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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".

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Of 2017

With a few exceptions - the most notable of which was an unwise decision to attend my 50th high school reunion - 2017 was a good year. As in years past, I hope some of you will tell me and others some of your highlights from the year just ending. Use my categories or invent your own.

Best time away: A February visit to three National Parks in New Mexico & Texas, culminating with a hike that took my wife and I to an indescribable view in Big Bend National Park. Photo below.

Best musical moment: Completing the recording of eight of my original songs with my daughter on vocals, a long-postponed project. I'll be putting a link for the CD (entitled "Til There Were Two") on this blog site sometime in 2018. Stay tuned.

Best cyber-related event: It may have been a fluke. Still, monthly views on my blog hit 10,000 early in 2017 for the first time. Puny number compared to how many twittees follow Agent Orange but my modest benchmark made me as happy as Alex Jones and his fake news makes the tweeter-in-chief.

Best book club meeting: Tie - Battling over "Bright Sided" (Barbara Ehrenreich) in July; reveling  about "All The Light We Cannot See" (Anthony Doerr) in December.

Best tall tale told: Inventing and convincingly using the abbreviation AMP - aberrational migratory pattern - I persuaded some avid ornithologists I'd sighted some Alaskan birds of prey. Imagine: If I had 43 million followers, my made-up bird shit would soon morph into an alternative fact.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Listening For Dangerous Words

"History does not repeat, but it does instruct."

Given the devolution of the public discourse over this past year, it's fitting to use Timothy Snyder's "On Tyranny"  (2017) as my final post of the year honoring the written word.

Snyder's pamphlet - a birthday gift from my oldest nice, bless her heart - is a worthy successor to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense". Just as Paine's words gave no comfort to the tyrant he addressed, this talented writer's words will provide little balm to the tweeter-in-chief, that is, if he ever stops watching TV long enough to read anything longer than 140 characters. Although it's dispiriting to recognize how little we've learned from the twenty lessons of the 20th century that Snyder so expertly outlines, these lessons - and the exploration of each -  are critically important. I hope at least one reader of this post is persuaded to spend an hour or two with this author. If that reader is you, please tell me and others which of Snyder's twenty lessons landed hardest with you.

For me it was lesson #17 - "Listen For Dangerous Words". I won't cheapen Snyder's powerful examination of this lesson by summarizing the two and one half pages the author uses to make his case. But, if like me, you're feeling unmoored by what passes for reasonable give-and-take in this age of alternative facts, pick up this tiny volume and educate yourself. It may not help but it sure can't hurt.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Six

"Something's lost or something's gained in living every day."

What aphorism disguised as song lyric has ever captured the yin and yang of life as well as those nine words from Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now"?

Over her exceptional career, Joni Mitchell has written dozens of songs with nearly flawless lyrics. But while recently listening to a fully orchestrated version of "Both Sides Now" on a 2000 recording of the same name, the line above jarred me with its precocious wisdom; Joni was barely out of her teens when she wrote it. I'm astounded someone so young could write a lyric that so succinctly nails the delicate balancing act called life.

Which terse lyric line from Joni Mitchell's massive oeuvre would you nominate? End-to-end, "Both Sides Now" is not my favorite Joni composition. "A Woman Of Heart and Mind", "Edith And The Kingpin", & "Refuge From The Road" probably lead the pack for me. And "The Circle Game" is arguably a better lyric start to finish than "Both Sides Now". But I'll stand by the line opening this post as words for the ages.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

An Early New Year's Resolution

There are a few authors I tried in 2017 that I'm reasonably certain I'll never read again. There is one musician from 2017 that I'll avoid ever jamming with again. Barring unforeseen circumstances, 2017 marks the end of my attempting even a remotely political conversation with a few folks.

But I'm 100% certain, i.e. there is absolutely no doubt 2017 will be the last year I ever attend a high school reunion. At my age, the likelihood of another reunion taking place is admittedly slim. But, if anyone from the IHS class of 1967 decides to undertake the coordination of a 60th + reunion and that person happens to be reading this, please note: DO NOT CONTACT ME .

What happened to me in that banquet hall back in September is still unclear. How many times in your life have you had to re-learn the most fundamental lesson about following your gut instincts? Mine told me not to attend that 50th reunion. Then, after being persuaded to go, I published a post about a planned strategy - never used, mostly because I was nearly mute that night -  asking for your input. I tried to internalize what others suggested - here and via Facebook - but, in the end, not going in the first place would have been wiser.

What did you do in 2017 that you are certain you'll never do again? Care to join me and resolve to trust your gut more in 2018?


Friday, December 15, 2017

Four Years On


Although watching "Mudbound" was almost as difficult as reading it, I'm so glad Hillary Jordan's important novel was made into a film and released now. Movies reach so many more people than books.

The screenplay by Director Dee Rees and Virgil Williams expertly captures the multiple narrative voices from the novel using voiceover. Wisely, the language in those voiceovers is frequently lifted directly from the book. The ensemble acting, directing, and texture of the film are all first rate.

I sincerely wish there was a way to guarantee every white person in the US watched this film. Might not change a thing but I'm a little light on ideas to ease racial tension, although Twitter suddenly and happily crashing might be a good start.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Lucky Guy

After adjourning our last meeting of the year earlier this evening, I began reflecting on the benefits I've derived running my own book club since January. If you've ever had a similar experience, I'd enjoy hearing how you've benefitted.

* Doing the research before each meeting provides a legitimate reason to indulge my interest in authors and the writing process.

* Facilitating the meetings - as long as I remember to keep my facilitator hat on - ensures I will learn what others took from the book. And, because I select only books that have moved me - for better or worse - more often than not, my appreciation for the books grows after the discussions, especially when the questions I prepare hit their mark.

* Because my wife is in the club, our conversations - before and after the meetings - are another way to deepen my understanding of each book. For example, Anthony Doerr's 2014 novel "All The Light We Cannot See," which was tonight's selection, is infused with vivid detail about the natural world. On my first pass, I didn't pay as much attention to that element of the novel as my wife later did when she read it. But following one of our pre-meeting conversations, I took time to tune in to that while reviewing my annotations and notes. Wow. If you've not read "All The Light ..." - but plan to do so soon - be sure to luxuriate in that piece of this author's gift.          

It's very possible looking at these books via the lens of my partner of forty years might be the biggest benefit of all.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The State I'm In

Which other US States could you envision living in?

Although New Jersey has been home since childhood, recently I've been more seriously considering States that entice me enough to re-locate. Given the moving history my wife and I have had over our forty years, we're about due for a change. So having visited all but three of the other forty nine - with my first visit to Hawaii weeks away - I've got enough data, right? Why not use my flawless taxonomy and join me in some harmless daydreaming? I've listed just four for each level; feel free to list more.

States that have significant appeal (alphabetically): Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon

States that could work in a pinch: Connecticut, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Virginia

Not a chance: Florida, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma

Where will Hawaii land? Although I'm looking forward to visiting, I suspect being that far away from my daughter guarantees it will not make level #1 (unless she moves there and I'm enthralled). Too early to speculate on either Alabama or Mississippi until after my first visits to each, two probable 2019 vacation destinations. But the year-round heat of the deep South - or the extreme cold of Alaska or Minnesota for that matter - means those States will probably never get higher than level #2,  even if both knock me out.        

Saturday, December 2, 2017

That Old Devil Confidence

Although this post may be a bit whiny, it would have been far worse if my daughter hadn't called just before I approached my laptop. You can thank her for saving me from myself via a comment, if you decide to continue reading.   

How many of you battle over-confidence and its closest relative, arrogance? No? How about the flip side, i.e. the immobilizing insecurity that sometimes plagues people who struggle with confidence? My search for a sane and sustainable level of confidence is rarely off my already full plate. It's utterly exhausting. Maybe one of you can offer some useful insights to dislodge me from today's monkey mind, prompted by a perusal of the NY Times "Notable Books of 2017". A few disclaimers first.

* I know the list is subjective.

* I also know the NY Times doesn't hire just anyone to compile these lists.

* My frame of mind was above average before reading the list: Good night's sleep, beautiful day, I'm looking forward to my playing gig tonight. Ready?

I read the list. Of the fifty novels noted, I've finished three. How does the confidence gauge look? OK - at least I've read a few. Seconds pass. Of the three, only one ("Ill Will" by Dan Chaon) would have made my notable list. Confidence level dips toward empty, fast. Next question to self: What did you miss in the other two novels, Pat? Phone rings. Daughter rescues blogger from prolonged navel gazing and you from an insufferable post.

OK, bring on the insights. That is, unless you're a walk-on-water-never-struggle-with-the-balance-between-confidence-and-insecurity type. And don't forget to thank my daughter.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Required Reading For Principals

Watching the documentary "Waiting For Superman" soon after its release in 2010, I clearly recall being incensed at one scene. A room full of tenured New York City school teachers are playing cards, watching TV, sleeping. The voiceover describes how this idle group has been deemed unsuitable for the classroom but instead of being fired, they are hidden away, collecting a full salary. That scene - along with an unflattering portrayal of AFT President Randi Weingarten later in the film - persuaded me at the time to accept the filmmaker's point of view, i.e. unionism run amok is poisoning the public school system. Shame on me for being so gullible.

