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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I Love Being Free; I Want To Go Back

Question: "Mommy, what will we learn in 3rd grade?"
Answer: "All kinds of things".

After overhearing this exchange recently, I began reflecting on my own childhood summers. Do you remember asking or wondering a similar thing? I do. Recalling my own delicious anticipation of the new learning of an upcoming school year made me wistful. Do you ever yearn, as I do, for someone to continually re-assure you that new learning is right around the corner?

What else was on your mind as a child as the summer stretched before you? Just after school let out in June, several young children on their bicycles converged on the convenience store I was leaving. Their joy and exuberance was so clear I found myself transported to the late Junes of my youth. Although it's possible their happiness had little to do with summer just beginning, it really doesn't matter. Remember your un-alloyed joy about having two+  months of freedom? For me, that joy and the anticipation of future learning went hand-in-hand. How about you?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Welcoming City

What city has ever had an I-can-see-myself-living-here appeal for you on your first visit?

Although this hasn't been a common experience for me, my first visit to Burlington,Vermont a few weeks ago was exactly that. Except for winters a bit colder than I prefer, everything about Burlington speaks to me. Start with the waterfront, including a bike & pedestrian path circumventing a good portion of Lake Champlain with the Adirondack mountains as a backdrop and a free beach. Several top notch independent bookstores, terrific restaurants - including numerous ethnic & vegan choices - progressive politics. College vibe, warm people with the right touch of New England reserve, a music venue the right size for mid-level acts located right in the pedestrian-friendly,vibrant downtown - we saw Joe Jackson during our stay. Great sound system in that theater, BTW.

I'm sure Burlington's not perfect; what is? But, check out the picture below - It's a list of guidelines posted at the steps leading down to the beach. The sign is printed in nine different languages! How many can you identify? How could I not love a place as welcoming as this?



Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Words For The Ages, Line Nine

"All that you're loved is all that you own." - Tom Waits (from "Take It With Me")

Of the lyrics chosen to date for this series, the one above comes from arguably the least well known song I've thus far used. The link below is for those who'd like to see all the lyrics for this great tune.

https://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/tom_waits/take_it_with_me.html

Tom Waits is more widely known as the composer of terrific songs covered by others (e.g. Ol' 55 by the Eagles, Jersey Girl by Bruce Springsteen, Downtown Train by Rod Stewart, etc.) than he is for his own idiosyncratic recordings. I first heard "Take It With Me" on a recording by Anne Sofie von Otter and clearly recall how moved I was by the poignant lyric. I especially like the phrasing in the middle of each "A" section.

It's possible I'd have chosen a different Tom Waits phrase - he's such a wise lyricist - if I hadn't just recently cried my way through "The Story Of Arthur Truluv" (2017) by Elizabeth Berg. But Berg's novel and Waits's nine words for the ages are like a shoe and a sock. Don't believe me? Try reading "...Arthur Truluv" while keeping those words close by. Feel those synaptic sparks? Even better: Put on a recording of "Take It With Me" as you re-read the final pages of Berg's beautifully realized book. Try to stay emotionally detached. I dare you.    

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Two Gifts For The Future Present

Words of praise feel inadequate describing the bold imagination on display in speculative fiction like Naomi Alderman's "The Power" (2016) and Mohsin Hamid's "Exit West" (2017). Each novel uses a central conceit permitting these gifted authors to explore the world we inhabit at the same time each of them peers at where we might be headed.      

"Power doesn't care who uses it." Those in power have always had the means to create a narrative we refer to as history. In the inverted world that Alderman invents - where women have always had that upper hand - every upside-down twist reveals a fresh and startling irony. As I finished "The Power", my head was spinning trying to unpack all the layers Alderman inserted into her cautionary tale. And the use of illustrations throughout the book took me back to the Power Point presentation in Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad". Both these exceptional books use fresh devices to advance the novel as a form.
 
"Their memories took on potential, which of course is how our greatest nostalgias are born." Any of you who have some trouble suspending disbelief might struggle with Hamid's metaphor - i.e. a door through which someone can escape an oppressive homeland - as much as you do imagining what Alderman proposes. But try locating a novel with as much imagination as "Exit West" that also masterfully juxtaposes tender wisdom and unsentimental tenderness. Though a love story about two young refugees forms the core of Hamid's book, there is so much more - letting go as a parent; the need for solidarity as a survival tactic among people of color; the subtle seduction of nostalgia.

I look forward to discussing either of these terrific books with anyone who cares to - online or off.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Have Blog, Will Reflect

First, sorry for the baby boomer TV inside joke masquerading as the title of this post; Paladin fans will forgive me. Still, the curious among you should have some fun trying to guess the answers to today's questions; geography geeks may also be amused. And question #3 might appeal to those who fancy themselves logical. Ready? Answers below; no peeking if you want to qualify for the prize.

1. On a brief bike ride along the ocean passing through just two New Jersey shore towns (Spring Lake and Belmar), how many unique out-of-state license plates did your favorite blogger spot?

2. Which plate was from the furthest point west? South? North? Think outside the box for the last one.

3. Which out of State plate was, by far, the most represented? Put your logical thinking cap on for that.  

4. What was the first out of State plate this nerd spotted? The last?

Before revealing the answers let me reassure you. I was able to spot and count the plates easily along this four mile stretch - and still watch for pedestrians - because both towns have angle-in parking.

