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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Person In This Room

Join me in a brief but provocative thought experiment. If any reader shares a response to any of the questions below - via a comment here or offline - I'll gladly reciprocate. I'm sure regular readers will not be surprised to know I've completed the experiment before asking anyone else to do so.

Imagine you are not yourself. You're looking carefully at the room in your home where you spend the greatest majority of your waking hours. You are not yourself. What would be your guesses about the person who spends a lot of time in this room?

Their hobbies?

Vocation?

Level of education?

Politics?

Relationship status?

Age?

Income level?

Other suppositions about this person?  Remember: You are not yourself.

Final question: What do your guesses about this person reveal about your thought processes?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Magic And The Mystery

"Novel associations that are useful."

That definition of creativity - the most succinct one I've ever encountered - has been the guiding principle for my creative life ever since I stopped full time work in 2010. Without these words as my true north, I suspect my inner critic could have talked me into abandoning several creative endeavors, including this blog. How do you keep yourself creatively motivated?

The more time I devote to exploring these novel associations, the stronger my drive is to pay closer attention to them. That drive now has a primal feel to it, like eating or sleep. On the rare days I make no entries in any of my writing vessels - entries that can incubate indefinitely before becoming useful - I feel spiritually under-nourished or tired.

And on days when novel associations flow like an open faucet, energy and gratitude are released in nearly equal measure. It doesn't matter if the useful associations are minutes or years away. That's part of the magic and the mystery.
 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Giant Steps

Near the end of "Chasing Trane", author Cornel West comments on the difficult music jazz titan John Coltrane created during the last phase of his career. Although West does not deny Trane's avant garde explorations initially alienated him, he also speaks of how his struggles with Trane's late art are more about his own limitations as a listener. Many people I know would scoff at West's statement just as quickly as they would reject Coltrane's final recordings. But I suspect my own intellectual life would be richer if I routinely challenged my own thinking the way Cornel West does.

What did progress mean to Coltrane? And what is the alternative to progress when an artist reaches a level of technical proficiency like Coltrane had by the mid 1960's? Giants like Coltrane, Picasso, or James Joyce all could have chosen - as many have - to repeat their earlier successes, conserving their respective audiences via maintaining an artistic status quo. Instead, each began exploring the outer realms of artistic expression and accepted the commercial consequences. Brave, foolhardy, or both? Though not proud admitting it, in an alternate universe, I'm reasonably certain my own choices would have been conservative vs. progressive.

Still, I've repeatedly reflected on Cornel West's words in the weeks since watching "Chasing Trane". I'm now committed to holding onto his view the next time I uncomprehendingly stare at Picasso's late work or when I'm scratching my head attempting to crack "Ulysses", again. At least I'll enjoy my own company while doing so.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Tell Me About The Prose

Right after slogging through an atrocious memoir - recommended by someone who I'm sure meant well -  I began constructing a questionnaire for vetting all future book recommendations aside from those made by my posse. I welcome the input of any discerning reader who thinks they can help.

1.) Did you read the book yourself?

Third party recommendations can be problematic. I'm glad your sister liked it or … the NY Times praised it or … Philip Roth blurbed it but what, specifically, moved you?

2.) How long ago did you complete a book before the one you're now recommending to me?

I find it helpful to know how important reading is in the life of any recommender. Even more helpful is when the recommender can tell me what made a fictional character memorable - not whether they "liked" or could "relate" to the character - or, what made a specific non-fiction account provocative, challenging, elevating, especially for a recommended book.  

3.) How would you describe the prose?

At this point in my reading life, I'm OK with most subjects (I'll pass on the sexually abusive fathers preying on their daughters, thanks) and most genres (although fantasy, memoir, and historical fiction with the word "wife" in the title often go further down my list). My one non-negotiable is the prose. At the bottom of my hierarchy are books with groanworthy or featureless prose. If you didn't extract a single sparkling sentence out of a whole book, why would I waste my time? From there, we climb up to serviceable or sturdy prose. If a committed reader tells me most of the other elements in a recommended book worked, and the prose rises to those levels, I'll bite. Mostly, when someone describes the prose in a recommended book I long to hear words analogous to those at the top of my hierarchy like muscular (" We Were Eight Years In Power - Ta Nehisi Coates - comes to mind) rich ("News Of The World" - Paulette Jiles - for example) or masterful ("The Sense Of An Ending" - Julian Barnes).

Now if someone asks what I'm referring to when I say prose, well …

Friday, October 19, 2018

Lost

Because she's about my own daughter's age, my first thought is "...it must be so hard for her Father to see her like this."

But then I recall hearing of her Father's disinterest in her life during one of our conversations over the years we worked side-by-side before she abruptly stopped showing up, unresponsive to phone calls or texts. My sadness deepens looking at her dissolute state; a Father probably won't be intervening. And then I remember hearing of struggles with abusive men her own age. One of those stories involved a frantic search for a new place to live when she feared for her life.  

