full year I worked full time. Since March 2010 music, reading & writing have been the main course with a side order of movies.

How about you? If the twelve year thing is too much to chew on how about this - What were you doing at 12:12 a.m or 12:12 p.m today? Come on, January 01, 2101 is a long way away. Indulge yourself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Taste A Chapter

Over the last few months, I've spoken more about "This Is How: Help For The Self" (2012) than any recent book I've finished. Author Augusten Burroughs is widely known for the bestselling memoir "Running With Scissors". His new book is self-help gone awry; not for everyone but it landed hard with me.

Burroughs' off-center tone had me from the start as he describes mentally dismembering a stranger encountered on an elevator. Met anyone like this? You're minding your own business, perhaps deep in thought and (GASP!!) not smiling. Someone then takes it upon themselves to interrupt your reverie and deliver a pep talk. "Come on, think positive..." or "Would a smile hurt?", etc. Burroughs' profane remarks about this kind of mindless nincompoop are priceless. I knew immediately the book was for me.

The tender sections of "This Is How" are just as effective as the funny parts. The chapter called "How to Change the World By Yourself", describing 15 year old Claudette Colvin's decision to keep her seat on a Montgomery bus was particularly powerful. Although I knew Rosa Parks was not the first person to defy  Jim Crow, her historical veneration aside, Burroughs brought Colvin's name front and center for me. I'm grateful for that.    
     
Finally, in the chapter entitled "How To Live Unhappily Ever After", Burroughs' refreshing take on happiness gave me more solace than several self-help books I've read combined. I thought about reproducing here seven sentences from that chapter captured in my book journal. Instead, why not read  just that chapter while you're in a book store or library? Even money you'll then buy or borrow this gem.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mr. Id Vs. Conventional Wisdom

"Waste not, want not."

Who's kidding who? How can any reasonable person claim that adage is relevant anymore? Mr. Id maintains "waste more, want more" has been the default position, at least here in the U.S., for many years. Cranky, you say? Maybe, but for anyone applying that epithet to Mr. Id, answer these qualifying questions:

1.) Ever worked retail during the holidays?
2.) Do the crowds in the videos from "black Friday" seem at all rational to you?

A "no" for #1? Take off 95 points; your opinion, though less judgmental than Mr.Id's, has less grounding in actual experience. A "yes" for #2? Take off 95 points; no further explanation required.

More evidence to support Mr. Id's defiance of conventional wisdom? Try getting something, anything repaired anymore. When the current generation of shoemakers has died out, good luck getting new heels or soles. More likely? You'll be buying new shoes. Now what was that about waste again?      

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Yuck...or... Yum?

How often do you entertain yourself musing about slippery words and expressions? This stuff fascinates me ( I know, I'm a geek) so I hope you'll offer up your own examples after reading a few of mine.

* When people say things like "I wonder when he/she will settle down" might they be hoping that he/she will "settle for" someone?

* How long can you hold a grudge against someone before the grudge begins holding you?

* Where is the line between showmanship and showing off?

Tomato, potahto, you say? A very precocious young relative of mine once said "You're yuck could be my yum". I haven't yet been able to improve on that wisdom.   



Friday, December 7, 2012

Honoring A Good Man

Aside from obvious markers like birthdays, which dates remind you of loved ones you've lost?

Because he was a World War II vet, Pearl Harbor Day reminds me of my Dad. Living through 9/11 has deepened my appreciation of the need for bearing witness. If my Dad were still alive he would be doing exactly that today; he was 23 years old on 12/7/41, the same age my daughter is now.

In addition, for reasons not wholly clear to me, my patriotism seems to be on the rise lately. My Dad was a patriot in the best sense of the word. Earlier today, taking note of the date, I felt Dad nearby. 


Processing A Nightmare

Without drawing much attention to the actual event, Joseph O'Neill's novel "Netherland" (2008) is the first book I've read since 9/11 to give me the eerie sense of dislocation I felt a long time after that awful day.

Hans van der Broek is a 34 year old equities trader, originally from Holland, who lives in Tribeca with his wife Rachel and their two year old son. After the Twin Towers fall, the family is forced to re-locate and like many people, Hans has trouble processing what occurred. When Rachel is unsuccessful getting Hans to be more fully present, she takes their son and returns to her family in London. O'Neill's depiction of Hans' subsequent isolation and loneliness is an accurate reflection of how adrift I felt after the attacks.

Hans then meets Chuck Ramkisson, a Gatsby-like East Asian from Trinidad, as feral as Hans is cerebral. Their unlikely bond is built on a love of cricket and their adopted home, a melting pot in shock. As the city begins rebuilding, Chuck is scheming and Hans is healing. Here the author skillfully reminded me a little bit what the gradual rehabilitation process felt like at both macro and micro levels in the years right after.

Though O'Neill's novel is not about 9/11 per se, I seem to be mentally filing it alongside the many powerful and moving essays written about that day. What have you read to help you process that nightmare?                   

   

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Price Of Being Ahead Of The Curve

Which historical figure do you admire for being ahead of the curve on an issue from their time?

There are many things to admire about "Lincoln", the new Steven Speilberg film, not least of which is Lincoln himself. But several days after seeing the movie, the moral courage of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has me researching to learn more about this remarkable man. Before seeing the film, I only knew Stevens was an abolitionist; I did not know he spoke about equality of the races 30 years prior to the passage of the 13th amendment. His foresight and bravery inspires and chastens me.

Though Stevens' brand of courage is not unique, somehow I'm awed anew every time I learn of people like him. What is your usual reaction when you're first exposed to people like Stevens? Have you ever known anyone personally with his kind of bravery? What price did that person pay for being ahead of the curve,  even if they were later vindicated by history?      

 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Safe, Even With A Headache

Of the three places many of us spend a lot of hours, which one are you most likely to keep the neatest - your home, your work setting, or your car? Forget about clean for now; which one has the least clutter?

How much does the relative size of each space have to do with how neat it is kept? Assuming your car is smaller than your home, does that make your car easier to keep clutter-free or more prone to being messy? Then there is the locus of responsibility issue, i.e. unless you work at home or own the building where you work, in the end, someone else is more responsible for your work setting than you. So, does that make you feel obligated to keep the setting neat or let you off the hook?

Think now of people you know well. Which of them is equally neat or equally messy in all three places? An ex-colleague of mine has perhaps the neatest home and car I have ever seen. His office? An unmitigated disaster. My scorecard? Neat (remember: I'm not talking about clean) at home and work setting, messy in my car. How about yours?


For any readers who have said the questions in my posts sometimes make their heads hurt: Got a headache myself right now so I'm taking it easy on all of us tonight.  


Sunday, December 2, 2012

One Key Thing

Someone recently asked me the "key" to the enduring partnership my wife and I have. I'm a little ambivalent about the question. On one hand, it's flattering to be perceived as half of a successful relationship. On the other, it feels a bit like being asked to write one's obituary, or being called a "living legend"; there's an air of finality in the question. And asking for a key to the mystery of any human interaction strikes me as simplistic; there are too many doors, each with a different lock.

But thin skinned reactions and clumsy metaphors aside, the question triggered two reflections in me:
1.) It assisted me in understanding comments several people have made about my blog, i.e. it can be intimidating to respond to penetrating and/or provocative questions.
2.) It helped me to focus on one thing, even if it's not the thing, that has sustained our partnership.

