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Thursday, August 30, 2012

On The Other Hand...

I don't make a regular habit of re-reading my posts but after someone sent me a comment via e-mail about "Finding What You Have" (my last post), I did. In it, I mentioned many things my wife and I have in common; the e-mail prompted me to look at the other side. And of course there are plenty of things we don't have in common. Do you know partnerships that would claim otherwise?

One of my wife's greatest passions is gardening. Try as she may, she hasn't made me a convert. I love eating our fresh vegetables but have never planted a single seed - don't plan on starting. She also enjoys opera. I've given that a better shot than gardening; it is music after all. No dice. On the other hand, she doesn't enjoy King Crimson. She likes antiquing and garage sales - count me out. We often have trouble agreeing what makes a movie funny. And so on.

So what is an optimum balance for a partnership between having enough things in common vs. having unique interests? I have no clear answer to this; please tell me if you do. But I do feel it's important each partner has pieces that belong to just them. What do you think? The intention of my last post was not to paint a  picture of two people who share everything. From my perspective, that would be just as unsettling as partners who have little or nothing in common.  

       

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Finding What You Have

Though I've more than once heard people describe how little they have in common with a spouse or partner, the statement invariably catches me off guard. After recovering, I'm immediately reminded how fortunate I am.

What is critical for you to have in common with a spouse or partner? My list has probably changed a bit over 34+ years, but the core value of trust has always been at the top. Agreeing on the fundamentals of how to raise children was up there as well. And laughing a lot is something we clearly share. My wife's laugh is one of the great joys of my life.

After that are things I'm happy we have in common. Call these the very nice but maybe not critical. Our politics are similar; we both love reading - my wife is the person whose reading tastes I most trust and rely on; music, music, music; going on physical vacations - exercise in general; trying different ethnic foods; NPR; travel; learning. I'm happy to say there is more but how about you? Which are the very nice (but maybe not critical) things you have in common with your spouse or partner? My sincere hope? Maybe some people who've told me they have little in common with their partners will read this and recognize  they have more than they realized.          

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gradually

"Gradually I learned to become indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection."

Coming across these words of Bertrand Russell in a book I'm reading has me re-considering several ideas I'd had for future blog posts. I'm ready to begin focusing more attention on the three areas Russell calls "external objects" although each area presents clear challenges. Guidance anyone cares to offer is welcome.

1. How best maintain the apolitical tone I've established while still focusing on "the state of the world"?
2. How best avoid pseudo-intellectualism when exploring "various branches of knowledge"?
3. How best ensure focusing on "individuals for whom I feel affection" doesn't become cringeworthy?

I'm going to give each of the three a shot in some near-future posts; I'll depend on you to keep me tuned up. In the meanwhile, I'm grateful for that word "gradually" in the part about becoming indifferent to myself and my deficiencies. I'm starting that piece right this moment.     

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seeing The Light

What was the last novel you read that you found yourself still processing months later?

I finished "The Illumination" (2011) by Kevin Brockmeier in early February but barely a week has gone by when I haven't thought of it. Saying I liked it or not seems beside the point. Feels more accurate to say I had an experience.

The six main characters in this book have two things in common - each is in some kind of pain and the diary of a dead woman, previously known to only one of the six, helps temporarily soothe that pain. The six additionally share something with everyone else in the world; their pain, no matter the type, is now visible. Pain illuminates any person experiencing it. And the light originates from where the person feels the pain.  

The book jacket asks: What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? I'm still processing that one. The question that's continually occurred to me since having this experience is: How often am I overlooking the pain in others?             

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Honesty

honesty: truthfulness, sincerity, frankness

Of the seven attributes I've thus far covered in this series, given the above definition, grading myself on honesty presents the most formidable challenges. How about for you? How honest can you be about how honest you've been in your life to date, using these three components?

So, I'll give myself a "C-" for truthfulness a "B" for sincerity and a "B+" for frankness to date. Combining all three gives me a about "B-", right? So why doesn't that feel like the complete story? Because "frankness", though it's the highest component of my three, has gotten me in the most trouble. And my lowest component, truthfulness, strikes me as the most important of the three. Given that, I'm adding extra weight to "truthfulness" and changing my overall grade to "C+".

Like two other attributes from earlier in this series (bravery and generosity), I'm planning on putting effort into improving my grade for honesty. But I am planning to dial back the frankness component whenever I apply the adage "honesty is the best policy"; could help me avoid hurting others feelings as much.   

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Re: Media Fast

Just  a few months ago, reacting to a blog post ranting about how I feel overfed with information about celebrities, an old friend suggested I periodically take a "media fast". I immediately implemented his strategy. And I've already lost five celebrities! I'll stack up the joy this gives me against anyone who has lost five pounds.

