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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Musical Jackpot

The one thing that makes working out at a gym tolerable for me is my I-pod. Today, I hit the musical jackpot.

Now you might think, music junkie that I am, every time I listen to my I-pod during an hour long workout - an average of 12-15 tunes in case you're wondering -  I'd be enthralled. And though I'm often quite pleased and reasonably distracted, because I use the shuffle feature rather than construct playlists, it's also rare for me to get through a workout without at least one song from my impeccable 1500 that captivates me a little less. Then, presto, a look at the clock. Shit - fifteen minutes to go! 

But not today. I got three jazz standards from my repertoire - totally tuned in there because it's a great way to further solidify those melodies and harmonies in my head. A Beatles song - no brainer. Two Jackson Browne tunes - keying in on his lyrics never fails to move me. "Surfer Girl" - how can I not pay attention to that flawless harmonizing? Two great "surprises" - "Overnite Sensation" by the Raspberries - perhaps the greatest power pop song of all time - and Pat Benatar's rave "Precious Time", with a killer guitar solo by Neil Giraldo that never gets old; both those songs held me tight because I don't hear them nearly enough. Same for "Guinevere", David Crosby's gem from the first CSN album.

Best of all was the sleeper that popped up late in this shuffle - Paul Westerberg's "Dyslexic Heart". I'd never paid close attention to Westerberg's sly lyric before today. I was beyond distracted during this musical feast - I was transported. Which songs do that for you?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In My Perfect World

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/racism-and-intolerance-conversations-tickets-31414064312

On Sunday March 12, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill, NJ - in partnership with other local religious groups - is hosting an event called "Racism and Intolerance Conversations". Tickets are available via the link above.

I was pleased a good friend - a former Deputy Attorney General from the NJ Office of Bias Crime - recently asked me to be a part of this effort. Working with the folks from this community who have volunteered to facilitate these conversations was inspiring for me, not least because the volunteers I helped to train had obviously done a fair amount of soul searching on this subject before agreeing to assist at the event. The personal stories each of the volunteers told during our practice sessions were powerful and moving. There is so much work to be done here.

For anyone looking for a useful educational tool to help them in their work on this important topic, I highly recommend "13th", a 2016 Academy Award nominee for best documentary. In my perfect world, Ava DuVernay's film would be required viewing for every American.         

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sid Has Left The Building

Though fully cognizant of the futility of be-moaning the unchangeable past, I'm equally aware of my tendency for sometimes doing exactly that. So, if that tendency annoys you, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. You can always return to this bell curve on a day when today's whining blogger is more Dalai Lama-ish.

Largely due to the project I began in late 2011 to fully memorize three hundred jazz standards, many melodic and harmonic musical patterns - previously unrecognizable to me - have started to become clear. Now that I'm more able to readily detect these patterns - and have even begun using them to strengthen my playing - I toggle from being gratified for my present day awareness to deeply frustrated with my past ignorance. Have you any analogue from your own experience that equates to this Jekyll & Hyde reaction of mine?

I hear the Buddhists ever so gently asking - Why waste time? Why not be grateful for your growth, Pat? Those same soothing voices intone: Be here, now, etc. It would be reassuring to learn that even Siddhartha occasionally experienced ambivalence. But lacking a good way to contact Sid, I'll settle for hearing from one of you. Please.         

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Antidote

A few reasons why "Hillbilly Elegy" (2016) by JD Vance would not have normally gotten into my reading queue:

* It's a memoir, a genre I've avoided lately. It's also the #1 bestseller on the NY Times non-fiction list, a distinction that often awakens my latent snobbishness.
* The author is a contributor to "National Review".
* The world of "hillbillies" usually does not entice me.

