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Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Of 2021

As the second year under the Covid cloud comes to its end, I hope some of you will tell me and others what made this year memorable for you. Adapt my headings for your year and/or invent some of your own.

1.) Best family event: My daughter's engagement in April.

2.) Best city visited on May's Southern States Swing: Given how eerily empty many cities in the South felt during our jaunt this past spring, Montgomery, Alabama was hands-down our favorite. The Equal Justice Memorial & Museum, a Montgomery Biscuits baseball game, and some of the best food we had during our road trip were a few of the highlights.

3.) Best teaching-related moment: A few days after finishing a class I called Three Albums That Helped Shape the Musical Future, I received one of those e-mails every teacher cherishes. A participant told me one of the Neil Young songs I'd selected for the course - Expecting To Fly - reminded her of her beloved brother. She then thanked me for temporarily bringing him back to her through the magic of music.

4.) Best (long-delayed) decision: Buying a new Guild to replace the first good acoustic instrument I ever owned - purchased in 1973. Thanks to Alan, Michael, and Scott for accompanying me as I dithered and for pushing me to the finish line.  

5.) Best book club discussion: Back-to-back meetings tie: November's discussion of Colson Whitehead's searing novel Nickel Boys followed by December's discussion of John Steinbeck's evocative travelogue Travels With Charley.

Happy new year to all.   

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Better Late

That faded NYC Metro Card had been in my billfold since late 2019, at least. How can I be sure? Because I haven't been on NYC public transit since before Covid-19. How much was left on this antique I'd carried around now for more than two years? Given how worn it was - meaning it had been used at least several times pre-Covid - the fact that I never laid out more than $20 on any Metro Card since they began being widely used and, my normal habit was to spend each one I purchased down to as close as possible to $0 before buying another, maybe $5, max?

And yet, there that Metro Card remained until I had this conversation with myself a few days back:

How long are you going to carry that old thing around? Until I can use it up.

And when will that likely be? Doesn't matter, it's still got $$ left.

Can't you afford to sacrifice $5 (or less)? Well, Dad or Mom would say money doesn't grow on trees, it pays to watch every penny, and getting through the Great Depression was no walk in the park. 

Yeah, but wait, haven't they both been gone a long time? And, aren't you more than financially solvent? Yeah, they're both long gone and .. well, OK. 

Even after that conversation concluded, it still wasn't easy for me to discard that relic. But I did. It made me neither happy nor sad doing so. It made me glad Dad and Mom taught me about money, proud of what working hard my whole life has given me, grateful for my good fortune and any role luck has had in where I've landed. Good enough. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Reading Re-Cap: 2021

Although turmoil in my personal life curtailed the volume of my reading in 2021, completing the fourth iteration of this series was not difficult. I had more than enough worthwhile reading experiences over this past year, despite all the upheaval. 

Please join me and tell others about some of your 2021 reading highlights, without regard to when a book was published. Use my headings or create your own.

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers:  American Dirt (2019) - Jeanine Cummins. Since this series began in 2018, I've used this heading to recommend a well written novel I'm convinced will have wide appeal. Ignore the controversy about cultural appropriation that engulfed the talented author and just allow yourself to be swept along by the pull of her unstoppable narrative.

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers: Bewilderment (2021) - Richard Powers.

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: The All of It (1986) by Jeanette Haien and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) by Annie Dillard.

Most worthwhile re-read: Our Souls at Night (2015) - Kent Haruf.

Most intriguing: How To Change Your Mind (2018) - Michael Pollan. Of the six headings I've used for this series since its inception, picking a book I read this past year to fit under this heading was the easiest. Pollan's journey into "what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence" was fascinating beginning to end. 

Most personally useful:  Old Age: A Beginner's Guide (2016) - Michael Kinsley. Another easy pick, for obvious reasons.  

Celebrate with me. Tell me and anyone who is reading about you, 2021, and books. As always, I reserve the right to change anything above should any book I finish between now and December 31 trump any of these selections. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Modern-Day Plague

"Comparison is the thief of joy." - Theodore Roosevelt

On good days I try my best to live by these wise words. I approach creative endeavors and my passions with audacity, attempting to forget about recognition, reward, legacy. Not coincidentally, on these days I'm also more generous and forgiving to others. After all, aren't labeling and judging akin to comparing? 