More significantly, thank goodness my retired schoolteacher sister suggested "The Teacher Wars: A History Of America's Most Embattled Profession" (2014). Dana Goldstein's compelling, balanced account was needed ballast for the agitprop of "Waiting For Superman". Although never out of the spell, "The Teacher Wars" was most educational for me when Goldstein covered some of the turmoil in the 19th century. Without books like this, where would I learn how the 14th amendment divided some early feminists and how that is connected to teaching? Without authors this insightful guiding me, would I understand the differing educational visions of Booker T Washington & W.E.B. Dubois and the legacies each created in the African-American culture? I doubt it.

And, in the second half of her excellent book, in a fair and factual way, Goldstein does address some of the problems teachers unions have either created or exacerbated. In a perfect world, "The Teacher Wars" would be required reading for every public school principal and administrator in the country. But I'll settle for those folks internalizing only the final message of the epilogue - "Be Real About The Limitations Of Our System". Everyone else: If you swallowed the Kool-Aid that 2010 documentary was serving, you owe it to yourself to read this book as an antidote.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Still Wondering


Has there ever been a thinking person who hasn't wondered - at least a few times - if they've made a difference in the world? Without spending a lifetime in therapy, who can know when they've crossed the line that separates this understandable human wonder from an unhealthy pre-occupation?

Though I wasn't surprised, until an attentive reader pointed it out, I didn't realize I'd used the same title - "Making A Difference" - for two blog posts published a few years apart, including the one above from exactly three years ago. However, after reading both, I was surprised to discover the posts had a common thread - teaching.

A few days after reading those posts, I heard someone describe their work as  " ... not real meaningful or anything that contributes to the world ..." I flashed to my early years teaching sexual harassment, close on the heels of the Hill-Thomas hearings. Given the current news tsunami, in that moment, I was proud of the time I spent educating others about this important topic. Did I make a difference? I don't know. But, the work felt very meaningful at the time. That's coming in handy right now; today has started out as one of those wondering days.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Key Learnings: Year 68

What did you learn - or maybe re-learn - between your last two birthdays?

On my last seven birthdays, I've tried to identify some key things I've learned over the previous year and shared them publicly here. This exercise is always more fun when others join me; I hope a few of you will do so again.

* From my daughter I learned how a Mark Twain motto I've lived by - "The harder you work, the luckier you get" - may have interfered with my ability to see the importance of serendipity in everyday life.

* From Susan Cain's excellent book "Quiet" (2012), I learned to better appreciate the dissonant aspects of my extroverted personality.

* Via a long conversation with a new friend, I learned a way to re-frame some lingering regret I've long held regarding some earlier-in-life choices.

It's especially appropriate today to say how thankful I am for all I've learned over the last year.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Goal For Year 69

This is the seventh year in a row I've published a goal (or in a few more ambitious years, goals), on this day before my birthday. Because my batting average is now below hall-of-fame territory - having not made last year's goal - I'm going modest this time. Why not join me, set your sights low, and we'll celebrate together next November 22 after we both get to our respective finish lines?

Over my 69th year, I plan to re-initiate contact with twelve people who have fallen off my radar over the last several years. I don't care if that contact is as superficial as an e-mail to/fro or more involved, like a dinner etc. It's all about letting others know they've been on my mind.

For many years I've used a holiday letter for this purpose; that strategy hasn't been real successful. I suspect many people get overwhelmed around the holidays, as do I sometimes, so I'm going to space out my outreach and shoot for once a month.

Why not share here a modest goal you have for the next year? Maybe you'll give another reader a good idea. That would be so cool.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Ostrich Confesses

If "Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed " were new it would be easy to recommend. Books this well organized, meticulously researched, and educational don't come along frequently.

But the semi-hopeful conclusion of Jared Diamond's 2005 masterwork - partly predicated on a belief that leaders in the world were beginning to see the need to unite in the battle against climate change - feels a little hollow in late 2017. Diamond also asserts that a society's reaction - top to bottom - to early signs of a collapse, brought on by climate change and three other crucial factors painstakingly outlined in the book, play a critical role in reversing a decline. Had I read this book when it was published, I suspect I'd have been more optimistic about those top to bottom reactions.

Several months ago, I put down "This Changes Everything" (2014) by Naomi Klein after reading the first few chapters - too unsettling. Why didn't I just keep my hand in the sand and avoid "Collapse" as well?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Noose Of Conformity

fashion: a prevailing custom or style in dress, etiquette, etc.

My lifelong relationship with fashion has been conflicted. How would you describe your relationship with this wholly arbitrary concept that drives so much of our behavior, especially as consumers?

The first synonyms listed for fashion in my dictionary are fad, rage, craze. Though all of those words are major turn-offs to me, it would be dishonest to claim I've never succumbed to the groupthink that fads/fashions thrive on. But over my long life, each time I've changed the width of my ties or the cut of my hair, the herd mentality driving me to do so has not escaped me. I wish I'd resisted boarding so many of these silly bandwagons. But mostly, I didn't.

Each time I stop to consider how fashion mindlessness contributes to my own runaway consumerism, I try to talk myself out of whatever craze has hypnotized me. But fashion-driven messaging speaks to me - as it does to many - via the noose of conformity. And so, even when peer pressure is working me, unless I'm vigilant, the next thing I know, the latest and greatest is further cluttering my already over-stuffed life.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Modern Love

Fantasized about living in a different period of history? If so, what specifically appeals to you about any earlier era?

Maybe it's unimaginative of me but this particular fantasy has little allure. I could stand a little less traffic, political rancor, and intrusive technology, but in most respects, the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century suit me just fine. For example ...

Despite sincere efforts to embrace the literary canon, most of my favorite books - novels and non-fiction - have been written during my lifetime. Film? A handful of pre-1950 movies still work for me in a big way but the overwhelming majority of films that really move me were released beginning in the early 1960's and, in my mind, movies keep getting better every year, noisy blockbusters aside. I love a lot of music written before the rock n' roll era but it's the later interpretations of many of those compositions  - and the modern day advances in the sound of recordings - that juice me. Traditional Dixieland jazz is energizing; modern jazz is transformative. Imagining the world of music before the Beatles? I'll pass.

House styles? Victorians, colonials and Capes are all nice but the only time I ever looked at a house on my own the architecture was modern all the way. Something about the lines in houses of that type just speak to me. Even when I'm out of my depth, spending a day at the Museum Of Modern Art stimulates me much more than visiting museums featuring art from earlier periods. I love the variety of foods readily available nowadays, the relative ease of long distance travel, recent advances in dentistry, how fast the lines move in the grocery store.    

With a nod to the late David Bowie, I say let's dance to modern love.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Parenting From Three Angles

"The Florida Project" is a film that begs to be discussed. Who gets to make the distinction between an ill-suited parent and a neglectful one? How can anyone reasonably measure the damage done to children by loving but ill-suited parents? What would you do to keep your children warm, fed and safe? That is, what lines would you cross or not cross? This provocative, beautifully executed film has further persuaded me that those of us who have never been truly desperate are unqualified to say which lines we would or wouldn't cross. I hope one person who sees this movie and reads this post will try answering at least one of my questions. I'll treat that as the follow-up to the discussion my wife and I had after leaving the theater.

Not a film enthusiast? OK, pick up "The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley" (2017 - Hannah Tinti) an old-fashioned novel - in the best possible sense - that approaches parenting from a totally different angle. For me, Tinti's worthwhile book was close to the bone; the intense bond Hawley has with his only daughter Loo had me from the start. But, just like the mother-daughter relationship in "The Florida Project", Hawley and I approach parenting very differently. How many couples or single parents do you know who approached parenting as you did?

Not enough time for a movie or patience for a book? Got two minutes and forty-four seconds and $1.29? Download "What Shall We Do With The Child?", a Nicholas Holmes-Kate Horsey composition from 1968 sung by Carly Simon on "Torch". Listen to this unheralded gem and try answering the central question. In sixty years of living inside music, I have yet to come across another song written about the subject Holmes/Dorsey tackled here. If you know of another, please educate me. Now, if anyone out there completes the trifecta - sees the film, reads the book, listens to the song - we simply must have lunch. I'll travel, if required.    

Friday, November 3, 2017

Thank You

A few things I've learned over the last few years teaching adult education courses about music:

* It's harder to decide which artists and songs to leave out than it is to decide what to include.

* It can be difficult to endure the first recorded version of a song that has endured. 

* With each course, it's harder to overlook "almost" rhymes (e.g. home/alone, find/mine, etc.) which, in turn, has dampened some of my enthusiasm for earlier songwriting heroes. It probably wasn't wise to read Stephen Sondheim's memoir "Finishing The Hat" several years ago. But I can't put that genie back in the bottle, unfortunately. BTW, reading that book has also complicated my own meager attempts at songwriting.

