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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Joy In Fleeting Moments

How many times has a song lyric or another piece of musical magic lifted you from a funk?

Early this morning I was driving and feeling a little low; fortunately, my I-pod was playing. With over 1200 songs on there, I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised by a song I haven't heard in a while. As "Better Days" from Bruce Springsteen's 1992  recording called "Lucky Town" played, I picked up on this lyric - "Every fool's got a reason for feeling sorry for himself...". Although I've always loved the lyrics to "Better Days", somehow that particular phrase had escaped me until this listening. But it was just what I needed to hear at that moment. What was the last piece of music that had a similar effect on you?

I've often read and heard it said that popular music (like Springsteen's) is, by definition, fleeting. I suppose there's some truth in that and it's possible not many people will be listening to "Better Days" 50 or 100 years from now. No matter - I get this kind of lift all the time from music and remain grateful this is so. Today it was a lyric; a few weeks ago it was the intense energy of "Guerilla Radio" by Rage Against The Machine; next week it will be something else. Fleeting? Perhaps, but isn't a lot of life about fleeting moments we need to be paying more attention to?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Eating Badly, Sleeping Late, Cranking Every Tune

It's up to you to decide how to define long term relationship when answering this: What sticks out in your mind as something you did frequently prior to getting into your current long term relationship that you no longer - or rarely - do? And no malarkey about this being a hard question. I wager I've got to rewind more years than many of you but I can still easily come up with three to get us started.

Before my partnership with my wife began I routinely made poor eating choices. Her love has helped me in many ways but this is something that springs to the front of my mind, especially on those occasions when I regress to the bad diet Pat had at twenty eight years old.

Although it might have shifted anyway - given my regular working hours moved from nocturnal to more conventional soon after we met - these days I rarely stay in bed past 9:00 a.m., no matter how late I retire the night before. My wife comes from a family of morning people and though my late night stamina remains strong, I'm still up just a few hours after she is most mornings because my time with her is valuable.

The final item is aimed at rescuing this post from unremitting mushiness and it gives you free rein to bitch when you comment. Prior to April 1978, I frequently listened to music in my home at volumes that made the paint peel. My only opportunity to do damage to my hearing now is when I'm alone or ... hypocrite that she can be ... if I'm playing "Candy's Room". Just one song I can crank to eleven? Not fair, you know?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mom And Dad By My Side

If either or both of your parents are gone, what reliable way have you discovered to bring them back?

Regular readers might recall several posts I've published over the years about my folks - sometimes on their birthdays. Each of those posts has been squarely aimed at keeping them close to me. But last Wednesday and again earlier today, I re-discovered how music is a surefire method to get Mom and Dad by my side.

Last week I ended day one of my current music class - entitled "Not Quite Jazz 101" - with Benny Goodman's 1937 classic "Sing, Sing, Sing". As people were leaving the room an odd sensation came over me listening to that 8:00 of unmitigated energy. I couldn't get my then nineteen year old Dad or seventeen year old Mom out of my head. The passion, drive, and excitement in that music must have ignited my teenage parents as surely as "Ain't too Proud To Beg" did to me. I walked out of that classroom on fire and played "Sing, Sing, Sing" all the way home in my car.

Then, today I opened day two by playing the same song. As Gene Krupa pounded his intro, I saw my Father playing the ukulele as my Mother sang. When the horns burst in with the first theme, I could picture my folks as teenagers and tried imagining the way they looked at one another falling in love. During Benny's 16 bar solo, I saw Mom and Dad dancing. The song kept playing. My voice caught as I began riffing to the class on the vivid sense I had that my parents were a presence in that room.

What shakes you to your core like music does to me? Discovering another gift music has bestowed on me - i.e. helping my parents feel tangibly at my side, however briefly - is not at all surprising. After all, music has given me a life. Now, it's also going to be bit easier for me to call back the folks that literally gave me life. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Continuing A Media Fast

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/04/fasting-to-slow-down.html

My pledge from five years ago today to go on periodic "media fasts" was primarily aimed at limiting the amount of celebrity information routinely jammed down our throats. Though it's too early to declare complete victory, I do feel I've re-claimed some valuable hours by remaining mindful of that pledge. What strategies do you use to avoid knowing too much about the rich and famous?