When I struggle being mindful and forget how comparison can steal joy, I'm invariably less kind and frequently less happy. On these days, if a creative impulse strikes me, I'm as likely to discard it as put it into the world.

Anyone taken note of current research linking the deterioration of self-esteem in teenage girls to overuse of social media? Theodore Roosevelt's words - uttered almost one hundred years before Facebook etc. was unleashed on us - presciently predicted this modern-day plague. How can young girls - or old men - avoid comparing themselves to others when the number of "friends", "likes", "views" are so ubiquitous? On bad days - i.e. if I dwell too long on one of these poisonous platforms - I feel my own joy dissipating. Create? No way. Enjoy a process rather than a destination? Forget it. Appreciate someone more fully? I can barely muster the grace. 

"Comparison is the thief of joy."  Begin, again. 


Thursday, December 16, 2021

An Age-Old Question

Are people capable of fundamental change

I believe in free will. I consider myself an optimist. Logically, those two elements should put me in the "yes" camp - at least more often than not - when answering that age-old question. If you share those two elements with me, please tell me: How frequently do you find yourself toggling to "no"? All the time? Often? Sometimes? Rarely? Almost never? 

If you answered "rarely" or "almost never" then tell me this: What evidence have you uncovered that leads you to answer "yes" more often than "no"? If you answered anything else, your equivocation puts you closer to this fellow free will optimist aka your favorite blogger.   

Given the persona I've carefully constructed for myself, my frequent journeys into the "no" camp on this question are a source of regular cognitive dissonance. However, on days I remember to include myself among the "people" in the question, that cognitive dissonance morphs into something more unsettling. When you first looked at that question, did you include yourself as one of those "people"? Puts the question into a slightly different light, no? 

Back to my question in the second paragraph with a few twists: What evidence would you offer to support a "yes" for how you are capable of fundamental change? More pertinently, how much would others who know you well agree you are capable of fundamental change? OK free will optimists (or otherwise), those in the more "yes" than "no" column (or its opposite), any cognitive dissonance - or something more unsettling - brewing now that you are part of the question

Monday, December 13, 2021

Words I've Never Heard: Speak Up

Which of your lifelong behaviors do you most readily trace back to your family of origin? 

Before offering my answer - and I do so first only because I've learned over eleven years of blogging that if I do not, no one else is likely to participate - please note: My non-cringeworthy answer flows directly from a recent animated conversation. If this same question had occurred to me a few days earlier or later, it's easy to imagine a much more humiliating answer would have come to me. I'm grateful for the timing.  

No one I've ever met with hearing ability falling within the normative range has ever asked me to repeat myself. Put another way, I speak LOUDLY.  For me, it seems beyond dispute that this lifelong behavior of mine - something that has been beneficial and off-putting, situation-dependent - arises directly from my family of origin, specifically, our mealtime dynamic.

Like many from my generation and socio-economic group, I grew up eating most of my meals at home. There were six of us around the table on most nights with only forty-nine months between me - the oldest - and my brother, the youngest. If you're from a smaller family - or a quiet one - try imagining the ever-increasing volume level at that dinner table when I was sixteen, my sisters fourteen and thirteen, and my brother twelve, each of us longing to be heard. And neither of my parents were particularly shy. 

OK, your turn. No need to over-share, unless you wish to. I refuse to believe you can't come up with anything.   

Friday, December 10, 2021

The Limitations Of Knowledge

"I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction."

"And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?"  

"But Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself."

Sentences lifted from a 2021 op-ed? Observations of some contemporary pundit? Overheard in a recent conversation? Guess again.

In 1962, John Steinbeck penned those prescient words in Travels With Charley: In Search of America.  Page after page of Steinbeck's stunning insights from his cross-country road trip with his dog Charley sixty years ago demonstrated to me why this literary titan will likely remain required school reading well into the twenty-first century.