Finishing Vance's moving tale of a "... family and culture in crisis ...", I was again reminded how reading can be an antidote to narrow mindedness, especially my own. Although I didn't agree with some of the author's conclusions, and I don't share his faith in the role the church plays in helping rescue people from "learned helplessness", the book is a worthwhile and engaging read. Vance makes very clear he is telling his story, not presenting a research paper or sociological tract. And his story is a powerful one. He's careful to say there are "... no villains ...", while coupling that forgiveness with rich insights about himself. "Even at my best, I'm a delayed explosion - I can be defused but only with skill and precision."

I lost count how many times my parents crossed my mind as I read this book. I will never be able to adequately express how grateful I am for the stability they provided me. I'm very curious to hear what this memoir elicits in you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fifty Years In A Minute (Or Less)

Which significant milestone in your life have you most recently faced? How would you characterize your emotional or mental state regarding that milestone?

Half a century has elapsed? That was my first thought when a high school friend contacted me via Facebook about my 50th high school reunion this September. I tried recalling my 1967 graduation ceremony - no luck. I know I was still upset about the girl who'd dumped me not long before. I was looking forward to the graduation party my parents had planned at our home, knew I was headed to college that fall, sad my high school band was nearing its end. 

After that quick trip to the past - in quick succession - I ...

* Retreated briefly into a pity-pot cocoon
* Thought about whether I'd attend
* Began thinking of ways to convince the organizers to let me play guitar during cocktail hour

There's more, but in the interest of my pride and brevity, I'll spare you. Bottom line: I'm grateful to still be around and healthy fifty years later. And, if I do decide to attend, I've got months to work on my elevator speech, truncating fifty years into one minute or less.            

Monday, February 20, 2017

#47: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Following a three month break, seemed like Presidents Day was an appropriate time to return to this long-running series of mine. So, suppose a landslide destroyed Mt. Rushmore as it exists today. Which Presidents would you place on a new monument? For the purpose of this fantasy, no duplicates of the four who currently reside there are permitted. My nominations are ...

1.) John Adams: I freely admit David McCullough's biography of our second President had an outsize influence on this choice. That aside, if Adams had followed anyone but George Washington, I suspect history would have been much kinder to him. And first lady Abigail Adams - his most trusted political adviser - was a woman far ahead of her time.

2.) James Madison: Another early President whose legacy has suffered a bit partially because his fellow Virginians in that era were better grabbing the spotlight. If you have any doubt about Madison belonging on a new iteration of Mt. Rushmore, read "Founding Brothers" (2000) by Joseph Ellis. I think you might be persuaded.

3.) Franklin Roosevelt: What would have happened if FDR did not take charge in such a decisive fashion as we plunged into the Great Depression? He made lots of mistakes, not responding quickly enough to Hitler being the biggest. But, if the country had turned toward Lindbergh and the "America First" fringe, well ... Read Philip Roth's "A Plot Against America" (2004) and try not to shudder at what could have been.

Because I've purposefully avoided elevating any President who served after 1949 - the year of my birth - I can't come up with a fourth worthy of joining these guys up on my mountain. You can nominate someone from Harry Truman on, if you like. Because I've been around while #33-45 helped create history, my lens is foggy. But I'm interested in your perspective, foggy lens or not.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Committed To This Blog Graveyard

Since my initial aim - starting a robust online conversation - has never materialized, I have reflected a few times over the subsequent six years which need of mine sustains a continuing commitment to this blog.     

"I can hear your voice when I read your writing."

I stored that statement in a safe place when an old friend who lives far away said it to me a few years back. It's since come in handy during periods when my commitment to blogging is wavering. It also seems as though an astute online comment has a way of appearing at just the right time.

Still, there's more to my commitment than what others say (or don't). In last week's NY Times, author James Atlas wrote of how most books - including his own - are destined for a "... book graveyard ..." His phrase went immediately into my notebook. The conclusions in his article about his commitment to his writing danced in my head all week. Late yesterday, my commitment felt fuzzy, I picked up my notebook, saw that phrase.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/10/books/review/headed-for-the-graveyard-of-books.html?_r=0

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two Books, Hip Place, Old Hippie

The dictionary defines the slang use of the word hip as "familiar with the latest styles, ideas, etc." So, in order to be hip a person must pay close attention to those styles and ideas, right? And, what about that pesky "etc." in the definition? What's included there? And, most pertinently to this reflection, can a place or something not the "latest" be hip?