Those were the good old days - celebrity overkill as my biggest beef with the media; so quaint, really. Who could have predicted in March 2012 the garbage that would be foisted on us a few years later, with the media having the temerity to call it "news"? It's pathetic what is delivered to us as intelligent political discourse in 2017. How do we remain intelligently informed with "alternative facts" being reported as though they mattered?

So, continuing my periodic media fasts has now become an important component for my mental health. I'll think myself fortunate if I'm able to re-claim still more hours over the next five years by not swallowing the swill the media has been serving since Twitter became a newsworthy source. Let me know if you plan to join me.

Monday, April 24, 2017

No Sweat, Mr. Id

It's rare for Mr. Id to try distracting himself with TV. But when the battery on his I-pod flaked recently during a workout at the gym, the crank succumbed. It took just one commercial - with Mark Wahlberg shilling for ATT - before Mr. Id shut off the tube. But that was enough to set off the coot on a toot.

What was ATT Wahlberg promoting? More underwear, you say? No, a TV in every room + and another on your phone for just $25.00 per month!! Now here's something our modern world needs, every home turned into a sports bar. Although Wahlberg has done some good film work, on the basis of this pernicious ad alone, Mr. Id has decided to boycott Markie-Mark. No doubt, Mr. Id's decision will have far reaching impact on Wahlberg's significant bank balance. But the meaninglessness of Mr. Id's gesture aside, is anyone besides the crusty curmudgeon just a tiny bit triggered by this latest crassly commercial attempt at further shortening the ever-dwindling attention span of the human race?

Philosopher William James is often credited with the notion that we are each capable of developing a new habit if we commit to practice the discipline for twenty eight days without fail. Mr. Id's own life has several successful examples that demonstrate how this twenty eight day formula works to help  establish mundane as well as transformative new habits. But how can what James posited in the early 20th century appeal to people as saturated by TV as we are in the early 21st? The crab behind the curtain has started wondering if twenty eight hours will soon be all that people can manage in the Twitter era if they want to establish a new habit. And don't you shudder when imagining the rant another twenty eight minutes of TV watching would have induced in Mr. Id? What a grouch.   

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Metrics And The Blogger

Being fond of metrics has - like most things - advantages and disadvantages. But if you've ever found yourself - as I sometimes am - a bit pre-occupied with measuring progress in a domain of your life, I'd welcome hearing your strategies for re-gaining perspective.

Goals are said to be most useful when they're specific and measurable, e.g. "Six months from now, I'll be ten pounds lighter" or "In one year, I'll be able to pedal a bike for forty five minutes without any break." This makes metrics an important component in the life of a goal-driven person like me.

Over six years of blogging, I've gone from weekly to monthly to quarterly check-ins on the metrics BlogSpot provides. I found this a useful way to measure progress toward my goals, while at the same time, steadily decrease my pre-occupation with numbers. After deciding last fall to prolong my check-in to semi-annually as 2017 began, January's check-in showed a dramatic increase in my view numbers, a trend that started in late November. Although this made the metrics part of me happy, it sadly came with a predictable side effect - I reverted back to being as mentally pre-occupied with these numbers as I was in 2011. It took a lot of effort for me to wait three months to check in again.

The story doesn't have a happy ending, metrics-wise; the early April check-in showed the upward trend peaked in late January. So, I'm now back to my six month plan. If there is another spike, I won't know until around my 68th birthday. Getting a boost like that as a birthday gift would be cool, right?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 15: Repentance

repentance: remorse or contrition for a sin, wrongdoing, or the like; compunction. 

