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My most recent single release - "My True North" - is now available on Bandcamp. Open my profile and click on "audio clip".

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Of 2016

This is more fun when some of you join in and tell me and others what made the year that is ending a memorable one, using my categories or some of your own. I use this once a year post to emphasize positive events but, feel free to whine. I certainly do that enough here throughout the year.

Best reunionEarly in 2016, I re-connected with an old friend. Turns out, she'd saved the holiday letters and pictures I'd never stopped sending and then reached out after her son saw the pile and asked about me. We spoke at length last January and then re-united at her home in upstate NY over the summer. This one doubles as best gift I received in 2016.

Best new novel: Purity - Jonathan Franzen

Best new filmManchester By The Sea

Best teaching-related moment: Shortly after finishing a class on Paul Simon, I got an e-mail from a student that sustained me for weeks. She wrote to tell me that my passion about Simon's "American Tune" had inspired her so much that she and her family downloaded the song (with accompanying lyric) and then listened to it while eating dinner. She went on to say the ensuing family conversation was " ... one of the best they've ever had ...". If I feel great about this - being the conduit - imagine how Paul Simon must feel knowing how his work reaches people.

Best inspirational quote discovered for future blog use: "Do one thing every day that scares you" - Eleanor Roosevelt

Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Z: Raincheck, Please

"It is what it is."

What's your view of this endlessly repeated modern day tautology? Often upon hearing it - especially when it's used to discount pain that people other than the speaker are experiencing - I'm tempted to say well duh ... What else would it be other than what it is?

Zeno, cited as the founder of Stoicism, would likely have been aligned with those who love the whole "is" thing and its corollary - "It's all good". Is it? Reflexively spouting this second bromide - sometimes in an unsubtle attempt to shift from an uncomfortable topic - doesn't make it all good. It also doesn't absolve the speaker of responsibility for interacting with those who don't see it all as good or what it is.  Finally, saying "it's all good" or "it is what it is" doesn't magically erase deeper feelings the speaker might be avoiding. But, feelings are not Z's thing.   

Before any glass half empty clichés get hurled my way, let me say: I embrace and live the notion of looking at the bright side and not dwelling on the negative. And I understand that the use of these two hoary contemporary expressions can be an attempt to interject optimism or realism into a gloomy conversation. That said, I strongly suspect Zeno would have revered men (women couldn't get into his lectures during those particular "good old days") fond of the "...is..." and "...all good..." stuff. I also doubt that Z and I were destined for a bromance. The foundation of Stoicism taught men to be "free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and to submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity." I'll pass, thank you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Garbage In, Better Sounding Garbage Out

Although I've never had any illusions, after gleefully ramming through a book like "Anatomy Of A Song" (Mark Myers), my lightweight intellect is indisputably confirmed. Why not re-read King Lear or make another attempt at Ulysses or spend reading time otherwise challenging myself? Yikes.

Self-flagellation aside, there is a bright spot. All those hours spent with eye candy have come in handy since I began teaching courses about music a few years back. Otherwise meaningless tidbits provided by books like "Anatomy..." give me geeky fuel for classroom riffs. For example: No one really needs to know that the Hues Corporation - of "Rock The Boat" fifteen-minutes-of-fame note - were originally called the Children of Howard Hughes, a moniker they changed after realizing they could be sued by the billionaire recluse. Who besides a nerd like me could ever make use of such worthless information about a one hit wonder that quickly faded into obscurity?

Perhaps you'll be surprised - or appalled - to know that garbage like this is fodder for the addled brain of yours truly when in front of a room full of people. I'm not necessarily proud of this but at least it gives me small consolation for the few hours I spent reading "Anatomy..."  Anyway, it was a Christmas gift from my wife. She loves this intellectual pygmy.    

Monday, December 26, 2016

Drama Vs. Facade

How many of you spent significant time with family over this holiday season? Compared to previous years, was there more, less, or about the same amount of drama?

Around Thanksgiving, I began reflecting on which is more exhausting - family drama or the effort it takes to maintain a façade around people who are not family. Your view? Are you more worn out after a family squabble - holiday version or otherwise - or after a non-family event requiring obligatory small talk and a perpetual smile?

