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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Of 2015

Of the end-of-year posts I've published, only the first category below has now been used four years running. I welcome hearing your best of 2015, using any categories you'd like.

Best concert: Diana Krall at the Count Basie Theater. Krall's regular guitarist (Anthony Wilson) never fails to floor me.

Best new habit: Finishing books before reading the jackets - often ridiculously hyperbolic - or the author blurbs. As someone able to be swayed by words of praise from a favorite author, better to skip that praise and arrive at my own opinion of a book honestly.

Best time away:  Tie - Our Sierra Club service trip to the Virgin Islands Resource Center and later  visit to Denali & Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska with Road Scholars.

Best documentaryThe Wrecking Crew. Because this is a film about studio musicians, it may not transport you as it did me. I still suggest you give it a chance. Then let me know what you think.

Best party: Our "Pot Luck & Posts" bash in April, celebrating our five year old "Eat The World" project - twenty "new" national cuisines sampled in one feast - as well as one thousand  reflections from the bell curve.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Crazy Love

"The heart wants what it wants."

What did you do the last time love made you crazy? Have you ever known anyone who hasn't gone off the deep end at least one time because of love?

We were all children once, we all have stories, we're all going to die. While listening to a podcast about 30,000 men who were convinced they had connected with their "soul mate" - when in fact just one sinister con man, posing as many women, was writing to all of them - I was struck by another universal human condition. Sooner or later, love makes a fool of all of us.

When his relationship with Soon Yi first became public, I recall Woody Allen paraphrasing Emily Dickinson by saying something similar to the words that open this post. I also remember my cynical and self-righteous reaction at the time. But over the ensuing years, I've watched several people put their life in a blender and turn it on high - for love. None of us escape this madness forever.         

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Gifts

Whenever a documentary delivers a wallop, I normally allow time before writing a post about it. But even though I'm still processing "The Wolf Pack", my initial reaction to this extraordinary and disturbing film is strongly linked to a few other recent reflections about parenting.

A week before seeing "The Wolf Pack", my most recent Mt. Rushmore post prompted one reader to comment on "The Glass Castle", a harrowing memoir of off-the-rails parenting by Jeannette Walls. The comment sent me back to my copy of that book and the note I made on its final page upon finishing it in 2006: "Compelling and well written; mostly made me feel very grateful for the stability and normalcy of my childhood, thanks to my parents."

Then a few days later, a brief conversation about how difficult it can be to avoid parental landmines brought me back - again - to how few of those I've had to step over in my lifetime. Neither of my folks had any education beyond high school but their intuitive sense of parenting was rock solid.

Mom's been gone for over thirty eight years, Dad for eighteen. But Christmas gifts they've given me keep appearing beneath my tree year after year.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The 2015 Streak (Vs. The 2014 Semi-Slump)

While it's still fresh on your mind, would you call this past year more or less memorable than 2014 with respect to the books you finished?

For me, 2015 was a much stronger year. I had my first experience with several prodigiously talented authors - Anthony Doerr ("All The Light We Cannot See"), Neil Gaiman ("The Ocean At The End of The Lane"), Jill Lepore ("The Secret History of Wonder Woman"), Daniel Woodrell ("The Maid's Version"), to name a few.  I returned twice to the gifted Colm Toibin - "Nora Webster" early in the year and "The Master" toward the end. Essays in the NY Times led me first to "The Road to Character " (David Brooks) and later to Sherry Turkle's "Reclaiming Conversation". What a streak.

Now, a book I recently finished - "The Devotion Of Suspect X"  - has persuaded me to pay more attention in the future to crime novels, a genre I've mostly avoided. This 2005 thriller by Keigo Higashino is as riveting as it is psychologically astute. And though the denouement pulling the whole thing together is satisfying- and true to form - I'm sure the penultimate scene will remain with me longer than the solved mystery. In that scene, as the object of devotion realizes how far Suspect X has gone to protect her, the twists and turns of the story fade as the heartbreaking prose reduces a complex tale to the elemental.