My learning is also invariably abetted by participants. Comments and suggestions made in and out of class frequently lead me to re-consider my presentations. And I'm grateful for the continuing support of returning participants.   

Monday, October 30, 2017

In The Midst Of Solitude

While reading Richard Ford's 2017 book - "Between Them: Remembering My Parents" - Marcel Proust's description of the pleasure of reading  - "... that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude" - kept returning to me.

"Being both a late and an only child is a luxury, no matter what else it may be, since both invite you to speculate alone about all the time that went before - the parents' long life you had no part in."  Sentences like that from this brief and beautiful volume had me anticipating the next conversation I'd have with my daughter - a late and only child. Had she ever speculated about the eleven years my wife and I had spent together before she was born?

Ford's father was 38 when he was born; his mother was 33. I was 39 and my wife was 34 when our daughter was born. But Ford's vivid images and shimmering prose will remain with me long after those coincidental parallels with my own life fade from memory. For example  - "... what we all find in books, if we don't have faith: testimony that there is an alternate way to think about life, different from the ways we're naturally equipped." Reading that felt like I was communicating with the author, just as Proust suggests. "An only child's imagination is strummed melodically by the things they [i.e. the parents] don't say." Another sentence telling me it had been too long since I'd spoken with my daughter.

And finally - "I was fortunate to have parents who loved each other and, out of the crucible of that great, almost unfathomable love, loved me. Love, as always, confers great beauties." Ford's biggest gift to me? Reminding me -in the midst of solitude - to remember my parents.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Me Against Me

I may have to turn in my gender card admitting this, but competition has become a bit tiresome to me.

It's not as though I don't enjoy winning; I do. But the competing piece tends to bring other stuff to the surface that has gotten old. Like losing my temper. Or, if I'm teamed up with someone in a competitive situation, being impatient when that person doesn't do their part. Or, being inflexible about "rules" when it's only a board game. Anyone recognize themselves looking at Pat's competitive mirror? Sometimes it feels less like I'm playing others and more like it's me against me.

I realize I'm responsible for my temper, patience, and flexibility. So my first step is just to recognize when I'm crossing the lines. But the more I reflect on the whole competition enchilada, the more I'm inclined to just avoid competitive situations as much as possible. For example, lately I'm enjoying board games more if they are creatively based vs. knowledge or skill centered. And though I'm not sure how much more time will pass before I re-start playing tennis with some partners who beat me more than I do them, if I do come around it will only be when I'm reasonably certain I've grown enough to make it about fun and exercise vs. competition.

It's also possible that by the time I get this all worked out, I won't remember why I cared so much in the first place. Non-therapeutic insights, anyone?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Reckless Pat: Coming Soon?

What is the last thing on which you spent money - possession, experience, gift - that struck you at the time as being wildly indulgent? If you've never done this, have you ever fantasized about it? If you've never done anything like this or fantasized about it, feel free to skip the next paragraph and continue practicing that walk-on-water bit.

No doubt, being the oldest child of depression-era working class parents initially shaped my cautious spending habits. And my hippie college years and subsequent just-barely-scraping-by life as a young adult musician almost certainly reinforced the notion of living within my means. Then, not long after my daughter arrived - I'm now thirty nine and have a little discretionary income - I read of the cost of a college education in 2007. The fantasies would have to suffice until 2011.

Six years now since burning that last tuition bill. Is reckless Pat coming soon? Perhaps. Still, walking-on-water sarcasm aside, it gives me pause that my lifelong financial fantasies have always revolved around ways to indulge myself vs. helping others.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Starting To Close A Gap

Frequently while reading "The Lotus Eaters", I was forced to acknowledge my limited understanding of the way the tortured colonial history of Vietnam shaped our later military misadventure there. How is it I know so little about a country that dominated the news during the most impressionable period of my life? How many of you near my age share that gap? Gen X and millennials: How well are you tuned in to the complex histories of Iraq or Afghanistan and how that shapes or distorts our misadventures there?

"During the heat of the day, the air was so thick it tasted green on the tongue, like swallowing a pond." Throughout Tatjana Soli's gripping 2010 novel, evocative prose like that put me in country. And the compelling story of three people - each fighting a human battle as the war rages on around them - puts Soli's book in great company with classic war novels like "For Whom The Bell Tolls."  "Like a snake swallowing its own tail, war created an appetite that could be fed only on more war."

Though I haven't yet begun watching the Ken Burns documentary series on Vietnam, "The Lotus Eaters" has inspired me to do so. I'm also returning to Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History", a book I've started at least once before but now feel compelled to finish for my own education.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Old Becomes The New

The first time I heard Otis Redding sing "Try A Little Tenderness", I thought I'd discovered a new raw gem. I recollect how disappointed I was when my parents told me Otis had wrecked a song they'd enjoyed many years before. What songs do you recall knocking you down that you later learned were not "new" when you first heard them? What impact did learning that they were "old" songs have on your subsequent enjoyment? Did you go back and search out the earliest recordings of the song(s)? If you did, how did the original version(s) - in your listening - compare to your "discoveries"?  

Nowadays, I routinely experience kind of an inverse musical dislocation whenever my twenty eight year old daughter discovers songs from my formative years. Recently hearing "Long Long Time" for the first time - a Gary White composition made famous by Linda Ronstadt in the early 70's - my musically astute daughter was, quite justifiably, blown away. She asked if I'd learn it to accompany her. Though I have not played "Long Long Time" once since my solo years playing in bars ended in 1978, the chords rolled effortlessly from my hands, in Linda Ronstadt's original key. That would be the key of "A" for the music geeks out there.

Accompanying my daughter is always an unmitigated joy. Hearing her sing this "old" song - and who needs a lyric sheet when you've got an I-phone? - made me miss my parents. I want to tell them how all "their" songs - "Til There Was You", "Where Or When", "I Only Have Eyes For You", etc. - might have initially come to me via the Beatles, Dion & The Belmonts and the Flamingos. But I've returned to the originals, Mom & Dad. And even if I still like Otis's read of "Try A Little Tenderness" more than you two did, I've had a musical lifetime of pleasure enjoying the old become new over and over.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Searching For Peace

I've lost count how many posts about the word success I've written and then not published.

The first fundamental problem is the way most standard dictionary definitions connect the word success to concepts like prosperity, wealth, position, honors. I know that we the enlightened disdain such superficial notions. And we've got lofty philosophers by the dozens - cue the Emerson poster here - to support our view that success is so much more. Still, the dictionary is a primary source and a logical starting point so ...

The second problem has been the way many of those earlier discarded posts about this irksome word rapidly deteriorated into either a shrill whine or a semi-socialist rant. Long time readers, old friends, and family members will be relieved to know I exercised good editorial judgment junking those.

The last problem? My own shifting view of what success means, dictionary and Emerson aside. Each time I land on a reasonable formulation, something upends my complacency - most recently, a provocative conversation about success - and I start over, again. How about you? Have you found peace with the word success?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

#50: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Inspired by a recent re-reading of "The Old Man And The Sea", I settled on devoting this iteration of my long-running Mt. Rushmore series to the four best short novels I've read in the 21st century. As always, I hope some of you will chime in with your nominations. Only two requirements: Must be a novel published after 1999 and shorter than 200 pages, i.e. able to be read by most in one long sitting. Mine are listed alphabetically by author.

1.) The Sense of An Ending: Julian Barnes (2011) - I've read this jewel three times since its release and each time my awe deepens. Since Clive Owens didn't get the role of Tony Webster in the recently released film version that came and went without a trace, I'm pretty sure I didn't miss much.

2.) Signs Preceding The End Of The World: Yuri Herrera (2015) - The shortest book here - just under one hundred pages - is a stunning and graphic story upending many closely held and virulently ugly immigrant clich├ęs. Two years later, I still haven't gotten the narrator's voice out of my head.

3.) The Illusion Of Separateness: Simon Van Booy (2013) - The immense craft of this gem escaped me until I tried capturing its richness in a brief book journal entry. If "It's A Wonderful Life" has touched you, this novel will rock you, guaranteed.

4.) The Maid's Version: Daniel Woodrell (2013) - I frequently find my way to excellent authors via paying attention to the source material of noteworthy films. When the credits for "Winter's Bone" told me it was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, he immediately went on my list. This later book of his is a nearly perfect examination of the class divide in rural America.

Though it's been a while since my last visit to the Badlands, it feels good to return. Will be better if some of you share your mountain - or just a part of it - with others.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Community Vs. Technology

In your view, which piece of technology first pointed us toward the world we currently inhabit, i.e. a place where people frequently choose interaction with their devices vs. interaction with the people around them?

I nominate the Sony Walkman. When that device first became popular in the 80's, my initial reaction was feeling disconnected from all those people listening in public to their own private concerts. But, like most everyone, I adapted to the new normal. Still, as I began extolling those earlier assaultive boom boxes over the musical isolation of the Walkman to anyone who would tolerate my rant, I soon realized my default contrariness only partially explained my counter-intuitive defense of being pummeled by music that could rattle my teeth. The shift underway in the public sphere - in my mind personified by the Walkman-  was affecting my sense of community.      

