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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dalva, Erdrich & Harrison

Jim Harrison is a contemporary author I've wanted to try since enjoying the 1994 movie "Legends Of The Fall" based on his 1979 novella of the same name. Which film adaptations have similarly inspired you to seek out an author? Are you more inclined to try a fresh title from the author's oeuvre or do you usually stick with the book that the movie you liked was based on?    

Since I like to be surprised by books and film plots seem to linger in my memory, I like taking the first approach. A good friend suggested "Dalva" (1988) and considering how successful the movie adaptation of "Legends..." was,  I won't be surprised if "Dalva" makes it to the screen. And mark my words - With Harrison's recent passing, Louise Erdrich will write the screenplay.

The critical backdrop for both "Dalva" and much of Erdrich's work - most notably her prizewinning novel "The Round House" (2012) - is how modern day Native American life has been shaped by a 19th century legacy that still horrifies. Harrison uses Dalva's great grandfather's journal to re-visit travesties like the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Imagining how Erdrich could convert Harrison's bristling dialogue and Dalva's righteous anger into cinematic heat (I see Maggie Gyllenhal in the title role, BTW) is thrilling to me.

But please don't wait for the film version of "Dalva" before reading it. There's more Jim Harrison in my future.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Taking Care With Superlatives

profound: having deep insight; intellectually penetrating. What was the circumstance surrounding your last non-ironic use of profound?

Profound is a word I use sparingly. I can't recall a single instance where I've applied it to one of my own conclusions. Even by my sometimes immodest standards, labeling a thought as profound seems excessive. My line in the semantic sand - at least for something I claim as mine - ends with calling a thought insightful.

Among the attributes I most admire in a thinker - public figures or friends - is taking care in the use of superlatives. For me, profound occupies the same spare linguistic territory as genius. And hearing or reading "deeply profound" has been known to set my teeth on edge. Your thoughts? 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Sober Saturday Insight

Initially, I congratulated myself for understanding the offhand references the author made to Gore Vidal, Oskar Schindler, Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the glow wore off soon after as I realized that had I read this novel upon its 1988 release, I would have recognized only the first of those three names.

Though I think of myself as a reasonably well informed sixty six year old, I can recall having a similar opinion of myself at thirty nine. Yet in 1988, Schindler and Wittgenstein would have sailed over my head, blissful ignorance intact, my sense of my intelligence at the time untouched. And, had I noticed those names instead of skimming over them, I likely would have been distanced or defensive or annoyed or possibly all three at once.

So, what might I be missing in the contemporary literature I'm reading? And when reading a 2016 novel in 2036, what will I be congratulating myself for having learned over the last twenty years?    

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Search And Enjoy

Imagine the benefits we'd enjoy if our brains had a search feature like websites, blogs, etc.

* When a keyword search shows a trend, we resist telling our favorite anecdotes the same way. Added benefit: Reduced groans from those who've heard the tale told too often.

* Our creative output and conversation would be fresher. At minimum, the use of cliches would drop precipitously and more words would be in the air.

* Those "Bored in the bedroom?" articles that periodically appear in some magazines would disappear. Actually, boredom - an alien concept for me - would cease to exist, wouldn't it?

What other benefits come to mind for you?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

End Of The Drought

It's official - Thanks to Cristina Garcia's luminous 1992 debut "Dreaming In Cuban", the drought is over. Although never in doubt a great novel was just around the bend, by the time I closed Garcia's rich multi generational tale, weeks had passed since I finished the last novel worth raving and blogging about - Jonathan Franzen's "Purity". I think that gap filled with just-OK books is a bell curve record, although not one I wanted to reach.

Hard to single out what I liked best about Garcia's book - sharp and assured prose, the believable depiction of political fissures and how they complicate love, a satisfying lack of linearity that doesn't interfere with the strong narrative line. Though in this talented author's spell from the start, as she closed her third act I was mesmerized and completely unsure where she was going to leave me. I'd sincerely like to know if Garcia knew from the outset what Celia - the matriarch of the novel - was going to do as the book concluded. If you've read "Dreaming In Cuban", please tell me what you anticipated approaching the penultimate page.

"What they feared even more, Celia realized later, was that passion might spare them entirely, that they'd die conventionally, smug and purposeless, having never savored its blackness."

Monday, May 23, 2016

Anne & Mark: Anagrams, Palindromes Or Acrostics?

"The Secret Life of Words" - a CD series from the Great Courses series - is a game changer for me as an instructor, a word nerd, and a recovering judgaholic. I love how instructor Dr. Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan ends each lecture asking listeners to consider provocative items she will cover at the start of the next lecture. For example, when you hear the word "ask" pronounced "aks" what is your gut reaction? OK, how do you pronounce the word "prescription"? My family is not going to be happy when I next bring this stuff up in conversation.

