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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Turning The Tables

"Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty hurt others as well."  - from "The War Of Art" (2002), Stephen Pressfield.

Timing is everything. If I hadn't read "Big Magic" - Elizabeth Gilbert's amazing book about creativity - just a week before, Stephen Pressfield's would have been the best book about that subject I'd read in the last ten years. The universe is clearly speaking to me about my own creative journey.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has a genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it, now." - Johann Goethe

Some of the recent spooky occurrences in my life - "Into The Wild" mysteriously appearing in my mailbox, the only Ann Patchett novel I've ever read ("State of Wonder") turning up in both "Big Magic" and today's "By The Book" feature in the NY Times, Stephen Pressfield using the same Goethe quote featured in the Great Courses lecture I'm currently listening to -  have gotten my attention.

"There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on resistance." -from "The War of Art". I'm ready. How about you?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Chord That Rocked My World, Not The World

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tcfbgQsYtM

My brother - a person whose musical taste is nearly impeccable - has long been trying to convince me that "A Hard Day's Night" represents the Beatles at their best. Not their best song, per se, but the tune that nails their magic like no other. Though unpersuaded by his choice - my nominee for the Beatles at their best is "Rain" - I've always agreed with his contention that the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" is etched into the public consciousness like few others in the musical history of the past half-century.

So imagine my dismay when I recently played just that opening chord for a group of thirty adults and not one person reacted to it. How could this be? This dependable musical cue I'd considered iconic had worked just as planned in all my previous classes. But, this time - no recognition, no response! Just seconds into that hubris-filled moment, my baby boomer bias slapped me silly. I suddenly realized that in 1964, the people in this class were no doubt busy making a living, some of them raising families; that chord did not rock their world. I'd known before starting this audience would be older than I, but that explosive chord eliciting no response had not crossed my mind.

Then driving home after the class I recalled how excited I was to expose my Mom to John and Paul harmonizing on "If I Fell" in 1964; she was forty four years old. "Oh that's nice, Patrick, but the Lennon Sisters harmonize so much better." And, on the spot, I decided the theme song from "Shaft" - "iconic" high hat and wah-wah guitar notwithstanding - would get less attention on day two of this class than on other occasions when I'd taught it.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Reliable And/Or Predictable

When you are able to rely on someone does it logically follow that you'll be able to predict their behavior in most circumstances?

Here's my dilemma. I value my reliability but I don't value being predictable. And, more often than not, I feel the same about other people, regardless of whether I know them personally. Surprise and delight me and be where you say you'll be when you say you'll be there. Keep it fresh and keep showing up.

My perpetual challenge is remaining mindful about the tension between these two closely related traits. Although my dictionary doesn't list predictable as a synonym for reliable, trying to tease apart a distinction between the two attributes is thorny. If you consider yourself reliable, I'm curious to hear the strategies you use to resolve this tension. Or perhaps you value predictability more than I, in which case there is no tension.

Thanks to a tennis partner for an uncredited assist with this post. The bad news for me: After posing my question at the top to him, his mind was so engaged he forgot to over-think his game. He then walloped me 6-1 in our first set.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

School's Out (& In)

Remember how you felt as a kid when school was about to adjourn for the summer? What was the last thing you anticipated that filled you with that intensity of delight?

Next Monday I'm headed for a week long guitar camp in upstate New York led by the amazing Robben Ford. And unlike the National Guitar Workshop experience I had in 2001 - while still working full time - because my time has been my own for the last six and a half years, my confidence about my playing is at an all time high. Also, a goal I announced here on the day before my 62nd birthday - getting my solo jazz guitar repertoire up to three hundred songs - is now over 2/3 complete. So in addition to feeling confident, I'm feeling more prepared than I did in 2001, thanks to almost five years of focused concentration living inside these timeless songs.

Being guided by Robben Ford, having my guitar in my hands for five straight days, being around so many other guitarists - many of whom, I'm certain, will be awesome - I'm vibrating, not unlike how I felt as the end of June approached during childhood. Though I'm taking my laptop, the jam sessions, the nighttime concerts, and the ad hoc interactions with other guitarists will take priority over blogging. If I do publish any posts next week, be prepared for unadulterated gushing. Now, cue the Alice Cooper.      

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bigger Than Happenstance

When did a book last choose you?

On the day "Into The Wild" mysteriously appeared in my mailbox last week, I had just returned from the library with three books. All were non-fiction because my recent reading diet had disturbed my ratio a bit in favor of fiction. My wife had an odd theory about why Jon Krakauer's gripping 1996 account of the final two years in the life of Chris McCandless had turned up. But the excellent 2007 film adaptation of "Into The Wild" has lingered with me, non-fiction was next in the queue, and Krakauer's "Under The Banner Of Heaven" (2003) remains in my top fifty non-fiction of all time, i.e. this mailbox gift chose me. I consumed "Into The Wild" in one sitting.