As she shuffles into the convenience store, I search for something, anything to say. I don't want my face to reveal how her appearance concerns me. At the same time, I don't want to ask trite questions or make polite conversation. The opportunity to interact passes. Ashamed, I start my car and drive away.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Enjoying The Feast

Finishing a recent re-read of my copy of Simon Winchester's "The Professor and The Madman" (1998) - a transfixing tale about the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary - I was pleased to see how few of the underlined words from my first pass through the book in 2005 remained unfamiliar to me. Growth.

Soon after, my pleasure was slightly mitigated while reading "American Audacity" (2018). As the top margins in my notes on William Giraldi's brilliant book filled with words like agon, thew, motet  - all three appear in my 1984 Random House Dictionary though the first two earn red underlining in my version of Spellcheck - gratitude supplanted my initial dismay. Thank goodness I gave up learning a second language. For me, the feast of the English language is a lifetime meal. My review of the unfamiliar words from "American Audacity" spanned an entire glorious morning.

And as that morning ended, I reflected on another indicator of my personal growth. A younger Pat - over-invested in ego and a misguided belief in my intelligence - would likely have been annoyed or defensive about a book as vocabulary-rich as "American Audacity". How wonderful to instead be challenged and energized by all that's left to learn, to be -  as Giraldi says -" … worshipping at the altar of the English language."

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Proposal For Cousin Stormy

With the season upon us, it recently occurred to me that the model for naming hurricanes is in need of revision. Think how the vocabulary of the American public could be improved by abandoning the convention of using proper names for each hurricane and substituting less frequently used adjectives, nouns, and verbs. I plan on submitting this proposal to my cousin, the head of the National Weather Service. If you want to get involved, all you need do is supply your suggestions to me via this blog. So, watch later this season for …

Hurricane Arcane (That particular adjective even rhymes; nice musical way to start, no?)

Hurricane Bombast (A perfect first noun to use, given its meaning)

Hurricane Concatenate (Though I'm partial to it, I'll accept a shorter first verb if you offer a good one)

Your turn. Pick it up with a "D" adjective, an "E" noun", and an "F" verb. For every reader responding with at least three names (matching the right part of speech), I'll immediately follow up with my ideas for the next three letters in the alphabet; I've already got fifty hurricane names ready to go. And, yes that was my cousin the Classics IV sang about and her vocabulary is decent so don't waste her time.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#52: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Your guesses why men's names have been featured less frequently as the title of great songs? I'll reveal my flawless theory only if at least three readers offer a Mt. Rushmore of great songs featuring women's names. My mountain looks like this, alphabetically:

1.) Alison - Elvis Costello: "I know this world is killing you." Over his forty year recording career, Elvis has rarely misfired. This jewel from his first album still sparkles.

2.) Aubrey - Bread: I'll gladly surrender my hip badge and stand by this choice. Further, I defy any one who calls this impeccably sung ballad corny to write something this harmonically rich; go ahead - try it.

3.) Gloria - Laura Branigan: With little effort, and without Google, I can think of four other songs, aside from Branigan's, using the same name. None come close to this 1982 rocker. Branigan was a world-class screamer.

4.) Susan - The Buckinghams: Approaching my fourth selection, there was a lot of competition - cue "Bernadette" or "Dawn" or "Wendy", to name a few. But in the end - for sentimental reasons - I had to go with this hit from 1968. Know what I mean, sis?

Want that theory? Get busy and build your Mt. Rushmore and then share it with me and others.          

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

American Audacity

"Books, like love, make life worth living." : William Giraldi 

"American Audacity: In Defense Of Literary Daring" (2018) is the smartest love story I've ever read. William Giraldi's fierce intelligence, passion for literature, and his own unequivocal audacity ignite nearly every page. Over five consecutive days, I eagerly anticipated the hours I'd be spending in Giraldi's company. 

"Tell me the books you read and I'll tell you who you are; tell me you read no books and I'll tell you there is no you." (from "A Single Shade of Grey" in section one - American Moments)

Particularly instructive for me was the way Giraldi continually cites cliches and tautologies that can drain the vitality from any writer's prose. Even his critical and literary heroes - Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, James Baldwin - get carefully scrutinized and held to account when tired formulations appear in their work. I challenge anyone to read "American Audacity" end-to-end and tell me they're not a smarter reader having done so.

"But there are no bad guys or good guys in literature. There are wrong guys and right guys, guys who write well and guys who don't." (from "Against Dullness" in section two - American Critics)

When exposed to a mind - like Giraldi's - able to think deeply and richly about what he reads, I'm often envious. And though envy is not a healthy response, it frequently motivates me. In this case, I'm motivated to become a more discerning reader and a better writer. If either outcome occurs, I'll have "American Audacity" to thank.

"...knowing what scientists now believe about the protean personality of memory 'I think I remember' is the only accurate way to preface our recollections."  (from "Truth To Spirit" in section three - American Stories)