I've concluded my fatigue level following either scenario is roughly equal. Almost without fail, I need a nap soon after family drama or façade-building. And though I used to think the latter did more long term damage to my soul, a shift in that perspective also seems to be underway. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Teach Your Children

"There is no office higher than that of a teacher of youth, for there is nothing on earth so precious as the mind, soul, and character of the child." - William Ellery Channing

Where would the people you know line up with respect to Channing's statement? That is, how much value do the people you know place on the importance of teachers?

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

Heard that one? Notwithstanding the lip service given to Channing's noble sentiment, my experience has often led me to conclude there are a significant number of people more aligned with that latter - more cynical - notion. Your experience?

I've always resisted the idea that the value of the work people choose to do and how they are paid are at all connected. And that resistance has - for better or worse - shaped me in powerful ways. But the  societal message that used to be implicit - recently more explicit - equating salary and net worth with contribution to the world, has begun to dull the inspiration I once derived from Channing's words.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Transcending Humbug

Whenever I unthinkingly move into humbug mode this time of year, one of the constants that help guarantee my mood will lift is spending lots of time with my daughter. What helps you transcend humbug? 

Mind you, she and I have our less-than-sparkling moments. But the bulk of our interactions remind me what a fine person she has become. And it's not unusual for pieces of our conversations to later appear, however elliptically, in a blog post. Her insights are wise beyond her years, her commitment to her career is inspiring, and we almost always get to play some music together. Biased, you say? Not to my face if you're smart.

Mostly, I'm grateful she seems to enjoy my company. Hard to stay in humbug mode too long when I consider that gift.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

To Pursue Or Not To Pursue

What percentage of your relationships with others - family, friends, etc. are largely reciprocal? If you're at all like me, you're pursued about as often as you pursue.

That said, each holiday season I seem to reflect a fair amount on those relationships in which I'm much more frequently the pursuer. How many of these relationships do you have? If you have none - or none come readily to mind - here's the next question: How frequently are you avidly pursued? I suspect anyone who cannot readily identify any relationships where pursuer is more frequently their role is likely more frequently pursued. Simple math, no?

Once I'm down this rabbit hole, my yearly reflections toggle from logical to cynical to insecure. Logical = The person I'm pursuing - more than being pursued by - has been very busy, had personal difficulties, lost my contact info (a stretch, given technology). Cynical = My pursued person is chronically disorganized or has lost my contact info and eschewed technology. Insecure = You can figure this one out yourself.

The good news for me in 2016 was that one important relationship where I had long been the unrequited pursuer got back on equal footing. I love happy endings.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Keeping Those Moccasins Handy

"We don't remember days, we remember moments" - Cesare Pavese

What moment have you experienced recently that you're confident will stay with you?

I've volunteered at Meals On Wheels on Monday mornings since November, 2010. The man who has delivered the supplies to our satellite location nearly every week always struck me as an unpleasant, unhappy individual. Both the woman I work alongside in the kitchen and I have tried to engage this driver in conversation on numerous occasions, only to be spoken to gruffly - or more often - ignored. Both of us had just about given up trying. 

Yesterday, this same man was glowing and - in the space of five minutes - said more to us than he had in the previous seven years. The bulk of his conversation was to rave about the new hearing aids that he'd recently had implanted.

My coaching to others about tolerance has often included that old saying  - "Try walking a mile in someone else's moccasins". After the teaching moment I experienced yesterday - one I'm sure will stay with me - I pray for the grace to recall those moccasins the next time I make a judgment about another "unpleasant, unhappy" individual. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Christmas Chortle From Mr. Id

Upending his creator's initial cranky expectations, Mr. Id's visits to the bell curve have steadily decreased each year since his dreary debut in May 2011. And with only one previous visit from the evil twin during this past year, a record low number of appearances from your favorite doppelganger was on the horizon for 2016.

But, feeling more Scrooge-like than in Christmases past - with apocalyptic visions dancing in his head in place of sugar plums - and facing yet another sleepless night, Mr. Id must now own his political ignorance. Along with all the pollsters and smug overpaid liberal pundits - not to mention two generations of the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and other notable Republicans - he never believed it plausible that someone with a reality TV show on his resume could be elected President. Snookie for leading the National Endowment Of The Arts, anyone? Oh wait, does that still exist?