Full disclosure: Though Steinbeck's travelogue was recommended to me by a trusted discerning reader, based on my recent track record with authors and books from the canon, I was still initially skeptical. But he had me from his first page when referring to "...the virus of restlessness...", then cemented his grip two pages later with "...and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir." And try this on for size and see if it doesn't describe some people you've known: "Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement." No? Then how about this? "There are others who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it."  

The sentences opening this post amply illustrate Steinbeck's wisdom about the issues facing America, in 1962 or 2021. The last paragraph brings into sharp relief his wisdom about people. But, in the end, this sentence sealed the deal for me: "Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know." I'm invariably more drawn to those with enough self-awareness to know the limitations of knowledge.   

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Let's Talk ..

With the sophomore jinx now out of the way - this evening's animated conversation included eight energized participants discussing moral courage - my initial trepidation about this newest adventure has mostly faded.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Harnessing My Trepidation

In addition to my gratitude to the local librarian for suggesting I moderate this monthly salon, I'm also thankful to the folks who've signed up so far, either for the maiden voyage in November discussing film noir, or for this second outing. Special thanks to those who've been at both conversations. And pleased as I've been to see a few familiar faces at one or the other event, I'm even more pleased to meet new people interested in the topics I'm selecting. I now eagerly anticipate January's discussion on memoirs. 

In the meanwhile, I want to re-extend an invitation to any local reader interested in getting involved. You can contact me either via a comment here or reach out offline however you wish. I'll get back to you immediately so you can join whichever future conversations pique your interest.  

Saturday, December 4, 2021

#64: The Mt. Rushmore Series

As Covid raged last year, I erected a Mt. Rushmore using four great movies having single word titles. Though I received no online response asking readers which films they would enshrine on that iteration of my long-running series, several people did write me offline. And because some of those ideas were worth saving, I then did what any self-respecting film buff would do. I made a list. 

After stumbling across that list the other day, I realized a second Mt. Rushmore with a related theme was now needed. Which four movies with just a single name would you nominate for Mt. Rushmore #64? My monument is alphabetical; construct yours however you wish.

1.) Brubaker - I'm unashamed admitting films about idealism have a lot of appeal to me. Years after first seeing it, what has remained with me about this movie - aside from Robert Redford's earnest portrayal of the eponymous prison reformer - is its downbeat ending. The message: Lasting change in a corrupt system occurs glacially.

2.) Bulworth - I don't understand how this brilliant, cynical, coruscating Warren Beatty movie didn't get more attention at the time of its release or in the years since. Make it your business to uncover this hidden treasure. Be sure and check out Halle Berry early in her career to see what all the later fuss was about.  

3.) Emma - I'm not real fond of period pieces, Jane Austen is not a favorite author, and Gwyneth Paltrow can annoy me as much as any modern-day celebrity. But this film - including Paltrow's luminous performance - works in every way. Perfect casting, flawless script, a score I wish I'd written. 

4.) Philomena - I make it my business to see every film Stephen Frears directs. In this real-life drama - based on a Martin Sixsmith book called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee - Frears will lift your spirit as he breaks your heart. Judi Dench is predictably exceptional and Steve Coogan is nearly as good. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #58: The Mt. Rushmore Series                 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Selling Vs. Informing

Each time I hear someone I know thoughtlessly regurgitating the words of a favorite radio or TV pundit, one thought seems to settle me. The personalities spewing that hateful, toxic, divisive bile to a susceptible audience - even when the audience are people known to me - are NOT thinkers. They are salespeople, pure and simple.

By definition, salespeople have something to sell. Keeping that thought in mind usually settles me. Because even when these individuals entertain me - however perversely - I'm not buying the hate, the toxins, the misguided attempts to divide. I'm in the market for good will, hope, and unity.

That doesn't mean I seek out rosier-than-thou information. Nor does it mean I'm unaware of the difficulties all of us face every day in an increasingly complex, interdependent world. But I will continue to search for thinkers who inform me vs. salespeople aiming to entertain me. I'm certain of little but I am certain that taking that path is better for me, for the people around me, and for the tiny piece of the world over which I have some influence.