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Sunday, July 31, 2022

... and After

Well, the drugs helped, kind of.  

I made it through playing Just the Way You Are on guitar as my beloved daughter walked toward her soon-to-be husband as the ceremony began. Passing her hand to his, a wise strategy suddenly arrived to help me conceal the flood: I grasped his head with both hands, whispering in his ear. I'll spare you the message. As others spoke during the ceremony - including the moving vows the bride and groom wrote - my weeping was subsumed by loud sniffles in the room. The five piece brass band escorting the newly married couple from the ceremony into the cocktail hour returned my composure, briefly. Onto the reception.

Our brief speech following the toast by my daughter's best friend had four parts. I held it together as my wife delivered part one. Part two? I paused a lot, took deep breaths, stuck to the script - so far, so good. My wife took part three and part four was brief enough that I almost got through the section about home unscathed. Almost.  

The two of us dancing to Til There Was You, the lullaby I sang to her as an infant, toddler and beyond? Don't ask. The good news? By the time that dance occurred, my jacket and tie had been on the back of a chair for a while, my shirt drenched from ninety minutes of non-stop dancing. Who would possibly notice my unstoppable tears given the state I was in at that point?  

 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Before ...

The day after tomorrow - Friday July 29 - my cherished daughter is getting married. 

Over the eleven + years I've published this blog - like many of you - my life has had ups and downs. I've tried to avoid oversharing the downs and invited you to celebrate many of the ups. For Friday's milestone - my most significant in over three decades - join me by toasting my daughter and her new husband. 

Among the things I'm most grateful for in my life is the partnership my wife and I have sustained for over forty-four years. I hope any foundation we provided helps our daughter as she begins navigating this new phase in her life. While she was growing up, we tried to model the importance of trust, compromise, and humor for her; I believe those elements were crucial in getting us through our choppy periods. I hope that modeling helps her as well. 

I'm reasonably sure pharmaceuticals will be required Friday to prevent me from dissolving into a puddle. I'll let you know how it went after I recover. Although our daughter was never ours to "give away", it does feel - at least this moment - like a piece of me is headed on a journey that is apart, somehow. I know this unease will pass. My daughter inherited her mother's kindness, her common sense, her good instincts. She and her new husband will thrive using those solid tools. Wish them luck.                   

Monday, July 25, 2022

1 +1 +1 = Groaning While Reading

Given how often my blog posts have literature as their subject, by now even irregular readers might have noticed I don't bash books or authors. My reason for resisting this unkind impulse is simple. Until completing and publishing my own first full-length book, I have not earned the right to trash the work of anyone who has done so. (Full disclosure: On rare occasions, I have succumbed to that unkind impulse when posting a review on Goodreads. But I have less than twenty-five friends on that site meaning there's little danger of any author losing sales due to my small "p" public churlishness.)

However, given the volume of my reading - and the number of groaners endured as a consequence of that volume - I feel justified saying more than a few authors frequently fall into the same trap as some recording artists and filmmakers - an over-reliance on formula. Now I realize many readers, music lovers, and film enthusiasts enjoy predictability, meaning formulaic books, music, and films have their place. But moving inexorably through Act Three, I yearn for freshness vs. formula. The list of over-used literary devices found in many traditional, conservative, predictable books - particularly those marketed as "historical fiction" - is long. I'll kick it off with a few that make me groan and then wait for you to join in. No book titles or authors, please.

* Exposition overload: Few things annoy me more than a writer who tells me what is about to happen, tells me again when it is happening, then reminds me what just happened. Set the scene once or not at all. Then give me something fresh, please. Don't chew the food for me.

* Epiphany alerts or ... cliffhanging final sentences to choppily episodic bite-size chapters: Books aimed at the mass market are supposed to be "page-turners". But suspense can be delivered in so many novel ways. Dangling shiny objects is a cheesy way to maintain narrative momentum. And it insults my intelligence.   

* The rotating narrator loop: 1.) Narrator #1 tells a story in the "present" tense via hearing, reporting, or re-counting to others ... 2.) the famous/infamous, glorious/disastrous, but always "unforgettable" past of narrator #2, from whom narrator #1 will be fed or arrive at one or more of the aforementioned epiphanies, often delivered as a cliffhanger at the end of a bite-size, episodic, page-turning chapter. If multiple narrators must be used, give me an author who resists the temptation to have every chapter toggle between narrator #1 and #2. Formula-loving writers: If you must do that monotonous toggling thing, please don't date every chapter in strictly chronological order. 

