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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Maybe Start With 67 Miles?

My health and physical condition are excellent, my commitments can be easily adjusted, and in a little over six months I'll be the same age as Emma Gatewood was when she became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) beginning to end in 1955.

Finishing "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" (2014) convinced me it's time for a new demanding physical challenge. What was the last book that similarly inspired you? What action did you take? According to author Ben Montgomery, approximately eleven thousand people have traversed the entire AT either as a "thru-hike" - Gatewood did that twice in her late sixties - or in sections - Grandma did that at age seventy seven. Having disappointed myself more than once not reaching a wildly ambitious goal, I'm not initially shooting to join that elite group only to end up in ignominious defeat like say, Bill Bryson. (Bryson hiked less than forty of the two thousand miles. But, he also got a bestseller out of the experience and then morphed into Robert Redford in the film version of his book so his wild ambition - ignominious defeat notwithstanding - was apparently a sound business decision.)

Sour Bryson grapes aside, my demanding physical challenge approaching sixty seven will involve the AT somehow; stay tuned for details. Foremost among the benefits of my blog is being accountable for any public pledges I make here. And even wildly ambitious goals are better than no goals. I'd love to hear some of yours.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unforeseen Benefits

Aside from the obvious - i.e. keeping my skills sharp - I recently realized continuing to teach adult ed classes has a few ancillary benefits, for me and others.

* Because one of the colleges has begun sending me out to retirement communities, teaching folks older than I about music continually reminds me to be on the lookout for premature hardening of my musical arteries. Each time a participant declares something they don't like as "noise", my musical antenna becomes more receptive to stuff I've similarly dismissed. (Look for a near-future post where rap gets a new look from yours truly - title will likely mention eating crow)

* On the non-musical side, regular teaching gigs force me to pay more attention to my grooming in post full time work land. This piece probably benefits my wife more than I, but I'm reasonably sure my daughter is also relieved her Dad doesn't closely resemble Grizzly Adams - on a good day - whenever a teaching assignment is imminent, especially if a get-together with her boyfriend's family is also on the calendar.

What in your life provides unforeseen benefits? Are the benefits mostly for you? For others? Both?

Monday, March 28, 2016

Condiments & Conversation

Mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup? Thought about the connection between condiments and conversation lately?

Following a weekend jammed with extended interactions with family and others, I've been reflecting on several conversations I had or observed. When someone uses humor as a conversational gambit, which condiment springs to mind? Which condiment do you equate with the person skilled at asking good non-leading questions, the kind that keep a conversation vibrant? How about when someone drops in one of those topics we've all been taught to avoid? Salsa, relish, or hot sauce?

Which condiment goes best with what kind of story? When a jarring non sequitur is introduced into a conversation what condiment is suitable? When people talk at the same time or interrupt one another does it remind you of folks who combine their condiments? Which ones?

Barbecue, cocktail or tartar sauce, anyone? Which topic with which?                

Friday, March 25, 2016

And, He Made Me Laugh

How much impact did your parents have on your sense of humor?

The majority of the posts I've published about my folks have been on the weepy side. But as I paused to think about my Dad today on his birthday, it suddenly occurred to me how little I've considered his sense of humor - particularly his fondness for wordplay - and its effect on my own.

I still have a collection of some of his made-up words in one of my notebooks. On more than one occasion I've caught myself almost saying "digiltary" instead of dignitary. He also had a few un-PC expressions - my Dad was no political progressive - but most of his humor was not aimed at belittling others. I clearly recall what he told my friends who visited me in the hospital after I'd totaled his new (used) car in a snowstorm in 1969 - "Patrick had an argument with a telephone pole and lost."

And that humorous anecdote is itself another reason my love of my Dad remains undiminished. He'd owned that car barely six months and though I'm sure he wasn't happy it was trashed, I don't recall any anger directed at me. Instead, a joke. Dad would have been 98 years old today.
      

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Whose Storybook Is It?

When was the last time you were caught off guard learning about a couple splitting up? This happens to me pretty routinely. Does my radar need calibration?

Maybe so, although I suspect a simpler explanation is more plausible. Appearances notwithstanding, the only people who ever really know what's going on in a relationship are the people in that relationship. Are people who openly bicker headed for the trash heap? How happy are those couples who seem to rarely disagree? And what about those "storybook" romances the media regularly jams down our throats? If you and your partner could afford to pay a publicist - like say, Nancy & Ronald Reagan could - wouldn't your romance look like heaven on earth to everyone else?