Curzan's careful avoidance of culturally-laden judgments is refreshing and convincing and her reach as a scholar - like all the lecturers I've encountered via the Great Courses - is inspiring. I've already decided to re-read "The Etymologicon", Mark Forsyth's 2011 "circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language" right after I finish listening to the final lecture in Curzan's series. I wonder who would win more if these two were regular Scrabble opponents. Who would finish the Saturday NY Times crossword faster more often? Which word games does each enjoy?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

#41: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four great songs that never mention their titles are on your Mt. Rushmore?

Influencing my distinctly baby boomer choices - aside from my age - is the fact that not many songs written before the mid-60's overlooked a basic tenet of songwriting. That is, if you want people to remember the name of a tune, say its title. But despite gleefully ignoring that guideline, each of these memorable gems pack a serious musical and lyrical punch. Chronologically ...

1.) Unchained Melody: "Oh my love, my darling ..." The only one of my four written before 1960 (from a 1955 movie called "Unchained"), though the most well known version of this gorgeous North/Zaret ballad landed in 1965 when Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield wailed it into posterity. That version also provided the best moment in the weepy "Ghost", arguably because Patrick Swayze stopped talking.    

2.) "Positively 4th St.": "You've got a lot of nerve ..." Dylan was famous for titling his songs with words that never appear in the lyric. "My Back Pages" ("And I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now") is also a serious Mt. Rushmore contender here, although I've always preferred Dylan when he rants vs. when he's wistful. And " ...4th St" is a world class rant.

 3.) "Meeting Across The River": "Hey Eddie can you lend me a few bucks and tonight can you get us a ride?" Originally titled "The Heist" - also not in the lyric - this winner from Bruce Springsteen's breakout album "Born To Run" would perfectly complement any film noir masterpiece. The moody trumpet - played by the estimable Randy Brecker - sounds just like Robert Mitchum looks.

4.) "The Last Resort": "She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island." Put aside his corporate approach to rock n' roll; Don Henley stands nearly alone among contemporary vocalists. I'm also a sucker for lyrics that handle unusual subject matter. This Henley/Frey composition from "Hotel California" has few equals in that category.

Did I give this too much thought? Silly question. Console my geekiness by chiming in with your four choices. Also, include at least one song less than a quarter century old, please?

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Crab Selects Denis Mukwege

How soon after receiving them do you routinely read the magazines you subscribe to?

Because my only current subscription is for Time, I'm usually up to date. But the May 2-9 issue on the "100 Most Influential People" got tossed aside until a few days ago, primarily because Leonardo DiCaprio was on my cover. Putting aside his notable environmental philanthropy, having Leo on this cover struck me as both a poor editorial choice and a prime example of the cult of celebrity's hold on the media. After all, Time is a news magazine. OK, the crab has left the building.

In fairness, six other influential people from that list could have been on the magazine cover. Time prints several alternate versions of this yearly issue and had a few of the others been on my version I would have been more compelled to read the magazine upon receipt. And, as often happens, learning of people like Denis Mukwege - a gynecologist in the Republic of Congo who specializes in the treatment of rape victims - made the reading experience a valuable one. I've more than once fantasized how edifying it would be if heroes like Mukwege got as much press as .... you can fill in those blanks.

If you've already read or get to read this issue of Time, I'd enjoy knowing which of those 100 people you'd have selected to be on the cover.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Groucho And The Sweet Spot

"I wouldn't want to be in a club that would have me as a member."

That remark - most often attributed to Groucho Marx - periodically visits me. And though I have no expectations anyone will publicly share their story, I'm also reasonably sure others occasionally walk this less-than-ennobling path with me and Groucho.

Here's a musical experience to illustrate - substitute your own in its place. Not long ago I was invited to join a jam session soon after someone heard me perform. So far, so good - an opportunity to interact with other musicians. My enthusiasm curdled not long into the session; I wasn't feeling challenged. I heard Groucho's voice.

Driving home, previous jam sessions involving the opposite scenario - i.e. those times when I was clearly out of my depth with other musicians - flashed across my mind. That reflection brought me to my daughter's occasional lament about preferring to share the stage or set with actors who challenge her. But how do those actors feel if they're not challenged by her? Probably like the musicians in my latter scenario, right? Groucho loomed.

