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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When Tears Are Meaningless

For quite some time, I've been using the 1-5 rating system on Goodreads - every bookworm's favorite website. But checking a box marked "I really liked it" (the Goodreads descriptor for a four star book) with respect to "Zone Of Interest" (2014) by Martin Amis seems wildly inappropriate.

Amis's latest novel is a powerfully and vividly written tale about a man smitten by another man's wife. The prose is exceptional and there is not a trace of sentimentality in the book. Through the author's masterful use of three voices, I felt the longing of Angelus Thomsen, the moral decay of Paul Doll, the hopeless desperation of Szmul Zachariasz. And even without her having a unique voice, I felt the animosity Hannah Doll had for her loathsome husband - such are the rewards of spending time with an author as gifted as Martin Amis.

This is all very different from saying "I really liked this book" or recommending it to others. I recognize the author's immense talent and understand the critical need for all of us to continue to bear witness. But this was a painful book to read. Amazingly, I did not once lose my emotional composure. That was appropriate - What place do my tears have in light of the enormous horror perpetuated by the Third Reich?

"We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Compliments

How do you handle compliments? In your experience, how have others handled your compliments to them? When you tell someone how much you've enjoyed their work (music, writing, photography, etc.), what has been the predominant response?

In general, I'm pleased with my own response to compliments. I usually say thank you and try diverting the conversation elsewhere. In my experience, many people act as I do. And I also make a point to tell people when I enjoy their work, especially in the creative domains. When I've had an opportunity to tell someone with a degree of notoriety that their work has moved me, the predominant response I've received in those situations has also been positive. What would be your takeaway if someone of note acted strangely under those circumstances?

A friend of mine characterized that reaction as immaturity. I was surprised by his takeaway. Is it immaturity when a "non-famous" person doesn't react well to a compliment? Insecurity, perhaps. I could even go with lack of grace though that may be too harsh. But a deflected compliment, either about a person or about their work, famous or anonymous, strikes me more as social awkwardness than immaturity. Are they the same thing?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Around The World In Four Hours

With a nod to Jules Verne, and more pertinently, Anthony Bourdain, our journey around the world yesterday made culinary stops in twenty independent nations as well as a UK partner (Wales). Our four year old "eat the world" project now totals seventy five countries. And what a feast it was!

Four continents were represented, although there was controversy about Guatemala & Honduras - North America? (my sources: "World Atlas" - DK Publishing & the 2012 World Almanac) Or...South America?And a few friends took exception to PF Chang's being the entry for the cuisine of China on a timeline we'd posted around the room documenting the project to date. Both minor bumps considering how stuffed everyone was after the repast and ample Yuengling (the only wink at the US). A few guests took advantage of our offer and were airlifted from the banquet hall afterwards; they are still recovering.

Remarkably, only two countries - Armenia & Switzerland - were represented by more than one dish. Considering how many people attended - to the best of my knowledge few communicated with others about which country they chose from the list of 100 we provided - the event exceeded our expectations. The live music and a bluffing contest were gravy and dessert.

Icing on the cake? Earlier today we extended the celebration with our overnight guests and a return visit to Guatemala at breakfast. The continuing continent controversy was superseded by that mango & chili powder combination. North or South? Who cares?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dessert After Chicken Or Egg? Or...In Between?

Preference - performance - praise? Or, performance - praise - preference? Or...

It started when my younger sister asked if I thought my project to fully memorize 300 jazz standards was helping my memory improve in domains aside from music. While trying to land on an answer to her question, I suddenly found myself mired in an old chicken/egg story, although this one has dessert as well.

Although I'd been exposed to it earlier, during my graduate studies the reinforcing loop educational psychologists have identified involving performance, preference & praise began troubling me. In particular, I started questioning exactly where in that loop the praise - dessert - is more likely to fall. That is, do we begin by having a preferred way of tackling things and if that leads to a positive outcome (aka performance) the subsequent praise reinforces that preference? Or, must the praise follow the performance in order to drive our preferences, increasing our confidence and leading to more performance? Where does trial and error fit into the model?