It's not easy to avoid comparing your relationship to others. But each time another of those seemingly idyllic partnerships bites the dust - between people I know, i.e. those who can't afford publicists - the folly of drawing conclusions about who is happy and who isn't becomes a little clearer to me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eating The World For Five Years

Since the last update here (June, 2015) on our "Eat The World" project - five years old today - our pace has slowed a bit. I could blame residual indigestion from last April's feast when we sampled twenty countries in just four hours.

The truth is more prosaic; we haven't entertained as much. And since the remaining one hundred or so nations whose cuisines we haven't sampled don't have easily accessible restaurants, our continuing culinary adventures depend on us cooking. Until one of you volunteers as our ambassador/chef.

But we remain fully committed to the project. Austria is next in the home-cooked queue. After that, Europe is done except for a few obscure countries, some a clear challenge for a vegetarian. Then we've got a bunch of "Stans" to chew on (only Afghani and Uzbeki have been tasted), a little more of Asia, and all of interior Africa - except Burkina Faso - to sample. We're pretty well along in the Western Hemisphere; mostly some small island nations left to try.

As always, if you've stumbled onto a restaurant featuring a cuisine you think we might have missed, let me know via a comment here or offline.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Great Courses

The Great Courses - lectures packaged by the Teaching Company - have been the focus of a few of my blog posts. Be sure to peruse their website; you're certain to find something that interests you.

Aside from the pure educational value, i.e. learning about the subjects, I've recently detected an ancillary benefit of continually listening to world class scholars -  a clear improvement in the precision of my language, spoken and written. Each time I notice these experts tease apart a distinction, I try making a mental note. For example, what separates an important contributor to their field - be it philosophy, music, dance - from an influential one? Frequently, my dictionary is the first book I consult soon after listening. That alone makes the whole experience rich.

In addition, almost without exception, the lecturers are careful with their superlatives, a useful model to follow. If nearly everyone is a genius or a revolutionary or amazing, those words lose currency. If more precise writing or speaking is at all important to you, what tools do you find as helpful as I find the Great Courses?

www.thegreatcourses.com  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Nourishment Of Shared Values

http://beyonddiversity.org/

Although I did not know what would occur, I was pleased when asked to participate in a conversation about the transition currently taking place at Beyond Diversity Resource Center. I've known the two principals from this organization for many years and also done some work with them. Please visit their website when you have a moment.

Ever since the conversation, I've been reflecting on what each of the nine other participants said as our five hours together concluded. Two comments stand out:
* One of the other two men said he felt "nourished" looking into the eyes of a community of folks committed to anti-oppression work. Speaking to others while sitting in a circle is powerful and nourishing, isn't it?
* One of the women expressed joy knowing she was " ... not crazy ..." Solidarity with others who share your values has that salutary effect, doesn't it?

I was most pleased the group included a pregnant woman. The work must continue, right?    

Saturday, March 19, 2016

#39: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Many lyricists capture memorable phrases in their songs. For this iteration of the long-running Mt. Rushmore series, please tell me which four songs have end-to-end lyrics you would enshrine. My monument is listed alphabetically by song. I purposefully did not list any songs with a co-credit (e.g. Lennon and McCartney) and also avoided duplicating any one lyricist. If you'd like, ignore my guidelines constructing your mountain.

1.) Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell - Joni has written many great lyrics, but this early song of hers - with its elegant rhyme scheme and a refrain that moves from the illusions of clouds to love to life - is the one that belongs on my mountain.
http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=83
2.) Send In The Clowns: Stephen Sondheim -  Many of Sondheim's lyrics are unmatched in their economy. This well known gem of his - with an additional bridge written for Barbra Streisand - goes on my Mt. Rushmore.
http://www.metrolyrics.com/send-in-the-clowns-lyrics-barbra-streisand.html
3.) Sleep's Dark And Silent Gate: Jackson Browne -  Aside from the startling title image, this stunner nails love's longing as well as anything I've heard. Not widely known but worth checking out.
http://www.lyricsfreak.com/j/jackson+browne/sleeps+dark+and+silent+gate_20242366.html
4.) When It Sings: Elvis Costello - Another remarkable lyric end-to-end that may have escaped some of you. The song was on Costello's under-played recording entitled "North".
 http://www.lyricsfreak.com/e/elvis+costello/when+it+sings_10100583.html

Lest you come for me with a straitjacket, I won't tell you how long it took me to narrow my list to just four. I'll feel less nerdy if at least one person joins me with a hammer and chisel. Please?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Not Hiring But ...