Lest anyone chastise the Wizard behind the curtain for Monday morning quarterbacking on top of ignorance, please note: Dr. Frankenstein had himself previously blogged sarcastically about that national antique called the Electoral College long before the elephants and donkeys had their conventions.

But we all know those three million votes we're stolen anyway. After all, that was tweeted and then ... re-tweeted so it must be true, right?

"2016 was the kind of year you could even lie about being cheated after you won." - Joel Stein

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Be Jubilant, My Feet

miracle: 1.) an event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural or divine cause. 2.) a wonder; marvel.

"Peace Like A River" (2001) is a novel about both kinds of miracles. And Leif Unger's 2001 debut is itself a miracle in the latter sense.

"You know how it is - you grow up with a story in your life, it can transmute into something you neither question nor particularly value. It's why we have such bad luck learning from mistakes." 

Eleven year old Reuben Land - the narrator and witness of this thoroughly enchanting and beautifully written book - makes more than his share of mistakes. But he has a devoted Father who literally willed him into life, an older hot-headed fugitive brother who he idolizes, and a precocious and talented younger sister who knows how to bring him back from crippling asthma attacks. Reuben's voice is strong even when his breathing fails him.

"At that moment, there was nothing - no valiant history or hopeful future - half worth my sister's pardon. Fair is whatever God wants to do." 

This is an old-fashioned book in all the right ways. It has a compelling narrative arc, unforgettable characters, and an unmistakable moral center. If you've read it or do so in the future, let's swap notes, OK?   

Friday, December 16, 2016

Saving For A Rainy Or ... Sunny Or ... Any Day

What do you continue to keep that you know - in lucid moments - would not have been missed had you discarded it long ago?

I consider myself fortunate compared to those who struggle to discard anything. Like many of you, I've known people who are overwhelmed by their stuff. I'm also grateful that what I hold onto doesn't take up a lot of space and doesn't annoy or interfere with the lives of people close to me.

Still, as the years pass and my basement swells with old journals and other writing of all kinds, I do periodically wonder what this quirk says about me. What do you think? And sometimes - in a morbid moment - I realize that if I don't chuck these ramblings and fragments, someone will someday get the job. During those maudlin reflections, I'm chastened when picturing my wife or daughter with the task instead of some disinterested third party. Creepy, I know. 

But how about you? What conclusions would someone make about you if they discovered what you unthinkingly save? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

An Existentialist Hat Trick

It appears my reading Sarah Bakewell's book "At The Existentialist Café" while - purely by accident - listening to lectures about the leading thinkers of the Existential movement has also lined up with a recent existential moment of my own.

An old friend, a former Deputy Attorney General of the NJ Office of Bias Crime, has again enlisted my help for a multi-day workshop he's leading at a national conference in Minneapolis next June. And though I'm honored - as always - he's asked me to co-facilitate, as our first conversation and review of his outline deepened, a few of his questions prompted me to peer into an abyss.

How do each of us live with our confusion, guilt, or shame surrounding oppression? What are the compromises we make to help us cope with the moral injustice of the way people with less privilege are treated? And most pertinently to the workshop, what emotions do we avoid or deny to keep these questions from interfering with the comfort in our own lives?

Work to do. Good thing there are several months to prepare.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

To All The Men I've Ever Loved

"Internalized oppression" is a term sociologists use to describe how members of a group can - given enough repetition - unconsciously accept stereotypes about their group. In simple terms, think of it as believing one's own bad press.

Fully cognizant of how insidious internalized oppression can be, when a new friend suggested men's resistance to fiction is mostly about hubris, it felt less like stereotyping than it did truth. Do your own informal survey. Ask every man you know who reads regularly what his fiction to non-fiction ratio is. I'm confident asserting you will find less than 20% of men - I'm being generous - with anything approaching parity in their reading diet. After gathering those results - and please contradict me if your findings are at odds with my own informal research - move to the next part.