How much more can technology separate us from each other? Although I suspect we're a long way from the end game - and that scares me a little - I'm also grateful many people close to me respect my views. I prefer music that is predominantly audible to all, conversations with those present, going to a movie theater to hear communal laughter or gasps or boos. The technology genie is never going back in the bottle. But I hope I continue to choose connecting with people.      

Saturday, September 30, 2017

This Dissonant Extrovert

Of the books I've read over six and one half years since the inception of my blog, only a dozen or so have been the subject of more than one post. There is so much to recommend "Quiet," I suspect this will not be my only post about Susan Cain's 2012 book, an exploration of "the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking".

Cain is not unkind to extroverts, but her mission to empower introverts forms the centerpiece of her persuasive book. As any skilled author must, she solidly builds her case throughout. After doing exactly that in  chapter two - entitled "The Myth Of Charismatic Leadership: The Culture Of Personality A Hundred Years Later" -  she concludes with this shot across the bow: "Just as Tony Robbins's aggressive upselling is OK with his fans because spreading helpful ideas is part of being a good person, and just as Harvard Business Review expects its students to be talkers because this is seen as a prerequisite to leadership, so have many evangelicals come to associate godliness with sociability."

Cain introduces each counter-intuitive premise with scrupulous research then convincingly presents her ideas. The prose is sturdy, the epigraphs used to open chapters are flawless (e.g. "Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything" - Robert Rubin - kicks off chapter four, entitled "Is Temperament Destiny?"), and the forays into neuroscience are delivered in manageable-sized pieces.

Finally, on a personal level, Cain's book was affirming. This extrovert has worked purposefully over his entire adult life on dialing it down and mirroring the behavior of the quieter folks I encounter. The author acknowledges the value of that kind of flexing, citing research on what Harvard professor Brian Little calls the "free trait theory" of personality. Then she says "... many of us have dissonant aspects to our personalities." Dissonant, huh? I like that.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Who's That In The Cheap Seats?

On a scale of 1-10 - "1" representing no confidence and "10" total confidence - how confident are you in knowing if a movie, book, piece of music or visual art is manipulating sentiment out of you? Is it easier for you to be more confident with one medium vs. the others?

As someone who cries easily, I've never been real confident knowing when any artist is aiming for the cheap seats. Even the obtrusive violins so loved by film composer John Williams work on me, unless my more discerning wife is at my side. And I'm a musician! I think I've made a little progress over the past ten years with books but even there my confidence level still hovers well below the "5" mark.

One of the most distinct and difficult movie memories of my life was sitting on my couch watching "Schindler's List" soon after it was released on video. I knew better than to go to a theater and have never watched it a second time. Would a different filmmaker have elicited less from me? Would that have made it a better picture? Was my intensely emotional reaction proportionate to the content? Or,  did master filmmaker Steven Spielberg so expertly use the tricks of his trade that the sentiment was manipulated from me? These days, I pay a lot more attention to this, across all mediums. But I'm still not reaching many conclusions. You?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Messing With Competing Maxims

Although my life is not guided by them, on occasion I find myself a bit confused by popular maxims that seem contradictory. Anyone else on the bell curve ever mildly frustrated by this type of cognitive dissonance?

For example how to resolve the apparent tension between "Look before you leap" vs. "Opportunity knocks just once"? Maybe a good approach would be to combine the two, i.e. "Look for opportunity that knocks just once and then leap"? Your thoughts?

How do you square these  - "The meek shall inherit the earth" vs. "Nice guys finish last"? I suspect the more religiously inclined would eschew Leo Durocher's more secular and competitive approach but, despite the Bible's seniority, both get fairly equal airplay. Therein lies my dilemma.

Appearances to the contrary, I'm not interested in mental torture. So, if you have competing maxims that bother you, keep them to yourself. Unless ...  you have a clever way to deal with the conflict.      

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Signs Of Early Onset Nomophobia?

Nomophobia is the proposed name for the fear of being out of cell phone contact. Although experts disagree about how accurate it is coupling this distinctly 21st century anxiety with well established phobias, I have little doubt some people have serious issues vis a vis their cell phones.

Dinner party, circa late 2016 - four couples. Six of us are seated in a cozy room, music is playing, the hostesses serve appetizers and return to the adjoining kitchen to continue preparing the dinner. My wife and I try starting a conversation. What are the remaining four people, i.e. the other two couples, all doing? Staring at or playing with their cell phones. I wish I were making this up but I'm not.

In her stunning 2015 book "Reclaiming Conversation", author Sherry Turkle cites research stating the average American checks their cell phone every six and one half minutes. Four people glued to their tiny screens at a dinner party may or may not be a sign of early onset nomophobia. No matter, it's still sad.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What If?

What might have been invented earlier if the Black Plague had not wiped out over a third of Europe's population in the 14th century? What would the US be like today if the Confederacy had prevailed in the Civil War?  What kind of government would have evolved in Germany if the Allies had not been so punitive following their victory in WW I?

Historians are fond of speculating about these "what ifs?", which they often call "counter-factuals". "The Winter Fortress" (2015) by Neal Bascomb is a gripping true tale that compelled me to wonder - What would the world look like today if Nazi Germany had developed the atom bomb first?

I knew nothing of the Norwegian mission to sabotage Germany's efforts before starting this book. The sacrifices these men made, the hardships they endured, and above all, the immense bravery they demonstrated are humbling beyond measure. Each time I read a book of this type, I'm reminded how mild my moral tests have been. What would I do if I were asked to participate in a mission like the one so expertly recounted in "The Winter Fortress"? If you read this worthwhile book, try asking yourself the same "what if?"  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Five

"I used to be disgusted but now I try to stay amused."

The Elvis Costello songbook is called "The Singing Dictionary" for good reason; few modern-day lyricists match his intelligence. And his trenchant aphorism-ready observations about contemporary life began when he snarled the line above to begin the song that opened side two of his debut album - "My Aim Is True". That recording was released in the oh-so-quaint 1977. 

I was hooked on Elvis the moment I heard him spit out those for-the-ages words. If you have a terse lyrical line from his massive oeuvre that you think tops my choice from "(Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes", I'd welcome hearing it. If your line is from a song I don't know, a prize awaits you. 

I submit the lyric opening this post fits the world more snugly now than it did when Elvis first hurled it at all of us forty years ago. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Home Away From Home

If someone were to ask you where you were when you first watched a particular movie, would you be able to recall?

Of the way-too-many films I've seen in my life, I can most reliably place those that I first saw while away from home. For this particular subset of movies, your favorite film geek can often visualize lying in a hotel room bed, being on an airplane, sitting in a movie theater I'll likely never again visit, as well as the film attached to those particular experiences. Does this happen to you?

For this reason, "The Glass Castle" - from the Jeannette Walls memoir of the same name - will now be linked with my recent visit  to the Adirondacks. Though the book is better - big surprise, right? - the film is well worth seeing. Woody Harrelson - in my opinion, an underrated actor of great range - is terrific and all three actors who play Jeannette Walls as a child, adolescent, and adult are also first rate.

For the same reason, the less said about the last movie I watched while on an airplane - "Hot Pursuit" - the better. And I like Reese Witherspoon.  

Monday, September 4, 2017

Doubts And Confidence

"The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid people are full of confidence." -  Charles Bukowski  

Though I'm not fully aligned with Bukowski's elitist view, I am always astonished when listening to people who sound certain about nearly everything. I'm as opinionated as the next person, but that kind of unbridled confidence leaves little room for nuance. Harboring doubt is not tantamount to weakness. Doubts allow new information breathing room. Holding a position is very different than being held by that position.

Putting doubts and confidence aside, I increasingly find myself more drawn to those who ask others about their views prior to offering any of their own. I aspire to be more that kind of person; seems to me I'll learn a lot more that way. How about you? Full of doubts or full of confidence or - like me - somewhere in between?  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Some Gifts Are Worth The Wait

Some gifts are worth the wait.

Two years ago - on the first Road Scholars trip my wife and I ever took - we connected in a big way with more than a third of the forty people travelling with us to two National Parks in Alaska. The bond with these folks was so strong that last year fourteen of us had our first reunion in Rocky Mountain National Park. And that trip was so magical we began the planning for this year's reunion after just three days in Colorado. We settled this time on a late summer trip to the Adirondacks.

Had anyone had told me just two years ago that one day in my near future I would willingly sign up for a trip focusing on birding and local flora, I would have told them they needed their meds adjusted. But these last four days have focused on exactly those things and I couldn't have been more happy. I have not become a birder. Adirondack region or otherwise, I'll continue to need my wife by my side to identify anything aside from grass or daisies. But the twelve folks we just spent four days with - ten of whom were also in Colorado last year - are such an interesting, enriching, and affirming group that I eagerly anticipate 2018's adventure. We've already started a conversation about the Pacific Northwest, my second favorite place in the US, and home to one couple who joined us in Alaska and Colorado but were unable to be here this year. I am seriously pumped to have all sixteen of us in the same place next year.