Because sin is frequently included in the definition, until recently I rejected using repentance as a word for this series. Sin reminds me way too much of excruciating childhood time spent sitting in a curtained booth waiting for a panel to slide open as I tried to remember how many times I'd taken the Lord's name in vain over the past several weeks.

But Nadia Bolz-Weber's profane 2013 theological memoir "Pastrix", has helped repentance earn a spot alongside legacy, risk, and humility as a concept with the capacity to haunt me. When Weber speaks of her repentance, she describes "...thinking differently..." after realizing how one of her actions or attitudes has harmed someone. And though I'm not mired in remorse for my wrongdoings - be they insensitive words or stupid, selfish actions - it's also difficult for me to forgive myself my trespasses at times. If you couple this difficulty with my good memory, you can probably see how repentance - at least in Weber's formulation - could be troublesome. How about you? How frequently do you find yourself repenting?

"It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself - to forgive. Forgive everybody." Maya Angelou's wisdom crossed my radar the same day I finished the clearly not-for-every-taste "Pastrix". That sent me down a different rabbit hole - How to balance the amount of "thinking differently afterwards" that Weber suggests is central to true repentance with the self-forgiveness advocated by Angelou? Insights, anyone?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Guilt-Free, Gleeful & Sweet Schadenfreude

Except for my arrest in 2011, all my other acts of bad behavior - many just short of felonious - have gone undetected by the law.  There have more than a few of these in my lifetime. How much stuff have you gotten away with that, in retrospect, you know was close to or over that lawful line?

So, because I'm no innocent and been mostly lucky escaping detection, you would be fair calling me a hypocrite for the moment of guilt-free schadenfreude I enjoyed while driving the other day. But first listen to the story, then consider your own past driving misdeeds, and then you are free to judge me.

After nearly side swiping my car, I watched as an unbridled lunatic cut off several other drivers, almost climbing into a few trunks in the process. I couldn't recall the last time I'd witnessed such a dangerous display of road aggression.  Tell the truth now: Have you never wished a convenient police cruiser was nearby in these circumstances? Well dreams do come true. A mile or so down the road, up went my gleeful thumb as I passed a police car, lights flashing, sitting directly behind the maniac. How did I know for sure it was the same driver?

Because the political banner prominently affixed to the back windshield of his car - easily visible as I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting him when he passed me on the right and then lurched in front of me - was likely what put me at the wishing well to start. And though his later driving tantrums were even more reckless, I will not claim the happy ending to this story would have been just as sweet if this reprobate who got just what he deserved had politics more closely aligned with mine. After all, you already have me on hypocrisy so I won't add dishonesty to my list of sins today. I was thrilled - make that ecstatic - this cretin got caught. His politics just made the schadenfreude sweeter.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lucky Thirty Nine

"If you have garden and a library, you have all you need." - Cicero

Though Cicero's words were aimed at describing a fulfilling life for an individual, it dawned on me not long ago that his sentiments perfectly outline the life my wife and I have built since our first date thirty nine years ago today. And our partnership - garden and library included - is not all I need but it's darn close.

"There is no love which does not become help." - Paul Tillich

How do the people who love you help you? I can't count all the ways my wife has helped me since April 17, 1978. Most recently, I realized how much I depend on her level headedness to keep me grounded.  

"Life is too short to be angry with your significant other for longer than ten minutes" - from "Modern Love"

After reading that in the NY Times weeks ago, it immediately went into my notebook. I was grateful the admonition allowed me to be human. I'm not above getting angry at my wife but limiting the anger to ten minutes seems like a worthy goal on this 39th anniversary of our first date. Care to join me, anniversary aside? If so, let's compare notes on our progress.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

1980-2017

Does your time machine ever feel like it's stuck in a particular decade?

Ever since attending an event featuring the music of the 80's with some friends months ago, I've felt like I've had some trouble escaping that decade. Each time I think I'm back in the present, something yanks me back to the Hall & Oates years. These regular reminders of the Reagan era then became a bit unsettling as my reflections turned to some of the unmet goals I'd sketched out as the 80's began. Time to let go of a few of them? Would doing so bring relief or feel more like defeat? What's your statute of limitations on goals and how do you feel letting an unmet one go?