And what about people who don't need dessert as much as say, I do? Is it possible their loop begins with the intrinsic satisfaction they derive from any performance and that is what largely drives their future preferences even before praise enters the picture? Happy to report the conversation with my sister moved to our respective parenting styles so this particular chicken, egg and dessert are back in the deep freeze for now. What is your view on where the dessert belongs in this meal?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Good Tip, George

"Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?" - George Bernard Shaw

While driving and reflecting on a recent personal encounter, I glanced at the inspection sticker on my windshield and thought why not?

Why couldn't there be a process where all of us have an annual civility inspection? If we fail, we receive a red sticker to wear and must be re-inspected within a month. If we don't get re-inspected in time and are subsequently caught being uncivil, we're fined. Why not?

Who does the inspections, you ask? All of us know people who are rarely uncivil to others; these folks are often the same ones who don't talk trash behind the backs of others. One of my oldest friends is someone like this. I say we give the job to people like her. I'm certain I'm not qualified, how about you? And being subject to an annual inspection could be just the thing to help me get my act together civility-wise. What do you think? Why not?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

M Marks The Spot

Upon initiating this blog a little over four years ago my stated aim was to publish "...every day..." Though I missed that unrealistic goal, today's post is #1000, making my batting average better than .667 as well as providing me with a neat title. My keenest insight about blogging having hit M? Posts with catchier titles invariably get more readers, if not more comments.

Numbers aside, I've learned quite a bit from those comments, some made here, many more made offline. I've also learned about the people who comment, some of whom I know personally, some I don't. The good news - considering the scary inherent possibilities of the Internet - is how few creepy comments I've received. A few of the anonymous comments have been cryptic - especially on the infrequent days I post to Facebook - but the great majority have been thoughtful and revealing. Thank you for commenting.

Bigger thanks for your encouraging words. I had no idea on March 15 2011 if anyone aside from my family would ever take the time to read this blog, let alone comment on it. Your support has helped energize and sustain me. At my current rate of production, post MM will appear sometime around my 70th birthday in 2019. If you're inclined to bestow a theme gift to me, please remember - no brown M&M's, please.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Traffic Lights (CMXCIX)

What mundane part of modern life that you take completely for granted did you last stop to consider?

Lately I've been reflecting on traffic lights. It's pretty amazing how well they manage the potential chaos all our automobiles could create. Even more remarkable is how much of the world's population agrees to adhere to those same three signals. I've been trying to think of something behaviorally comparable to the effect traffic lights have on most of the human race. Ideas?

Imagine how much more each of us would observe if we paid as close attention to our surroundings as we do to traffic lights. Or, if our empathy to others was as automatic as our response to red, yellow and green. And just for me, I'd like a signal reminding me to stop losing my patience as much - yellow when I get triggered, then red to keep me from crossing into frustration.      

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Three Dogs, Thirty Seven Years, One Day

"Well I've never been to Spain, but I've been to Oklahoma".

Letting airfare sticker shock interfere with accompanying my wife on a business trip to Barcelona this past week qualifies as 2015's most bone-headed decision. For the past six days, that lyric above - from a hit by Three Dog Night - has been playing on a loop in my head. Yes to Oklahoma and no to Barcelona? What a bozo.

Aside from missing out on a universally raved-about city, being tight about the $$$ also meant my wife and I spent the 37th anniversary of our first date separated by an ocean. And to top it off, despite arranging for overseas service, her cell phone hasn't worked, restricting us to text messages. This might be the longest period of time where I haven't heard her voice in 37 years and a day. What was I thinking?

This won't happen again. Any of her future business trips to places I haven't seen, I'm going. A little Three Dog Night goes a long way.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Go-To Conversationalists

What are some features that help keep you fully engaged in a conversation? After four years jotting down conversational tidbits in my blog log, a pattern appears to be emerging. Certain people are more likely to give me ideas for future posts. And all these folks share characteristics, aside from being good listeners.

* When expressing an opinion, itself not a frequent occurrence, these folks often preface it with "...in my experience..." My own conversational repertoire was enhanced after I began starting sentences containing an opinion with "It's possible that..."  I learned this from Benjamin Franklin.

