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My most recent single release - "My True North" - is now available on Bandcamp. Open my profile and click on "audio clip".

Thursday, May 30, 2024

May 30, 1920

Even though both have been gone many years, I'm still struck each year when the birthday of one of my parents comes around. I'm certain I'm not alone in this regard. If you are lucky enough to still have your parents with you, I hope you honor them regularly, on birthdays and otherwise.

Although I don't know anyone with a parent who is one hundred and four - the age Mom would be had she lived to this day - I know several people with parents doing reasonably well despite their advanced age. I have one friend who turns ninety-four later this year and my list of active friends who are eighty and older continues to grow each year. I lost my mother way too soon. 

I've often wished my mom had the chance to meet my wife, lived long enough to watch her seven grandchildren grow up, been there when I got my master's degree at forty-eight. There are many landmarks I would have liked her to witness. Mostly, I would like to have had a lot more time to simply hang out with her. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Another Keeper

Immediately after leaving the full-time work world in 2010, I committed to the practice of keeping a book journal. For those of you who do the same - no matter how long you've been doing so - tell me: What have you learned about yourself, books in general, your reading tastes, or anything else, via your book journal?

One starting prompt I frequently use in my journals is "How did I come to this book?". Weeks back, while beginning an entry for William Boyd's Trio (2020) using that prompt, I recalled my book club's muted reaction to a Boyd spy thriller I'd read and enjoyed a great deal entitled Waiting for Sunrise (2012). 

And my journal entry for that earlier book brought back to me - full force - the intensity of my reaction to Brazzaville Beach (1990), my first exposure to Boyd, soon after I started my book journal practice. In that moment - before starting to write about Trio - I realized how my practice has enriched me in several ways. When a book knocks me out - as Brazzaville Beach did - and I take the time to capture why in my journal, that author gets more firmly rooted in my memory. I usually return, more than once, as I have with William Boyd. And, re-reading a rapturous entry - like the one I wrote about Brazzaville Beach - brings back that rapture. What a gift that is. 

Finally, later journal entries for books by the same author are often informed and frequently shaped by earlier ones. Put another way, writing about my reaction to a book deepens my discernment as a reader. For example, here's part of my entry for Trio: "Not quite as masterful as Brazzaville Beach or as suspenseful as Waiting for Sunrise but engaging and enjoyable end-to-end. William Boyd is a keeper." 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

That Name Thing

"I'm so bad with names."

How many times have you heard someone say that? Better yet, how recently did you hear someone say it? If you've been in a social situation with more than a few people recently, even money you heard at least one person say it then. Was it you who said it? How is it possible for so many people to be so bad with names?   

I don't believe it is possible. There are clearly a small minority of people who have a facility for recalling names. No doubt, a similar small minority exist who truly struggle with it. That leaves the rest of us in the middle. We repeatedly tell ourselves we're bad with names. We say it to others who say the same thing back to us. We frequently think it - or even say it - near to the moment when someone is first introducing themselves. Anyone detect a pattern yet in this textbook case of self-fulfilling prophecy? 

If our attention is anywhere else in the precise moment when a person new to us first says their name, the chance we will recall that name is close to zero. The many memory techniques we've been exposed to - association, using a pneumonic, repeating a name back soon after learning it, etc. - are all helpful and well tested. But no technique can replace 100% laser-focused attention in the moment. Total focus on only the name being said guarantees nothing. But if our minds are anywhere else in that moment - including how bad we are with names - we're destined to forever continue saying how bad we are with names. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Words for the Trash Can

Since May 2017 I've published thirty blog posts under the heading Words for the Ages, each featuring a short phrase lifted from a song lyric. All the phrases I've selected capture what I feel is some universal truth. My criteria have remained the same for seven years: The phrase must be terse enough to be easily remembered and also able to stand alone, i.e., not necessarily dependent on a rhyme to complete the pithy thought being expressed. And each time I've ask for your nominations of other lyrics from whichever songwriter I've featured. 

Today I'm making a different request. Please nominate a terse lyric - by any songwriter - that you feel can top the bolded one directly below for wrongheaded arrogance. Think of this as the antithesis of words for the ages. Words for the trash can, perhaps? 

"Everybody knows the world is full of stupid people."

The first thing I wondered months back upon hearing Ryan Hamilton's obnoxious pronouncement in his otherwise OK song Banditos was how old he was. Early in my reflections, it's likely I was giving this up-and-coming songwriter the benefit of the doubt via recalling some of the stupid things I said - maybe even thought - in my young adult years, although even then I didn't pen a lyric that dumb. Then as more time went by, the "everybody" in this lyric began gnawing at me. Aside from being reliably inaccurate, the lazy use of absolutes signals to others a writer who has trouble with nuance. In a young person, this is troubling. In an older person, inexcusable. 

Age aside, did Hamilton have his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this phrase? I hope he did. Still, I've made it my mission to steer clear of the close-minded, black & white, misanthropic people who have a worldview that lines up with his boneheaded lyric. I'll not be accepting a lunch invitation from Mr. Hamilton anytime soon.        