The last period in my life I can recall connecting so genuinely with a group of people this large was when I was an undergraduate. What comparable gift have you received that was worth a long wait?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Story Writer With Few Peers

Since early June - when I scaled back on the volume of blog posts I publish - one of my challenges has been deciding which worthy books I've recently read will go unmentioned here. But from the moment I finished the title story of "Tenth Of December"  (2013) by George Saunders weeks ago, there was no doubt. I've never read a book of short stories by the same author anything like this. Many compare Saunders to Chekhov. Except for their economy with words, the comparison doesn't ring true for me. Saunders's twisted imagination makes him sui generis.

Because the ten stories in this singular volume can be read in any order, I suggest starting with "Escape From Spiderland". If you're not immobilized by that gruesome tale of science run amok, then move next to "Puppy"; if you're a parent, prepare yourself for that one. But parent or not, you'll need a break, so rewind now to the opening story called "A Victory Lap". It's not warm and fuzzy but the three voices telling this story are brilliant and you need to brace yourself for "The Semplica Girl Diaries". I'm reasonably certain I'll never forget this penetrating story of class. It reads like perverse science fiction. Pretend Philip K Dick and Edgar Allen Poe collaborated to turn one of JG Ballard's weird stories into a parable about keeping up with the Joneses. It is an indescribable masterpiece.

After those first four, go back to "Sticks" and read everything in between. Just be sure to save the title story for last. The first time I get around to re-building my Mt. Rushmore of short stories, "Tenth Of December" will be replacing one of my original four. George Saunders doesn't do happy or cuddly but he has few contemporary peers in real, redemptive, and relevant. He is an unmitigated treasure.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No Rush On That App, Brad


Writing the post above five years ago, I was pleased to have overcome some of my stubbornness regarding cell phones, specifically texting.

Still, despite some newly acquired technology skills - permitting me to be more reliably in touch with my millennial daughter - it would be a stretch to call me hyper-connected. Given what I've noted over these ensuing years, I'm happy this is so, especially observing restaurant behaviors of couples.

I've lost count how many times I've thanked my wife since 2012 that she - despite her ease with technology -  is not so tethered to her cell phone that our restaurant conversations compete with her texting fingers. When the two of us are together, I'm apparently still more interesting to her than someone's latest Facebook bulletin about what they ate for lunch. It appears I'm able to hold my own, at least with her, vs. the latest rant from the tweeter-in-chief.  It would seem my interactions with her are not in competition with anything the cyber-world offers, at least not yet.

Now when that Brad Pitt live app becomes available, I could be in trouble. Until then, I'm good.    

Monday, August 21, 2017

Edgy Vs. Everyday

At the conclusion of the short stories of James Joyce, a character often experiences what literary scholars later termed an epiphany. In educational settings, teachers long for times when they induce something similar in their students - an "aha" moment. Whatever these moments are called, they are magical.

For years I've kept a little notebook to record my own. While recently re-reading some of those notebook entries, I noticed there were far fewer during periods when my life was going along routinely. And during rough patches, but especially following an edgy experience of any kind, the number of insights I captured increased, sometimes significantly. Is this consistent with your experience of "aha" moments? That is, does the edgy yield more insight than the everyday?           
I'm avoiding giving this particular observation any more attention than writing about it here. And I'm clearly not anxious to repeat some of those edgy experiences just to have more in my notebook. But I am going to try to tune in a little more to the everyday for future insights. Why not try that with me? Then we can let each other know how it goes

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

25 Years Of Sustenance And A Motto

"Thanks, I already have one."

To be useful, a motto must ring true and be terse. I found the above - now my latest greatest motto - in a chapter entitled "Stuff" from Anna Quindlen's 2012 wise memoir "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake". What a terrific reminder to help me avoid mindless consumerism.

Evangelizing on behalf of Anna Quindlen has become a habit. She has never disappointed me as an essayist, novelist, and now memoirist. Over a lifetime of avid reading, two of my most vivid reading memories involve her work.

The first is how I felt while devouring "Thinking Out Loud" (1993), my first exposure to Quindlen's incisive mind. As each essay in that book pulled me in deeper, I began fantasizing about how great it would be to have her as a friend. It's uncanny how much our way of looking at the world overlaps.  

My second clear memory is how profoundly her novel "Every Last One" (2011) shook me. As I finished it, I recall being able to do little else aside from taking a shower and going to bed. And now that I know more about Quindlen's husband and three children, thanks to the chapters called "Next Of Kin" & "Push" in "Lots Of Candles ...", I'm compelled to re-read the earlier novel about the delicate dynamic in that fictional family of five.

Which author has been as steady a source of sustenance for you as Anna Quindlen has been for me?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Four

"These are the good old days": Carly Simon 

I'm guessing "Anticipation" was not a contender as theme song for the tweeter-in-chief's campaign last year. Carly Simon's affirming words for the ages - suggesting we treasure life as it unfolds - don't mesh real well with a slogan that says things were great in the old good old days.

Because nostalgia has never had a lot of appeal for me, Carly Simon's aphorism captured me the first time I heard it. It has the ring of truth. The more I learn about history, the less I fantasize about some glorious past. When someone begins painting their picture of a bygone era they're attached to, I begin tuning out. Even when a soul mate begins extolling the late 60's, years very close to my heart, I'm not buying it. I was there; those weren't the good old days. These are.            

Got another lyric from Carly Simon's oeuvre you'd like to offer as words for the ages? Bring it on. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

50 Ways To Leave The Bad Stuff Behind

My 50th high school graduation celebration is about one month away.

OK, that's a scary sentence. But since committing to attending - partially due to the intense lobbying of an old friend who played organ in my high school and college bands - my obsessive mind hasn't had much rest. Most of that lunacy ended up in my journal - and one never-to-be-heard song - and then ... a worthwhile and semi-sane exercise came to me. I hope you'll join me, no matter how long it's been since your high school graduation.

Take your number of years and list that many things you've done since graduation that you're proud of. Or, if you have trouble getting to that many sources of pride, complete the list with stuff you're grateful for; these two often overlap  I plan to ask every classmate I encounter on September 9 this same question - might help keep this extrovert from blabbing ad nauseam. Now, after six and a half years blogging, I know no one will comment here unless I go first so here's three from my list. All fifty are available upon request - as if.

1.) I'm proud of completing my Master's Degree at forty eight years old.
2.) I'm proud of sticking with the guitar through these fifty years.
3.) I'm proud of helping to raise one solid human being.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Not A Pretty Picture

What is your first thought when approached by a panhandler? If I'm honest with myself, I'm obliged to admit these scenarios frequently test my patience. And my reactions to panhandling - impatient or otherwise - lead me to reflect on my compassion.

Though the conversations I have with myself - as I'm initially approached and after these interactions - vary, there are some predictable elements in the way I deal with panhandling. I avoid eye contact. Almost always, I wonder why I so rarely part with any money. My guilt is short-lived.

When approached while driving, and I give nothing even after glancing down at the spare change in my ashtray - eye contact successfully averted - my shame increases. What did I just spend on a cup of coffee for my drive? My self-image as a compassionate person is tested in each of these situations, and even more acutely when I'm stingy, which is the norm. Does the recognition of my base instincts contribute to the impatience I experience? What do your inner conversations sound like in these circumstances?

Friday, August 4, 2017

Score! (Thanks To Assist)

How often do you have trouble arriving at a firm opinion of a book you've finished weeks ago? I'm not referring to a book you're still processing long after you completed it nor am I asking about one that left you indifferent - that qualifies as an opinion.

Although this may have happened to me before I began using a book journal in 2010 to record my views - and I'm just not remembering - because of that journal, I can say for certain that "The Little Red Chairs" (2015), by Edna O'Brien, was, for several weeks, the first book earning an undecided verdict from me in over seven years. Consequently, I was grateful it was the book a good friend had suggested we read for our book club of two. I was confident my struggle arriving at a firm opinion would end after our always rich conversations. And that discerning reader/friend did not let me down.

Now I knew from the start of "The Little Red Chairs" that I was in skilled hands; the prose is nearly flawless. And O'Brien's finishing sentence - containing the irreplaceable adjective "savage" - rivals the iconic final words of novels as timeless as "The Great Gatsby" - "You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it."

Yet, in between the eerily foreshadowing epigraphs O'Brien chose and her assured start - when a charismatic stranger arrives in an innocent and sleepy hamlet in the Irish countryside- and her perfect final sentence, I couldn't make up my mind. How well did the two dream sequences - one near the start that revealed the stranger's vile past and the second near the end (no details - spoiler) - work as a literary device? How about the toggling between first and third person narration? What did the chapter entitled "Penge" - also near the end - contribute to the narrative? Is adding to the narrative a "must"? With respect to books - and music and film for that matter - I'm no wuss, opinions-wise. But in this unique case, much like a soccer or hockey forward, I clearly needed an able assist. This ever happen to you? Who do you have in the wings when you need such an assist?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

National Gratitude Day

Each August 1st since 2012, I've been lobbying here to establish a national holiday for this month. Doesn't it strike anyone else as unfair that we celebrate so little in August? And though disappointed my five earlier ideas - brilliant though each has been - have been met with indifference, giving up is not an option. My newest proposal is to declare August 1 National Gratitude Day.