Proof I've begun to shed an unwanted load? Last weekend I saw a print ad for "The Expendables 2" listing only last names along with pictures of the eleven stars - yes I counted. Five names are totally unfamiliar to me. More proof my scale is not deceiving me? The same number of faces also did not register. Although the action genre has never been a favorite, I was elated nonetheless; a fast-working fast.

If I stick with this, by the time "The Expendables Have Expired" is released, I could drop enough bulk to have room for more important information. I'm still carrying around the names of way too many one-hit wonder bands from the 50's through the 80's but hey, everyone needs a few empty calories.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Stories, Stubbornness, Stupidity

Last weekend I learned how to use text messaging with a cell phone I've resisted using since my wife gave it to me upon upgrading her first one years ago. 

I'm not sure when or why I decided being stubborn about using a cell phone was a line to draw in the sand. It's possible all those conversations I've been forced to listen to while in the public sphere started me down this path. It's equally possible my resistance started out connected to my contrary nature. Even those 20th century artifacts now quaintly called landlines were never a favorite means of communication for me.

But my continuing ignorance of texting had one inescapable downside: I'd limited the full range of communication I could have with my young adult daughter. Though her mother had told me this more than once, her usually gentle counsel didn't register. Then last week I heard myself telling a near stranger about my inability to text in a story about my daughter. Suddenly I realized how right my wife had been. I also recognized how closely related stubbornness and stupidity can be. 

Where in your life is being stubborn getting in your way? 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Judging Bell

Zen masters - stop reading now.

Being around centered people last week at Kripalu has me reflecting on the whole judging enchilada. How evolved do you feel with respect to the human tendency to judge others? I propose we assess ourselves using a 4 point scale. I'm purposefully avoiding the more commonly used odd number scales (3, 5, 7) so there is no middle. In my experience, having those middle numbers available make it easier to escape rigorous self-examination.

1 is for any Zen master who ignored my instructions above. This is someone so evolved they have transcended the human tendency to judge others. 2 is someone who judges others regularly, 3 is someone who judges others frequently (that would be me), 4 is someone who finds it difficult to turn off the judging mechanism - that was me circa 1991.

Clarification: I am not asking about pre-judging. I'm talking about judging others in the moment even if you know of or have used a mindful discipline to help you avoid judging. The most useful discipline I've found? Saying "judging" to myself as I go there. Current effectiveness rate? <50%. My newest fantasy? I want a bell to ring in my ear any time I begin judging others and get louder if I don't let go fairly quickly. And I also want a bell tuned to a different frequency to ring when someone is judging me. I then walk away from that person. My concern with this fantasy? I'll be hearing bells to the exclusion of most other sound.

Zen masters still reading: I warned you. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

#2: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Since introducing this series in July, my wheels have been continually turning about what to do next. I have a vivid memory of the first short story that knocked me down; I'm guessing the same is true for many people. Which four short stories make up your Mt. Rushmore? The majority of mine are a bit macabre and all are heavily anthologized. But each made an indelible impact on me.

1.) Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. How did Franz dream up this horror? Gregor Samsa's predicament has been in my brain since the day I read this over 45 years ago.
2.) The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.  Just as creepy as Metamorphosis but scarier for it's perverse plausibility.
3.) Miriam by Truman Capote. No exaggeration - I've read this Gothic gem more than 10 times; goosebumps without fail.
4.) A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver. Later used as one piece of "Short Cuts", a terrific film directed by Robert Altman. This one is not for everybody. But this is my Mt. Rushmore.

Your turn. Remember, it's Mt. Rushmore so just four, OK? Ideas for future installments in the series always welcome.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Unreliable Narrators?

Time to revisit an age old debate among serious readers. How dependably can a fiction author use a narrator of the opposite gender?

For an opinionated person, this issue is fairly neutral for me. But at a meeting discussing "A Widower's Tale" (2010) by Julia Glass, I was reminded how strongly many people feel about this. Though the narrator is a 70 year old widower, Glass' gender never crossed my mind; I was captivated by the believability of her central character. Not so for several women at the meeting. Aside from questioning Glass' ability to accurately speak in a man's voice, they also said something I've often heard , i.e. male authors who use women as narrators fall short. I don't feel qualified to comment here, so any women reading, please offer up your examples refuting this. After reading any book you offer as an example, I'll feel more grounded in future discussions.

This gender discussion got me reflecting on a parallel issue. How dependably can a fiction author use a narrator not sharing their race? I clearly recall how moved I was reading William Styron's award winning novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1967). Much later I was surprised, perhaps naively, to hear of the significant resistance Styron faced among respected black critics at the time the book was released and for years after. I'd be equally curious to hear your views on this, recognizing it could be more inflammatory than the gender issue.

     

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Using The Eyes Of Children

When was the last time a child helped you see something you'd overlooked?