 If "Devotion..." ends up the final novel I finish in 2015, the year will end on a fiction high, making that part equivalent to last year; Celeste Ng's stunning debut "Everything I Never Told You" was my fiction finale in 2014. Still, this year was clearly superior to last even though I never got through a classic in 2015. Actually, considering my recent track record with novels from the canon, maybe part of the reason 2015 feels so much stronger is connected to skipping my cultural vegetables this past year.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Closet Presents

I'm betting most of us have at least one closet present tucked away. How long it has remained sitting in your closet unseen would depend on the last time the giver visited you. What is your view on how long you must retain such a gift? More importantly, what is your strategy if the giver makes an unannounced visit? Have you and your partner decided on a secret signal or code word to help retrieve and then quietly display the item? If you live alone, how will you handle this sensitive situation?

It's an equally good bet most of us have given at least one closet present at some point. Do you recall the last one you gave? Was your gift to a family member, a friend, work colleague? Or, are you confident this has never happened? Gift cards are not my go-to choice, but it's hard to deny how well that trend has mitigated the closet present scourge. I suspect bridal registries have gained traction for a similar reason. Gift cards may be unimaginative and bridal registries may remove an element of surprise but no doubt both also cut down on the dust gathering on unused and unseen gifts.

Before any reader screams Scrooge, I'm coming to my own defense. Earlier today, my brother noticed and commented on an indoor thermometer sitting on our bookshelves, a Christmas gift my sister gave my wife and I many years ago. We both loved it and it has never spent a second in a closet. But both my brother's comment and my sister's thoughtful present got me reflecting about closet presents, received and given. Marsha - If you haven't already done so, please feel free to get rid of that winter hat. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Choice Did I Have?

"Trumbo" is a film worth seeing; Bryan Cranston is terrific in the titular role. But it is clearly time for filmmakers to dump that tired scene when a writer balls up a piece of typewriter paper and tosses it into a nearby trash can. There's got to be a fresher way to depict the frustration that perpetually accompanies writing.

My suggestion? How about having a writer look up a word - via the Internet or dictionary - and then pulling on the hair or suitable body part? Like what happened to me not long after hearing an excellent lecture about the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The lecturer ended by saying a single word - choose. Hair pulling was not far in my future.

It began as I reflected on the choices I make every time I write even a simple blog post. Each choice, i.e. each word, can determine if a sentence will come alive; imprecise words have a deadening effect on most prose. Grabbed the dictionary to look up "choose", thinking I'd write a post about this simple word most of us use frequently. Read the distinctions that separate some of the synonyms for choose - select, pick, elect, prefer. Big mistake.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Lunch With Anna

Of the authors you consider favorites which one can you easily imagine as a friend?

About halfway into "Thinking Out Loud" (1993), the first Anna Quindlen book I ever read, I started writing a letter to her. I didn't finish it, primarily because it started sounding a little creepy to me. But I have since maintained my one-sided friendship with her through several subsequent books. Both her non-fiction and her novels have an accessibility that almost feels like she is inviting me to lunch. Ever had an experience like this?

"Blessings" (2002) is my third Quindlen novel. Like both "Black & Blue" & "Every Last One", the premise is contemporary, the narrative straightforward, characters familiar. Although she herself is widely read - my favorite Quindlen essay, packaged as a book, is "How Reading Changed My Life" - the fiction of hers I've read does not feature experimental flourishes like the ones used by some of her favorite authors, e.g. Dom DeLillo. But every missing post-modern device in "Blessings" is richly replaced with Quindlen's wise and humane prose.  "Most people turned out the way you'd expect. But not all. Not by a long shot."

I do have one minor quibble about "Blessings" - Quindlen's editor let her down. Throughout this otherwise excellent novel the number of sentences containing "had had" is downright distracting. And here's where I veer into fantasy land - Quindlen stumbles onto or learns about this post, decides my discerning eye has been helpful, invites me to lunch. For the record, Anna: I'll gladly pay.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Let's NOT Go Dutch, OK?

The Netherlands - Holland - Dutch - Flemish.