The first one that came to me? Trust. Yet as critical as trust is, our ability to surprise one another is an element neither of us could do without. How about one thing, if not the thing, that has led to your successful partnership?   

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping One 11/22 Commitment

I first learned of author Cynthia Ozick via "The Shawl", among the most harrowing short stories I have ever read. If you run across this heavily anthologized nightmare, be forewarned. Largely because of my reaction to "The Shawl", I avoided reading more of Ozick's work. 

Though I don't regret avoiding her, after completing "Foreign Bodies" (2009), I realize I've got some catching up to do; Ozick is an author of immense gifts. The book jacket informed me "Foreign Bodies" is a mid-century homage to the esteemed Henry James novel "The Ambassadors". On the strength of Ozick's book, I now plan to tackle "The Ambassadors" despite my frequent difficulties with novels pre-dating the modern era. A few years ago, for similar reasons, I re-read "Great Expectations" right after finishing Lloyd Jones' "Mr. Pip" (2006); a good friend has called my recent reading habits "free-associative" - nice ring to that. What books have you read that led you organically to another?

Aside from one character who struck me as uni-dimensional, "Foreign Bodies" is rich with insights about human nature. But the author is skilled enough to leave me with almost as many questions as answers. In this case, I still haven't decided if the protagonist (Bea Nightingale) is a change agent or a cipher. Many books and people that remain fresh in my mind tend to have that element of mystery.    
       

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Economics Of Happiness

A few months ago I saw a documentary called "The Economics of Happiness". It's been a while since a film has lingered with me this long.

Though the movie covered a lot of territory, the persuasive case made for patronizing locally owned business resonated most strongly for me. Fortunately, the nearby town center makes doing this easier now than it was where I last lived. Except for the drugstore and a new Dunkin Donuts, which I've avoided, there are no chain stores. And though I've never been much of a mall devotee, the chips now are stacked heavily against me becoming one - I can walk to the places that satisfy most of my shopping needs. So "The Economics of Happiness"  has been a catalyst of sorts, helping solidify two commitments I'd previously made to myself:  Using my car as little as possible and shopping locally. Unlike years past, I'm feeling good about shopping for the holidays.

When was the last time the advocacy in a film had a noticeable effect on you?   

           

Monday, November 26, 2012

That Silly Fly On The Wall

What was the subject of the last argument you had with your spouse or partner? What do you suppose you'd think if, instead of being a participant, you could somehow eavesdrop on many of the past arguments you've had?

I do not know how the frequency, volume or intensity of our arguments compare with other couples. I also do not remember, though it was not long ago, what our last argument was about. But I'm pretty confident had I been a spectator, that argument would have seemed silly to me. And I'm guessing my wife would feel the same; had any of you been a fly on the wall, as likely as not, you'd also wonder why the fuss.

Few people would describe my wife or I as either mellow or passive so our dynamic can be charged. Also, I can sometimes be stubborn about being "right". But our personality traits and my foible aside, I'm guessing our partnership is not dissimilar to many others when it comes to the time we waste arguing about silly stuff. Your thoughts?        



Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Mindfulness

Mindfulness: The state of being attentive.

How would you grade yourself so far on this attribute? Some people might call this a no-brainer, wondering how someone could accomplish anything without paying attention. For me, this is another attribute where I've seen steady improvement over my adult life while fully recognizing I've got a long way to go. So I'll give myself a "C+" for mindfulness so far.

How often have you used the same parking space where you work? The same locker at the gym? Taken the same route to a familiar place? Had the same meal repeatedly either at home or in a favorite restaurant? These mundane rituals may have benefits but they are also often repeated with little or no mindfulness, as are other repetitive routines with much clearer benefits, like brushing your teeth. I brush my teeth every day and am just as inclined as the next person to engage in the mundane rituals noted.

But whenever I focus on either a mundane ritual or a benefit-producing routine, I feel more present, more attentive, more mindful. And every so often, breaking a ritual, even once, produces some small magic or new insight. More importantly, I've never been disappointed when I enter that mindful state. Which routines or rituals of yours can you envision shaking up a bit? What's the worst that can happen if you try? 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Key Learnings: Year 63

What did you learn between your last two birthdays? Birthdays tend to exacerbate the navel-gazer in me. And my experiences this past year gave me ample opportunity to look inward.

* "And so it's true, pride comes before a fall". My most profound learning this past year occurred when my pride allowed me to be blindsided by flattery. That phrase from Lennon/McCartney's "I'm A Loser" has replayed in my head ever since.

*  On the flip side, a powerful mantra someone shared with me this past summer has given me a new tool to help me forgive myself when I stumble: Begin...again.

* No matter how fragmentary, I learned this year to pay more attention to ideas that might later be useful in my creative life. Even when I've got a full sink, I leave the faucet on - helps ensure there's water when I need it.

Thanks for the continuing encouragement re this blog. And happy birthday to you when yours comes around.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Goals For Year 64

First, a safe goal: I will devote 64 blog posts to books I complete over the next year, a little more than one post a week about a different book. That will be a higher percentage of posts about books than I've done to date, but it's a goal easily accomplished.

Next, a goal that will take more discipline: I will learn on guitar 64 jazz standards that are "new" to me. Based on how far I got with my musical goal for year 63, I know this is do-able but also know my planning and time management will have to improve.            

Finally, a stretch goal:  By next November 23, my wife and I will have sampled the cuisine of 64 different countries. Given our most recent country (Spain) is #17, we will clearly have to step up the pace and do a lot more at home cooking as we did for #14 (Ecuador) and #16 (Liberia). Trying to find, let alone afford, 47 additional restaurants featuring different country's cuisines will doom this goal from the start.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Collaboration and Creativity

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/04/creativity.html

The above April 2011 post about creativity was the first of several I've since written about this subject of limitless interest. My commitment to this blog has led me to periodically reflect on the effect interaction with others has on the creative process. How important is interaction with others to your creativity? How much does the way we each manifest our creativity determine how critical that interaction is?

Because music plays a large part in my creative life, these questions invariably lead me first to think about musical collaborations vs. those who go it alone. Playing compositions by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, both of whom worked alone, I wonder: How might their work have been enhanced if they'd collaborated with others? From there, my reflections move easily to my own erratic, and also solitary, songwriting. I further wonder: If I'd realized years ago the importance of more regular interaction with others, would I have been more open to seeking out a musical collaborator? These themes come front and center when I consider how much more consistent I've been with blogging vs. songwriting. The volume grows louder still when I recognize how many of my posts have had their genesis in my interactions with others.

Please pardon the wistful tone here; birthday coming up.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Silver Linings

It's been three weeks since Hurricane Sandy hammered New Jersey & New York. What have I learned?

* My wife and I were on the minds of a fair number of people - a very gratifying feeling.

* Though I've been cynical about it in the past, partisan politics does not automatically trump compassion and good sense. Thank you Governor Christie and President Obama. And Mayor Bloomberg - good call cancelling the NYC Marathon. 

* A regular break from technology, even one forced on me by a power failure, is a good thing.

What have you learned?



Saturday, November 17, 2012

#5: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Lest anyone accuse me of being too serious, I'm going lowbrow for this month's Mt. Rushmore entry. In your estimation, which four comedians deserve to be stoned with Washington et al? All puns, no matter how groanworthy, welcome here.