How great it would be if each August 1 we were all reminded to publicly acknowledge our gratitude for the abundance in our lives. Imagine the positive energy that would be unleashed. I hope some of you will join me by commenting here on some things for which you are grateful.

* I'm grateful for the gardens my wife has created in each home we've shared together.
* I'm grateful my regular bike rides take me alongside the Atlantic Ocean.
* I'm grateful my post full time work life is rich and full.

I think this holiday is going to catch on. Hallmark - Are you paying attention?      

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Four Tires, Thanks

Think of the person you're closest to in the world. What cooperative activity designed for two people to do together would you avoid even with that person?

On the face of it, a tandem bicycle ride seems like a natural fit for my wife and I. We've taken several biking vacations, we both enjoy cycling as exercise, conversations would be easier if we shared the same bike. Is a bicycle built for two an enticing prospect for you and your partner?

Although I'm reasonably certain our marriage could survive a tandem jaunt, I'm nearly as certain this ostensibly romantic pursuit is not in our future. Whenever I've been tempted to suggest we try it - a fantasy that often pops up while we're enjoying an otherwise idyllic vacation - a mental replay of our one ballroom dancing class unspools in my head. That particular early-in-our-relationship fiasco helps to persuade me my wife and I need four tires between the two of us.

BTW, who controls the steering on a tandem? Oh boy.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

My Newest Penpal (I Hope)

Dear Monica;

In case the manager of the bookstore where you work here in Duck, North Carolina doesn't give you my business card, or, you decide communicating with someone you never met - even via e-mail - is creepy, I still feel obligated to let you know you have a reading soul mate in New Jersey.

Your pile of picks slayed me. I was so disappointed you weren't working the day I visited the store. A few questions anyway. Which element of the multi-dimensional "The Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao" most captivated you? How well do you think the film version of "Brooklyn" captured the magic of that small masterpiece? Who would you cast as the doctor/serial killer if "The Devil In The White City" gets adapted to the screen? (I see Owen Wilson, against type.)

And, when you tell others about "The Things They Carried", do you call it fiction or non-fiction? Which other books have you read that enriched your understanding of a foreign culture as well as "The Kite Runner"? How did that film adaptation compare with the book for you?

If you're certain you're going to be near the New Jersey shore on the second Tuesday of any month in the future, be sure to let me know in advance. There's a good chance you'll enjoy whatever book I've selected to discuss at my club; we'd love to have you join us. In the meanwhile, I look forward to learning about other favorites of yours.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Making My Week

Teaching continuing education classes about music for the past several years has been a highlight of my post full time work life. I walk away from each experience buzzing and look forward eagerly to the next chance I'll get to share my passion with other music lovers.

But a few weeks ago, a devoted student took me to another level. Her e-mail asked if I would mind sending the then as-yet-unpublished dates for an upcoming class on singer/songwriters. And why did she want the dates in advance? If possible, she wanted to avoid a conflict with my class while making travel plans for a fall vacation. Would I mind? Oh, please!

It's difficult to convey how much that affirming e-mail meant to me. Publicly acknowledging an act this kind is the least I can do. I'm now also inspired to be on the lookout for a way to make someone else feel as good as this thoughtful person made me feel. I hope you'll join me and tell me about it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Leopard Seeks Assist

For you, which comes first more often, the tendency to judge yourself or to judge others? Zen masters: Before you say these tendencies are one and the same, let me save you some time - I'm not as evolved as you and my guess is I'm not alone on the bell curve there. In my experience, the whole judging thing - in both directions - is a struggle for many folks. I'm grateful to people I've known who have assisted me with this struggle and I also try staying mindful by using techniques I've picked up from books.

Still, I have also wondered if some of us are simply hard-wired to judge more. I've tried to resist that notion because it would give me a neat rationalization; like most of us, I've already got plenty of those to help me excuse my bad behaviors. The psychometric assessments I've taken that purport to measure tendencies or preferences or personality traits? Those muddy the waters even more. How much credence do I attach to the results of those assessments? Can this leopard change its spots? How about your judging spots? As difficult to remove as mine are?

So, a few twists on my opening question. Which kind of judging have you had more luck beating back? The tendency to judge yourself or to judge others? What strategies have been the most effective?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Synaptic Sparks With A Low Flame

Should any of author Marilynne Robinson's quiet books ever get made into a film, Andrew Haigh - the director of "45 Years" - is the man for the job.

The mute intensity of this 2015 film meshes perfectly with Robinson's spare dialogue. As I was being mesmerized by the silence enveloping Charlotte Rampling as she meanders through the countryside near her home, I envisioned the rural sprawl of Gilead, Iowa - the locale of Robinson's trilogy. And the concluding shot of the film, with the entire story expressed in Rampling's face as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" plays, was as masterful as Robinson's concise prose.

If action, noise, or dragons are your thing, avoid this film. If stillness - in acting, writing, or directing - suits you better, this is one to see.  

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Three

"You don't need a Weather Man to know which way the wind blows." 

Bob Dylan was likely referring to the countercultural radicals, not TV meteorologists. But either way, his lyric above from "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has even wider applicability in our current age of alternative facts than it did in the turbulent 1960's. As such, I submit this is Dylan at his aphoristic best, the lyric of his that might live the longest. With the thousands of lines Bobby has unleashed on the world, I hope a few readers - especially Dylan fans - will make some alternative suggestions.

How much do the "Weather Men" in your life shape your views? If there is another mental exercise that has occupied more of my reflecting, I can't say what it is. When reading or listening I'm acutely aware of my biases. That doesn't mean I transcend them very often. Based on years of teaching the subject, I also know how each of us work harder to confirm our biases than we do to upend them. We seek out information that reinforces our views, often unconsciously, and also screen out whatever doesn't conform to our already constructed mental models. What are your strategies for escaping this human trap?

"So, after checking with others, it remains the responsibility of each individual to sift through the received wisdom, insofar as possible, and decide what's worth holding on to." That sentence, from Barbara Ehrenreich's brilliant 2009 book "Bright Sided" is one of the best I've read in recent years to help me fight the "Weather Man" embedded in my brain. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich goes on to add this caveat. "This can require the courage of a Galileo, the iconoclasm of a Darwin or Freud, the diligence of a homicide detective."  Shit.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Age Of Miracles

Sometimes a well told story is enough.

Author Karen Thompson Walker constructs her 2012 coming of age tale - "The Age Of Miracles" - on an intriguing premise -  the earth's rotation begins slowing soon after Julia starts 6th grade. As school recesses the following summer, the days are seventy two hours long.

Using Julia's authentic and unmistakably adolescent voice, Walkers builds a tender story onto her dystopian foundation. Her solid debut novel is bleak but never immobilizing  - " ' I bet things turn out OK'  I said, gripped by an urge to say some cheerful thing - it rose up from my throat like a cough. ' I bet it will be fine'."  As Julia and everyone around her tries adjusting to the "new normal", this young and talented author uses her central conceit to reflect on the remarkable resilience of the human race, all while skillfully balancing the cataclysmic and the quotidian. "Meanwhile , the oceans are shifting, the Gulf Stream was slowing, and Gabby shaved her head."

I took very few notes reading this book. The prose is sturdy, but the story and Julia's voice were far too compelling to leave. What was your last reading experience like that?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Family Values

My life experience has both confirmed and refuted the conventional wisdom claiming that opposites attract. Putting aside the initial attraction piece, I've met many couples with opposite temperaments that appear to get along very well and others who are miserable. Some couples with widely divergent interests seem to make that work, others, not so much.

But how many successful partnerships have you come across where the two people have opposite values? How would you fare in a relationship like that? Not everyone in my family shares the values that underpin my worldview. In fact, more than a few of those values are diametrically opposed. But I don't live with any of them and the values I hoped to pass onto my daughter, embodying my hope for a better world, are values her mother and I share. I have difficulty imagining it having been any other way.

I've known several people who have let differing values destroy their family of origin relationships. The stability those relationships give my life is too important to allow that to happen. I choose to remain attached to the opposites in my family. At the same time, I'm also grateful my values have always been, and remain to this day, closely aligned with my partner of thirty nine years.

Monday, July 3, 2017

My House & Your House


Although reading to her when she was young was an important part of my life, it was my wife who led our daughter through the Harry Potter series beginning in 1997. I eavesdropped enough to glean a few tidbits but most of that magic unfortunately bypassed me. Then, this week's Time magazine arrived and page ninety eight caught my eye - Hogwarts, here I come.  

How can any self-respecting geography geek overlook a map of the US, color coded to correspond to one of the four houses at Hogwarts? As someone who spent years administering and interpreting instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, how can I resist taking a personality quiz to find out which Harry Potter house fits me best? Can you resist that temptation? If not, click on the link at the top of this post.