1.) Fifteen unique license plates. I lumped two states I couldn't readily identify into one so give yourself credit if you answered sixteen.

2.) Washington State; Florida; Ontario.

3.) Pennsylvania. Perfectly logical - aside from the outliers, like West Virginia etc., all the other usual nearby East Coast suspects I spotted (Maryland, Connecticut, etc.) touch the Atlantic. Among NJ's  neighbors, only Pennsylvania does not; those folks drive here in droves.

4.) New York; Tennessee.

I will trust your honesty - online or off - to tell me how many of these you got right. First prize? All expense paid trip to my house to peruse the Atlas with yours truly. Such a deal.
     

Monday, July 16, 2018

Thanks Mom, Again

I don't recall exactly how old I was when I first noticed the numbers tattooed on the wrist of the mild man who ran the grocery store in the Irvington neighborhood where I grew up. Once, after leaving the store together, I do recall my mother scolding me for asking Herman about those numbers.

I also don't recall many of the specifics from the conversation with my mother that followed, but I do recall this: She didn't ignore my follow up questions or deny what I'd seen. Then she told me a little about the camps.

More than sixty years have passed; Mom has been gone for almost forty one. This morning, right in the middle of an intense conversation about history and fake news, I flashed to that day and realized my Mom telling me that truth all those years ago was one of her most important early gifts.

Thanks Mom, again.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A Special Week

Under normal circumstances, seeing a documentary about the mild-mannered host of a children's TV show wouldn't be something I'd consider stimulating Saturday night entertainment. But these last four days have been anything but normal circumstances.

From Wednesday through Friday I helped a longtime friend - the former Deputy Attorney General for the NJ Office Of Bias Crime - to facilitate a workshop called "Race and Rage"; it was the first time the workshop has ever been delivered. We first began preparing for it in the spring of 2017, hoping to have our maiden voyage that summer - the first offer never materialized due to lack of enrollment. This time seventeen participants signed up; all systems go.

Since the workshop concluded late yesterday, many of the emotional moments have been replaying in my head. When my wife suggested we go see "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" tonight, the idea struck me as a good solution for halting the non-stop churn in my brain. Instead, the movie ended up being the perfect complement to the last four days of my life. The emotional wallop the film packs felt of a piece with the work I did this past week. Fred Rogers embodied grace; he was a gentle and loving soul whose legacy will outlive that of every foul-tempered, mean-spirited loudmouth who screams at us and scares children in our increasingly uncivil world. I couldn't have ended this special week any better than spending almost two hours with such a hero.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Such A Life

Each time I begin thinking I've reached bottom vis-à-vis the history of "...original sin from which the country  was born..." another sobering account upends my complacency. "Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI", David Grann's 2017 powerhouse, is destined to join Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" in our national conversation. Though neither of them are pleasant books to read, it's important many of us do so. Grann's book features painstaking research, muscular prose, and a keen sense of narrative to further recommend it.

Grann also manages a neat feat for a work of non-fiction. Many of the surprises the author uncovers in his research are found in Part Three (entitled "The Reporter"). As each new layer of treachery and deception is revealed, this closing technique packs a wallop not unlike the third act from works of classic drama. And he delivers these until-now-untold parts of this sordid story without flourish. It's breathtaking.

"History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight." Add this to the many benefits I've already derived from having my own book club: I can extend my processing of any book by placing it in the queue for my club. Sometime in early 2019, I now know I'll have an opportunity to discuss "Killers Of The Flower Moon" with a group of discerning readers. Such a life.
   

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Four Of Us

"Friendship is unnecessary like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival." - CS Lewis

I suspect the friendship my wife and I have with one couple is not unique. But, what we share - in all combinations - is unprecedented in my life. Have you and your partner had friendships like this with another couple?

The four of us have had many wonderful joint experiences - dining together, watching films, playing board games - nothing remotely rare. The original bond between the husband and me - music - has deepened as the years have gone by. Again, big deal.

When my wife and the other wife began doing stuff without the men around, no one felt obligated to alert the media. It did get a little more interesting when the husband alone began hanging out with my wife and me or I went to their home by myself or when the other two possible combinations of three ended up enjoying an experience without the fourth person there.

After the husband and my wife recently took a cooking class together, I recalled a One Day University event I attended with the wife and another time when just the two of us went to hear some musician friends of hers. In that moment of recollection, it occurred to me what a great gift it is to have friends like this. Two of us, three of us, four of us - it's all almost equally wonderful.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Some Less Than Peaceful Maxim Messing

"Violence is a tool of the ignorant."  - Mahatma Gandhi

Well, on the other hand …

Although I've lived my life believing Gandhi was essentially right - and with a notable exception or two, avoided being violent - I've recently been harboring some disturbing second thoughts about the oft quoted words above.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." - Matthew 5:9  

Yeah, but …

I guess maybe I'm not headed to the pearly gates to join Gandhi or Martin. Here's the rub: Don't those evil oppressors get away with their garbage a lot longer partly because history has mythologized the peacemakers, especially the martyred ones?

"All we are saying … is give peace a chance." - John Lennon

John: Loved your music, admired your ideals. However …

With respect to war, I'm still with you. But, some of the ugly stuff  bubbling to the surface here in the land of the free is beginning to persuade me that John Brown's and Nat Turner's techniques got the focused attention of the cretins a bit faster than the methods you or Mahatma or Martin used. I get that the backlash John and Nat unleashed was brutal and probably hurt the cause more than helped it.

Still …