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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?