I've referred to my reading posse at least a few times here. But in case you haven't been taking notes, that posse includes my wife, both my sisters, my oldest niece and the moderator of the first book club I ever joined. I rely solely on these five for book recommendations; they've rarely disappointed me.

Though I'm not looking currently to expand that posse, following a recent conversation with another smart English major, I decided going public with some minimal expectations would be prudent should future posse vacancies occur. Just saying.

* English majors, please. 
* A ready list of twenty recommendations - ten novels, ten non-fiction - will be helpful.
* Creative casting of future film adaptations for any book mentioned on this blog increases posse potential.    

All posse positions are unpaid, hours are unpredictable, there is no health plan. Benefits? To be covered following receipt of your first recommendation via a comment here.          

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bridge Of Sighs

When a book I chose to read on my own is later selected by one of my clubs, I'm pleased to be a step ahead in my reading queue. But when a book club choice is a winner like Richard Russo's "Bridge Of Sighs" (2007), it's even better - I have a legitimate excuse to re-read, an impulse I don't often indulge.

Russo sets the bulk of the action here in hardscrabble upstate New York, a locale recognizable to anyone who has read his other work. The milieu, his unerring ear for the way people speak to each other, and a keen sense of how folks often muddle through life give Russo's novels the familiar feeling of old shoes. Though the novel is nominally about Louis and Sarah Lynch - married forty years and living in their high school hometown - and a planned visit to Venice to re-connect with artist Bobby Noonan, a high school friend who has lived abroad since graduation - the book takes that simple premise and converts it into a roomy and complex multi-generational saga. Such are the storytelling gifts of Richard Russo - familiar but fresh; simple but rich.

As always, Russo's affection for his characters helps him slowly reveal the shadow side of seemingly unassailable traits. For example, here he shows how Louis' solidity and loyalty sometimes curdle into dullness and his unfailing optimism can make it difficult to detect nuance. Soon after finishing "Bridge Of Sighs" this second time I recalled someone recently telling me he reads only non-fiction because he likes to "learn something when I read". I'm working on the way to bring up Russo's work in the next conversation I have with that person.              
      

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Yearly Check-In

Tomorrow marks five full years I've been reflecting from the bell curve.

Since March 15 2011, I've written almost thirteen hundred posts, made some virtual friends, and both become re-acquainted with and learned new stuff about actual friends. I've also gotten good guidance, some great quotes and book/film/music recommendations, and a few off-the-curve comments. Mostly, it's been an educational journey and a foolproof way to ensure I'm fully present and paying attention, making steady progress on any goals announced here, and creating daily.

And this date has been set aside each year since 2012 for your suggestions and feedback. If the stats that Blogger provides are dependable, my views have steadily, if very incrementally, continued to increase since 2011. But I depend on your input to help me stay relevant. So please let me know, online or off, how to keep you interested for five more years.    

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Kicking "But" (And More)

Recently, someone I was coaching concluded she needed to begin using more powerful language. I suggested she start by reducing some of the qualifying words and equivocal statements I'd frequently heard used in our previous coaching conversations. I pointed out how often she used 'but' in her sentences and asked her to try replacing a sentence like "I have an idea but I'm not sure how it will fly" with something like "I have an idea I want to implement immediately." Which words or phrases do you use that weaken your message?

Any of these sound familiar? "I'd like to ...?" How about the word "only" as in "I'm 'only' thinking out loud?"  Or ... "Do you know what I mean?", especially if the question has a plaintive ending. When you pay close attention to how people speak, it's notable how many of us sabotage our own message, i.e. our "buts" get in our way. Over time, especially in the workplace, the cumulative effect of using language that is not powerful can lead others to minimize our input or worse, ignore us. Meanwhile, those who speak without as much qualifying language are perceived as confident. And much of this happens largely on a unconscious level. Each of us begin acting toward others - powerful or powerless - based on how we've internalized the words they use and the way they use them.

