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Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Toll I've Never Paid

Until scanning the bibliography of Damon Tweedy's Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine (2015), I didn't realize how many non-fiction books about the medical field I'd read over the past ten years. And though there's no chance I'll be writing prescriptions in this lifetime, I'm gratified my reading journey has included books far removed from my own work life. Each one has deepened my experience of living.

What made this particular book worthwhile for me - aside from the sturdy prose - was the even-handed tone. Dr. Tweedy doesn't avoid tackling the racial challenges he has faced but also is unafraid to include sentences like the following:

"Depending on your perspective, affirmative action had done its job giving a working class black kid the chance for an elite education (Tweedy refers here to his full ride to Duke Medical School), or affirmative action had reared its ugly head, taking a slot from someone else more deserving while possibly setting me up for failure." And … 

"Like many stereotypes, this one had some truth behind it." (Here Tweedy speaks of being a 6'6'' black man frequently asked about basketball, which catches him off guard but does not offend him because " … NBA rosters are made up of more than 75% black men ...") And … 

"I could not imagine a white patient ever telling a white doctor that he wanted to switch doctors for no other reason than their shared skin color." This honest, revealing sentence comes after Tweedy recounts a sad anecdote involving a black patient rejecting him as his doctor. "In some ways, this rejection was more painful (vs. similar rejections Tweedy had from white patients who stated they would not accept a black doctor), given what it said about how we felt about ourselves as a race."  

Whenever encountering a person of color - whether an author or other public figure like Tweedy or someone from my personal life - who is unafraid of being vulnerable about their racial identity, my initial thought often turns to white folks. I wonder: How many of us ever squarely face our racial identity and the ways that identity plays out in our day-to-day interactions? I suspect fewer of us ever do - at least contrasted to how often people of color do - mostly because we're so infrequently forced to do so. In this thoughtful book, Dr. Damon Tweedy explores the toll that facing one's racial identity can take. 

Monday, November 25, 2019


Being an inveterate word collector can pay off. I captured gobsmacked into my word treasure chest the first time I saw it in print some time ago. But until last Saturday at 6:30, I hadn't found a good use for it.

Saying I was surprised walking through that door? Too mild and common place. Astonished? Closer but still too predictable. Dumbfounded? Almost, but not quite fresh enough. Only gobsmacked  conveys the blissful shock I felt seeing sixty or so people gathered -  thanks to my wife and daughter - to celebrate the start of my eighth decade. In that room were folks from Saranac Lake, NY to Conway, SC to Lafayette, Colorado. I'm still not sure how my wife and daughter kept me in the dark and equally unsure how I managed to stay coherent making my way around that room greeting almost all my immediate family with their spouses and children and so many friends -  new, old, lifelong, friends of my daughter who are now my friends.  

And the music. For a few hours, the warmth that has infused my life filled that room. My brother did Harold Arlen's If I Only Had A Brain; two guitarists I've been honored to perform alongside wailed as I warbled Dylan's All Along the Watchtower; three talented singers - including my daughter - each caressed a tune from the Great American Songbook. Aside from my two sisters and my brother, there were five other people there who have been a part of my life for longer than the forty one + years my wife and I have been together. 

If you were there, thank you for being part of an event I'll never forget. If you were invited but couldn't make it or slipped through the invite cracks, I missed you. To everyone - including any readers I don't know personally - What happened to you the last time you felt gobsmacked? I hope whatever it was brought you as much joy as those hours last Saturday brought me. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Key Learnings: Year 70

What is your process for capturing key things you've learned over any given period of time? Aside from a mild obsessive streak, the main reason I use such a process is research I've seen that indicates capturing key learning increases retention. Supporting that research is the anecdotal evidence I've gathered over the years from many adult students in my classes who have told me writing things down helped improve their recall.

Please join me today - as some of you have on this date previously - and reflect on a few of your key learnings from this past year.

* I've grown more tuned in this past year to the adult dynamics at play in my relationship with my daughter. The catalyst for this key learning was a conversation with an old friend who, like me, is the father of an only child. And, as she was growing up, he gave his daughter the same kind of undiluted attention I gave to mine. The learning kernel: Every benefit comes at a price.

* Thanks to an excellent naturalist lecture while drifting through the Okefenokee Swamp, I re-learned how important it is to continually educate myself to the contributions all ethnic groups have made to the American success story. I can't think of a better way to counteract the limited view of American history most of us learn, in school, via parents & peers, from the media.

* As an amateur writer with disproportionate aspirations, two things this year got me closer to the writer I want to be: Reading aloud a NY Times article to a friend (nothing like reading aloud to help you better appreciate clear, concise writing and genuine journalism) and writing down tired phrases or clich├ęs - including my own - whenever they surface in my writers group.