1.) Bill Cosby: Long before he was pepper to Robert Culp's salt, or that cuddly sitcom paterfamilias, Cosby's albums (remember those?) like "Why Is There Air" doubled me over with laughter. And he did it without ever swearing.

2.) Richard Pryor: On the other hand, Pryor had a foul mouth. But it was a very funny and trenchant foul mouth. His routines after recovering from near self-immolation are smoking.

3.) Robin Williams: I wouldn't want him as a friend; I'm sure he cares. But what a mind; can't think of a better comic improviser. He's the Charlie Parker of comedy, complete with the drug problems.

4.) Jerry Seinfeld: Not the TV guy, the standup. Like Cosby, and unlike Pryor or Williams, Seinfeld doesn't talk trash. Instead, his quirky observations about everyday stuff make me laugh and pay more attention.

I know, where are the women, right? Hey, this is my Mt. Rushmore; put women on yours and remember the separate restroom.          


Friday, November 16, 2012

A Milestone - Thanks!

Recently this blog was viewed for the 10,000th time. Since many D-list celebrities routinely reach 10,000 or more people each day with their 140 character tweets, I won't be getting measured for a new hat size anytime soon. If has beens like Victoria Jackson and Ted Nugent are read by 10,000 people per tweet, this never was, who has written over 400 posts in 20 months, could arguably qualify for institutionalization just for using the word "reach" in a sentence referring to this blog.  

So get the medication ready; I'm ecstatic having reached this milestone. The number of online conversations I'd hoped for has yet to hit my objective. But the few that have occurred have been wonderful. The number of members remains low. But the quality of those members is high. Some posts I was sure would light a spark fizzled without a trace. But others unexpectedly produced some very moving responses, many delivered to me offline. Most of the comments have been from people I know. The comments coming from those I don't know, whether they identify themselves or not, have reminded me of the remarkable reach of the Internet.

I appreciate everyone who continues to encourage me. If ever you think a post might be of interest to someone you know, please consider forwarding it using the e-mail icon at the bottom left of the screen, right under "posted by Pat Barton". And thank you for reading.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Confident I'm Not Alone

How often do you cross the line from confidence to arrogance? Who are you more likely to think of as over-confident - yourself or others? If a surgeon calls themselves the "best" in their field is that more likely to re-assure you or concern you?

As someone who has been called arrogant more than a few times, I've knocked around questions like these quite a bit. The surgeon question, though it may seem out of place at first, is really of a piece with the others. When a friend recently spoke admiringly of a surgeon who said exactly this, I was caught off guard and wondered if that kind of uber-confidence would reassure me. I do know I would not want a surgeon or an electrician or a builder who was at all wishy-washy about their skills. Where is the line? How do you come across speaking of your skills? Is it acceptable for select professions to exude confidence bordering on arrogance? Which ones? Mine? Yours?

In the attribute series, several months ago I used charm for an attribute beginning with the letter "c". Had I thought of it at the time, grading myself on confidence might have been even more rich. I'm confident I'm not alone in my struggle to recognize where confidence ends and arrogance begins.   



Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Colliding

In an odd coincidence, Nancy Milford's 1970 biography of F Scott Fitzgerald's wife ("Zelda") is this month's selection for one of my book clubs and Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby" is the choice for another club I attend. Reading the two back-to-back was interesting and a bit eerie.

According to Milford, Fitzgerald borrowed heavily from Zelda's letters for his own writing. Knowing this helped make this reading of "Gatsby" a very different experience from my first. I wondered: How many other esteemed authors have had such un-credited assists? And since Milford thoroughly details the often dysfunctional co-dependency of the Fitzgeralds in "Zelda", it didn't take much imagination on my part to detect parallels among the principals in "Gatsby". Novelists frequently use significant pieces of their lives for their fiction. Anyone doubting this should try reading these two books as I did. Much of the secondary biographical information I'd just learned about Scott Fitzgerald from "Zelda" seemed to leap right into parts of "Gatsby".

I enjoyed "The Great Gatsby" far more this second time. Though I'm not sure why, reading "Zelda" just prior must have contributed. What similar experiences have you had when non-fiction and fiction collided?  

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Late Bloomer

This past summer I spent a week at Kripalu, a resort that specializes in yoga. One of the lectures I attended was taught by a dynamic instructor, wise well beyond her 35 years. After using her mantra (Begin...Again) as the title of a recent post, I knew I'd be returning to her soon in some fashion.

About a week ago, I came across the phrase "late bloomer" in a book. There it is, I thought. Although I'd been a bit troubled how this young woman had it more together at 35 than I did, that phrase somehow put me at ease; I'm a late bloomer. It's possible I could have avoided some heartache if I'd arrived a bit younger. But I don't regret fighting against being old before my time. Maturity always struck me as over-rated; I accept the consequences of that attitude, which probably includes a significant delay in blooming.

I'm guessing this young woman sought out more early mentors than I; that seems to be a consistent thread  in sharp younger people. Evidence to support my theory of late blooming? I'm getting pretty good at seeking out and paying more attention to others these days. What are you getting better at now that you suspect would have been really useful to be good at many years ago? When you run across precociously wise people much younger than you (like my Kripalu instructor), what runs through your mind?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stories Worth Hearing

Working alongside a group of high school boys trying to re-claim what used to be the beach community of Belmar New Jersey, my mind wandered to the adolescent boy I once was.

Most of those I talked to came from nearby towns that had not been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Like many adolescents, they didn't speak until spoken to or smile unless smiled at. They worked silently, occasionally competing with one another as we dismantled a mangled boardwalk. When I made a suggestion about handling boards with jutting nails, they followed it without comment. When I remarked on their strength or their facility using a crowbar or sledge hammer, my compliments were politely deflected. I learned one name, though only after offering mine first to a boy I worked with side-by-side the first hour.

Though I tried, I could not recall a single instance from my young life where I did a service like these boys. I hope this is just my memory failing me. Thinking of the alternative, that I was too self-absorbed to do anything like this when I was the same age, is too difficult. After resting my older-than-adolescent body for a day or so, I'll return to the work. And though I won't embarrass any of them by speaking of my admiration for their selfless volunteering, I will learn more names and draw a few of them out a bit more. They're young, but like most people I've met, they'll have stories they want to share. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Old News On Tuesday

It's pretty spooky how accurate the non-partisan polls were predicting the outcomes of Tuesday's election. Given how often poll results are reported as elections approach, I wonder what the effect is on voter habits.

For example, New Jersey was not considered to be in play for this election. Indeed, in recent memory the polls have consistently (and correctly) indicated NJ would go Democratic in Presidential elections. How many NJ Democrats get complacent and don't vote? How many NJ Republicans get discouraged and don't? Putting aside party affiliation, how much does the barrage of information about polling contribute to low turnouts all across the US?

A few weeks ago, I heard someone say on November 6 the country was electing the President of the United States of Ohio. And in the weeks leading up to the election, most of the other chatter centered on five or six additional "battleground" States. That leaves around 44 more States, including my own, where the election news on Tuesday night was a foregone conclusion of sorts. Anyone else bothered by this?  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A 3:00 Short Story

I genuinely enjoy good song lyrics about love. A world without "If I Fell" would feel like a smaller place. But I get a huge buzz when more offbeat subjects are turned into lyrics. Some of these offbeat lyrics have been transformative for me.