I've lived in my current home for over 2 1/2 years. But until a few weeks ago, I'd failed to notice my backyard has an almost perfect climbing tree. It took the eagle eye of my nephew and his cousin to make the discovery. Within minutes, the three of us were up on it, daring each other to go higher. How did I miss this?

Though commenting on the innocence of children has almost become a cliche, I'm still betting my recent experience is not that unusual. When my daughter was growing up, a book I read suggested asking children "What did you see that was interesting today?" in place of the hackneyed "How was school?"  As I started using the suggested question with her, I also found myself paying more attention to the "interesting" things I saw. Common place sites like the vertical cages used in city parking lots became a wonderful way to enrich conversations with my daughter. I guess I stopped paying as much attention after she grew up.

I'll forgive myself for that. But I think it's time to revive that question with the younger members of my family. Who knows how much stuff, how many cool trees I'm missing?    

Monday, August 13, 2012

Kripalu & Gandhi

What strategies do you use to help sustain the relaxation you feel when you're on vacation?

This week my wife and I are at Kripalu, a yoga retreat located in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. After discussing it for years, we finally made it to this gorgeous setting. After today's yoga session, which was followed by a guided meditation and a healthy vegetarian meal, I felt profoundly relaxed. My reverie brought me to the question above as I reflected on previous vacations and how quickly the benefits of those vacations have dissipated. I want to shift this pattern.

One of the techniques emphasized in all the classes offered here is mindfulness; I realize this could be a partial answer to my question. A past challenge for me has been remaining mindful when I'm faced with  negative energy re-entering my day-to-day life. And thinking about that energy reminded me of work I still need to do. Last year when my daughter returned from her intensive yoga certification, she was glowing as I picked her up at the airport. Navigating the traffic, I lost my patience with another driver and filled the car with that negative energy. My daughter's three weeks of relaxation had been compromised.

The words of Gandhi are easy to find here at Kripalu. So it's entirely fitting a good answer to my question would be to keep his words in my head back at home: "We must become the change we wish to see in the world". Could sustaining my glow be as simple as remembering to help others sustain theirs?  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Deadlines And Creativity

Lately I've been reflecting on the tension between deadlines and creativity. How much does having a deadline enhance or hamper your creativity?

The only one imposing a deadline for my blog posts is me. Some days that seems to grease my creativity; other days it's intimidating. And though I've filled several little notepads with ideas, sometimes as my self-imposed deadline looms, still no unified approach for a post becomes clear. On those days I either forge ahead and create something anyway or skip posting. If I create something and I'm unhappy, I give myself credit for persevering. If I'm pleased with what I created I wonder: How much did the edge of the deadline assist me? When I skip posting I wonder: If a deadline were externally imposed what would I have created? How would it have compared to what I created having just a self-imposed deadline? In other words: How much would external pressure have elevated or compromised my results? What's been your experience with this last question?

Over the years, my songwriting has been inconsistent; never gave myself a deadline. Now that I've begun exploring this tension with respect to writing/blogging, I've decided deadlines might help me in other creative domains. What's the worst that can happen? Where in your creative life might deadlines be of help?

Friday, August 10, 2012

You're Not A Kid Anymore...

What do you miss not being a kid? Not necessarily things you never do, but those things you do far less of now vs. when you were a kid. I'll get us started with two simple, silly things I miss.

I miss giggling as much as I did when I was a kid. And I miss how my body moved to music with no regard for tempo. I love dancing. But as an adult, I'm acutely aware of moving with the beat. Watch kids sometime  - there is little thought re the beat; their heads sway, their arms flail, beat be damned. Let's face it, giggling and moving to music willy-nilly are things we do less of because of inhibitions, an adult word if ever there was one. Before I get a little more serious, weigh in - What silly things do you miss not being a kid?

I sincerely wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard an adult say "I'm not creative"; for every person who says it, there is a unique story. However, I submit the crux of many of those stories involves something  people miss not being kids. How many kids have you ever heard say "I'm not creative"? Why is that?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Work In Progress Thing

Recently, a new friend offered some feedback about my behavior in a group we're in together, feedback  given based on a self-critical blog post I wrote. The frequently heard expression about all of us being "...a work in progress..." was part of the same conversation. The feedback was a gift; the friend is a sincere and open soul. Then I wondered: Am I over-doing it with the "work in progress" posts?

I did a cursory perusal of my 350+ posts - there are a fair number that could be categorized as such. My original intent was to reflect on stuff average people like me have on their minds so I'm not sure what to do with my finding. I guess I need to depend on your guidance to be sure I'm hitting the mark regularly enough. Only way I can think of to do that is asking some questions.

How often do you stop and actively consider yourself as a work in progress? What methods do you use to get the kind of insightful feedback I got from my friend? And how often do you honestly wish, as I do, that you could be done with the work and just coast for a while?