I'll guess what the practical among you might be thinking. Coincidence, kismet, convenience. I'll stick with my theory: this book chose me. Early on, Krakauer disavows claims to objectivity as a biographer because he recognizes in his subject a younger version of himself. I remembered feeling exactly that way watching the reckless behavior of McCandless in the film. And during my 2015 experience with the wild and rugged majesty of Alaska - in a locale not far from the one described in the book - many of the young locals I met were Pat, circa 1969. It was weird and invigorating. These 21st century hippies have a freshness and vitality to them that was hard to resist, even for some of the staid members of our Road Scholars entourage. Like McCandless was, they are fiercely alive. Their energy and idealism ideally suits the austerity and primal environment they've chosen as their home. I left Alaska inspired by their commitment and wistful to return. Then "Into The Wild" chose me.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Figuring It Out, A Sentence At A Time

"I don't know what I think until I write about it."  - Joan Didion

Though most are not as pithy as Joan Didion, many people I've known who keep a journal (nee diary) - no matter how erratically - share her view on the value of writing.

My brief Internet search didn't point me to any reliable estimates about the percentage of people who do journal, but there is a fair body of research outlining the benefits of doing so. I don't need that research to know how much more difficult my lowest periods would have been had I never begun a journal. What has been your experience? How much does your writing help your thinking?

I never suspected blogging would supersede my need to keep a journal. I knew I'd still need a place to wallow in self-pity periodically as well as to privately scribble my impressions of people, familiar and new to me. But I have been surprised the number of journal entries I make has not diminished much over these five and a half years - figuring out what I think, a sentence at a time.          

Friday, August 19, 2016

More What?

"Wait, what?"

That was my reaction upon learning of a surprising and unconventional decision made by a young woman I know. In that moment, I realized the word "what" is missing far too frequently from my present life, especially when accompanied by that raised inflection indicating someone has been genuinely surprised by something I've said or done. Effective immediately, I'm aiming for more what in my life. And as long as the what is attached to surprising someone - including myself - I'll accept it in any tense, e.g.

"You're going to do what?"

"You're doing what?"

"You did what?"

Care to join me? Better yet, tell me and others something you're planning to do, are doing, or have done lately that prompted a what? from someone in your life.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Big Magic, Indeed

"The essential elements for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust - and these elements are universally accessible."  Elizabeth Gilbert from "Big Magic" (2015)

Courage: "  ...fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the sun."

Enchantment: "Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest is through collaboration with a human partner."

Permission: " ... creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically) and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely)."

Persistence: " ... miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up."

Because "Big Magic" is unequivocally the best book I've read about creativity in the past ten years, let me conclude using Elizabeth Gilbert's words. First, the question she poses in her section on the fifth element, trust: "What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success are irrelevant?" I'd love to hear your answer to that.

And finally, a creative credo to carry me the rest of my life: "I thank creativity for having blessed me with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence."

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

#43: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Any monument can be revised. That said, asked to memorialize four things that make New York City a place that never gets old, what would you pick? In no particular order, here are my current selections.

1.) The Highline: Converting an elevated railway line into a native plant paradise? Brilliant.

2.) Ethnic food: The "Eat The World" project my wife and I started five years ago has been much easier because we live proximate to NYC. Our latest culinary adventure was a visit to Myanmar (nee Burma) via Cafe Mingala on the Upper East Side. Not a "10" but at least I got off sous chef duty.

3.) Nightlife accessible via phone booths, etc:  Aside from the whiff of insider-ism accompanying these secretive hot spots, this is such a cool, quintessentially NYC concept.

4.) The Statue Of Liberty: Passing very close by the Statue on a July 4th cruise around NY harbor, I had a moment. Although patriotic symbols have limited appeal for me, something shifted that night and I don't think the beer had much to do with it.

Why is the Big Apple your favorite fruit?

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Cost Of Impulsiveness

Five years ago today, I experienced the worst impulsive moment of my entire adult life. Though the financial cost of my hot-headed behavior that day was significant, and I was arrested for the first time in my life, the catastrophic consequences I envisioned did not materialize, thankfully. What did I learn?

1.) It's likely that the man I assaulted for menacing my wife, our niece and her friend will repeat his behavior with others. And even if he never does something like this again, some equally vile predator will. Which leads to me to further ask myself - Why did I expend energy stooping to this cretin's level?

2.) I'm capable of violence, notwithstanding a lifetime of claims to the contrary.