Ask your same group of hunting-gathering readers why non-fiction takes precedence. I'm equally confident their answer will approximate something I heard my beloved Father say many times: "I read for information." Now carefully analyze that statement. What is not being said?

I submit the pride of many men blocks them from acknowledging a simple fact: Each of us can learn - i.e. get information - from a well constructed novel of ideas. It's true the information isn't always delivered in a linear fashion. But insights about relationships or the human condition, and deeper truths about life don't necessarily lend themselves to a "just the facts" linear approach. Hang in there, my brothers, and put that hubris on hold. Perhaps you'll find you understand the women in your life a little better.       

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Prophet In His Own Land

If you're over forty, what's your recollection of how much you valued the coaching of your parents when you were a young adult? If you're a young adult, how much do you value that coaching now?

On balance, I would say my young adult daughter - although very much her own person - is more receptive to me than I ever was to my parents. That said, on occasion I've considered subterfuge to help me get my point across. Which strategy for overcoming the prophet in his own land syndrome might work best?  Disguise my voice? Don a costume? Shave my beard?

And mine is a manageable situation; I feel heard - if not heeded - much of the time. I've heard enough frustration from some ignored parents to suggest they try plastic surgery as a strategy.

On the other hand, I've also heard the relief and gratitude frustrated parents feel when a helpful third party breaks through where they could not, a fairly common occurrence. Although it's nice when our coaching is valued, in the end, isn't it more important these young people we cherish find their way, regardless of the source? As for me, given a second chance, I hope I'd be smart enough to heed my own parent's coaching more. I'm reasonably sure they would have enjoyed more often being valued as the prophets in their land.   

Sunday, December 11, 2016


What was the last film you saw that you're sure you'll never forget?

Although it is exceptional end-to-end, there is one scene in "Manchester By The Sea" that I have trouble imagining anyone could ever forget. The main character - played by Casey Affleck - unexpectedly bumps into his ex-wife - played by Michelle Williams - out walking with her infant in a baby carriage. Their brief interaction is so raw and real I didn't realize I was holding my breath until the tears started streaming down my face. Although my wife and I saw the film last night, I needed a full day to process my reaction to it. The closest recent analogue I can recall was how long it took me to recover after reading Anna Quindlen's 2010 novel "Every Last One."

In large part because my daughter has chosen it as her field, my appreciation for acting has deepened over the past fifteen years. Affleck's performance in "Manchester By The Sea" is a marvel. See this movie. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Thanks From The Big Head In His Tiny Puddle

It's been a while since I've said thanks to folks who read this blog, no matter how regularly. Every time someone tells me they've gotten something from a post, my already over-sized head swells. I'm especially grateful that a few years back my daughter discovered the widget on blogger allowing people to follow me via getting an e-mail each time I publish. Since adding that widget to my interface, I've seen a significant spike in views. Welcome to new readers who found me that way.

And sometimes, especially after reaching a personal milestone in total views - as I did this past week - or, if an individual post gets a fair amount of attention, I find myself reflecting what it must be like to have the reach of an artist like Paul Simon. When someone attains that level of notoriety, how do they remain grounded? It must be so difficult for folks in that rarefied realm to distinguish sincere admiration for their work from the sycophancy of the crazies. No wonder the famous often marry the famous.

Excuse the idle speculation from the bell curve. The big head in his tiny puddle says thanks and, as always, sincerely welcomes feedback on how to keep you reading.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

19th Century Concord; 21st Century NJ

What's become clearer to you since we last spoke?

Emerson frequently used that fantastic question when he encountered people on the streets of Concord. When I need either an emotional lift or an intellectual jolt, few things work as reliably as spending time with the Transcendentalists. Which group of American thinkers has ever rivaled the freshness of their ideas or their moral bravery?

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

Feminists almost a century before women got the vote, abolitionists thirty years before the Civil War, naturalists, educational reformers, advocates. More than a few times, I've fantasized about having conversations on these visionary subjects with people like this. Would I have had what it takes? Would you? At minimum, this blog has been a method I've used regularly to sort out what's become clearer to me. What has become clearer for you recently?