Apparently, a place can be hip. Finding myself sitting alone in a NYC bar that markets itself as a "hip hangout" recently, that branding initially made me hesitate before engaging the young couple seated next to me, especially with the ski jacket I had on, surely ten years older than either of them. Would these folks in this hip place talk to an unhip geezer?

I learned where they went to college, what each did for a living, a little about how they met, the usual. When the young man told me his family was from the Dominican Republic, I asked if he'd read "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao" (2007) by Junot Diaz. Unhip ski jacket, hip hangout, my nearby notebook and pen, their I-phones - all irrelevant. My connection to the young man was cemented when he said "I'm getting goosebumps thinking about how great that book is." The story gets better; you tell me if it's hipper. 

The young woman lit up to see her beau so animated by a brief discussion about a book, although she first thought we were saying "Oscar Wilde" not Oscar Wao. Stay with me now. After she said something like "I love his book about that bridge!", I asked "Are you thinking of 'The Bridge Of San Luis Rey' (1927) by Thornton Wilder?", another - like "...Oscar Wao" - of my favorite novels. Now it was her beau's turn to light up as he realized she and I had also had a mind-meld moment about a book, even if we'd gotten there via a more circuitous route and the books each of them cherished were published eighty years apart. 

The next time I noticed three hours had gone by. I won't share any personal information I learned about Jorge and Jordan - from Brooklyn & Baltimore , respectively - but moments of connection like this, however ephemeral, are one of life's greatest gifts, hip or otherwise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Charmed Life

Though I haven't dwelled on holidays - Hallmark has that niche nicely covered - I have managed to at least cryptically acknowledge most of the major ones once since the inception of my blog in March 2011. I've also invented a new holiday for every August 1 since 2012, that lonely month without a single day that compels many of us to visit a card store or gift shop or florist. 

But somehow February 14 has slipped by five times without a bell curve nod to my Valentine of thirty nine years. What kind of romantic am I?  Still, it could be worse. Imagine the reaction of Simone De Beauvoir when she first heard Jean Paul Sartre - her lifelong companion - characterize love as "... the fleeting miracle of coinciding emotions..."

Though JP and I are pretty far apart on this one, I'll save the mushy stuff for a private moment with my wife; she prefers that. But on this Valentine's Day, I would like to know one non-mushy thing that reminds you why you once fell in love with someone - present or past tense. When my wife and I sit side-by-side in a room, each immersed in a book, and we glance up and smile at each other - as we have many times since 1978 - that's no fleeting miracle. That's my charmed life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Beautiful Ides, No?

The way I figure, writing something affirming on the ides of each month for the rest of the year might help remove some of the sting the Bard attached to March 15 all those years ago. Why not help me starting today - the ides of February - and share something soothing, silly, or sanguine right here? If it's less gruesome than the assassination of an Emperor, it's acceptable. And, please don't search for the profound or grandiose. For example ...     

The next time you want the attention of someone in your home or at the workplace, why not use a black magic marker and write on a banana? Or, instead of a perfunctory response to the ubiquitous "How are you?" why not say "I'm better looking than yesterday". At least come up with something that better grabs the listener's attention than "Fine, how are you?" The next time you're entertaining, try using Tom Waits as background music. Then, time how long it takes for someone to ask "What the hell are we listening to?" My record so far is 22 minutes, 33 seconds.

OK, I gave you three, now it's your turn. Even if you don't respond today you've got until March 15 to work on an idea or two. To those who've complained my more serious posts and the questions therein hurt their heads, now's the time to join the fun, whiners.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Making A Difference

Who was the best teacher you ever had? What made that person's teaching so memorable for you?