If you are a frequent reader, some of the above might feel eerily familiar. What groanworthy formulas are on your list?      

Friday, July 22, 2022

One Day's Battle with the "B" Word

Of the twenty-five definitions for the word balance noted in my dictionary - used as either a noun or verb - several could have served as a starting point here. I welcome your help deciding which of those definitions comes closest to describing the dilemma of today's reflection. To prevent any reader from recommending medication for yours truly, please note: This is not an everyday occurrence.

Set-up: Awake at 6:30 a.m. Morning ablutions and breakfast = 30 minutes. Onset of dilemma: 8:30 a.m.

Outline of dilemma: At 8:30, with approximately fifteen waking hours remaining in day, blogger in search of balance considers the estimated time required for two more at home meals - including prep and cleanup - briefly chastising himself for the ninety minutes already lost. As minutes tick by and no daily disciplines have yet been initiated, dilemma deepens. Which discipline first? Reading*? Guitar? Writing* (If writing, which vessel?) Meditation? Exercise*? Activist work? "*" = More complications ensue since three of the six disciplines have ambitious goal(s) attached. Tick, tick, tick ... 

Balance, blogger intones. Put disciplines aside - think of others. Pay more attention to the impending wedding of your daughter; your ailing sister who would welcome a visit; phone calls or e-mails to family, friends, fellow activists are all as important as any of those disciplines, with or without the goals. But wait a minute: How about the "to do" list, the errands, the stuff needing to be done around the house? Tick, tick, tick ...

Inadequate resolution of dilemma: The search for balance will always be with me. Any assistance you'd care to offer is appreciated. 


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Click!

Postponement of gratification is inextricably linked to being a musician. I'm continually reminded that the thousands of hours of solitary practice and/or the hundreds of band rehearsals will always be far removed from the moments when all that practice and rehearsing suddenly clicks - fleetingly - and some magic occurs in a performance.  

Since 2011, the year my most recent musical partnership of longstanding ended, my live performances have been mostly solo guitar. On more than a few occasions over these last eleven years, I wondered if solo work - without singing - was ever going to deliver enough of those magical moments to make it worth continuing to ply this particular musical model.  Even an expert at postponing gratification like me - performing continuously for fifty-eight years - has limits. 

Just in time, several weeks back, during my first set at the opening of a local bookstore - click! The moments didn't string together for the whole set - the whole thing lasted about the length of two plus songs - and my second set disappointed me in its entirety. No matter, although I do hope my next click is closer than years away. It's not like I've got an unlimited number of those to spare.      

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Life Is an Ellipsis ...

Some books are transformative. Upon finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan soon after its 2010 release, I knew I'd become a different kind of reader. I then waited for over three years before rewinding to read Look at Me (2001) primarily because I feared being disappointed. I was not.

Some authors stand alone. After finishing The Candy House (2022), I'm now convinced Egan has few peers among 21st century novelists. She is an astonishing stylist, razor-sharp observer of contemporary life, and an exceptional storyteller. Best of all, she is brave enough to acknowledge that life is one ellipsis after another. Our choices rarely lead to neat endings; many chapters in The Candy House are not real tidy either. Any demands Egan makes on readers are offset by astute insights, dazzling prose, and provocative ideas.

Some novels resist being summarized. The Candy House is a meditation on authenticity in an age when privacy is in peril. It is a post-modern treatise on the slippery nature of time, identity, and memory told in first and third person, via e-mail and instruction manuals. It rewinds effortlessly to 1969 and fast forwards to 2035 to warn of the collateral damage done to our relationships by inattention and technology. This is more than great literature - it is sorcery.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Attention: Sports Fans

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Still Playing Forward: Jennifer Egan

 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A More Civil and Inclusive World

beyonddiversity.org

Among the many things I'm grateful for in Act Three of my life is the occasional opportunity I get to work with Beyond Diversity. Although loosely affiliated with this social justice organization for almost thirty years, each time I'm asked to work with them, I feel renewed. I encourage you to check out their website. 

Reading the background materials for my latest assignment recently, my energy surged. Preparing for this work is always a pleasure because doing so fortifies my commitment to the organization's mission at the same time that it deepens my own learning. Every project I've worked on with Beyond Diversity has helped me grow into a more compassionate and humane person.

Those personal benefits are deeply gratifying. Even better is walking away from each project knowing I've contributed - in some small way - to helping make the world a more civil and inclusive place. If something in your life gives you similar satisfaction, please share it here with me and other readers. How could it hurt to share a story like that?