This is where I'm supposed to say I'd act more rationally the next time. Instead, let me ask you: What did you learn from the worst impulsive moment of your life?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Leave A Message, Please

What are you doing tomorrow? I'll be spending the day with Neil Gaiman.

"The View From The Cheap Seats" (2016) is a collection of Gaiman's non-fiction from the previous twenty years. After finishing the opening piece entitled "Credo" early today, I wished I hadn't scheduled a tennis game. And unfortunately, I have plans for the evening. But Sunday is a sealed deal.

I'll eat and maybe read the NY Times. If I want a brief change of pace and/or my ass falls asleep, I'll pick up my guitar. That's about it - me and five hundred pages of Neil. It's going to be a fine day.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Searching For A Tribe

Although clubs previously had limited appeal for me, my post full time work life has upended that paradigm. It recently occurred to me that I've been in search of a tribe since 2010, the common element being words.

My current tally is a 2-2 tie - two book clubs and two writing clubs. Other word-related temptations - thus far resisted - have included a Scrabble and a crossword club. And the last Teaching Company series I finished - "The Secret Life Of Words" - juiced me so much I briefly fantasized about starting my own etymology club.

Which of your passions prompts you to seek out a tribe? meetup.com led me to a bloggers group. Though that group didn't end up meeting my needs, if you're looking for a place to start, that website might be a good place to start. If you try it, let me and others know how it worked for you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Where Were You When The Poop Hit The Rotary?

Considering my otherwise unimpeachable movie geek credentials, it's surprising how far behind I sometimes get with Oscar-nominated films. Of the eight nominees for best picture in 2015, I still haven't seen "The Martian" and have started, but not yet returned to finish "Mad Max: Fury Road". How many of the eight have you seen? Got a favorite?

With "The Big Short" - the final remaining nominee I managed to miss until last night - my tardiness was probably more well earned. Although I ultimately learned a fair amount from the 2010 book, it was not an easy read for me. Author Michael Lewis does an excellent job breaking down the arcane financial instruments that were central to the near collapse of the economy in 2008. But on my first pass I was a bit overwhelmed. I returned months after that initial attempt when Ira Glass of NPR mentioned "The Big Short" as one of his favorites in "By The Book". That regular NY Times feature is a primary source for worthwhile recommendations. If not familiar to you, be sure to check it out. But I digress, albeit charmingly.

The movie - if you haven't seen it - although not backing off on the technical details at all, is funny and educational and very scary, especially the voice over during the final minutes. Director Adam McKay expertly handles the ensemble acting. McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph's device of using sidebars  - like Margot Robbe in a bubble bath explaining that "subprime"=shit and Anthony Bourdain comparing the mortgage-related garbage the big banks were hiding in their bonds to three day old halibut being tossed into a fish stew - was brilliant. I'm guessing most people watching the film will grasp the essentials much better than I did on my first try reading the book.

I hesitate saying I enjoyed this film, astounding as it was. Because in the eight years that have passed since the shit hit the fan - i.e. the housing bubble and subsequent near collapse of our economy thanks to the role the big banks played in that debacle - not much seems to have changed. And that really scares me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Finding Solace

Of the pledges I've made here over the last five and a half years, the one giving me the most difficulty is my memoir moratorium. My book clubs regularly pick memoirs, my reading posse is fond of recommending them, and though I've read my share of duds, there also seem to be a lot of good ones.

A publishing sensation since its release earlier this year, "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi would normally have been a memoir I'd avoid, moratorium or not. But Kalanithi's clear-eyed telling of his losing battle with Stage IV lung cancer was not at all what I expected. Except when reading his final paragraph - which I did not know was the end of the author's own contributions - I did not cry reading his brief book. I suspect Kalanithi would have been pleased - his supple prose never aims at cheap sentiment. As his wife Lucy says in her moving epilogue - "What happened to Paul was a tragedy, but he was not tragic."

I hesitate recommending this book knowing many of you have lost people you love to cancer. Though I share that experience, I found a small measure of solace in Kalanithi's story; perhaps you will as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Objectivity For Dummies

How many parents have you met who think their children aren't smart, talented, good looking, etc.? Is it possible to be objective about our children and their attributes? Maybe a better question would be, is it smart to be objective about this?

My daughter is a 27 year old actress. As she was growing up I read every book I could find about building a child's self image and then implemented many of the suggestions from those books. My daughter strikes most people she meets as confident yet I've never heard anyone allude to her being boastful or full of herself. Of course, it's probably unlikely someone would say something like that to or around me. It's possible that's another reason objectivity about our children is difficult. Who in their right mind is going to openly criticize our kids? I recall once having a very tense interaction with a Kindergarten teacher when she hinted at a shortcoming in my daughter. I mean, really! My daughter? No way!