I began blogging because I maintain that except for the small percent of people who are famous - thus too busy being fabulous and chasing off paparazzi - and the equally small percent who deserve to be incarcerated - thus too busy avoiding being stabbed by a shiv - many of us on the bell curve will, on occasion, have a little time to ponder the imponderables.

For example: Why are people from the Netherlands called Dutch instead of Netherlanders? Or, since the Netherlands is also called Holland (and not in the change-the-country-name tradition of Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe but a side-by-side-let's-have-two-names-to-confuse-everybody tradition) why aren't the residents of this perplexing country called Hollanders? Come on, fellow residents on the bell curve, don't tell me things like this never cross your mind.

While on the Dutch thing, let's consider the two official languages of the Netherlands/Holland. First there's Dutch, which is annoying enough. A quaint Western tradition like French as the language of the French living in France is apparently not good enough for Netherlanders. Want to guess the name of the other official language of this country that can't make up its mind what to call itself? Frisian! Come on. I bet you were going to say Flemish, right? Not on your life. Ready? Though Flemish is indistinguishable from Dutch, no reference book lists it as connected to Dutch or the Dutch or the Netherlands (BTW, how many independent nations have a "the" in front of their name?) or Holland in any way. And where the hell does Frisian fit in to this indecipherable mess?

At least the Hollish could have had the decency to have one capitol city like most of the nations of the world. Having two would not have been unique but these bozos couldn't leave well enough alone with this piece either. One of their two capitols is The Hague. A capital with two capitalized words and the best they could come up with is "the" as the first word? Really?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

#38: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Inspired by my niece's suggestion, the 38th iteration of my Mt. Rushmore series enshrines four flawed fathers from great novels. Which literary paterfamilias you'd have been unhappy to have as a Dad belong on your mountain? Mine are listed alphabetically.

1.) Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom (from John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy): Rabbit's flaws are legion yet he somehow retains a rakish charm right up to his last breath in the final novel of the series - "Rabbit At Rest". In my view, his worst moments occur in the second  book - "Rabbit Redux" - but I'm curious to hear your take if you've spent any time in Rabbit land.

2.) Ally Fox ( from "Mosquito Coast" by Paul Theroux): Because of his hubris and arrogance, I'm still not sure how to interpret my wife telling me - after she read the book - I would "...love ..." the main character in Theroux's novel. Though my subsequent close identification with Fox's iconoclastic views made me uncomfortable, he is brilliantly drawn and deserves a spot on my mountain.

3.) David Lurie (from "Disgrace" by JM Coetzee): From a novel that has been in my top 25 since I read it soon after its release, David Lurie was the first damaged Dad to come to me. His inability to provide any solace to his young adult daughter following her brutal assault was very difficult to read.

4.) Nathan Price (from "Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver): From the only novel ever getting a unanimous "home run" designation from my reading posse, the tragic evangelist Nathan Price is also the only flawed father from my mountain not yet depicted on film. If Kingsolver's masterpiece ever gets made into a movie, Clive Owens was born to play the role. Mark my words.

I'd love to hear your choices. Now if my niece doesn't chime in with at least one idea, all the rest of you are off the hook.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Less Out Of It On Africa


Of the posts published in my first year of blogging, the one above - from this date in 2011 - is one that gives me perhaps the greatest satisfaction, in terms of my subsequent and purposeful learning. That is, four years later, I feel less out of it on Africa.

A small part of my growth here is related to my reading. In particular, William Boyd's gripping 1990 novel "Brazzaville Beach" comes to mind. But the majority of my education about Africa is connected - directly or otherwise - to the "Eat The World" project my wife and I initiated almost five years ago. The most recent gratifying example of how that project has broadened my understanding of the second largest continent occurred having breakfast at a restaurant in Brooklyn.

Noticing the t-shirt with a map of Africa worn by the young man waiting on me - and also detecting an African accent - I asked him about his origins. He said he'd come to the US from Burkina Faso. When I interrupted his description of where his native country was located to say I was familiar with it, it was easy to see the surprise on his face. Our conversation continued as I related how we'd featured cuisine from his home in one of our recent repasts - his broad smile spoke volumes. As I left the restaurant he went out of his way to ask my name.