* I've observed that skilled use of metaphor is a fairly common element among "go to" conversationalists. Though I've made it a norm not using names here, I need to acknowledge EP - one of my "go to" people - as I paraphrase his recent basketball metaphor. "If you're not committing a foul every so often, you're  probably not fully in the game." Well put EP, and small "t" true.

* The conversations generating the most morsels for me have a synergy to them. My same group - who are not as inclined to discuss people or events but instead, ideas - seem to build on my contributions to our conversation so that, in the end, what arises is richer than what either of us has said. It's magical.

What have you observed?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Live Bait & Lingerie

What was the last sign you saw promoting a business or product that left you scratching your head?

If you were a lawyer, would you want your name boldly displayed under a psychic? Each time I pass Psychic readings by Chris/Capone & Keefe, Attorneys At Law, I snicker. Who do these lawyers think will be enticed to use their services given that second billing? Has no one ever suggested to them (their families, at least?) that a second sign of their own might be a better idea?

How about this appetizing offer? Veggie Sliders Now Available. Want to guess what fine dining establishment is advertising this on their thirty foot tall highway sign? Everyone's choice for vegetarian cuisine, of course - White Castle! Really? Which marketing genius came up with this?

Many years ago, a favorite t-shirt of mine had a picture of dump trucks adjacent to a sign reading "fill dirt and croissants". Do you suppose Capone, Keefe and the White Castle marketing team would get the joke? Or ... might they assume the local quarry carried their favorite pastry? Seen anything recently that compares to my two local bone-headed winners? Bring them on; I can always use a good laugh.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Grade (So Far): Tact

tact: a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations.

Are we grading on a curve? If not, my grade (so far) on this attribute - #37 in the series - puts me on the margins of the bell curve, i.e. C-/D+ at best, along with charm (April 2012) and panache (February 2014). How about you? Your grade (so far) for tact?

Early in life I mistook tactlessness for honesty, a mistake I fear many young outspoken people make. If I'd outgrown that obnoxious behavior sooner, perhaps I'd be in high "C" or even low "B" territory by now. Unfortunately, to this day my impulsive 65 year old mouth still tastes likes socks way too often.

If the dictionary definition for tact had contained only the first phrase, this attribute could have easily earned me my first "F". Fortunately, my skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations gave me some ballast; close call. And, more work to do.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Power Of A Public Pledge

Many years ago at a Joe Jackson concert, a good friend commented how extraordinary she found it that people would pay to sit quietly, listen to someone's original music and then applaud as each song concluded. Until last weekend, I wasn't sure why her remark had remained with me so long.

With a few notable exceptions, I've played music to largely indifferent audiences for over half a century. And my own compositions have barely registered in live settings where no friends or family were present. So when a NYC room of seventy five strangers listened intently and then enthusiastically cheered as my daughter and her friend finished singing a song of mine, I was dumbstruck. Leaving the stage with a stupid grin, my friend's long ago observation returned to me. It was extraordinary.

Why a blog post? In December 2011 I made a pledge here to begin recording my original songs using my daughter as the vocalist. Had I not been public with that pledge, the song we just performed would likely have continued to languish in a folder entitled "original material". It was written in 1991 and always had potential but the project to record my best tunes inspired me to dress it up; the enhanced version is worthy of that audience reaction. Starting this blog and going public with my pledges are two of the smartest things I've done in my post full time work life. Thanks to every reader who has asked about any of those pledges.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

They're Playing My Song

It could be because I'm a musician - and an obnoxious one at that - but I think everyone needs a theme song. Each time I meet a Dawn or a Donna or a Susan and a tune pops into my head - or obnoxiously, comes out of my mouth - I'm very happy. I was pleased to win the coin toss when our daughter was born resulting in her musical moniker vs. the name my wife favored - Lindsay. Nice name - no tune as far as I know though I didn't Google it.

I might even support a legal mandate requiring all newborn boys have a name that has a ready-to-sing theme song. In addition to all the music - and bad singing - that could soon fill the air, this requirement could help even out the existing gender disparity in theme songs. Shaft Barton has a nice ring to it, don't you think? More ethnically accurate - Baba O'Reilly Barton. My current top choice - Trouble Man Barton - so cool.