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Prolonging a Reading Experience

A good friend and fellow bookworm recently remarked how certain books beg to be discussed. Only later did it occur to me that a book that doesn't beg to be discussed is - almost by definition - probably not worth reading in the first place. 

Siri Hustvedt's 2015 novel What I Loved is packed with provocative ideas. The critical elements like narrative momentum, organic character development, and strong sense of time/place are masterfully handled. But it's the depth of the author's insights - about grief, loyalty, the fickle NYC art scene, friendship, disillusionment, redemption - that will compel you to find others who have finished this treasure so that you can discuss it. 

"We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant, a fragmented series of pictures, conversations, odors, and the touch of things and people. We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die."

I hope that passage acts as further enticement for you, one example of the muscular prose infusing this novel of ideas. When the friend who made that remark about books begging to be discussed also said she felt smarter reading What I Loved, her words rang true. If you end up reading it, please reach out to me here or otherwise. The one discussion I've already had about it was great, but I'd welcome prolonging this exceptional reading experience indefinitely.              

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Preservation Vs. Progress

Although I've resisted being a fatalist most of my life, the conflict between preservation of the natural world and the inexorable march of man-made progress seems to be an insoluble one. And the most disheartening aspect of this insoluble conflict? Choices I routinely make that land squarely on the side of progress despite claims that the preservation of the natural world is sacred to me. 

It's easy to label others as hypocrites when they say one thing and do the opposite. It's also intellectually lazy doing so if we don't routinely examine our own choices and see how well they line up with what we claim are our values. For example, if the natural world is that sacred to me, how to reconcile my use of an automobile? I let myself off the hook occasionally because I've embraced the use of a hybrid vehicle. I also choose often to walk or ride my bike locally in place of driving. But in this instance, progress - embodied by the automobile with its demonstrably negative effect on the environment - clearly has the upper hand over the natural world. Like many people, my way of coping with this disconnect - as well as others that plague me in the preservation vs. progress dichotomy - is to rationalize. I live in the modern world, not the horse-and-buggy era, automobiles are an inescapable part of life, blah, blah, blah. Who am I kidding, aside from myself? Inescapable? 

Meanwhile, I can hear the realists/pragmatists/empiricists from here in the cheap seats. That chorus screams: Get real, Pat; find some middle ground, tree hugger; get out of the way of man's dominion, dreamer. Though I haven't yet surrendered, each uncomfortable compromise I make to accommodate progress at the expense of the loss of more of the natural world hurts a little more than the last. 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Who Was That Dunce Mom?

The month of May will always belong to my mom, Marie Elizabeth Trautvetter Barton.

Mom was born May 30, 1920 and taken way too soon from all of us on November 17, 1977. I was a self-absorbed, broken young adult when she died. One detail I can clearly recall about her wake shames me even today. When someone who had recently hurt me came to pay her respects, I used my grief as a weapon against her. 

"Somewhere I had misplaced my son, had lost sight of his memory, which was the one truth that remained after his death, and had instead followed something false, which was not worthy of him."  

I realized just moments ago when starting to write this post why that sentence from Reservation Road hit me so hard when I read it several weeks back. My shame from 1977 returns full force by simply replacing the word "son" with "mother" and changing the pronouns. Who was that dunce just a few days from his twenty-eighth birthday?  

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. When I return to honor your birthday later this month, I'll recount a more ennobling story. Promise.       

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Miracle of Enduring Relationships

As my wife and I approach the half-century mark in our partnership, I catch myself increasingly reflecting on the miracle of enduring relationships.

Like all of you, I've known plenty of couples who have split up. And in the fickle world of celebrity, those acrimonious breakups are the tales that get the most attention. But without fail, stories of the rich and famous couples who have stood the test of time appeal to me a great deal more. The same holds true in my own social circle. I'm much more interested in hearing how grounded couples I know well have weathered their squalls vs. getting dirt on any breakup. What strategies have you observed in solid couples you know that appear to help them keep things purring? If you are in a partnership like that, what have you & your partner learned that get you through the inevitable rough patches, the occasional "feeling-in-a-rut" periods, and the unavoidable conflict that can arise with the person with whom you spend the most one-on-one time? 

I'm not speaking here of people who hang in there out of habit or lassitude. Like you, I've also known couples like that. I'm talking about folks who still value each other after decades of conversation, including hearing each other's stories dozens - perhaps hundreds - of times. Folks who support, affirm, and nourish one another. Folks who take vows like "in sickness and in health" seriously. My gratitude for my wife comes most sharply into focus after I've spent extended time with people aside from her, like a long weekend or even a vacation with friends or traveling companions or a holiday or time away with other family. For the most part, I enjoy those interactions. But I'm also relieved when the time with others is ending and I know that soon I'll return to spending time alone with my life partner. 

That consistently pleasant anticipation may not itself qualify as a miracle. But after nearly a half-century feeling that way, it sure seems close to one.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Instructor Did What?