 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Impossible Dream

With a nod to "The Man From La Mancha", last night I dreamed the impossible dream. I saw Dave Chappelle and Debra Winger in a Terence Malick film with source material by Thomas Pynchon and music by Sly Stone & Axl Rose.

When he was popular, I was not a Dave Chappelle fan nor was I that wild about Guns N' Roses in their heyday with Rose up front. I've struggled to crack the hallucinatory novels of Pynchon; some of Malick's films have left me a bit confused. So among this group, only the film work of Debra Winger and Sly Stone's music from the late 60's- early 70's has worked for me in a big way. But the disappearance of Chappelle and longtime absence of Winger as well as the legendary inaccessibility of both Malick & Pynchon, despite awards and massive critical acclaim, intrigues me. I know VH-1's "Behind the Music" has built its model around  musicians who publicly self-destruct. I included Stone & Rose here primarily because the film needed a soundtrack. And their rock-n-roll stories are arguably more interesting train wrecks. 

Several years ago a documentary called "Searching For Debra Winger" was released. Despite a spurious claim to be above it all, I was fascinated. If you're at all interested in what drives some people to turn away from their field, seemingly at the top of their game, I recommend it. Against my holier-than-thou better judgment, I freely admit that since seeing the film Dave Chappelle has crossed my mind a few times. Who has similarly crossed your mind?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Teacher And Student

Daniel Goleman, a guru in the field of emotional intelligence, uses the term "emotional hijacking" to describe how we sometimes let our feelings over-ride rational thought. Phrases like "that really pushes my buttons" or "I get so triggered by that" similarly describe a human foible we all share - reacting before thinking. What was the trigger for you the last time you were emotionally hijacked?

As early as grammar school, I had an indication this particular foible was going to present a significant challenge for me. Although my academic grades were usually OK, the deportment side of my report card invariably had a "U" (for "unsatisfactory") next to "self-control". Sometimes I'm able to rationalize this early pattern and chalk it up to an over-abundance of childhood energy. And as an adult, my energy has often been a real ally.

But on those occasions when someone has been hurt by my words or actions, I see red "U's" from my report cards flashing like a blinking traffic light. Once again, my mouth has opened before my brain has fully engaged. When I was doing a lot of professional coaching, people would often compliment me on the guidance I gave them about carefully considering their words. Whenever I got those compliments I'd smile to myself and recall a wise quote I heard many years ago: "We teach best what we need to learn most".

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Those Calloused Hands

Yesterday, I noticed the gloves I use at the farm where I volunteer each Friday are worn out.

Looking at those gloves, I tried to recall when I first noticed how rough my Father's hands felt compared to my own. Was it when he taught me how to properly shake hands? Then I wondered how long, doing the work he did, it would have taken him to wear out a pair of gloves. Had he ever owned any? When I thought of his deeply calloused hands, I decided he probably did not.

Driving home, I thought of a post I wrote in January called "Fridays With Mom & Dad". Decided it was important my brother knew about that particular post; I e-mailed it to him. How do you help preserve  memories of people you've lost? Who helps you? What triggers your memories of those people?  


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Flat Screen Hell

I'm guessing flat screens, making them easy to fit anywhere, are a big reason it's so difficult to escape TV anymore. My idea of justice? The inventor of flat screen TV spending eternity watching endless reruns of the show he/she hates most, with the volume turned all the way up.

Is anyone else bothered by how hard it is to escape TV? I now ask to be seated out of sight and hearing of the ubiquitous TVs in many restaurants. At my local diner, it's impossible to accommodate me - there's one staring at you no matter your seat. Hotel lobbies, airports, my dentist's office, for crying out loud.

As annoying as the public noise is, I struggle nearly as much when I'm in a home where the TV is on most of the time. Though it's not my place to say anything, I find it intrusive. It makes me wish I were someplace else, away from TV.    


  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August 1, 2014: National Book Day

As months go, August is the clear loser when it comes to holidays. Consequently, I propose today, August 1, as National Book Day. I'm hoping to start a movement beginning with the readers of my blog, making this a small movement to start.

We'll need a sponsor. To keep this free from crass commercial interests, how about a library trade group? Other ideas welcome. Slogan = "Reading Rocks!" What do you think? Unpaid spokesperson? I'm thinking a popular author, someone who doesn't need money, a discerning reader. Based on his memoir "On Writing", I nominate Stephen King. Second choice: JK Rowling, although I don't know anything about her reading habits. Reading snobs objecting to either, speak up.

Any website developers in "Reflections..." land? Care to volunteer some time to a worthy cause? Marketing folks? Wait, got that covered - I'm married to one. Should banks & government offices close and mass transit go on holiday schedules? I vote no; too many potential obstacles. Nothing closes or changes on Valentines Day - let's keep it simple like that. Anyone have a contact at Hallmark? August 1 - no need to sweat school closings. If we get started now, this could happen by 2014; too late for 2013 calendars.

What am I missing?