What's been your experience with this? Does a but ever get in your way? Which word or phrase can you begin using less frequently to help make your language more powerful?

Friday, March 11, 2016

With A Little Help From Friends

Time for a hiatus from documentaries about famous rock n' roll drummers from the 60's. The recent ones I've seen have been mildly depressing. Anyone seen "Beware, Mr Baker?" How about "Ain't In It For My Health?" If you've seen them, please tell me - Do I have a glass half-empty issue or am I just on a bad streak? No matter your answer, after watching Ginger Baker (Cream) hit the filmmaker with his cane in the former and Levon Helm (The Band) have a probe inserted up his nose in the latter, it's time for a break.

In addition to the general state of decrepitude depicted in the films, both of these talented guys suffer from sour grapes syndrome. Baker's attitude is uniformly misanthropic; Helms at least laughs a lot, although that could be a by-product of the volume of pot he smokes while being filmed. As I listened to the litany of complaints in both films, the grace of Pete Best kept coming back to me.

For any non-geeks reading, Pete Best was the original drummer in the Beatles, replaced in 1962 by Ringo Starr. Watching a documentary about Best a few years ago, I detected no trace of the bitterness I'd fully expected. After all, his unceremonious and cowardly sacking by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison was legendary. Best may not have had the drumming chops the Beatles needed. Perhaps he is not a musical peer to Levon Helm and few drummers in rock n' roll have ever approached Ginger Baker's mastery. But if Baker, and to a lesser extent Helm, were ever looking for lessons in grace, they both would benefit having Pete Best as an instructor.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Able Hands, Agile Brain

My Dad repeatedly pops up in mysterious ways. If one or both of your parents are gone, what most recently brought them to mind?

Whenever men are doing any kind of carpentry around my home - provided a casual conversation presents a comfortable entree - I speak of my Dad and try to learn how long these men have been doing the work he did. I might also ask how they came to the work, where they got their training, whether their own Dads did something similar etc. Although I try not to be intrusive, I do work to prolong these conversations; men who work with their hands for a living can sometimes make my Dad seem nearby. I welcome that feeling.

In a recent interaction like this, a window finishing guy about my age was atypically talkative. I learned he's been doing the work for about forty years, got all his training on the job and that his own Father was a "railroad man". And his most revealing statement  - "If someone had told me forty years ago I'd still be doing this, I would have said they were crazy" - landed hard with me. I heard Dad express a similar sentiment many times.

Not long after that conversation ended, I also recalled something Dad said frequently to me  - "Patrick, I want you to do work that uses your brains, not your hands." I'm certain he thought that was best for me; perhaps he was right. Still, if he were here I'd try persuading him that all that talent in his hands was closely connected to his curious and agile brain.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hooray! I Can't Hear You Andrew

What evidence can you provide to support that statement?

What prevents moderators from asking that question during the political debates when a candidate makes a questionable assertion? Aren't you annoyed at some of the statements that go unchallenged during these farces? I am.

I did not know my parent's politics. But I do recall my Father's deep distrust of politicians. I'm guessing that distrust would have hardened had he lived long enough to hear the shrill discourse of the 2016 campaign. We all know this is nothing new. Andrew Jackson called the wife of John Quincy Adams a whore when the two faced off in the 1828 Presidential race. But the fact that this garbage has persisted for almost two hundred years doesn't make it any less demoralizing.

I've made it my mission to avoid longing for any good old days. But when Jackson crawled into the gutter there wasn't an inescapable TV in every conceivable public space broadcasting his potty mouth 24/7. Maybe, for this narrow instance, those were the good old days.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Yelling At Myself

Is there a difference between feeling low and feeling sorry for yourself?

This is more than an academic question for me. The events that trigger my mood dips are frequently petty and inconsequential. Usually, I can get back on my feet quickly if I'm able to identify what precipitated my slide. How skilled are you at doing this?