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Dangling Conversations with Music Lovers

Tomorrow concludes the reprise of a six-hour Paul Simon class I first delivered eight years ago. Of the twenty-three people who signed up for the class, sixteen have taken a previous class of mine, either at the same college or elsewhere. 

Among the things I'm most grateful for is the unbridled enthusiasm this community of repeat students brings to every one of my classes. On more than a few occasions, their enthusiasm - combined with my inexhaustible passion for music - has helped unleash classroom antics that take me by surprise. Although I rarely regret appearing to be semi-possessed in those moments, I do sometimes wonder later what the newer students think about my manic intensity. 

For example, while playing the concluding song in last week's session, I discovered how effortlessly the swivel chair at the front of the classroom moved. With lots of space, my music-loving community all around, and the kinetic horn parts in You Can Call Me Al inspiring me, I was soon spinning around that room like a deranged Fred Astaire, the chair acting as Ginger Rogers, without high-heels. It wasn't until the drive home that I began imagining conversations newer students might have with others if they ever tried to recreate what they'd just seen. The instructor did what?  

Saturday, May 4, 2024

#72: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Though this iteration of my longest running series will be catnip for movie buffs, I'm confident saying even the most casual film watcher has been struck at least once by a totally unexpected portrayal by a well-known actor. Film geeks like me, please try to build an entire monument. For the rest of you: If you think one or more portrayals you've seen fit the criteria below, please join the fun. There's always a chance I might have missed a movie you cite, giving me an excuse to further indulge my film jones.  

First, think of film actors who have largely played "types" for the bulk of their careers. Begin with earlier movie history by recalling the roles people like Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn played in most of their movies. A bit later, think perhaps of the kinds of parts Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or Faye Dunaway typically played, especially during their heydays. Eliminate from your mental picture the chameleons who changed type often - e.g., Bette Davis, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep. Also set aside any portrayal where prosthetics did part of the job of lifting an actor or actress out of the kind of role you'd grown accustomed to seeing them portray. For example, discard Charlize Theron's deservedly praised turn in Monster. Now, given those parameters, who - in your mind - belongs on a Mt. Rushmore of unforgettable "against-type" portrayals? Drum roll please, for my indisputably brilliant choices, alphabetical by last name of the actor, and showing a clear modern bias: 

1.) Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (1999) - In this quirky Spike Jonze film, the perpetually dazzling Diaz is the frumpy housewife of John Cusack, a frustrated puppeteer. 

2.) Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast (1986) - Ford's everyman hero type morphs into an unhinged megalomanic in Peter Weir's faithful adaptation of the eponymous Paul Theroux novel.  

3.) Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition (2002) - Our modern-day Cary Grant becomes a mob assassin in this dark, brooding film directed by Sam Mendes.

4.) Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001) - Although his roles have arguably had him working outside of "type" more than Diaz, Ford, or Hanks, this ferocious award-winning portrayal of an implacably unlikeable corrupt cop - a part far removed from most of Washington's work - earns him a spot on my Mt. Rushmore. Director: Antoine Fuqua. 

I await your nominations.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Hardest Subject?

Novels that have the death of a child at their core are inherently problematic. Is there is any event in the life of a parent more damaging than losing a child? Any writer attempting to convey that trauma in a meaningful way - without descending into the maudlin - is faced with a daunting task.

"The floor was opening up under my feet and nobody seemed to notice it but me." 

I saw the movie version of John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel Reservation Road around the time of its 2007 release. I recall being riveted end-to-end and remember how the final confrontation scene between the two fathers - played by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo - shook me up and remained with me for months afterward. When I closed the book several weeks ago, I was relieved and saddened that the novel ended exactly as the film had. Relieved because it was the perfect way to conclude this raw and powerfully written tale. Saddened because, having seen the film first, the impact of the book's brave ending was muted for me.

"She was a husk; she'd never been so empty. 'You're wrong Sergeant. I'm not upset. I'm hardly even here.' " 

For me, the master stroke in Schwartz's novel was his decision to toggle two first-person accounts alongside a third-person account. The first italicized sentence above is in the first-person voice of the father who loses his ten-year-old son in a hit-and-run. It is Ethan Learner's voice that begins and ends the book. The four italicized sentences after that begin with nine flawlessly chosen words - only two longer than one syllable - describing in third person what a mother who has just lost her son would feel like, followed by Grace Learner's matter-of-fact words to the State Trooper investigating the case. 

The other first-person voice in the novel belongs to Dwight Arno - also the father of a ten-year-old boy - the man who accidentally kills Josh Learner. Reviewing all I underlined while preparing to write this post, I struggled to decide which one passage to use here to highlight how skillfully Schwartz depicted Dwight's anguish throughout. In the end, I settled on two. The first concludes Part One of the novel and the other is from the penultimate chapter - part of the confrontation scene I referenced above - the last time we hear Dwight's voice.

"There are heroes, and there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go the ghost of the better person you might have been."

"I had taken from him everything there was to take, and had wanted none of it, had hoped and tried to avoid it, had regretted it deeply. But I had taken his boy just the same."

Read this book before you watch the film. But wait until you are ready before doing either. Both will take a toll.