I clearly recall the first time I heard John Prine's "Hello in There". For many years after, I went out of my way to greet elderly people who crossed my path. Now that I'm quite a bit older myself, it's not implausible that some young person hearing Prine's poignant lyric may say hello to me unprompted. The lyric to "What Shall We Do With The Child?" , by Nicholas Holmes & Kate Horsey, has haunted me since 1969. If anyone else has ever written about how newborn children are affected when a couple splits up, I haven't come across it.  More recently, Joe Jackson's lyric on "The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy" inspired me to begin building a creative legacy. Which offbeat lyrics have similarly transformed you?

Many songwriters have captivated me this way. Arguably, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were among the earliest to do this well with lyrics like "Positively 4th St." and "Dangling Conversation". Just like the three songs mentioned above, these lyrics strike me as popular music's version of a 3:00 short story.    

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Back In Dodge (Until The Power Goes Out)

After an unplanned road trip of five days thanks to Hurricane Sandy, my wife and I just got back to Dodge a few hours ago. And now? Predictions of another storm arriving tomorrow and additional power outages. If the coming days are like the past seven, I can expect the following:

* Erratic posting of my blog and playing of my acoustic guitar
* Lots of driving, bad food, and Scrabble with my wife winning two of every three games
* Fewer showers than usual but more sleep; less reading, listening to music & exercising but more 1x1 conversations with my wife; fewer conversations with others but more texting and e-mail.

Well, at least we got to vote.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Deepening The Experience of Living

Recently I heard someone quote a critic who said novels that don't "...deepen the experience of living..." are not worth reading. Snobbish as it may be, that statement rings true for me. Parts of Jaimy Gordon's 2010 novel "The Lord of Misrule" disturbed me and I struggled a bit to understand the milieu depicted, i.e. claims horse racing. But the book did deepen my experience of living. What was the last thing you read that did the same for you?

Although I don't know a single person who faintly resembles the half dozen main characters here, they were vividly drawn, making even repulsive actions wholly plausible. And having finished another novel around the same time with atrocious dialogue, I was also struck by Gordon's near perfect pitch. An unexpected bonus was my recent rudimentary knowledge of horse terminology. Words like "paddock" or "mucking", unfamiliar to me less than two years ago, are now a part of my world as well as the world Gordon skillfully constructs. Finally, building her book on individual horse races struck me as masterful.

Several months ago, based on the cast, I tuned in to a few episodes of the defunct HBO series "Luck". I was hopelessly lost trying to follow the arcane dialogue or understand the character's motivations on that short-lived show, also about claims horse racing. I suspect had I read "The Lord of Misrule" first, I might not have been as quick to harshly judge "Luck".  More deepening of the experience of living, no?







Friday, November 2, 2012

This Moment

We survive until we don't. We cope until we can't. In between, events like Hurricane Sandy happen.

Although I escaped unscathed, this felt up close and personal. Yesterday I was grateful; today I'm confused. If the past is predictive, in the coming tomorrows I will send money, feel hopeless, forget the suffering others are experiencing, feel guilty, go to sleep when these thoughts fill my head, get up again.

The images of devastation horrify me while in the same moment I look at them, my life goes on. I think about how silly and self-centered blogging is but this moment, until I do more, this is what I'm doing because it's what I do. I hope my meager words mean something, anything to someone, anyone.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dodging Another One

How many bullets will I dodge in my life before gratitude for good fortune becomes my default mode?

Several weeks ago I was about three cars back at a traffic light on a busy highway when the light turned green. As a car whipped through the opposing red light and narrowly avoided ramming into the first car in my line, my thoughts turned to how many times I've dodged that bullet. How many times have you?

Not long after, I listened as a friend described attending the funeral of a young adult who died of a drug overdose. My friend was unable to find words to console the parents and I thought - there's another bullet I've dodged. Yes, my wife and I raised a solid daughter who has made good choices but so much was never in our control; like a car speeding through a light.

I am grateful for every car accident I've averted. I'm more grateful for the good choices my daughter has made. Tonight I'm grateful for the latest bullet I've dodged - a storm that just destroyed the lives of many people who live less than a mile from me. And I long for the day when no bullets are necessary to remind me to be grateful.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gift Vs. Label

What do you imagine would have been different if you were in grammar school now vs. when you actually attended?

Almost every time someone comments on my energy, I remember the restless boy who drove his teachers to distraction. Since all four of us attended the same schools from kindergarten through high school, my three younger siblings were often greeted with some caution by teachers who'd had me earlier. If any of them simply sat still, sighs of teacher relief followed.

Consequently, I suspect if attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) was as front and center in the mid-late 1950's as it sometimes seems to be now, I could have been an easy candidate for medication. Never mind that I've never had much trouble focusing on or finishing tasks. If anything, I get too focused to the exclusion of interacting with others. But I fear any label having the words "attention deficit" would have been easy to lay on me. I've always considered my energy, when aimed in positive directions, a real gift. How easily a gift can be misconstrued.

  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mirror Mirror

If things get as dire here at the NJ shore as predicted, could be a while between posts. So in case I'm out of business for a few days, here's a weighty question to consider: If George Clooney or Jennifer Anniston were friends of yours, would they be as good looking?

My wife and I were recently discussing who we considered the best looking people we know personally. Trying to picture the faces of friends, work colleagues, neighbors etc. in my mind's eye, I noticed how difficult it was to displace certain celebrity mugs. Though I'm loathe to admit it, seeing "The Sexiest Man Alive" next to George Clooney's puss while standing at the supermarket checkout line has an impact on me. It's possible that impact makes it a bit harder for me to equate the good looks of people I know with George or Jennifer or whomever People or Us has recently annointed.

After shaking off those unbidden mental images, I was able to return to our profound conversation. We agreed on some good looking folks from our own circle but my wife maintained Brad Pitt would stand out even if he was just our mailman. I'm not so sure.  

 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not A Facebook Post

What percentage of your conversations would you describe as routine? Satisfying? Stimulating? What would you say are some obstacles preventing your conversations from being more regularly stimulating?

Like many people, I engage in a fair share of idle chitchat. And I have no desire for all, or even most, of my conversations to be loaded down with Meaning. On the other hand, staying on the surface has less and less appeal to me. When conversations seem to be headed in that direction, I'll sometimes choose silence or escape, provided it's not obnoxiously obvious. Using this tactic with people who have known me longer is tricky. An extroverted persona like mine becomes a kind of prison in these situations.

"I want". Sometimes, like the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's "Henderson The Rain King", I find myself uttering his two word sentence when a conversation seems stuck. At other times outrageous or  provocative questions flood my brain. Then my social filter pushes those questions aside and I return. Sometimes I'm completely OK doing so. Other times, not so much. Any of this seem vaguely familiar?        

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Loyalty

loyalty: faithfulness to commitments or obligations.

At this point in your life, using the definition above, how would you grade yourself on loyalty? Of the nine attributes covered so far in this series, this is among my strongest: a solid "A" for Pat for loyalty. It's also very clear to me how I evolved this way - the influence of my Father. Who has been your biggest influence, for better or worse, when it comes to loyalty?