Do you ever fantasize about that sweet spot? You know, being asked to join a club you really want to be in? A club with members who would be patient with me as I grow worthy of being in the club. But then I look in the mirror and see Groucho's knowing smirk. Not a chance, knucklehead.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Paying Attention

I've got a challenge for you. Try to top the number of diversions I observed in just the car I was in the last time I was on the NYC subway. You'll need eight (8) totally unique activities to meet this challenge. In my car at least one person was:

* Doing nothing I could discern aside from being awake sitting or standing
* Sleeping
* Texting on a cellphone
* Working on a crossword puzzle
* Reading
* Having a live conversation (i.e. not on a cellphone)
* Listening to something via ear pods

Among the many useful by-products I've uncovered related to blogging is how much more I'm paying attention. As I looked around that subway car, I jotted down in my blog log the seven diversionary activities I observed. How do you ensure you're paying attention? What price might you be paying when you're not?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Searching For Yes

"All things are possible until they are proved impossible - even the impossible may only be so as of now." - Pearl Buck

Ever notice how easily one "no" can dissuade you from trying something? Think of how much we could accomplish if each time we heard no, we immediately re-framed it to "not right now" or "this wasn't the right person to talk to". Those simple substitutions for no would allow us to endlessly recycle ideas that were initially rejected, searching for a "yes".    

I'm not encouraging anyone to surround themselves with uncritical people. I am suggesting that possibilities we'd like to explore often deserve more chance than we give them. The next time you re-frame a "no", let me and others know what you said to yourself instead.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Setbacks, Upsides & Reversible Clocks

Consider for just a moment the setbacks you've experienced in your life so far. Viewed with a present day perspective, which of those setbacks ended up having a significant upside?

When nodes on my vocal cords hastened the end of my years making a living as a singing guitarist, I was very unhappy as well as unsure how I'd support myself. Since college graduation, being a working musician had been my entire professional identity. Though I don't recall how long I felt sorry for myself, I do know that setback felt insurmountable at the time. Had someone challenged me to find an upside, I'm certain I would have thought them deranged.

Nowadays, most of my magical moments with music occur when I'm playing guitar and not singing. And when I lose myself playing, sometimes I'm able to draw a line from my setback to my present joy. Had I continued for all the ensuing years just accompanying my singing, my present day ability as a guitarist would not be as advanced. It's unlikely I'd ever have taken the time to learn how to read music and playing solo jazz guitar - however rudimentary - would have remained a dream.

Now, if I could turn back the clock, would I choose to not have that setback occur despite the subsequent upside? Oh boy - you go first.   

Friday, May 13, 2016

Learning By Teaching

As someone who has devoted significant energy to thinking before speaking, teaching public classes can present genuine challenges. When in front of a group - especially talking about music - even with a carefully created outline, being extemporaneous can get me into trouble unless I stay mindful. I'm pleased I was in that mindful state doing a recent presentation about Bruce Springsteen since a cousin of his was in the class.

I guess it wasn't far fetched this happened. After all, the class was held here in Bruce's home county. That said, I was very relieved I didn't know about the connection until after my presentation ended and she introduced herself. Knowing my hard-to-stifle propensity for sometimes showing off, had I known in advance, it's not hard to imagine me making a fool of myself in a lame effort to impress.

I did have one clue shortly before the class ended. The husband of Bruce's cousin (I learned they were married in an extended conversation later) asked me to re-show an earlier slide listing the bibliography I'd used while developing my program. Such a request is highly unusual. Though I gladly accommodated, I wondered about that request in the moment. And then later driving home, I was again relieved that all the direct quotes I'd used in my slides were carefully sourced.

A final lesson extracted from this pleasant surprise/close encounter with a relative: In future presentations, I'm going to stop using specific names of well known musicians and songwriters who, in my view, don't measure up to the giants I frequently cite in my courses. If I don't bash authors here in my blog, why - aside from grandstanding - am I mindlessly bashing musicians or songwriters in even more public forums? And how would I feel later finding out a relative of the person I bashed was present?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Noise & Compassion

What gives you the greatest pause when imagining a world with a large majority of people sharing your basic personality? And, how would the world be a better place given that same scenario?

With a large majority of Pats in the world, the competition for air time could be brutal. Because even though I'm not an off-the-charts extrovert, my need for attention is pretty uniformly high. And when I'm not mindful, that extrovert/attention seeking combo really contributes to the ambient noise of the world.

On the flip side, compassion would not be in short supply. With Pats all around, not as many reminders about walking in the shoes of others might be needed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lessons From A Six Year Odyssey

For most of my life, I've tried to read widely. And though during my full time work life my passion for books took a back seat while I was making a living, over the past six years I've made up a lot of ground. Since 2010, there have even been a few weeks when my reading time exceeded guitar time. Any odyssey should impart lessons, right? Here are my top three:

* Avoid novels - especially those purporting to be historical fiction - with the word "wife" in the title.

* Though they are ubiquitous and very popular with book clubs, one memoir a year is plenty. At the same time, a full blown moratorium is probably too radical.


* Better to spend time listening to music than reading about science that "explains" why music exerts such a pull. No matter how rigorously researched or well written these books are, the basic premise now reminds me of non-fiction that tries to explain why people fall in love.      