Both when listening to interviews or reading memoirs, I'm regularly struck by the high praise notable authors, musicians, and filmmakers give to the influential teachers in their lives. I've also lost count of how many novels have moving passages about the power one attentive or committed teacher can exert on a mind.

"I'll not punish you for having a good imagination." Those are the words Francie Nolan's kind teacher tells her in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" (1943) after Francie admits she made up a wild story about a poor family to explain why she herself wants the pumpkin pie the teacher offered to her students. In fact, Francie is near starvation. Later in the same scene, the teacher helps Francie unravel another mystery.

"Truth and fancy were so mixed up in her mind ... that she didn't know which was which. But the Teacher made these two things clear to her. From that time on, she made up little stories about things she saw and felt and did."  This anecdote has the clear ring of truth for me. My own high school English teacher Mrs. Cavico strongly encouraged me to continue writing poetry.

"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" 
began literary life as author Betty Smith's memoir, later to be changed into a novel on the advice of an editor. So, here is a perfect example of the profound impact teachers can have. Betty Smith is encouraged to give her imagination free rein and later goes on to create a modern day classic, a coming-of-age story with a teacher in the wholly appropriate role of change agent.   

Friday, February 10, 2017

Ted, Et Al: Glad Not To Be Your Friend

When someone has enough power to make your life miserable, it's no trivial matter to be on that someone's "enemies list". J Edgar Hoover's animus for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon's indiscriminate paranoia about people he was convinced were out to get him - and most lethally - the varied enemies Hitler saw everywhere he looked, all resulted in many shattered or shortened lives for the unfortunate victims of those powerful, if woefully misguided, people.

But how bad would it be if someone like those three - or others of their ilk - detested you but was not able to affect your life in any negative fashion? Wouldn't you welcome being the enemy of someone that petty if they were powerless to hurt you? Earning the scorn of some public figures - provided they're impotent to damage my life - would be a badge of honor for me.

Aside to Ted Nugent: Based on your rabid endorsement of the lunatic birther movement, I'm guessing you're just the type to have an enemies list. Should you ever decide I'm worthy, please contact me via this blog. I'll publicly and proudly acknowledge your disdain.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tired Vs. Timeless

Initially, I was looking forward to enjoying a CD compilation I borrowed from the library entitled "Guitar Classics From The 70's". Wow, what a bummer! After listening to it once, I realized not one of the ten songs any longer did a thing for me - not a single musical thrill in forty five minutes. If I never heard any of these tunes again, I'd be missing nothing. Was my complete disinterest due to how many times I'd heard these versions? That thought crossed my mind at first. 

But it also occurred to me that it was equally plausible the songs themselves had simply outlived their shelf life. After all, many songs are wildly over-played but still continue to deliver the goods. To test my theory, I Googled the ten song titles from this CD to see how many times each song had been subsequently covered by others following the original version's heyday in the 70's. Let's just say the songs had their moment. I wish the songwriters and musicians well in their later pursuits.             

There is a good reason why Disturb's new version of "The Sounds Of Silence" is getting significant airplay right now. It's no mystery that "I Only Have Eyes For You" was a hit in 1934, 1959, and 1975. Even money "Up On The Roof", "My Funny Valentine", and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" will all appear on a new recording - sounding fresh as ever - very soon. What are your nominations for songs that - no matter how many times you've heard them - never get tired?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Begin Again

Put aside garden variety rudeness or bad manners. When was the last time you misbehaved so badly that recalling it makes you cringe?

Over the thirty nine years my wife and I have been together, I've avoided the boners that destroy many relationships. My misbehaviors have never led her to distrust me. But even-tempered, I'm not. I admire people who are not as easily triggered as me and I've worked hard to cool my hot-headedness. Still, spectacular failures are always nearby.

