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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?