If I'd met someone from Burkina Faso when I wrote the post at the top, my cluelessness about that small landlocked country in Africa would have been the same as it was about Ghana - the home of  our taxi driver Eddie - the inspiration for the original post. But the public commitment I made on 12/18/11 - to become less out of it on Africa - has since then continually prodded my learning. The very cool net result over the ensuing years has been several instances like my Burkina Faso aha. Where in your life have you made a commitment to learn more (about anything) and then seen a similar result?  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Nearby Resource

Ever had someone you've cared for a great deal suddenly and inexplicably cease contact with you? What strategies helped you deal with your loss?

I didn't get far writing personal notes on our family holiday picture this year before stopping at the name of one old friend, someone I've known since 1977. I couldn't say for sure when the two of us last had contact but I am certain it is I who has reached out numerous times over the last several years, never receiving a single word in response. It didn't feel right to surrender this important friendship without humbling myself one final time to ask if I'd unknowingly done or said something offensive or hurtful the last time we were together. And if that was the case, how could I make it right?

After mailing the picture with my note, I temporarily put it out of mind. Then, later describing my friend's mystifying behavior to my daughter, she told me of a similar experience of hers from college. Instead of appreciating my daughter's desire to ease my pain by sharing her own story with me, I initially reacted by saying a 25+ year friendship and a college friendship were not - in my mind - on equal footing. But my daughter - perhaps the most emotionally intelligent person I know - stayed on point and then went on to make a few plausible conjectures about why someone with whom you once shared an intense bond might suddenly leave a silent hole in your life.

That conversation did not erase my loss. But it did help me heal a bit. More significantly, my increased respect for my daughter ensures I'll remember her as a nearby resource when next I'm in need of a strategy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Decisions & DECISIONS

Given how much I read, one would think buying books as holiday gifts for family should be easy - if only. Lest anyone recommends medication, today I offer a condensed version of my decision-making process. I'm happy to share the full story with any interested reading obsessives, just not publicly.

1.) Most important: Any book I gift must be a single, at minimum, per my baseball metaphor.


2.) Gifted books must have a high likelihood of landing well with the recipient. Examples: If the politics of an author are widely known (e.g. Bill O'Reilly, Noah Chomsky), care must be taken. If a recipient prefers their fiction with a straightforward narrative line, more experimental authors or books are usually avoided.

3.) If a book has been adapted to film - unless the film has not been well received or widely seen - it is eliminated from consideration. That is, no one will get "Brooklyn" (Colm Toibin) as a gift from me although "Serena" (Ron Rash) remains a possibility, especially since it fits #1 above, and it's perfect for the fiction readers in my family who enjoy a straightforward narrative line.

I'm afraid there is more. Try to imagine my turmoil in a book store. Anyone out there relate at all? How often does your intense love of something complicate your decision making?

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Book Club Scorecard

Although my sixth year as a serial book club surfer was a mixed bag - and I haven't yet re-captured the magic of the first club I ever joined back in 2010 - I continue hanging in there.

Still, my record for longevity in any club is about two and a third years. So recently hearing about my local librarian's private club - together for over twenty years - I began wondering. Those of you who have been in any one club for more than five years, what sustains your involvement? The discussions? Camaraderie? Moderator? Selections? Proximity to your home? Wine? The absence of men?

I've been around long enough to experience the predictable life cycles of many types of groups. And my standards for book club involvement - frequently centering on the selections - probably interfere with my enjoyment and, in turn, how long I remain. But that conversation with my librarian about her all women's club also started me reflecting on the impact being the only man in most of my clubs might have on any group dynamic.