In the most recent music class I taught, there were 29 students. Only two women did not have a theme song. Theme songs for the men? Zero. This is an injustice in need of a remedy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Ward & June - NOT!

Not long ago my wife and I were invited to spend a weekend with a couple who'd previously had limited exposure to us. Because we wanted to make a favorable impression, our decided-upon strategy was to pretend we were Ward and June Cleaver during our extended interaction with these people.

In our post-weekend debrief, we agreed Ward and June did pretty well. But ever since our performance concluded I've been reflecting. Under normal circumstances, which fictional couple do we most accurately resemble? How about you? Which fictional couple most closely approximates the dynamic or tone of your longest lasting relationship?

* From the stage - Romeo & Juliet (if they'd made it past adolescence)? George and Martha from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Stanley and STELLA?
* From film or literature - Nick & Nora Charles? Scarlett & Rhett? Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy?
* From TV - Lucy & Desi? Roseanne & Dan? Tony & Carmella Soprano?

Let your imagination roam. Is/was that relationship of yours closer to Blondie & Dagwood or Jack & Diane?  If you give me something either here or offline, I'll reveal the selection I think best represents my partnership; my wife may not agree. I recognize that until recently depictions of same sex partnerships have been limited and often stereotyped; pretend along with me anyway.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Binge Is Back

Have you ever binged on an author? How long did it last? Which book ended the binge?

Starting in the late 70's and continuing through the 80's, I went on a prolonged Gore Vidal bender. Soon after stumbling onto his newly released "Kalki" (1978) - still a favorite - I couldn't get enough of his work. In any year Vidal didn't release a new title - not a frequent occurrence given his staggering output - I scoured his back catalog. "The City And The Pillar" (1948) has retained a spot in my top 25 novels of all time for over three decades. Thanks to a neat feature on GoodReads - every bookworm's favorite website - I recently learned Vidal has the #2 spot among my "most read" authors.

A 1990 rewind took me back to "Duluth" (1983). Was the satire too subtle or was it a weak book? Either way, the binge ended although I continued reading Vidal through the mid-90's, just not so obsessively. Then just before I started Graduate school he mostly dropped off my reading radar - until yesterday.

My current novel hasn't yet grabbed me. The 949 page non-fiction doorstop I'm involved with wasn't designed to be read cover-to-cover. I take the novel with me to the library hoping the change of scenery will get me revving but the browsing bug grabs hold. I notice a Vidal pamphlet (the man wrote in every possible form - novels, essays, plays, short stories, memoirs, screenplays, hieroglyphics) entitled "Dreaming War" (2002), and his incendiary politics have me by the throat; two hours whisk by. Onto the reference desk and directed to the biography section - two of the most recent Vidal titles are there including his second memoir "Point To Point Navigation" (2006), which comes home with me. Home now - what to do? Finish "Dreaming War"? Or...begin "Point To Point"? Or...write a blog post? Or... take "Views From A Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal" (1980) off my own bookshelf and re-read it? Midnight comes and goes; the binge is back. Will this one end before 2027?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

March (Movie) Madness

Even for a movie geek like me, last month was a little excessive. Lest you recommend medication, I won't reveal the actual number of films I saw but almost any human pursuit is preferable to spending time watching Seth Rogen.

Still, if my movie mojo had not been working overtime in March, I might have missed "The Wrecking Crew". That would have been a shame. Following closely on the heels of two other outstanding music documentaries - "Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation" & "Twenty Feet From Stardom" - the newest film raises the bar even higher. My only (minor) quibble with all three movies is the terrific songs in each get truncated.

"The Wrecking Crew" is lovingly directed by Denny Tedesco, son of guitarist Tommy Tedesco, one of the great studio musicians featured in the film. The director enlists the help of musical luminaries like Herb Alpert, Jim Webb & Brian Wilson to explain how their collaborations with these unknown musicians helped shape many of the memorable pop songs of the 60's & early 70's. Drummer Hal Blaine, saxophonist Plas Johnson, bassist Carol Kaye and Tedesco (four of the "wrecking crew") were the "band" playing on hit records by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Monkees and countless others. See this movie and then tell me what you think.            