2017 seemed to be re-exerting itself when I unthinkingly began re-watching "Hannah and Her Sisters" on TCM a few nights ago. About halfway through - hair style alert! - there I was again, back in 1986, ruefully. Following another brief decade dip, I rebounded after it occurred to me how wonderfully the 80's ended - my daughter was born in 1989. And then the even happier ending to this time-machine-meets-unmet-goals saga dawned on me. One of my goals as the 80s started was to go into a studio and record my original music. This summer I'll complete a CD featuring my daughter's voice on eight of my better recent songs. Call this effective, if not purposeful, postponement of gratification. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Put That On Your License Plate!

As thick as my skin has become about the insults routinely tossed at my lifelong home State, those "Which Exit?" jokes have gotten stale. And not long ago, after hearing someone who has been in just a few States refer to Jersey as "The Garbage State", I constructed a list of license plate pejoratives for all the States I've visited. If - like me - you're a proud Jersey Boy or Girl, let's retaliate, OK?

California - Like, totally!

Kansas - Forgettable - like the band.

Massachusetts - Kennedy, Inc.

Minnesota - Closed Nov-Feb.

North Dakota -  Anybody home?

Utah - Where Church & State Meet


Warning: Full list of forty six  - available upon request - is for mature audiences only. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ide Rather Have Fun

With the Ides of April upon us, here's one suggestion for keeping those bad Brutus vibes at bay: Let your mind have free rein/reign/rain and try thinking like the late great George Carlin for just a few minutes. Punning, messing with words, & de-constructing everyday expressions does nothing to ease the problems in our world. But it sure is fun.

Does a dodo hanging out too often with young deer and eating too much bread have a doe-doe dough-dough problem?

If the last event in a entertainer's career is called a swan song, what should the penultimate event be called?

Is it redundant for a criminal on the lam to ask for seasoning on his gyro? 

What do you call it if twins utter the same double entendre simultaneously? What if both of them have a double chin?

Did Ella ever scat about scat? Shit, I hope not.

Do the most intelligent people whisper sweet little somethings into their lover's ears?

Come on, I know you've got a few of these up your sleeve to help all of us on this star crossed day. Why not share? If what you're wearing has no sleeves, you're excused. See you on the Ides of May.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Synaptic Sparks: Paul & Olive

"I know a woman, became a wife; these are the very words she uses to describe her life - She said ...
'A good day ain't got no rain'  She said ... 'A bad day is when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been' ". From "Slip Sliding Away" by Paul Simon

In 1977, when Paul Simon succinctly captured a woman's quiet desperation in "Slip Sliding Away", I quickly added his song to my solo act. As a twenty seven year old, I marveled at Simon's precocious wisdom. Author Elizabeth Strout was twenty one years old at the time. How did she react to Simon's lyric? Was a seed planted?

Fifteen years later, Strout's quietly desperate character Olive Kitteridge made her first appearance in a short story called "Running Away". That story - later retitled "Ships In A Bottle" - and twelve others then became Strout's 2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner entitled "Olive Kitteridge".

"Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person was working to get what they needed. For most, it was sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became." From the story "Security", included in "Olive Kitteridge"   

Last fall, right in the middle of teaching a multi week course on Paul Simon's music, I devoured "Olive Kitteridge" in one sitting. I recall not being able to get Olive out of my head when playing "Slip Sliding Away" during class. Ever since, Olive has infrequently popped in on me. As I recently led a book discussion on Strout's masterpiece, the synaptic spark reversed direction. I heard Paul Simon singing "You know the nearer your destination the more you're slip sliding away." Does Elizabeth Strout ever hear Paul Simon when she imagines Olive?       