For now, I've settled on two strategies: 1.) A 2016 vs. 2015 comparison. In 2015, three clubs bit the dust and one was added. If I can't improve on that scorecard in 2016, it may be time to start my own club in 2017. 2.) I'm also going to pay more attention to how my participation might affect the group dynamic at meetings. Giving that second piece more focus could easily have a positive effect in other domains of my life, especially my conversations. As always, I'm interested in your view on my strategies and your experiences.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Than Halfway

Although it's been many years since I've aligned myself with any religious tradition, each has teachings and concepts that continue to resonate with me, for better or worse. With respect to the seven deadly sins, it's possible an early heavy dose of guilt - the Irish Catholic strain - partially explains why some of those unlucky seven pop up now and again in my reflections.

Lest you dread a post wallowing in self-flagellation - a quaint religious custom, no? - let me start with this: Had David Fincher featured my proportion of the deadly sins in his gruesome film "7even", the movie would have been less than half as long. No need for stomach-churning depictions of avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth in my film. Your turn - Which of those four ever give you pause?

Now anger, envy & pride? Best to start alphabetically and perhaps save a few for another post. First off -  no disrespect to Christian dogma - anger can be an issue, especially when physically directed at others, but it also has its place. A healthy anger directed at injustice or intolerance is not a sin in my mind. That said, because my anger is more likely to be directed at myself, this deadly sin has clear health-related - vs. heaven-related - ramifications, at least for me. How about you? Is working on your anger, whether it manifests in an inward or outward fashion, a growth edge for you?

So, with a batting average above .500, am I more than halfway to the pearly gates? Is that George Burns or ... Morgan Freeman I see?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fridays With Sisyphus & I

To the few regular readers who have spent as much time as I with horse manure - you're on safe ground. All other regular readers - weirdness alert. New readers stumbling onto today's reflection - my stuff is rarely scatological and usually not this lowbrow; honest. But poop aside, I won't be as embarrassed going on record with this crap if at least one reader - old or new - tells me where their brain travels when involved with any smelly task as repetitive as mucking. Zen masters: Please, no shit about mindfulness.

The upside to mucking a paddock: It's near impossible for someone to question your thoroughness.

The downside: Your sense of closure is never longer than any one horse's digestive cycle. 

I'm especially interested in knowing how a perfectionist thinks they would handle my stinky dilemma.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Cap & Gown Optional

After almost four years evaluating myself on forty one attributes for a series I named "My Grade (So Far)", it's graduation time. I began by giving myself a "C" for ambition in February 2012 and ended with a "B" for vulnerability this September. Nearly every month in between I asked folks to consider the dictionary-defined attribute and then join me by giving themselves a grade. Though not many chimed in publicly, some folks told me offline the long running exercise in self-scrutiny was helpful to them, grades notwithstanding. Good enough.

Reviewing all my grades - easy to do with the handy search feature of blogger - I noticed a few that might already require adjusting; a future post or two perhaps? For anyone who tried the exercise even once, I'd be curious to know what - if anything - has shifted for you or what has remained constant. I'm most proud of how I continue to deserve my "A" for loyalty (October, 2012). On the other side, my "C-" for generosity (July, 2012), and C's for both wisdom (July, 2014) and flexibility (May, 2015) remain developmental priorities. For my worst grade - a "D+" for panache (February, 2014) - I'm leaving well enough alone - old dog, new tricks, etc.

Even doing the rough math in my head, it's clear I didn't make Dean's list. But I'm keeping my final grade point average to myself and unless one of you goes first, I'm also skipping giving myself a grade for pride. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Dunderhead Effect

Very soon after a rock or popular artist takes the concert stage, I suddenly remember why the whole experience is often not as enjoyable as going to a jazz concert or a symphony. Do the dunderheads yelling requests at rock shows never listen to anything but the hits? More significantly, why are they yelling in the first place?

Like many things, I suspect the answer lies in mathematics. Rock music is vastly more popular than either jazz or what is frequently called classical music. More people = more dunderheads. This observation is supported when I stop and contrast my own earlier years playing rock n' roll and popular music to my current situation playing jazz. With a few magical exceptions, most audiences I've entertained have been equally inattentive but, there is no comparison in the dunderhead factor. Or discard the experience of Pat the unknown and go see a well known recording artist in a smaller music venue, like a supper club. Then compare the behavior of these different audiences and tell me what you observe.