Because of her chosen occupation, my daughter has already faced numerous rejections; each one stings me. Both the rejections and her triumphs lead me to reflect anew on my objectivity. And those reflections usually end the same way. When it comes to her, I'm glad I threw away that notion 27 years ago.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ed And Marge, Circa 2016

When my wife and I bought our first home in 1983, she was twenty nine and I was thirty three. Our next door neighbors Ed and Marge were nice folks, good neighbors and the oldest people in our neighborhood. By the time our daughter was born in 1989, their son was in his mid 20's and on his own.

Our current next door neighbors - who moved in after we'd been here in our latest home a few years - are mid 30's, both teachers, first child born about ten months ago; wonderful people. When we initiated a neighborhood summer Friday twilight cocktail hour a while back, we were happy these folks - and several other neighbors with young children - all seemed genuinely happy to hang out with us. I mean, we are now Ed and Marge, the oldest people in our neighborhood, our ages today nearly identical to what theirs were in 1983. Our daughter is twenty seven and on her own.  

Both my wife and I liked Ed and Marge a great deal. But inviting them out for drinks never crossed my mind. At the time - forgive me, father - they just seemed ... old. So imagine my surprise when our thirty-something neighbors recently did exactly that. It did occur to me that perhaps they were just reciprocating our earlier hospitality. But even so, the subsequent interaction was comfortable and relaxed enough that I'm quite sure it won't be our last.

And it keeps getting better. When the musicians at the bar played a few contemporary songs we didn't recognize, my young friend - let's call him Pat, the 1983 iteration - educated my wife and I. He also loved my Mt. Rushmore concept and constructed several of his own mountains while we drank - four great rock songs, four memorable movies, etc. There are many ways to stay feeling young and vibrant. Hanging out with people young enough to be my children is one of my favorites. What is one of yours?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

1 + 1 = 2

formula: any fixed or conventional method for doing something. 

"Formulaic" has long been a dismissive adjective when applied to any art form. More than once, I've used the word to describe romantic comedies, country music, mass market fiction. And if I knew a little more about sculpture, photography, drama, I suspect that same word would find its way into my conversations about those subjects.

Yet each time I am delighted by a romantic comedy, moved by a country song, or propelled by a mass market author - no matter the formula - I pause. Was that "meet cute" scene in the film predictable? Yes, it was. Were there any harmonic or lyric surprises in that tune? No, there were not. Did the author use a "cliffhanger" sentence to close a chapter? Yes, he/she did and it worked; I kept reading.

Was me being delighted or moved or propelled all about timing? My state of mind? I'm never certain. Are you? Where is the line between a viewer or listener or reader being manipulated and a filmmaker or musician or author's effective use of a device? Formulas may not be artful but sometimes they work, even on snobs.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Name I Won't Forget Again

How many times have you gotten through an entire book without recalling you'd earlier read another by the same author?

Because my memory is sharp (and also because I keep records - geek alert!), I'm usually aware of my previous exposure to authors. But when I began "Atlantic" (2010), Simon Winchester's name was not familiar to me. This meticulously researched book detailing "great sea battles, heroic discoveries, titanic storms, and a vast ocean of a million stories" is as engrossing as it is well written. Although there isn't a weak section, Chapter Four - entitled "Here The Sea of Pity Lies" - was the heartbreaking standout for me. Here Winchester painfully outlines how the Atlantic Ocean - specifically the section known as the Middle Passage - played a gruesome role in the lives of eleven million Africans after they were hijacked from their homes - "humans, offered wholesale".  I can't recommend "Atlantic" highly enough.

Just before writing an entry about "Atlantic" in my book journal, I glanced at Winchester's back catalog. "The Professor and The Madman", his 1998 book about the creation of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), has long been a non-fiction favorite of mine! Although I'm disappointed in my memory and my records, there's a happy ending to this story. That back catalog has eighteen other titles.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Unsung Hero Day

On August 1 2012, a brilliant concept was launched here to help this holiday-deprived month join all its brethren. But with none of the four ingenious national holidays proposed yet taking hold, it may be time for a different approach.

How about a rotating holiday with each August 1 celebrating a different unsung American hero? Since a year is needed to prepare, nominations are now being accepted for August 1, 2017. Full disclosure from the selection committee of one/clever holiday inventor: If you nominate a woman for this first round, your odds greatly improve. Don't you think both Martin and Abraham would be OK with this? How about George? Christopher?

And nominations will be accepted in any format - online, offline, smoke signals. All other pertinent details - closing/not closing the banks, etc. - to be decided after a suitable list of nominees has been collected. Special consideration given to any nomination accompanied by an appropriate theme song.