Faithfulness to commitments and obligations was central to my Father's core; I've proudly followed his model. I can't recall a single instance when my Dad was disloyal. Family, friends, neighbors, employers - everyone knew they could rely on him to be where he said he would be, when he said he would be there. I've always wanted people to feel the same about me; think I've largely succeeded.


p.s. For anyone paying close attention, I skipped both "J" and "K" in this series. "Kindness", with a definition too close to "generosity" (already covered), was the only attribute beginning with either of those two letters that struck me as worth exploring.  
              


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Postponed

Since flattering myself that I'd invented a clever metaphor months ago comparing the positions in basketball to the style of novelists, I've kicked around a follow up to that particular post. When I recently began writing it, using musicians this time instead of novelists, it dawned on me: I'm seriously out of touch vis-a-vis contemporary music.

Aside from my 23 year old daughter and my brother, who pays some attention to contemporary music, I know few people who help keep me tuned up in this regard. I seem to give more attention to newer novelists, filmmakers, and even visual artists than I do musicians. Very odd, given my passion for music. The youngest musician whose work I can speak of intelligently is over 50 years old - yikes. Came up with some strategies to assist myself - welcome others you might have:

* Put on college radio stations while driving; NPR goes on temporary hiatus
* Create more Pandora stations using contemporary artists - that's how I discovered Sara Bareilles
* Ask my daughter for future birthday and Christmas CD mixes featuring people she likes
* Engage more young adults (who are not Led Zeppelin or Eagles fans) about music they enjoy

That follow up? Postponed, until I'm more up-to-date.        



  



Monday, October 22, 2012

A Long Ago Takeaway

Which long ago conversation still seems fresh in your memory based on something you learned from it?

I realize "long ago" means different things to us all. In my case, the conversation happened 40 years ago. But over the past day, listening to tributes for the late Senator George McGovern, that 1972 conversation with a college friend seems very fresh indeed.

Following college graduation in 1971, I was predictably liberal. So as the 1972 presidential election took shape, the candidate getting my vote was not in doubt. And my youthful enthusiasm for McGovern exceeded my sense of America's role in the world. So when a liberal friend said that he too would vote for McGovern, even though he felt Nixon better suited to the job, I recall being indignant. Was he right? Even with the benefit of hindsight, I'm still not sure. But that conversation and my friend's more nuanced views stayed with me. No matter how imperfectly I'm recalling this, it was formative - I was learning of my responsibility to be more well informed.

What did you take away from your long ago conversation?








Saturday, October 20, 2012

Begin...Again

What do you take for granted too often?

When my wife and I reached Kittaniny Ridge today while on the Appalachian trail, I realized how frequently I overlook the natural beauty of New Jersey. As a lifelong resident of this remarkably diverse State, I suppose I'm not alone. Taking things for granted that we know well is common.

But standing on that ridge looking down at the full bloom of fall in the Delaware Water Gap, I was reminded how awestruck I was just a month ago with the beauty of Tuscany. Here, less than two hours from home, following a six mile hike, I was gazing at a sight of equal splendor. Shame on me.

Hiking down, my reflections turned to other things needing more of my attention. Foremost among those things? People I've taken for granted. My strategy? A sage piece of wisdom learned from a new friend this past summer: Begin again; always begin again. On a perfect autumn day in New Jersey, what could be easier?  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Warning: Weird Post Ahead

Some months back, I had an odd premonition about someone I'd just met. For some reason, an innocent remark made me think "Ooh, this person once had a torrid love affair." Have you ever had thoughts like this about someone you hardly knew?

Since I've never considered myself at all psychic, the incident stuck with me. And now I've recently noticed a side effect. During several otherwise routine interactions with others, both with people I know pretty well and some I don't, I've found myself wondering: "Has this person ever had a torrid love affair?" When this happens, I'm distracted. It's a little disconcerting, especially in the middle of a mundane conversation.

If I were bold, I guess I could start asking people. How do you imagine people would react? How would you? Everyone has a story but I'm pretty sure that part of their story most people would not share. I'm especially nervous about asking the person who first put me on this weird track months ago. If it turned out I was right, future interactions with many others could be really weird. Actually, this post is pretty weird.
         



       

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#4: The Mt. Rushmore Series

For those keeping track (right!), carved in stone so far in this series have been peak life experiences, memorable short stories & favorite places visited - four of each, i.e. like Mt. Rushmore. Today - Which four films are solidly lodged in your brain? Don't get clever and say "North By Northwest", OK? My list is  chronological.

1.) "I Never Sang For My Father": A mournful but powerfully acted film with Gene Hackman in one of his earliest starring roles. Melvyn Douglas plays the eponymous father.
2.)  "The In-Laws":  For my money, one of the funniest movies ever made, starring Peter Falk & Alan Arkin. "Serpentine!!" Avoid the Michael Douglas/Albert Brooks remake at all costs.
3.)  "Hannah & Her Sisters":  No Mt. Rushmore of film would be complete for me without a Woody Allen flick. This is one I cannot shake. It's funny, wise and moving - quite a hat trick.
4.) "You Can Count On Me": About the unconditional love a sister (Laura Linney) has for her lost brother (Mark Ruffalo); two of today's best actors at the peak of their powers; amazing script.

Anyone detect a theme? Though 100% unplanned as I began typing, I'm unsurprised how this turned out and see no reason to change it. Please share your Mt. Rushmore of films with me; I'm still collecting films for the project first referred to in the blog post below from January. Thanks.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/01/finally-payoff.html

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nap Time

How do you guard against letting the views of professional opinion makers exert undue influence on you?

Although this is fresh on my mind because of the non-stop yammering of political pundits as the presidential debates unfold, this question has long had me in its grip. Film experts like Roger Ebert or the late Pauline Kael, or omnivorous readers/reviewers like the late John Leonard have spent whole lives examining their respective art forms. So, they clearly possess distinctions about those art forms I do not. Political pundits on both sides can make a similar claim re their expertise vs. my (relatively) less informed views.

Given that, how can you/I separate what we say is "our" view from the influence exerted by the experts?  How much is ours vs. theirs? How much does that matter? For me, this is more than an academic exercise. For example, the art form closest to my heart is music. But it's often difficult for me to tease apart where what I've read about a musician or a piece of music begins and my opinion of that same musician or piece of music ends. So as I get older and try to get wiser, I've begun withholding musical criticism unless I'm reasonably sure I arrived at "my" critical opinion largely on my own. But, I'm rarely as sure as I used to think I was. And I know quite a bit about music. I know less about film or books, even less about politics, and next to nothing about many other subjects. Is that the main reason professional opinion makers are needed? I need a nap.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Back In School

"I don't take notes on books I read; it makes me feel like I'm back in school."

The above statement, made at a recent meeting I attended, was playing in my head today as I took notes at a "One Day University" event in NYC. I couldn't help wondering - What's wrong with being back in school?

Since 2007, my wife and I have participated in five full day events sponsored by this organization.  At each event we've heard between five to seven lectures, about one hour long, usually followed by Q&A. The lecturers are largely from Ivy League schools, many are published authors, all are top notch public speakers. To get an idea of the breadth of subject matter just go on the website. End of commercial.

I've kept my notes from all five events in one notebook to re-read each time I return. Doing so during a break today I was struck by how much I've been exposed to being back in school this way. I'm not that concerned about how much I've retained; I can open that notebook randomly any time and find a gem without fail. To wit:

From 10/4/09: What Can We Learn From The Ancient Philosophers? Dr. Tamar Gendler (Yale) quoting Cicero: "Friends half our suffering and double our joy".  Now remind me again - What's wrong with being back in school?