Part of the joy of rock and much popular music is its energy; jazz and classical music can seem more cerebral, especially to the uninitiated. It's possible that energy contributes to the Id-like enthusiasm simulating dunderheadism at rock concerts. But understanding the impulse doesn't diminish my annoyance. And over the years, the cumulative effect has been to discourage me from going to live shows of many performers whose music has meant a great deal to me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Saving The Best For Last

Thanks to those who have asked about progress on my current recording project, the first in a long time. Because I'm using a friend's home studio, a completion date is hard to pin down but the final result will be available through this blog site so stay tuned.  

In the meanwhile, it's exhilarating to be working on my own music again. On more than one day while recording, I've felt my creativity surge. In addition, memorizing all those songs by great composers like George Gershwin and Thelonious Monk over the last five years has clearly helped me mature as a songwriter and arranger. To what was your most recent creative surge connected?  

After the tracks are complete, then my daughter comes to the studio to add vocals. Nothing beats saving the best for last.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lana & Alan & I

Of the procrastination techniques I've devised to deflect my numerous attempts at long form writing, one of the most effective is perpetual indecision about names I'll use for couples. Toiling at the keyboard, some pairings of names just snap when said aloud while others fall flat. For instance, how could anyone discount the fictional palindromic coupling of Otto and Ava?  To avoid directly disrespecting any family or friends, I'll instead cite the ubiquitous Brad and Angelina as an example of a serious syllabic mismatch I won't be using in my literary masterpiece. That glamorous duet may have pizzazz but I'm sorry, their names do not pop when said or read as a pair. Now Rebecca and Sebastian, Eve & Paul, Penelope and Alexander? Different story.

Try this experiment. Write a limerick and see if two names you'd consider using in a Great American Novel like mine have a pleasing rhythmic bounce in any verse you create. (Or, if you're feeling brave, try it with your name and your partner's.) If the names you selected do not sing together, they're not good enough. I've spent time fussing about whether reducing William to Bill and Barbara to Barb will provide the needed lift to an unfinished passage about that couple. I've also given too much thought to whether nicknames will help both my cadences and my story. If readers are to later warm to Mildred and Rudolph as my opus unfolds, mustn't they slowly become Millie and Rudy? Nice ring, right? When the ready-made pun name Matt (as in "What is the name of the guy who lies on the floor near the front door?") felt right for one of my characters, the remaining half of that duo was named Art briefly until I came to my senses.

Try, if you dare, to imagine how this goes when an androgynous name like Terry sounds good as 50% of a partnership to this insecure blogger with big dreams. It may be time for me to be satisfied with one perfectly named couple and let go of the rest. What do you say, Lana & Alan? Ready for your close up?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dare I Attempt Three For Three?

I can't remember the last time I thoroughly enjoyed back-to-back movie adaptations of books I've also enjoyed. When was the last time this happened for you?

On the face of it, of the two recent films, "The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared" - based on Jonas Jonasson's delightful 2009 novel - would seem to have a more inherently cinematic plot. It's basically a wacky road trip featuring the eponymous man - along with three eccentric companions (if you don't include Sonja, the elephant) - running from some dimwitted goons. But aside from admirably handling the substantial comedic elements of the novel, the filmmakers also did a great job relating the twisted backstory of the 100 year old's eventful life, sort of like Forrest Gump if Forrest had been a demolitions expert. And, I loved the film being mostly in Jonasson's native tongue - Swedish. Be advised: Ingmar Bergman this ain't.

I approached the adaptation of Colm Toibin's masterful novel "Brooklyn" with more trepidation, primarily because the novel is exceedingly quiet. But Nick Hornby's sensitive screenplay and Saoirise Ronan's nuanced performance as Eilis Lacey quickly won me over. I was especially moved by the scene from the novel when Eilis, desperately homesick, volunteers to serve other recent Irish immigrants in a shelter during her first Christmas in Brooklyn. When one of the men gets up to sing a Gaelic ballad, all of Toibin's luminous prose was appropriately absent; either Hornby or the Director wisely chose to instead do a close-up of Ronan's expressive face - nothing else was needed.