Your key learnings? Please don't make me beg.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Goal For Year 71

One would think that a lifetime of establishing difficult-to-reach goals would have taught me to be more realistic. If only.  But reaching my manageable reading related goal for year seventy gave me such satisfaction I've decided to use a similar model for another year. I hope a few of you will join me - upcoming birthday or not - in publicly declaring here a goal you have for the next year.

Between my 70th birthday tomorrow and my 71st, I'm aiming to read more books than I have in any year of my post full-time work life. Before anyone reasonably asks how I'll know if I've reached the goal, I'll remind you of the book journals - another of my way-too-many writing vessels - that I began using in 2010.

In my experience, non-fiction books typically take longer to complete than novels of comparable length. Consequently, to enhance the chances of reaching my goal, for the next year I'll abandon my longstanding practice of reading a non-fiction book alongside each novel. But considering all the "new" novelists I discovered thanks to last year's goal, it will be easy to find titles to occupy me. I'll resume my toggling on November 23, 2020. As soon as this post is published, I'm getting started. There's a tower of novels sitting on my bedroom dresser waiting to be devoured. Wish me luck.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic In Simplicity

"We teach best what we most need to learn."

I don't recall exactly when I first heard that expression. But the wisdom of it has walloped me more times than I can count. When was the last time you were teaching something, formally or otherwise, and suddenly realized you were the ideal student for the lesson you were imparting?

Recently, just prior to playing a recording of Just My Imagination in a music course, I heard myself rapturously describing the simplicity of that old Temptations song. As I spoke, it became clear to me: Simple pop songs were my gateway into music almost sixty years ago. I may have grown as a listener and musician over the years but misplacing my appreciation for simplicity is just foolish. I love music unequivocally. If any snobbery interferes with my passion, I risk missing out. I can value complexity in music without requiring it. Equally important: Making complexity a prerequisite for enjoyment is pretentious and stupid.  

Evolving to love jazz and songs from the Great American Songbook as much as I do rock n' roll and simple pop gems like The Rose or Just My Imagination has been a gift. As I spoke to the participants in my class of the joy songs like those can unfailingly deliver - because they are heartfelt and simple - the words opening this post came to me unbidden.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Pledge Fruits

With just one week left on my pledge to read only authors new to me for a year - and a few books I've started waiting for me to return to them over this same week - today is a good day to pause and reflect on which "new" authors I'll be most likely to return to in the future. Which author(s) that you recently read for the first time are you anxious to return to?

* In my experience, when a favorite author likes a writer, that writer is worth my precious reading time. I discovered Alice McDermott - her 2017 novel The Ninth Hour was my first experience - via Anna Quindlen who cited McDermott in Booklist, my favorite column from The Week. Thanks Anna.


* I haven't stopped raving about Sapiens since finishing it in March. Yuval Harari's 2015 masterwork exceeds the claim of its subtitle: A Brief History of Humankind. And though I'm anxious to return to this author, I will change one thing. I'll buy his next book so I'm free to mark it up. I got hand cramps from copying large swaths of Sapiens.


* Kate Atkinson's name had come across my radar many times before I got around to reading her 1995 novel Behind The Scenes At The Museum. On the strength of that book, Atkinson's Life After Life (2013) got placed in my reading queue months ago, awaiting the end of my one year pledge. That wait is now almost over. Yeah!


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Who Needs Perfection?

Before stopping full time work in 2010, mild obsessive that I am, I listed the things I would do on a perfect day when no job demanded my attention. Yesterday nearly hit the mark.

* Early in the day, I had a stimulating conversation with my partner of forty-one years.
* I spent the morning teaching a class to people who share my passion for music.
* After returning home, I meditated, read for a while, talked on the phone with one of my sisters.
* I had dinner and another stimulating conversation with my other sister and my wife.
* Soon after, the three of us discussed one of my favorite novels - The Poisonwood Bible - with a book club group I started a few years ago.
* Before bed, I got lost in my guitar for hours. The entry into my musical reverie began with a Kurt Weill tune called Speak Low.  

Missing from that list? Exercise, writing, some kind of charity work and/or volunteering. And, there was the minor annoyance of someone making an unwanted appearance at the book club meeting. No matter. End-to-end, yesterday was one for the books. What did your last nearly perfect day look like?     

Monday, November 11, 2019

Words For The Ages, Line Twelve

"With, without - and who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about?"

With the gap in the U.S. between richest and poorest being wider today than it's been since our first Gilded Age, the words above - from Us and Them - clearly qualify as words for the ages. Notably, Roger Waters wrote that prescient lyric back in 1973. It would be years before Michael Milken - the reprobate Oliver Stone used as his model for "Greed is good" Gordon Gekko in Wall Street - went to jail for his role in robbing people of their life's savings via the worthless junk bonds he was peddling at the time. And Occupy Wall Street came long after that; Dark Side of the Moon had already been on the "classic" rock stations for decades by then. Waters was clearly ahead of the curve.