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

Monday, December 5, 2016

No Wine Or Whining Book Club

After seven years and lessons learned from eighteen clubs, I've concluded the best way to continually deepen my appreciation for books I've read is to try starting my own club. Added advantage: No one can ask me to leave.

I'm aiming for perfection. Here's how that would look:
* Six to ten people at most meetings.
* Discussions about "likable" fictional characters and grandchildren's hobbies are minimal.
* Challenging and provocative books are welcome alongside engaging or entertaining ones.

With all the remaining variables my responsibility, I'm feeling positive about the potential. If the club is successful, drawing more discerning readers as time goes on, great. If the club doesn't get off the ground or is gasping for air after several meetings, the buck stops here.

Wish me luck and let me know offline if you're interested. Readers who don't live locally and those I don't know personally, stay tuned for periodic updates.   

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 3

Even with the number of words available and the hundreds or thousands of song lyrics we've heard over our lives, the four words below can still only conjure three possible songs in the minds of most people.

I say huckleberry and you say ....

I say unphotographable and you say ...

I say Joe DiMaggio and you say ...

Oh yeah, I've got a long list of these unmistakable references from pop songs . But I'm just greasing the wheels. In your mind, what word or name is so inextricably linked to a specific song that there is only one plausible response? No phrases or sentences, and the word can't be part of the title of the song. Fair is fair. Bring 'em on.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Lists, Cafes, Synergies

The NY Times "100 Notable Books Of The Year" is a list that reminds me how time zips by. This year I didn't read a single novel of the fifty from that list. There are two - "The Nix" (Nathan Hill) and "Nutshell" (Ian McEwan) -  that will be moved up on my own list now that the Times has endorsed them. Both had been previously recommended to me by my reading posse; that's some group, right?

At least I got to two the Times featured on the non-fiction side. "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi was the subject of my August 9 post. Not a happy book but clearly a notable one. And most recently, I was enchanted by the company "At The Existentialist Cafe" (Sarah Bakewell). I picked up Bakewell's latest book based on loving "How To Live", her 2010 biography of Michel Montaigne.

"Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so." That sentence seems to shape Bakewell's writing approach. Just as in the Montaigne book, "...Café" is an educational but lively romp with people at the center. In this book, she showcases the thinkers who informed and then shaped what became known as existentialism. And in a wild coincidence, at the same time I happened to be reading Bakewell's account of Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, I had reached the point in a Great Courses series on philosophy where I was listening to lectures on the same three giants! Did this visual/auditory synergy make Heidegger's dense writing more comprehensible to me? If only. 

Still, the eye to ear repetition of parallel information can only be good for my brain. Bakewell saves her highest praise for Simone DeBeauvoir, Sartre's lifelong intellectual companion. I was tempted to add DeBeauvoir's magnum opus "The Second Sex" to my reading list after finishing "...Café" until that damn NY Times list came out.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Message From 2016: Daddy Wants Your Tally

Over a lifetime, each of us on the bell curve have prolonged contact with several groups of people, usually beginning with our immediate families. For many of us, that first group is frequently followed by our classmates, neighbors, and friends made outside of school or neighborhoods. Later in life, other common groups may include extended family, work colleagues, parents of our children's friends, and people from groups encountered via work interests, hobbies, or otherwise.

Considering all those groups - and add in anything I've overlooked - how many total people would you guess you've had prolonged contact with over your lifetime? For those of us thirty five and older, a guess is probably the best we can do. But if Facebook and other social media platforms continue to thrive, in 2056 when my millennial twenty seven year old daughter is my age her guess will be much more grounded than any of our 2016 versions. She'll be able to scroll through her networks - how many will she be juggling by then? -  and tally how many individuals she actually had prolonged contact with over her sixty seven years. Will she bother? Almost certainly not, unless I can figure out a way to have this blog post appear on the screen of whatever device she's carrying forty years from now. If anyone can help me with that, I'd be grateful.  

My daughter - like many in her generation - grew up with this technology and has embraced and adopted each social media platform as it was introduced. Consequently, her network is massive. And that has helped her career, allowed her to stay in touch with many people from earlier years and - at times - exhausted her. Still, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I envy her ability to do that tally anytime she wants; I like more precise numbers.