If any of you saw either of these wildly dissimilar - for me equally wonderful - films, let me know your reactions. BTW, I'm even more nervous about seeing "Room" - adapted from Emma Donoghue's harrowing novel - than I was about "Brooklyn". Anyone seen that yet? Dare I attempt the hat trick?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Choir And The Monkey

Books of non-fiction able to disinter my judging monkey are usually wise to avoid. So, if anyone would like to discount my unabashed praise for "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In A Digital Age" (2015) by pointing out the irony of a blogger extolling a book with this title, I'll save you the trouble: guilty as charged. Caveat #2: Author Sherry Turkle was - in my case -  clearly preaching to the choir in her scrupulously researched book. And I say this fully aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. But judging, irony, and confirmation bias aside, I sincerely believe our modern era desperately needs to hear the message Turkle delivers here.

"Early on, computers offered the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy."

"But human relationships are rich, messy and demanding. When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection."

"Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hint of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, or felt."

I could continue citing gems like the above for several screens. I could also insert any number of Turkle's startling statistics. How about this? The average American adult checks their phone once every six and one half minutes. But it makes more sense for those already saying amen to instead read this book and then to gently evangelize on its behalf. As I do so, my biggest challenge will be keeping that judging monkey at bay. Wish me luck.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Public Service Announcment

Since reading David Von Drehle's November 23 cover story for Time magazine entitled "What It Takes To Forgive A Killer", I've been slowly recovering my emotional composure. The link for his extraordinary piece of reporting is at the bottom of this post.

Immediately after reading it, I was uncertain if a second hand blog post extolling the value of Drehle's article would be of much value. Then a new reader recently told me she "...didn't have enough time..." to read many of the books I recommend here and felt "...a little overwhelmed..." with my frequent suggestions. Early today, a light bulb: While this new reader is still paying attention, why not point her toward this exceptional piece, much shorter than a book but so worthwhile?

Both Drehle's name and the subject of his article initially caught my eye. His byline reminded me how much I'd enjoyed and learned from his 2003 book "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America". And, I've been trying to process the Charleston massacre since it occurred. Reading this intense account about "murder, race, and mercy" helped a bit with my processing. It almost felt like having a conversation about that awful event with someone smarter than I.

Now, maybe this puny blog of mine can help sustain that conversation for perhaps one more person.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mantras And Milk

Of the key gripes President Obama's critics are fond of repeating, the talking heads are perhaps most attached to the "federal over-reach" mantra. I'm sometimes unclear about which government programs people would jettison, given the opportunity. Defense spending? Maintaining the highways? Veteran's benefits? I suspect the answer would differ from person-to-person and largely depend on whose bread is being buttered.

How about the Bureau of Weights and Measures? Federal over-reach? After packing lunch bags at Meals on Wheels for five years, I've developed a good sense of the heft of a half-pint of milk. Consequently, I recently noticed something wasn't right with the milk delivery to our site. We took down the scale and sure enough more than 1/3 of the half-pints were under weight anywhere from a very noticeable four ounces to a barely detectable half an ounce. We called Headquarters to report the discrepancies and asked for replacements.

As the morning proceeded, we asked the drivers to be patient and described the reason for our delay. Everyone understood this could be a machine/computer filling error or it could be intentional under-filling. Some of you may recall a scandal a few years ago involving two Pennsylvania milk companies and the latter scenario. The drivers were patient and also pleased we'd noticed; we're all volunteers there to ensure the homebound people we serve get the proper nutrition. But an innocent mention of the role Weights and Measures can sometimes play in these situations was enough to trigger one driver into chanting the federal over-reach mantra. To his credit, he quickly apologized for turning the milk mishap into a political issue. Though the bad taste this interchange left in my mouth didn't linger long, my reflections on the mantra have continued. Where is that line in the sand for you?