Talking To Children (& Ourselves)

Recall the last time you were in a public place and a child you didn't know enchanted you in some way. A cute hat, a guileless question you overheard, an earnest request for some treat. What happened next? Did you speak to that child? How well do you recall the conversation you had with yourself either before you spoke or after you decided to remain silent?

I don't like to let these opportunities pass me by, so I can hear how my conversations with myself often begin: How will this child react to me? Then, more significantly: How will the adult accompanying this child react to me? Sound familiar? After I observe both of them briefly - but always the adult a little longer than the child - if my gut still says "go", I barge ahead. When I get a response from the child, I almost always leave the encounter beaming. How can anyone not enjoy an interaction with a child, however brief?

The times I'm met with silence? I desist immediately. Children are wisely taught to be cautious around strangers and some of them may not be fully capable of making a distinction between an innocently friendly person like me and someone with less benign intent, even when a responsible adult is by their side. And under those circumstances, i.e. when no encounter occurs, the conversation with myself frequently deepens as I walk away. I wonder: How do we all help our children learn appropriate caution while ensuring they also know the world is mostly made up of decent people? 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Unibrow Monkey

Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow? I've concluded the lifelong movie monkey on my back is unibrow. And like the unibrow that adorns my face, that monkey is a little weird, probably noticeable to others at times, and infrequently, embarrassing to me.

For example, lowbrow as it makes me, I have to admit I'm usually not drawn to foreign films, despite their subtlety, at least compared to those BIG Hollywood blockbusters. Until recently, documentaries didn't entice me much either, even though I've always considered myself a thinker and learner.

But, I'm not real fond of romantic comedies, less tolerant of action or superhero films, and repetitive film characters like Bond, Bourne, & Rocky leave me as cold in the movies as they do in books. In addition, when a filmmaker panders to the audience - usually to mask the absence of a compelling narrative - by interjecting either ... a car chase ... something exploding ... an attractive woman removing her blouse ... I get really annoyed. I've got nothing against seeing any of those things, but make it relevant, OK? So in all these situations, the highbrow monkey lurks.

What is middlebrow, anyway? Animation? Despite the often affirming messages, as an adult I can't recall ever picking an animated film for an evening's entertainment. When I do watch one, I get that gooey good feeling you're designed to get but that's probably why I don't get in line when Dory is at the multiplex a few years later. Are period pieces middlebrow? I can count on two hands the number of films I've really enjoyed featuring people dressed in earlier era costumes. 

What's left, you reasonably ask? Somehow the unibrow manages to find lots of stuff that juices him. But don't include "Going In Style" on that list. 
  

Friday, April 7, 2017

Fourteen Hours Later

Immediately after finishing "Ill Will" a little after midnight, I knew my next blog post had to be about Dan Chaon's brand new, deeply disturbing novel. I also wished there was a way to have a long conversation with my reading posse about this book that very moment. Some books just beg to be discussed.

First and foremost, "Ill Will" is brilliant. It is also creepy, lucid, ghastly, riveting. The architecture is inventive and the prose is muscular. I can't recall the last novel I read that so seamlessly toggled between moments of tenderness and terror.

More than fourteen hours have passed since I closed "Ill Will". I didn't sleep well. At the stable this a.m., I couldn't stop talking about it. I'm a long way from fully processing this experience.

"We often meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it." - Jean De La Fontaine   

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Growth Through Reading

"My ignorance was inexcusable and it made me ashamed."

That's author Jon Krakauer speaking of himself on the penultimate page of his 2015 masterwork - "Missoula: Rape And The Justice System In a College Town". What was this smart author speaking of? His ignorance of the lasting damage done to women raped by an acquaintance, a far more frequent occurrence than women raped by a stranger. Thanks to Krakauer, my own equally inexcusable ignorance has been ameliorated a bit.

All the way through "Missoula", I kept wishing my wife and I were reading it at the same time. Her perspective would have helped me, especially when Krakauer described circumstances involving a woman and a man that occasionally struck me as murky. I pray I was more sensitive as a young man than the " ... callow ..." and "... entitled ..." men the author describes in this harrowing book. And I'm so glad my college friends were musicians and artists not football players.