    

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Reading Connection

A decision some years ago to maintain a 1:1 ratio of fiction to non-fiction books has had its challenges, especially when non-fiction subject matter is far removed from my experience. Yet the longer I stick with the practice, the more committed I am to continuing due to a noticeable by-product of my learning: An increased ability to connect with others I might have struggled to engage before.

Just within recent months, "The Wave" (Susan Casey), "The Big Short" (Michael Lewis), & "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (Barbara Kingsolver), brought me into the world of surfing, finance, gardening. My previous background in those subjects? Zero. I readily admit only "The Wave" had me enough in its grip that I finished it straight through without reading either a novel or a different non-fiction book at the same time. My difficulties had little to do with the skill of the other two authors. Each time I put off finishing those books, I asked myself: What are you resisting? My consistent answer? Unfamiliarity.

So when I finished both, I was energized by my persistence and eager to engage people who know more than I about finance & gardening. I'd already had excellent results doing exactly that (with surfing) right after I'd finished "The Wave".   




  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Geek! Dork! Nerd!

Of the benefits I've derived joining several book clubs over the last few years, being around people with great vocabularies is near the top. Call me a geek, but people who easily use the word "deft" are just...deft.

It's no surprise people who like to read are good with words. And though I like the 50 cent variety as much as the next showoff, recently someone used the short gem "oeuvre" at a meeting. Hearing that said aloud, a word I'd seen in print many times but was always unsure how to pronounce (and never took the time to look up), was such a gift; now it's mine to use as well. How about "farcical"? Heard that at the same meeting as "omniscient"; two good words - different people. But, both were used with enough context that anyone who was paying attention could understand what was being said even if the word itself was unfamiliar. What a blast!

Growing up in a family that sometimes discussed words at dinner probably set me up to be a bit dorky in this regard. And I clearly remember my mother calling me an "instigator" long before I had any idea what the word meant. But it sounded so good. To this day, when hanging out with my sisters and brother, we still get lost in this stuff. My younger sister often singles out words used in my blog posts that she "loves" - her exact phrase. How can I resist loving someone like that? Between my book clubs and my siblings, I'm destined to remain a word nerd. Guess there are worse things, right?        




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My New Penpals

Instead of being cranky about how impersonal it can sometimes be, I've decided to begin thinking of e-mail communication as a modern day version of penpals. Remember those?

I never resisted e-mail. At the time of its inception, I was supervising eight people who sat in three different locations. It struck me then as a useful and practical way to communicate with a team. But I did fight the urge to use the tool communicating with just one person. I held onto a belief that face-to-face communication was preferable in those circumstances even as e-mail became ubiquitous over the ensuing years. By the time I stopped working full time in 2010, my view was a distinctly minority one as my inbox  filled with notes sent to me alone even while my phone frequently sat silent all day.

Soon after stopping full time work, I discovered contact with my personal network was going to dry up if I didn't use e-mail as others did. But I started out cranky about it. Why didn't people just pick up the phone, darn it? It's possible starting this blog signalled a turning point for me. People who don't want to comment publicly have sent me moving e-mails about something a post awakened in them. As I began responding to those comments, I found myself increasingly using e-mail for non-blog related stuff, even when communicating with just one person. Then it dawned on me; it's like having penpals. Cool.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Guest Post

Are explanations needed? Ok, here goes.

It's an experiment. Author is family. What's the harm? Comments are welcome.


Oh, the words? "Must be nice!" I hate them. Are you jealous? Are you envious? What's the deal? I have something. I've accomplished something. You have not. That's too bad. Congratulate me soundly. Wish me well. But don't judge.


Want a shot? Forward your submission.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Where Is HG Wells When I Need Him?

Where in your life are you most likely to succumb to the easy seduction nostalgia offers?

I don't listen to oldies and studiously avoid "classic rock". I largely prefer contemporary novels over the masterpieces from the literary canon; most of the movies offered on Turner network don't appeal to me nearly as much as today's films. Modern homes draw me in more than Victorians. I don't yearn for any "good old days", politically or culturally.

All those disclaimers aside, nostalgia does have appeal for me in at least one domain - I miss the days when making connections with people was easier for me. Although my undergraduate years come first to mind, I also recall finding friends more readily as a young adult. A quick perusal of my blog titles reveals several posts referring to this subject - not surprising. Though my first post made mention of a wish to connect with others via cyberspace that thought now strikes me as naive and a little sad.

Was it really easier "back then"? Not sure, but for this one instance a time machine might be handy to have.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Keeping Joe Happy, Just Because

Can you recall a moment in your life when a word you commonly use took on brand new significance?

About 15 years ago, I was a witness in a Grand Jury proceeding. When the district attorney asked me to recount a purse snatching I'd observed, everything was fine until I uttered the word "because". He abruptly interrupted me mid-sentence and said "Please return to telling me what you observed, Mr. Barton, not your guesses as to the reasons".

How often do we use the word "because" without realizing we have moved into the story-telling realm? I can honestly say that moment was a true awakening for me. I'd never before considered how the word because can be roughly equivalent to "Once upon a time...." Nothing wrong with fairy tales, provided we know we're making them up. But when trying to be accurate describing something, best to remember Sargent Joe Friday's advice - "Just the facts, ma'am; just the facts." Mixing because with facts? Joe would not be pleased.   



Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mr. Id Is Not Going Quietly

"Still waters run deep."

Many years ago, Mr. Id heard the cliche above used to describe someone he knew. After some recent reflection, Mr. Id is inclined to think still waters are sometimes more stagnant than deep, at least with some people.

As an extrovert, Mr. Id has been justifiably called obnoxious, opinionated, arrogant on more than one occasion. However, it doesn't strike him as axiomatic that introverts are necessarily "deep" based on how little they speak, anymore than extroverts are necessarily glib or superficial for all their banter. Isn't it conceivable that some introverts or taciturn individuals are people of few words because, in fact, they don't have much to say?

Shoot the messenger if you choose, but Mr. Id advocates rethinking the strong & silent/still waters/person of few words archetype.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Challenging Myself

"Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you want to hang out with"
From "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" (2010) by David Lipsky

That quote, from Lipsky's book about the time he spent with the late David Foster Wallace, kept playing in my head as I rammed through "Mortality", a 2012 posthumous release by Christopher Hitchens. Capturing my reaction to Hitchens' final musings in my book journal, I reflected on two other favorite essayists I can't hang out with anymore: John Updike and recently, Gore Vidal. Since Wallace's suicide in 2008, I've lost four friends I never met. At present, Jonathan Lethem is the top living essayist on my dance card.

And though I'm a bit intimidated by the intellect of all five of these guys, reading them is very good for me. Reminds me how energized I (usually) feel playing guitar next to someone more accomplished than I or losing at tennis for a parallel reason. If I can just keep that nasty ego at bay, I learn and grow. How about you? In what domains of your life do you work at challenging yourself?    

Monday, October 1, 2012

Work To Do

How often do we learn how to improve by recognizing some of our own bad habits or behaviors in others?

The place I'm most likely to learn this lesson is when I closely observe my men friends interacting with their wives or partners. Whenever one of them interrupt their wives, finish a sentence or story, or steal a punchline, I'm reminded how rude it is, i.e. how rude I can sometimes be. And that's not the worst behavior I've observed in others that chastens me.