But when I have trouble identifying what started it all, guilt about feeling low in the first place further interferes with my thinking. And while in that reinforcing loop, my self talk sometimes sounds like this:

"You're not clinically depressed. You've experienced no significant trauma. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

Ever try to stop doing something someone has told you to stop doing? Try this experiment: Say to someone - "Stop laughing" and watch them laugh uncontrollably. So telling myself to stop feeling sorry for myself might not be helpful. Consequently, the last time I felt low I tried yelling at myself like Cher did at Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck" - "Snap out of it!" It worked that time - stay tuned.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

No ... The Exact Right Number Of Characters

Remember that scene in "Amadeus" when the feckless Emperor of Austria (portrayed to sniveling perfection by Jeffrey Jones) rejects one of Mozart's (Tom Hulce in giddy splendor) symphonies because it has "...too many notes..."? As my brother would say - priceless.

Infrequently, a comment at a book club meeting can be dispiriting. Recently, when a participant at a meeting criticized Jennifer Egan for putting "...too many characters..." in her 2010 tour-de-force "A Visit From The Goon Squad", I literally put my head down and quickly jotted a cautionary note to myself - "Careful, Pat". And then I did hold my tongue. My Mother would have been proud.

Mom might have objected to Patrick's next note to himself at that same meeting, an approximation of Mozart's response to the dimwitted Emperor - "No, Excellency, the exact right number of notes." But I still kept my mouth shut, Mom. Priceless.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Mr. Id From 20,000 Feet

Mr. Id is conducting interviews for the cliche police. Job requirements:

* Must be an avid reader. Interview will include an obnoxiously snobbish literary litmus test to ensure candidate reading tastes meet wholly arbitrary and totally elitist standards. Suggested pre-interview reading - "The War Against Cliche"  (2001) - Martin Amis. 

* Willingness to overlook first amendment when egregious cliches are identified in speech or print. Initial area of focus: Celebrities, deejays & political pundits, closely followed by bloggers with cowardly alter-egos.

* Proven track record recognizing the subtle creep of cliche, including, but not limited to, overcooked adjectives (viz: had first requirement above used the hoary VORACIOUS instead of the infinitely more apt "avid"), over-use of adverbs (viz #2: all of requirement #1 & the previous phrase), any propensity for esoteric (egregious) or pretentiously Latin (viz) words.  

Ready for your first arrest? FYIMr, Id has previous experience with handcuffs as a fashion accessory. And time away could be good - maybe he'll learn again the value of simple words and keeping his writing fresh.                    

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mentoring: A Two Way Street

Soon after developing a mentoring program in 2003, the mentors I trained would frequently tell me they were getting more from the program - specifically from their mentees - than they were giving. I often treated their comments as overly humble.

The more one-on-one time I spend with my twenty seven year old daughter, the more those mentor comments ring true. When I'm open enough to listen carefully to her, I'm awed, enriched and proud in equal measure. Her insights are frequently spot-on. How many earlier opportunities did I miss not being fully open to people much younger than I? What else besides old-fartism can explain my dismissive posture towards those mentor comments? How often do you fall into the trap of Father/Mother/Any Older Person Knows Best? And when did you last consider the inherent age bias contained in the oft-heard cliche "wise beyond her years"?

No doubt, we're usually wise to heed what experience - and experienced people - teach us. But my daughter has helped me begin to view mentoring as a two way street. I owe her - and the mentors in my program - thanks for helping me see this.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Being Of Use

Because I'm in the habit of writing a great deal in my books (including the dates I read them), I know that the last time I re-read M Scott Peck's classic "The Road Less Traveled" was April 2006. This was a period in my life when I was feeling particularly useful to many others. Peck asserts in all of his books that being of use is a big part of what makes life meaningful. That assertion has always resonated for me.

This past week I saw someone who I met with regularly in 2006. This person told me I'd been "right" about many things we'd discussed ten years ago. Later as I was writing in my journal about how gratifying that conversation had been for my ego, I glanced up and saw "...Road.." on my bookshelf. I stopped writing and read a few pages, as I have many times before. And I suddenly realized how un-important it was that this person thought I'd been "right". I also knew it was no coincidence that "...Road.." was right there in front of me that moment as I was journalling about both our recent conversation as well as that earlier time we'd spent together.

As I resumed writing, I reflected on what is important: I'd been of use to that person and many others at that time. It's so much more important to be of use than it is to be "right". I went back to my journal, refreshed (again) by Peck's wisdom, grateful for the clarity of my insight, and rejoicing in a future filled with being of use. What was your last experience being of use?