What lessons has your reading given you? BTW, a few attentive readers have lately commented on a recent decrease in my posts about books. Though my consumption remains undiminished, my non-bashing policy - in place since the inception of my blog in March 2011 - also remains in effect. So, since the last several books - including the final historical novel I'll ever read with "wife" in the title - didn't move me at all, the bell curve has been a little quiet vis-a-vis books. But stay tuned - great ones are never far away. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Judging Monkey Takes A Nap

What does the expression "wasting time" mean for you? How well are you able to distinguish wasted time from necessary down time? Or, are they the same thing?

This dilemma has been a lifetime story for me. My strong goal orientation has frequently made it difficult for me to distinguish between the two. Further complicating matters, my default coping mechanism when I'm low is sleep. Am I squandering hours or re-charging when I take a nap? The answer varies, often depending on how much I feel I've recently accomplished or learned. Sound familiar, anyone?

There is one bright spot. My perpetual struggle with this balance makes me less inclined to judge most things others do as wasting time; perhaps that's what that person does when they need down time. And anything that prompts my judging monkey to take a nap - even if I'm wide awake - is very welcome. How about that? Familiar?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Staying Fresh And Limber

Given the style of guitar playing to which I aspire, of late I've been searching for the optimal balance in my practice regimen on the day of public performances. Since my goal is to be as extemporaneous as possible when I perform, playing through tunes on the same day unfortunately makes it more likely I'll repeat several of those same tunes later; they're fresh on my mind.

On the other hand, if I skip playing tunes in favor of mostly warm-up exercises, scales, etc., I've noticed the flow in my performance is sometimes lacking. I've experimented with a mixture of these two approaches and even tried not picking up the instrument at all on performance days. That latter tactic has sometimes helped my improvising and freed up my repertoire choices a great deal. Other times it's been semi-disastrous.

There's no magic bullet. But today I decided on the the mixture while also resolving to stop early enough to read more of the NY Times, write this post, meditate. All of which will put a good distance between my practicing and tonight's performance. My hope? By the time I'm in front of people, perhaps I won't be as likely to repeat the tunes I played earlier because they won't be as fresh on my mind but my hands will still feel limber.

We'll see.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


What most recently reminded you of the abundance in your life?

I'm reasonably mindful of my good fortune. But I recently realized how many times over the past six years I've been in and out of our coat closet without thinking about how many outer garments are stored there. Given our thirty eight + years together, I suppose it's understandable my wife and I have  accumulated all this stuff. Still, though neither of us are hoarders and we're certainly not wealthy, in that mindful moment the plenitude in that closet stopped me short.

As my reflections on abundance continued, I thought of the times we've participated in clothes drives or donated our excess to Goodwill, etc; many of you likely do the same. Soon after, I made a simple resolution: The next time we clean out that closet and get ready to donate stuff, I'm going to stop long enough to be sincerely grateful the phrase "excess clothing" - let alone "coat closet" - are able to be applied to my life.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Wanted: Neologisms

neologism: a new word, usage or phrase.

I'd bet most of us have more than once thought or said to others - "Why isn't there a word for that?"
It will surprise no regular reader of this blog to know I've got a list of my own neologisms. But, if I provide a situation that begs for one, would one of you please go first this time? OK - try this.

In Alaska, the weather conditions seven months of each year are equivalent to what those of us in the lower forty eight call winter. What neologism would you suggest for the remaining five months of the Alaskan year with weather equivalent to the other three seasons combined?

Take my situation, invent your word, get some low risk cyberspace exposure. Or, if you already have other neologisms ready (who doesn't, right?), ignore my situation and bring 'em on.      

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Wonderful Problem

I've got a wonderful problem. Some really smart people regularly read my blog.


That post - published just over a week ago - prompted one of those smart people to draw a parallel between what I'd written and Taoist teachings. That conversation inspired me to re-read the post and also re-visit the one public comment I received from a different smart reader. Though the comment did not specifically mention Taoism, it had that flavor. Both these smart people reminded me how my reflections on the interplay of comfort and fear are a classic yin/yang proposition.

The more smart people who read my blog and either talk with me about it or comment publicly, the clearer it becomes to me: Ideas are endlessly re-cycled. What was yin/yang called before the Taoist tradition claimed this universal operating principle as theirs? How did later spiritual practices re-formulate it? Where in your life does yin/yang frequently present itself?  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Smart Phone = Kinder Man

Recently, I realized that the ubiquity of smart phones is a huge relief for people like me. Since every smart phone owner now has the answer to any conceivable question at their fingertips, acting like a know-it-all has become foolhardy. Of course, the behavior was always obnoxious.

Lest I sound too contrite, let me be clear: It's taken several humbling lessons for me to view the smart phone revolution in this way. Apparently being a know-it-all and a fast learner don't go hand-in-hand. But the last time a smart phone rendered my more limited bandwidth obsolete, I felt a little shift.

I'm chastened it took smart phones to bring me here. But I'm also grateful there's plenty of time left to value being kind more than being right.