I think of myself as a good listener. When my wife and I are alone, I'm much less inclined to engage in some of the poor listening or disrespectful behaviors I find obnoxious in others. But clearly I've still got some work to do. I don't relish the idea of becoming an example to others of what not to do.     


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Real Estate/Real Life

In real estate, conventional wisdom says it's about location, location, location. What about in real life? I vote for balance, balance, balance.

* I continually reach for a balance between planning for the future and enjoying moments as I live them.

* I search for ways to have my innate need to reach decisions be balanced with spontaneity.

* I recognize how much more satisfying my interactions are when I communicate in a balanced fashion.

Where in your life is balance missing? What steps are you taking to rectify that?  

  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

For Members Only

Who are these people?  

There is more than a 1 in 2 chance you're a baby boomer, about 1 in 7 you're either Gen "X" or a millennial. Odds are better than 1 to 4 you've known me longer than my wife has. About 15% of you play guitar; another 15% worked with me at my last full time job. 10% of you went to high school with me, a different 10% had the same parents as I or went to school with my daughter or are married to one another. 5% of you had dinner with me within the last week; another 5% can not ever read this post.

Any ideas yet? 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Head Scratchers, Anyone?

What was the last acclaimed film you watched that left you scratching your head?

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I watched "All The King's Men". Among the four films that mess beat for best picture of 1949, I've seen only "The Heiress". No matter; I defy anyone to watch just these two movies back-to-back and defend the Academy's choice. Was everyone drunk when they voted that year?

Although it did not win an Academy Award, "Night of the Hunter" (1955) is such a highly touted film I've felt a bit of a fraud calling myself a movie buff having not seen it. Until last night, that is. Oh...my...God. I challenge people who speak highly of this movie to keep a straight face while watching the acting in this "classic". Robert Mitchum has a few good moments but much of the script (written by James Agee!), particularly the tripe Lillian Gish says at the conclusion, is just awful. And the two main child actors would fit well in any train wreck Ed Wood ever made. Yikes.

We've all seen movies we don't like and others that were bad but won no awards or acclaim ("Larry Crowne", anyone?).  But these two are revered. HOW CAN THIS BE SO?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Imagination

Imagination: Ability to meet and resolve difficulties; resourcefulness.

Although the definition above is the last of six cited in my Random House dictionary, #1- #5 were not terribly useful. Also, though I've always equated imagination with creativity, that word does not appear in any of the six definitions. So, using the above, how would you grade yourself so far on imagination?

Although I give myself a "C+" to this point, this is an attribute where I've seen a steady arc of growth over my life. Resourcefulness never felt innate for me as I believe it is for my wife and others I've known.  But I do envision my grade continuing to improve. How about you? How resourceful have you been meeting and resolving difficulties?

Aside from being confident a "B" is in my future, another bright spot is feeling I did pretty well raising my daughter to have imagination, per this definition. She is much more skilled at meeting and resolving difficulties and resourceful than I was at her age. Of course, her mother gets at least equal credit, maybe more. And it's good to know I've still got lots of time.

Don't forget: Any suggestions for future attributes in this series ("J" to Z" left), are welcome.
   

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Live From The Count Basie Theater: A Small Victory

Because of a tendency to get self-critical after seeing a great live musical show, I thought about writing a blog post earlier today given I was going to see Joe Jackson at the Count Basie Theater tonight. He is among the most accomplished of contemporary musicians and his shows are always first rate.

Now I'm glad other tasks called and I was forced to wait. Because although Jackson's show was predictably terrific, instead of being demoralized, I'm energized as this day ends. And though this is a small victory for me, it's an important one. It's possible having my nephew and brother there kept me more in the moment; their excitement and enthusiasm buoyed me. Or, maybe my recent enjoyment of my own guitar playing helped me make this shift; doesn't matter. It feels good to feel good.   

With all that exposition out of the way, is there perhaps a real blog report coming? Yes there is: Tonight's show featured many selections from Jackson's latest recording, "The Duke", his tribute to the eternal Duke Ellington. In addition, he and the excellent six piece band performed a healthy sampling of his original work, including four songs from the bestselling "Night and Day". Jackson began and ended the show solo, starting with Duke's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and finishing with "A Slow Song".

Monday, September 24, 2012

Congratulations, Tiffany & Sudesh

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you read the above, a message I saw on the sign board of a local catering hall?

Having lived long enough to remember when an Irish/Italian wedding generated a fair degree of controversy, I found myself reflecting on the cultural barriers that have begun to fall in my lifetime. I'm not naive. I know many Americans still marry within their own ethnic group. Even interfaith marriages are still unusual enough that finding a Rabbi who will officiate a ceremony involving a Jew and someone from another faith is not easy.

But when I look at the NY Times wedding section, and yes, I know New York is very different from Boise, I am no longer surprised to see in those pictures many combinations reflective of the US mosaic. When I do, as when I passed that catering hall sign, I'm proud of what we're becoming as a nation.          



    

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Quiet Dinner With Pogo

When was the last time you played the role of the "obnoxious other" we all find easy to criticize?

I've lost count how many times my wife and I have been dining somewhere while a crowd of others intruded on our quiet conversation. Sound familiar? But comeupance is rarely far away if you pay close attention. While dining with a group of eight recently, I paid little attention to how loud our conversation was until glancing briefly at the faces of a couple alone nearby. Their faces registered a look I recognized - a look I'd leveled at others many times in the past. Pogo's words rang loudly in my ear: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

On our way out of the restaurant, I apologized to the couple. They taught me a second lesson I hope I'll remember the next time I'm in the reverse situation: They graciously said the noise hadn't disturbed them.
    

Friday, September 21, 2012

Considering Anne Tyler

Among authors I count as favorites, articulating what I enjoy about Anne Tyler presents the biggest challenge. Which favorite author presents a similar dilemma for you?

It's possible some of my difficulty is related to the lack of "big" action in Tyler's beautifully written books. Her characters are vividly drawn, although their lives are rarely dramatic. Families are typically at the core of her work but dysfunction with a capital "D" is usually not central to the stories. And like many novelists, Tyler often features a city in her work; in her case, it's Baltimore. Yet even her well constructed descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of Baltimore do not draw attention to themselves.

I've greatly enjoyed all Tyler's best known work: "Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant" (1982), "The Accidental Tourist" (1985), which was nicely adapted to film, and her Pulitzer Prize Winner "Breathing Lessons" (1988). But based on the back-of-book notes I began making years ago, "Saint Maybe" (1991) and "Amateur Marriage" (2004) are the two novels that landed hardest with me. Asked to recall much more than what is contained in my notes however, and I'd come up short. But I do remember something about the experience of reading all her books - re-reading the first few chapters immediately after I finish. I have trouble letting go.       

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Third Rail Conversations

I've been trying to remember the last satisfying or useful conversation I had about politics.

Now since I am the only constant in all the conversations I have, it's logical to begin by reflecting on what I bring to the table i.e. what must I change to make these conversations work better? One thing I know would help is asking better questions of others. Although I'm pretty skilled doing this when discussing other topics, when someone agrees with me in a political conversation, I ask too few questions - I go into ditto mode. Psychologists call this "confirmation bias" - seeking out only the information that matches our beliefs.