Sunday, July 10, 2022

Politics V. Walt & Ralph

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes": Walt Whitman

Even with Whitman's wise words in my head, I've struggled my entire adult life trying to strike a reasonable balance between open-mindedness and having strong convictions. Each time I think I've made progress, I test it by putting myself in the shoes of a thinking politician running for office. Imagine: You've established a position on an issue and then you're exposed to information that persuades you to change that position. What to do? How do you explain to voters the shift in your views? Do you quote Whitman to those voters, perhaps? Good luck.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds": Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've relied on Emerson many times. But an inconsistent elected official is a "flip-flopper", pure and simple, never mind the size of the mind. How do you as a voter know what an elected official stands for if that official is not consistent? Considering this dilemma, I'm forced to acknowledge my reflexive disdain for politicians might be a bit intellectually lazy. When was the last time you reversed yourself on something? What was that like for you? How did others react to your shift? How much courage must it take for an elected official to reverse a position even when the reversal is the result of serious thought? Our chances of losing a job, a friend, or much of anything when we contradict ourselves or act inconsistently are minimal. What about that elected official?   

On more than one occasion, I've begun writing my couple of paragraphs here only to recall having said something contradictory in an earlier post. Suppose someone catches me in an inconsistency? I'm safe in my multitudes and my hobgoblins remain at bay. And I'm grateful a life in politics was never in the cards. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Timing is Everything

Rewind to a random date in the 20th century, anywhere from the mid-60s on. Imagine someone in the orbit of yours truly recommending a documentary to him entitled Fantastic Fungi. Listen as he first cackles wildly before questioning the sanity of the recommender.

Fast forward to the present day. Consider the education slowly administered to yours truly by his life partner of forty-four+ years - horticulture major, master gardener, chairperson of the newly formed Monmouth County Chapter of the NJ Native Plant Society. Observe yours truly transfixed by Fantastic Fungi. Timing is everything.

As recently as 2015 - on the first vacation my wife and I took with Road Scholars - she had trouble persuading me to attend a lecture on fungi and lichen. But that was before she ...

* Told me I must read The Overstory, a Richard Powers novel that subsequently transformed my relationship with the natural world and ...

* Suggested a companion non-fiction book called Entangled Life (Merlin Sheldrake) that deepened my understanding of the critical role of fungi in the web of life and ...

* Continued demonstrating an unalloyed evangelism for the natural world via her involvement in the NJ Native Plant Society, thereby augmenting my education with her modeling. How could I resist watching Fantastic Fungi when she suggested it? I'm so glad I didn't.

Timing is everything.                

Monday, July 4, 2022

Happy Birthday

For me, our nation's birthday seems an optimal time to set aside where we have fallen short and celebrate what we've gotten right. 

Reflecting on our complicated history, I finally settled on the three elements below. In my view, none of these three need to be qualified with an "even when ..." or "however". For example, had I settled on the venerated value from our Declaration of Independence asserting "all men are created equal", it would be intellectually dishonest to cite that ideal without a caveat. The value is undeniably noble; we are still a distance from fully actualizing it. These three can stand, arguably, without any qualifier.

* The concept of free public libraries

* The establishment of a system of National Parks

* The freedom to practice religion as codified in the first amendment to the Constitution

What are you celebrating today?       

Friday, July 1, 2022

Sticking with Science and Books

Following a recent stimulating group discussion of Richard Powers's latest novel (Bewilderment), I stumbled across one plausible reason for the resistance the ex-tweeter-in-chief has shown to reading books. Let's say you delude yourself that you are the center of the universe, similar to the way Agent Orange repeatedly acts. Can you think of a better way to support that fantasy than ignoring all the evidence books have to offer?   

Two threads in Bewilderment led me to this insight. The first is the way Powers weaves the resiliency of the natural world into his incandescent novel. Long after we have done our worst, the earth will endure. The second thread is how astronomy - if we pay attention - continually reminds us of the vastness of space and our infinitesimal place in that space. 

Even if those two threads hadn't persuaded me that eschewing books and pathological narcissism are two sides of the same coin, on a bike ride soon after that book discussion, my monkey mind raced to the science of geology.  Recalling a lecture I attended earlier this year while in Death Valley, I was humbled anew considering how old the earth is and how tiny my mark on the earth truly is. Some days, thinking about the sciences in this fashion can make me blue; I can be as egotistical and self-centered as the next guy. But being reminded of my cosmic insignificance by science and books beats ignoring the evidence so, on balance, I'm sticking with both.