Most significantly, I needed to know how closely my quiz results - which would determine which house I'd reside in - either supported or refuted my self grade on three of the four attributes, each of which was featured in my long running series called "My Grade (So Far)". Back in February 2012, I gave myself a "C" for ambition (The House of Slytherin). Then a month later I gave myself a "C" for bravery (The House of Gryffindoor - where Harry resides). In October that same year I gave myself an "A" for loyalty  (The House of Hufflepuff) , leaving only studiousness (The House Of Ravenclaw) as an attribute that escaped my long running exercise in self-scrutiny. And though I never graded myself on studiousness, if the sorting hat did work, I suspect I could have ended up in the House of Ravenclaw had the House of Hufflepuff been at capacity.

How about you? Which house do you belong in? Take the quiz and tell me how your self-grades for each of the four matches the quiz results. If you do, I'll reciprocate. Otherwise, I'm keeping my wand to myself.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Two Reading Dilemmas

"Prisoners Of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World" lives up to the hyperbole of its sub-title. End-to-end, Tim Marshall's 2015 book is the best non-fiction I've read this year, holding its own alongside some of my all time favorites.

The ten countries or regions Marshall uses as the centerpiece of his book each get between seventeen ("The Arctic") and forty pages ("The Middle East"). The most informative? Difficult to say. The most thoroughly researched? Harder still. The most nuanced politically? Impossible to single out just one. If another book of non-fiction has taught me more in the last five years, the title escapes me.

"But so far. although we have broken free from the shackles of gravity, we are still imprisoned in our own minds, confined by our suspicion of the 'other', and thus our primal competition for resources. There is a long way to go."

Current dilemma #1? Which work of non-fiction already selected for my book club will be replaced when I put "Prisoners of Geography" on that substantial list? Dilemma #2: Given my recent decision to scale back the number of blog posts I publish - a decrease not coupled with any change in reading consumption - which books will be featured here? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how will I decide what to leave out? Uh-oh. Not evangelizing on behalf of  "Prisoners Of Geography"? Not possible.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Birth Of Which Nation?

I have a clear recollection of the heat author William Styron took for "Confessions Of Nat Turner". Even now, many years since the book was published and enjoyed its heyday, and Pulitzer Prize for historical fiction aside, some people continue to call the notoriety Styron gained via telling Turner's story a blatant example of cultural appropriation. Reading "Confessions Of Nat Turner" in college was a critical piece in my early development as a thinking person. And the uproar surrounding the book confused me in 1967 and still does today. I remain grateful Styron exposed me to this piece of history when I was young; it's one of those little told episodes that might otherwise have easily escaped me in my white world. Cultural appropriation or not, I'm planning to re-read the book, inspired by my recent viewing of "Birth Of A Nation", the directorial debut of Nate Parker.

Nat Turner's story - through the lens of Nate Parker or William Styron - is a deeply disturbing one. I suspect the insane cruelty inflicted on slaves as depicted in Parker's film will remain with me longer than the word pictures Styron drew. On the other side, Styron's prose as he describes Turner's ill-fated and bloody march across Virginia's Southampton County in 1831 had a narrative momentum I felt was missing in the concluding section of Parker's film. Still, directing yourself is tricky. For my money, Parker pulled that off quite well.

Because of its revered place in film history, it's unlikely the 1915 "Birth Of A Nation"  - basically an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan - will ever lose all its cache. But effective today, my one-man campaign is to convince other film buffs, history students, and human rights advocates to begin calling that earlier racist rant " The Clansmen" - the source material for that abhorrent piece of movie propaganda. From now on, Nate Parker's "Birth Of A Nation" is the film that deserves that title.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Turn Is Coming

How long will it be before I become the doddering driver that currently triggers my impatience?

Are you a patient driver, no matter the situation? If yes, ignore today's perspective question. But I suspect only folks who walk on water and the delusional will have too much trouble substituting a different circumstance where people older than you test your patience, at least sometimes. Sitting still recently in a long line of cars waiting for a driver who appeared to make no distinction between yield and stop, I allowed myself to get frustrated.

After the throng finally got on the Interstate and I passed the individual who had remained motionless until there wasn't a single car within line of sight of the on ramp, I wasn't surprised at what the driver looked like. My holier-than-thou attitude toward the pokey codger gave me roughly two minutes of condescending satisfaction. And then suddenly I realized - unless my eyesight had let me down, that confounded slowpoke was no more than ten years older than I. Shit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Extracting Wisdom

The good news about starting my own book club and having it take off so nicely? More connections with people who share an abiding passion of mine. Bad news? My "to read" list - which was already a little unwieldy - is getting harder to manage.

Still, if I hadn't connected with one of these discerning readers via my club, Simon Van Booy could have easily escaped my radar. "The Illusion Of Separateness" (2013) is one of those tiny gems that compels you to finish it in one sitting. And though the novel's title telegraphs its theme, like many small reading treasures, the greatest joy is derived by luxuriating in the prose and extracting the wisdom in the words.

"He realized that what people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know."

"In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment - we are all defined by what we cannot change."

What wisdom have you extracted from a novel you've recently read?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gail Is Happy I'm Not Her Editor

As I was finishing "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey Of American Women From 1960 To The Present" (2009) by Gail Collins, I couldn't stop thinking about how this book would have treated Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 election. What historical lesson about the journey of American women would this smart author have extracted from that debacle? If her treatment of the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70s in this book is any indication, her tone about the results of our national sideshow last November would have been even-handed and sanguine. Though her politics and sympathies are clear, Collins is never strident and this is not a polemic.

"When Everything Changed" is insightful, well written and - probably because all the history Collins covers occurred during my lifetime - my attention never wavered. In addition, the anecdotes used throughout are revealing and often quite moving. I'm still not sure if the book as a whole works as long form non-fiction, but it's possible my quibbling is tinged with suggestibility. I've enjoyed Collins immensely as a NY Times columnist, and maybe that's interfering with my enjoyment of her in this format.

Oh yeah, I also love how the author leavens learning with humor - " 'Feminist' simply means someone who supports equal rights and opportunities for women. But there have been very few periods in American history when it didn't wind up being linked to images of crazy man-haters in unfashionable footwear."  Were I Gail Collins's editor, I would have suggested adding two parenthetical questions following each of those sentences. After the first - (MICHELLE BACHMAN - ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?); after the second - (DITTOHEADS - SOUND AT ALL FAMILIAR?) As you can see, stridency and I are close friends.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Mark's Maxim Missed

"The harder I work, the luckier I get." - Mark Twain

I've quoted those pithy words more times than I can count. That would be OK were Twain's maxim not frequently accompanied by my knowing smirk and snarky inner conversation. You'd welcome more luck, you say? Ha! Work harder, loser.

But my daughter has me re-thinking the price I might have paid living by Twain's words. Being so consumed with hard work can leave less room for joy. And it's also possible Mark's ethic made it more difficult for me to recognize signs pointing to abundance and the role of serendipity in life. It's clear - and totally understandable - that my Depression-era parents influenced me to look at the world through a lens of scarcity and that their focus was on unremitting hard work. But it's equally clear I can shift both that lens and focus. More important, any future coaching I offer my daughter will benefit if I add some ballast.

So, although I'm not retiring this particular Twain maxim, I'm turning down the volume. I'm also going to give more attention to how luck can enrich my life. Thanks, honey.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Two

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Well, all you lyric geeks had almost a month to think about it. In your view, which other John Lennon lyric is likely to outlast the one above (from "Beautiful Boy") as wisdom for the ages? 

The day this new series was inaugurated, I had no inkling my blog would soon be relegated to a tier two activity. But, on May 12 I did have an idea which aphorism-ready John Lennon lyric to offer a month later, as promised in that earlier post. Irony, anyone?

There's no way to know what I missed in my own life from May 12 to today while I was "...busy making other plans." What plans? Knowing which lyric I'd probably feature also meant excessive reflecting - beginning on May 12 - about what I'd write on June 12. All that ruminating? There's no doubt stuff escaped my attention. Which of your daily routines keeps you from paying attention? In the end, I decided to give my addled brain a rest; waiting until tomorrow to publish this was silly.

For the record, I'm avoiding giving any thought to which aphorism-disguised-as-song-lyric I'll feature here in a month or so. Honest. But you think about it, OK?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Time Inventory

I only recently realized - from a mental health perspective - that using math to calculate how much time I need to accomplish some of my ambitious goals is not a good idea. Maybe it never was?

Still (MORBIDITY ALERT!), doing some of that math did force me to more squarely face the finite amount of time that is likely left to me. In turn, that unflinching look has me reflecting on the relative importance of some of my day-to-day activities. When did you last take an inventory of this type to assess which things add the most value to your life? What were your conclusions?

I hope, as always, at least a few of you will respond to those two questions. And some wistfulness is attached to my hope this time. Effective today, there will be fewer questions from the bell curve; my blog is moving to tier two, a demotion prompted by my own inventory. I'll keep earlier promises made here, continue a few of my long-running and newer series, provide updates regarding any project for which faithful readers have expressed an interest, etc. Among those projects, the recording with my original songs - featuring my daughter on vocals - is nearly complete; I plan to make it available via the blog. Thanks to those who have repeatedly asked about that.    