When someone disagrees, even my non-leading questions can sometimes be tainted by body language or a vocal timbre that is unwelcoming. So even if the question is a pure one, my posture is saying "I don't really care about your answer". Another response I have when facing disagreement is shutting down - also not conducive to satisfying conversations.

How much of this sounds familiar to you? What help can you offer?                         

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#3: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Having just returned from heaven on earth, the third installment in this series is a given. Which four places that you've visited make up your Mt. Rushmore? My list goes from the most recent I've visited back.

1.) The Tuscany region of Italy - History, amazing food, stunning beauty
2.) Glacier National Park, Montana - A place that can only be described as sacred
3.)  Bermuda - Terrific beaches and friendly natives
4.)  Acadia National Park, Maine - Been there three times; could easily return a dozen more

It's hard restricting this list to four. But I'm reasonably sure #1 will remain among my top four no matter where future travels take me.         

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gotta Have A Ball

For many years my sister has been saying I was born the wrong sex. Aside from the exercise benefits derived from cycling, tennis & skiing, I have little interest in sports. I own no power tools and have zero interest in cars. I neither hunt nor fish. Since adolescence most of my enduring friendships have been with women. I cry often and easily. The Marlboro man I'm not.

Even my passions rarely match marketing or demographic profiles. I don't care for military biographies or spy thrillers, have never read Popular Mechanics, GQ, or Maxim. Action is my least favorite film genre; rap and metal leave me cold. So imagine my surprise and marvel at the delight I felt while in Tuscany this past week when I happily reveled in a slogan introduced to me by two guy's guys who were part of my bike touring group. Their slogan -  "Gotta have a ball."

On a stunning beach in Talamone, jumping from a 10 foot cliff into the crystal blue water, a ball was tossed. What a thrill it was catching it. And in that moment I was transported to the joy of my childhood when hanging out with my friends playing ball was pure magic. Words to live by - Gotta have a ball.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Ciao For Now

Having now visited together in 2012 more US states than in any year since our cross country driving vacation of 2000, my wife and I are capping a year of travel with a visit to Italy. Later today we fly to Rome and will then spend eight days with Vermont Bike Tours cycling by the sea near Tuscany. My wife has fantasized about a trip like this since reading the bestseller "Under The Tuscan Sun" years ago. We will not be living there nor renovating an old house in a quaint Italian village as author Frances Mayer did. But given our level of activity, we do plan to eat and drink as much as she, albeit over a shorter period.

My only previous visit to Italy was 30 years ago, part of a solo vacation taken using the Eurail system; Genoa, Pisa, and Venice were my three stops. One striking memory captured in my journal was the contrast between the orderliness of the last train station in Austria vs. the joyful chaos at the first stop after crossing into Italy. I also had an uncomfortable interaction with a woman on an Italian beach when the fabric gave way under my butt on a beach chair I'd thought was public. I stood helplessly mute as she screamed at me in a language I do not speak and then meekly walked away - ouch.

Would enjoy hearing your impressions of Italy and/or any embarrassing cross-cultural mishaps of yours on our return August 18. Until then, ciao for now!


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 6: Cynicism

I'm exhausted by the rhetoric coming from both conventions these past few weeks. What happened to the engagement and enthusiasm I used to feel when a presidential election approached?

I clearly remember when the word cynic was a derisive term to level at others. It now seems to be more a word of self-description, at least when considering politics, American-style. What has most contributed to my increasing cynicism? Is it simply related to getting older? Is it the nagging feeling I've heard the same bromides too many times?  Is it tied to a sense that the whole process is broken at some fundamental level? Is it the inescapable 24/7 news cycle? If this word haunts you as it does me, I'm genuinely curious to know your reasons, no matter your side of the aisle.

And while on the whole aisle metaphor, that part clearly contributes to my cynicism. How did we end up with just two "electable" choices, anyway? Red/blue, elephant/donkey - what happened to the other five colors on the spectrum and the remainder of the animal kingdom? In my mind, I've composed a keynote speech and platform for a third political party. OK, add temporarily deranged to the list of words that can haunt me, at least until November 7. After that, I'll still be left with cynicism but somehow I doubt I'll be alone.

 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Attention, Aretha: Authorized Alternatives Ahead

Two parts to this post, both inspired after hearing "Respect" at my local coffee shop.

Part 1: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me; R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Take care, _ _ _"

OK, fill in the three blanks above; no fair peeking at the Internet, either. If you promise right now to comment on Part 2 of this post, I'll reveal the answer below to this mystery of greater significance than anything contained in Dan Brown's novels.

Part 2: Now, I'll start us out with three other words and logical rhyming phrases Aretha is hereby authorized to use as alternatives for R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Then, it's your turn to do the same.

a.) "V-O-L-C-A-N-O: Get so mad, I want to blow"
b.) "T-R-I-P-L-E-T: Wanted two, then out came three"
c.) "D-I-G-N-I-T-Y: Choose the way I wish to die"  (I know it's bleak; lighten up, will you?)

Did you offer another? OK, the blanks in part 1 are for T-C-B. But the mystery doesn't end there does it? What does that mean? I'll only reveal the answer to that if you promise to forward this blog post to ten people. Five? Two? Your mother? Oh, all right. (T-C-B = "Taking care of business"). Only a music geek like me will admit to knowing this piece of utterly useless information.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lessons

Last week at the stable where I volunteer, I watched four people, including a very persistent teacher, get a severely disabled child onto his horse. The facts of this situation were similar to those I've seen many times over the past 18 months, except for the significant resistance this child made to getting on the horse this particular day. As I then began my regular duties, the scene continued to replay in my mind.

How many times in my life have I resisted doing something that was of clear benefit to me? How many times have I allowed fear of an unknown control me? What would have happened if instead a strong and persistent teacher did not permit me to cave into my fear? I have seen "The Miracle Worker" several times; I'm deeply moved each time Anne Sullivan refuses to allow the young Helen Keller to quit. I'm sure part of what moves me is recognizing that the times I've given up, I've given in to fear.

Less than 15 minutes after watching the scene described above, this same child was sitting up proudly on his horse. With the teacher's words of instruction and encouragement loud enough I could hear her across the wide paddock I was clearing, the child lifted out of his seat and posted. Although too far away to see his face, I know he was happy; his laughter told me so.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Distracted Guest

When trying to focus, how successful are you tuning out your surroundings? Which distractions pose the biggest challenge for you?

In most situations, I have little difficulty tuning out. Even in a noisy environment like the subway, I've been able to briefly get to a single point of focus in a meditation. When reading in a public place, I can usually tune out conversations or street clatter. The distraction that poses the greatest challenge for me is music. If music is audible, that's where my attention lands. Except for Muzak, "background music" strikes me as an oxymoron.

And though my distraction is most pronounced if it's jazz or 60's-80's rock n' roll, music I wouldn't necessarily choose to listen to also pulls me in to the exclusion of doing something else. When I was still working full time, people who knew me well would often ask why there was no music on in my office. Easy - very little would get done. Unless it was something that had been played to death, if something familiar played, I'd be listening for what I might have previously missed or mesmerized by a favorite lyric. Something unfamiliar? I'd wonder who did it, listen for unusual harmonies, analyze the structure.

So if you're not playing an endless loop of "Stairway to Heaven" when I'm a guest in your home, expect less than my full attention at least part of the time. Sorry in advance.