Monday, April 6, 2015

Bark, Bite, Bite, Bark

Greedily consuming a massive number of jelly beans and gorging myself on chocolate this past weekend, I reflected how the Easter bunny remains a good friend to me at sixty five. The largess of Santa Claus also helps him retain a certain allure despite my certified codger-ness.

However, this senior citizen has concluded it's high time to re-negotiate the terms of the tooth fairy's contract. How about serious cash or commensurate swag under my pillow on any birthday when I've held onto the same number of teeth for a year? And what about people my age with dentures, especially those who raised children and paid earlier dividends? It's unfair for the tooth fairy to ignore those folks indefinitely. Your ideas for a contract for those whose bark is likely worse than their bite?

Note to my adult daughter: Don't bite the hand that fed you - it's your responsibility to contact the tooth fairy's manager and work out my contract. Keep your barking to a minimum.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Assimilation

assimilation: the merging of cultural traits from previously distinct cultural groups, not involving biological amalgamation. 

Assimilation has long been held up as an American ideal, supported by one of our most durable metaphors - the melting pot. Given past & present ethnic battles that have claimed countless lives in other countries, expecting immigrants to the U.S. to assimilate is a compelling position. My struggle with that position has always been one of degree.      

How much conforming to American cultural norms is it reasonable to expect of immigrants? How much of any immigrant's heritage is potentially lost while adapting to those norms?  Conform and adapt are cited as dictionary synonyms for assimilate. Neither word is offensive to me but both speak to the price a person pays while assimilating. Some would say no price is too high to pay for the privilege of calling oneself an American. Your view?

I'll be ready to tackle the melting pot metaphor after I hear about your experiences with assimilation - the concept, the word, its place in the American story.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

An Ideal Path To Mental Health

During the full time work years, my volunteering was sporadic; I suspect this is not unusual. Over the past five years, the commitments I've made to regular volunteering have given me some of my best moments. Which of your volunteering experiences has been the most rewarding?

www.celticcharms.org

If a fortune teller had ever told me I'd someday willingly spend several hours each week around horses, I'd have questioned that person's choice of profession. If that same soothsayer told me many of those hours would involve manure, I'd have demanded a refund. And any prophecy about me enthusiastically embracing this kind of work would have had me checking the prognosticator's meds. Go figure. What was the last circumstance you faced that turned your notions about yourself upside down?

I was introduced to Celtic Charms when a work colleague thought my training skills might be of use to the husband and wife team just starting this new - in 2010 - venture. So far the closest I've come to training is training myself how to not get injured using power tools. But ask me about the joy I get assisting with a lesson, working with this patient and selfless husband and wife, cleaning stalls & pastures(!) My hours there each week - as well as the time I spend at Meals on Wheels - now sustain me nearly as much as my guitar. How can anyone dispute research suggesting volunteering is an ideal way to stay mentally healthy?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Escaping The Clatter

Where are some of your go-to places when you want to escape the ubiquitous clatter of modern life?

Although not every train has them, whenever I get on NJ Transit headed to NYC, I'm genuinely thrilled when a "quiet" car has been designated. No cell phone conversations; no electronic devices unless they can be completely silenced; all conversations to be kept at a whisper. And usually the conductor announces these stipulations at every stop. The cars are quiet enough that I've sometimes been able to reach a single point of focus while meditating.

At the Kripalu Yoga Center in Massachusetts, their requirement that the dining hall remains silent during breakfast is one of my favorite features. There is a separate smaller room where people can converse or interact during breakfast - folks can also choose to eat outdoors - and that same smaller room becomes the silent space for lunch and dinner. It's pretty extraordinary to be in a totally quiet public place eating with a few hundred people. I've found myself listening to my chewing. The loudest sound is silverware scraping plates or an occasional dropped tray.  

Of course, traveling to the Berkshires or finding a NJ Transit quiet car are not real practical ways to escape the clatter. So, my go-to places are public libraries. Not long ago I asked my local librarian to speak to a man having a fairly animated cell phone conversation. He bristled, briefly complied and then soon after began a new and even louder conversation. I walked home to resume my reading.