I'm not going away completely so you won't have a chance to miss me. And any time you comment on a post - no matter how old - I get a notification, so keep doing that; please. Thanks for being a part of my daily life for over six years. It would be great knowing you're still there, so if you make a visit to the bell curve in the future, be sure to let me know.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Level Three Crabbiness


My first crab pledge promised to let readers know how grouchy any future installment in the crab series would be. I figured this was a good way to help people decide if they wanted to read a specific post. So, today's gripe is neither a rant about a pet peeve (Level One), nor is it a crabby judgment of mine about what many people would call a lifestyle choice (Level Two).

But, I really don't get why anyone carefully reads the obits all the time. My mystification about this (Level Three in my flawless taxonomy) does not include folks who take an occasional glance (that would probably be most of us) or anyone monitoring the obits because someone they know has been ill for a while. And of course, many of us will from time to time read a specific obit of interest. (Full disclosure: This past weekend I read Gregg Allman's). I also do get why very elderly people would be in the obit habit. As I recently heard ninety five year old Carl Reiner remark - "If my obit is not in the morning paper, I know it's time to eat breakfast."

But anyone not in at least their ninth decade scouring the obits all the time - including those in the local papers - and also not fitting any of the qualifications from the previous paragraph, enlighten me: What is the appeal?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Getting Better?

I'm not sure when my evolving mindset about spending a crushingly dull Saturday night at home began. Did I start getting too old to make excuses about my more frequently boring Saturday nights? When did past excitement about the magical night begin to dull? Why? Was it connected to the fact that Saturdays spent playing live music for others were farther and farther apart now?

I have no misplaced nostalgia for my years of playing almost every Saturday night. It's still easy for me to recall the uninterested faces of most of the people in those bars, etc.; few were there to hear my music. But even as my full time playing years ended, Saturday nights - even without a gig - still had a sparkle. See a friend, find a party, go to NYC. How long has this shift into a begrudging acceptance of Saturday night ennui been underway?

In my search for a silver lining, I have only this to offer. Not long ago, had someone told me they'd passed part of a Saturday evening as I did last night, I would have been insufferably smug. You were paying bills on a Saturday night? On a good day, I would have smirked at this pitiable situation. On a not-as-good day, I can hear myself snarling some sarcastic remark. Do I count it as personal growth that I'm no longer inclined to be as condescending now that my Saturday nights can be as numbing as last night was? Depends on how many neat rationalizations I need on a Sunday morning, I suppose.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Did My Parents Plan This Too? God Bless Them!

The melody of the song we all know as "Happy Birthday" came from an older song entitled "Good Morning To All". According to Wikipedia, the first published version of "Happy Birthday" used the name John to follow the word "dear" in the third line. Sing the song using that name and tell me if you share my suspicion that whoever chose it was not a musician. If that person was a musician, I pray that individual was not a drummer. 

The original lyric in the third line of "Good Morning To All" had "dear children". And that is what leads me to today's profound question. In your view, which names are most ill-suited to that third line of "Happy Birthday"? I'll get us started on this critical philosophical inquiry.

First off, one syllable names - like "John" - are not good. Try "Grace" and feel how uncomfortable it is having that long "a" stretched over two notes, regardless of the tie indicated in the music. Names with two syllables, if the accent is on the first - like "Patrick" - are a good fit. "Nadine" or "Yvonne"? Yeah, not so much.

Three syllables? Well, if the accent is on the second syllable - like "Rebecca" - then you have two choices. Either leave out the word "dear" or go with a two syllable version like "Becky" or "Becca". A name with three syllables can keep the "dear" if the accent is on the first. Try "Alison" and tell me how that feels rolling off your vocal cords. What's your opinion on unshortened four syllable names like "Victoria"? To me, singing "Happy Birthday Dear Penelope" just sounds so ... busy. It's a little better without the "dear", I suppose.

But my top contender for most ill-suited to "Happy Birthday" is any one syllable name, unable to be elongated - e.g. like how "Jack" can become "Jackie" - and also ending in a long vowel. Every time I've sung "Happy Birthday" to a person named "Lee" has been a painful musical experience. And, its even more torturous if you leave out the "dear" for a name like that. Don't believe me? Try singing it aloud and get back to me.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Words That Count

When in your life have the kind words of others really meant something to you? How often do you acknowledge aloud how much someone means to you?

The more I tune in, the more I notice how much kind words can mean to others. And though I've always been proud of my willingness to tell people dear to me how I feel about them, my growth edges in this area are to be more specific and more concise. I want to be certain my words of love, esteem, or condolence really count.

My awareness about this was renewed after watching a video made at my March 2010 retirement celebration. The kind words said about me that night later helped me in my words of condolence to a friend just a few weeks later. The two situations had nothing in common except those words that count.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Who Are You?

"A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension."

Part of the selection process for the books to be used during the first year of meetings for my book club has been to review my notes on anything I borrowed from the library since 2010. As that review unfolded - especially with novels I've read over these seven years - the unknowability of people kept re-appearing in my notes. Although I haven't yet decided which novel will represent this theme at a future meeting, based on my review, my top two contenders right now are "American Pastoral" (Philip Roth) & "My Name Is Lucy Barton" (Elizabeth Strout).   

Reviewing those notes and detecting that theme probably contributed to making the sentence opening this post jump right off an early page of Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead"  (2004) soon after I began it. Since reading her later novel "Home" a few years back, Robinson had been at the top of my list of must-return-to authors. Both books take place in Gilead, Iowa and feature families with fathers who are Reverends. Each novel is a thoughtful meditation on faith with prose that never raises its voice. If the work of Ernest Gaines or Kent Haruf or Norman McClean has moved you as it has me, be sure to add Marilynne Robinson to your list.

Please tell me and others which novel about the essential unknowability of people has spoken loudest to you. In what way did the author convey that idea that has remained with you, notes or otherwise?      

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Tiny Memorial

Having never lost a relative or friend who served in the US military is another way my life has been blessed with good fortune. Anyone reading this post who is mourning such a loss today, please accept my condolences.

Despite my good fortune, beginning in 1978, the approach of Memorial Day has often been difficult for me. Today, the holiday falls one day before my Mother's birthday. Usually, I'm relieved when the holiday and her birthday coincide - as happened in 2016 - especially if someone has a party; it helps a little to be distracted on May 30. 

"Life is unfair". So begins M Scott Peck's "The Road Less Travelled". Like all of you, I've had plenty of moments in life supporting his statement. But nothing has come close in the unfairness sweepstakes to my Mother having had just fifty seven years. On this day before the ninety seventh anniversary of her birth, this is my tiny memorial to her. She deserves much more.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

World History

There are events that  - even as we experience them - we're confident will be discussed in the future as history. Even as a self-centered adolescent, I was pretty sure the assassination of JFK was such an event. Few Americans alive at the time will ever be able to forget where they were when those planes struck. 

What public event from your lifetime has received less attention from a historical perspective than you think it deserves? For this thought experiment, use a distance of twenty five years, i.e. the event must have taken place before 1992. Now flip the experiment over. What pre-1992 event has - in your view- been widely over-played as living history?

When I try this experiment - in either direction - I'm struck by the way my filter has influenced and continues to shape my sense of history. For example, I knew King's assassination in 1968 was news, but when the movement for a national holiday in his honor later began, I remember being caught off guard in my white world. What King did was historical? In that same parochial vein, events from the last twenty five years that come first to mind as historical oversights - and the events that strike me as being widely oversold as important - are all US-based. It takes a rigorous and conscious effort to escape my narrow filter and think of events outside of the US.

What strategies do you find most effective for escaping a frequently myopic view of world history? Put another way, where were you on the day Anwar Sadat was assassinated? For the record, I have no clue where I was. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Blue Jasmine In Real Life

Although it's well acted and directed, days after watching the HBO movie "The Wizard Of Lies", I regret the two hours I spent doing so. If anyone has seen the film, I'm curious to hear what you took away from it. I hope some of the producers, including Robert DeNiro - who portrays Bernie Madoff - decided to donate some of the proceeds from the movie to the thousands of people whose financial lives were ruined when Madoff's Ponzi scheme came unraveled in late 2008. If not, then I can envision my regret curdling into a more profound disgust as additional time passes.

I don't know one way or the other if Ruth Madoff is actually delivering Meals On Wheels in Boca Raton, Florida as depicted near the end of the film. If she is, good for her. If she's not, shame on the scriptwriters. But either way, what exactly am I supposed to conclude about her knowing this? How are the filmmakers trying to shape my perception of her? Although it's depicted twice, this detail might have escaped me if I hadn't spent the last several years volunteering at Meals On Wheels alongside a lot of decent people. Is there a Ruth Madoff among them trying to start a new life and expiate some guilt? Maybe.

And maybe the filmmakers inclusion of that detail was trying to make the simple point that everyone has a story. The optimist in me wants to think that. The cynic who sometimes felt dirty watching "The Wizard Of Lies" is still reflecting.