But, the more things change … I recently read a NY Times article about the now rising fortunes of Milken - back in the financial field, of all places - and wondered: Did that turd ever apologize to a single person whose financial future he ruthlessly sullied in the 1980s? I doubt it. My soon-to-be-released re-write of Dante's Inferno will place people like Milken and Bernie Madoff in the ring of hell Dante reserved for flatterers. Recall the way Dante envisioned those folks suffering for eternity? Clue: It involved excrement.   

"Somehow, big banks lose billions and wreck people's savings and retirement accounts, yet their plutocrat executives still take home obscene bonuses. You don't have to be an economics major to recognize that something here does not compute."

Because those two sentences are not a terse lyric, they don't mesh with the eleven earlier iterations in my words-for-the-ages series. But reading those words in Michael Dirda's essay Rocky Mountain Low (2015) made me yearn for an opportunity to introduce him to Rogers Waters. I'm sure the two of them would find other common ground. How I'd love to be part of their conversation and tell them about my Dante re-write. I suspect they'd both approve.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Marketing Run Amok

Own a business? Display your ad to a captive audience. Right here.

First questions are for the men. Seen enticing words similar to those on the wall above a urinal lately? Ever think of yourself as a captive audience while urinating? If you're a business owner, how likely would you be to display your ad right here? What would you say is a reasonable expectation for a return on your investment? Business owner or not, if an ad placed in a location like this did entice you, would you rely on your memory for the particulars or would you return to the urinal in question with a writing implement or your phone? Or, do you already carry one of those with you when you pee? If yes, where do you usually place those items while doing your business?

Women - Ever since my recent experience with the ludicrous iteration of marketing run amok that opens this post, I've been wondering: Have any of you had a similar experience while in a bathroom stall? Or, are there already advertisements ambushing you on the inside doors you routinely face? Skip the question about being a captive audience. But, women business owners: What would you say to the two questions I asked of men? Finally, do you share my wife's habit of often taking a purse into bathroom stalls? If yes, then the last questions I asked of men about writing implements or a phone could be moot for some of you.

Leaving me with a final question for men and women: Available writing implements or handy phone aside - What are the chances you would patronize a business that advertises above a urinal or on the inside door of bathroom stall?

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Making Use Of The Useless

When my voice gave out before I hit thirty, a circumstance compelling me to shift gears and make a living doing something other than playing my guitar and singing, an early working fantasy was to become a radio DJ. My logic, unassailable to me at the time, went like this: I've been a musician most of my life; I know shit. Who better to play records and talk in between? Previous work experience, educational background? Immaterial. Had I ever gotten an interview no doubt I would've unironically described my musical knowledge as vast. Had an unsuspecting interviewer asked me which flash-in-the-pan band etched Dirty Water into pop music history I would have scoffed. Think you can stump me by asking who Al Jardine replaced in the Beach Boys or which Chuck Berry song was on Beatles 65? Child's play; I was meant for this job, you fool.    

Understandably, that arrogant thirty year old never found a way onto the radio. But an unquenchable thirst for all things musical - coupled with a sticky brain that holds onto what I'd always thought of as useless musical ephemera - began finding a small audience about five years ago. Each time I lecture briefly about a song I'm about to play in one of the courses I've been developing and delivering since 2014, that musical stuff in my brain - now almost sixty years of it - becomes useful to others, for at least a moment. As the song plays and the music washes over me and the participants, I can watch people as they close their eyes, nod, smile - a benefit no DJ ever gets. And after our communion, I can share any additional morsels the music has pried loose from my addled brain, if I think doing so will add value to the experience we just had. Lately, I've been thinking of this as making use of the useless.

But either way, useless or marginally useful, I'm eagerly anticipating sharing more of those morsels with others when my next class - entitled The Two Of Us - begins on November 5th. I am pumped. What gives you juice like teaching this stuff gives me?

Friday, November 1, 2019

Gang Of Five Reading Lessons

A recent stimulating and rewarding discussion with a reading soulmate about Ford Madox Ford's classic novel The Good Soldier (1915) has me reflecting what might have eluded me with other classics that I didn't get on my first read. Since great writers are invariably great readers, my current fantasy has me discussing classics from the canon with some literary giants. Which writers would you like to have help you become a better reader? From youngest to oldest to dead (this is a fantasy, after all), I'll take …

* Ta-Nehisi Coates
* Joan Didion
* Toni Morrison
* John Updike
* David Foster Wallace

First classic in the queue for discussion with my gang of five is Madame Bovary. To connect with Ta-Nehisi and Joan, I'm going with e-mail. For Toni, John, and David, I'm hiring a medium. Should my approach for reaching these folks fail, I'm open to suggestions. Anyway, the story will have a happy ending because that reading soulmate who helped me in teasing apart distinctions to appreciate the mastery of The Good Soldier is just a phone call away.