Books of this caliber - even when painful - are a crucial part of my continuing education and evolution as a thinking, compassionate human being. What book most recently landed with you that way?   

There Are No Accidents

What did you learn on Sunday, February 26, 2006?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/magazine/an-american-secret.html

A few days ago, I was searching for a lyric to a song I was pretty sure I wrote in 2006. There in my writing folder was a copy of Cynthia Carr's NY Times essay entitled "An American Secret". I clearly recall how Carr's piece landed with me on that Sunday over eleven years ago. I also remember what I did the next day at work. 

I made a few dozen copies of the essay and sent them, via US mail, - remember, this was 2006 - to every kindred spirit in my address book. My memory of the subsequent emotional conversation I had with the one person who responded to my mail is also quite clear. Thank you, Ruth.

At a Sally Hemings Memorial Dinner a few weeks ago, I listened to a white colleague describe how unsettled she'd become after uncovering some family history on Ancestry.com. As my colleague spoke, I thought of Carr's brave essay, made a mental note to find it, forgot. Then ... a search for that lyric.

I implore you. Read this.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/magazine/an-american-secret.html

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

An Irrational Man

What recurrent situation in your life most frequently brings out your irrational side?

Traffic does it for me. I've lost track of how many techniques I've tried over the years to help me get this more under control. And impatient as I can be when traffic interferes with my life near home, if I happen to be away on vacation and get stuck somewhere sitting in a car, oh boy.

The Great Courses CDs from the Teaching Company are a reliable way to keep my irrational side under control in traffic near home. But carrying those with me on an airplane is not practical. Books on tape, also only practical for driving vacations, are additionally not as dependable as lectures. A bad narrator - or worse, a bad book - makes any traffic, near or far from home, even more unpleasant. Though my I-pod - easy to take anywhere - has held the beast at bay on many occasions, the battery in it has also let me down several times. Invariably, a big traffic jam is nearby.

Wait, a bright light. Standing still in horrendous traffic in the Florida Keys last winter, I was saved by Little Stevie's Underground Garage and Deep Tracks. I resolved right there to never again rent a car without satellite radio. Wait, another light, quite a bit dimmer. If satellite radio worked to keep me semi-rational in Florida traffic ...

Sunday, April 2, 2017

#48: Mt. Rushmore Series (Zimmerman Iteration)

Although I've largely avoided using this long running series as a way to feature music, occasionally something comes along that forces my hand. Learning a Bob Dylan song to perform at a friend's birthday party recently, I repeatedly broke down crying. Figured it was a good time to acknowledge how much Dylan's music has meant to me since my earliest years as a musician.

So, which four Dylan songs would you enshrine on Mt. Rushmore? Mine are listed chronologically and I purposefully avoided using two songs from any album because that felt like cheating. Feel free to ignore that guideline and also to list yours in any order you'd like.

1.) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - from Bringing It All Back Home: Like many great Dylan songs, a well considered cover version often reminds me to re-visit the original. Bonnie Raitt's take on this early tune is so strong I'm still trying to decide which version works better for me.

2.) Like A Rolling Stone - from Highway 61 Revisited: And then there are songs that never should be covered. Ever.

3.) You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - from Blood On The Tracks: "But I'll see you in the skies above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love." I clearly recall how much that image floored me when I first heard it in 1976. More than forty years has not diminished its power one iota. As I learned this song for the first time for that party, that lyric kept stopping me cold. Using just one word with more than one syllable, Dylan nails the essence of ... everything. Also: Check out Shawn Colvin's stellar cover of this winner.

4.) To Make You Feel My Love - from Time Out Of Mind: This gem is unusual because Billy Joel's version was released before Dylan's. The song has been widely covered since for good reason - it's a first rate piece of songwriting.  

By the time anyone else tells me which four songs are on their Mt. Zimmerman, my own could be under renovation. No matter; bring them on.