"Stop over-reacting to perceived slights and lose the need to be affirmed so much." That was a note I wrote to myself sometime during a semi-disastrous skiing trip to Killington in late 2015. I discovered it earlier today while looking for something in an old journal. Good self-coaching. Unfortunately, the memory of my misbehavior came right back as I read my words. Sorry sweetheart, again.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

All Quiet On The Bell Curve

It's 7:59 p.m. EST on Sunday February 5, 2017 as I begin typing. No matter when you get around to reading this, I'd wager you could tell me what you were doing over the next few moments, even if you weren't watching the Super Bowl. Because if you weren't watching it, many people you know and love were; maybe you got some quiet time for yourself?

Aside from Christmas, there is no other day of the year I can reliably depend on getting almost no e-mail, phone calls, or interruptions. I'm no hermit but I must admit, the dependable Super Bowl respite from communication is welcome. Sunday - no snail mail to retrieve or garbage or recycling to take to the curb. No one schedules anything, no one drops by. (When was the last time - Super Bowl Sunday or otherwise - that somebody dropped by at your place?)

It's 8:10 p.m. What are you doing? I love Super Bowl Sunday.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reasonably Sure

"When we are not sure, we are alive."  - Graham Greene

What trait that annoys you in others do you perpetually struggle with yourself? Those folks who are certain all the time can really trigger me. And yet, I do battle every day with the same demon. What strategies do you use to keep certainty from closing your mind?

I seem to be better able to keep creeping certainty out of my writing than out of some other domains of my life. Consequently, the phrase "reasonably sure" - which I frequently use when writing - has slowly worked its way into my conversations, especially the more tense variety. When it works, i.e. I'm sounding less certain, the subsequent turn in conversations sometimes gratifies me. Other times, I feel wishy-washy for using a modifier. Add in an ego tug-of-war with one of those "I'm sure of it!" people and things don't go real well for this bell curve blogger.

But gratified, wishy-washy, or ego-tested - as Graham Greene asserts - I do feel more alive and alert to nuance whenever I make space for a little uncertainty. Still, this dilemma is likely to be around a while longer. Of that, I'm reasonably sure.  

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Over And Over (& Over)

Considering how many people outside of Punxsutawney ever pay attention, does it strike anyone else as odd that of all the movies ever made about holidays few have come close to being as good as "Groundhog Day?"  What would be your nomination for a holiday film that is the equal of Harold Ramis' goofy 1993 masterpiece?

Although I'm not a big Bill Murray fan, "Groundhog Day" is on the short list of films I've watched more than once. Of the several priceless bits in the movie, my favorite is probably Sonny & Cher warbling "I Got You Babe" on the clock radio that awakens Murray's character as he endlessly repeats February 2nd - brilliant choice. What alternative song would you pick as a way to aurally depict a nightmare you can't escape? My top nomination would be one of those treacly ballads Michael Bolton screamed during his brief but painful popularity, closely followed by anything from the repertoire of I-get-paid-by-the-note Kenny G.

Musical snarkiness aside, which bit from this modern-day cinema classic plays over and over in your mind? And, if you were able to repeat a single day from your life which one would you choose?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Simplicity

Simplicity can be revelatory.

Last weekend, my wife and I helped an old friend move her ninety seven year old mother into a new assisted living facility. As we placed her antique furniture in the bedroom, I was delighted by the way the wooden knobs fit back into her dresser. No tools or hardware were required. By hand, the knobs simply screwed back into the holes. You turned each knob until there was no more give. Why does any piece of furniture need a more complicated design?

The gentle rhythm of Kent Haruf's novel "Plainsong" (1999) is hard to resist. And the story he tells will resonate with readers who enjoy family novels. But Haruf's gift is the startling simplicity of his prose. Although not a big fan of audio novels, there were moments while reading this book when I wished I were listening to someone reading it to me, quietly. It was as though the author was telling his uncomplicated tale to me as we both sipped a simple cup of tea.

Where in your life does simplicity show itself to be revelatory?