The Best Words of Winter

Spring Training

Credit: SpringTrainingCountdown.com

 

Pitchers and catchers report today. With those words, the end of winter is in sight.  SpringTrainingCountdown.com no longer has a daily tracker at the top of its site.  The baseball writers climb out of their caves.  Play ball, indeed!

More to come…

DJB

Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!

 

Our Best Picture Quest Begins Anew

As we have done almost every year since 2012, Candice and I are on a quest to see as many of the “Best Picture” nominees as possible prior to the Academy Awards show on March 4th.  Last year we were on a roll…and then life intervened, and we only saw four of the nine nominees.  This year we’ll have to get them all in this month, as Candice will be otherwise occupied with hip replacement surgery on March 1st.  So to get ahead of the game, we saw four pictures in four nights last weekend (and into Monday).

Film Reel

Our wonderful American Film Institute Silver Theatre here in Silver Spring has been showing five of the Best Picture nominees, so it was easy to go two blocks and drop in for a movie.  All four that we’ve seen were excellent, each in its own way.  Here’s our initial take (from two highly unqualified movie critics).

We both loved The Post, as much for what it says about the importance of a free press as for the quality of the film, although that was very high.  It moves along at a quick pace, the ensemble acting is very good, and Meryl Streep is terrific as Katherine Graham. This is also a love letter to old-style newspaper production.  (The views of the presses at work are worth the price of the film.) You should go see this one to remind yourself why democracy matters, and how easy it can be to lose it (as if you don’t already know that in 2018).

The very next night we saw Phantom Thread, which is a luscious film for the senses.  Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible — as always — as the designer whose desire for order and perfection runs into love after he meets a waitress who refuses to fit into his mold.  The pace is as slow as The Post’s is quick, but that’s okay.  This won’t win the Best Picture award, but it is a movie worth seeing.  We both enjoyed it a great deal.

For our third movie, we took in Lady Bird, the coming-of-age movie that introduced us to Saoirse Ronan in the title role where she is a deserving nominee for Best Actress.  As with many such movies, it can be difficult to watch at times as teenagers move through those difficult years.  The views of Sacramento throughout the film helped you move, along with Lady Bird, from thinking of the town as the “Midwest of California” to the point at the end of the film where every turn is magical.  Again, I don’t think this will win the award, but we enjoyed the movie (as did our Claire).

Finally, we saw a film that I believe could very much be in the running to get the award:  The Shape of WaterThis story from the Cold War era and how the mute janitor Elisa (played with power by Sally Hawkins) finds out about the top secret project in her lab, kept us entranced throughout.  Octavia Spencer — from last year’s wonderful Hidden Figures — is a joy any time she is on the screen.  We didn’t know what to expect going into this film, and halfway through, we still weren’t sure where it was headed, but in the end it was very satisfying.

So there are our first four.  We’re going to try to catch three or more over the upcoming holiday weekend, so keep reading (and watching).  As always, comments on your favorites are always welcome.

More to come…

DJB

“Response-able”

I admit to being one who feels that February is the longest month of the year.  When that feeling begins to take hold, I remember that I can fight back. Respond.  Be proactive.  Habit #1 in Stephen Covey’s best-seller about the seven habits of highly effective people is to be proactive.  It is about taking responsibility for your life.

“You can’t keep blaming everything on your parents or grandparents. Proactive people recognize that they are “response-able.” They don’t blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior. Reactive people, on the other hand, are often affected by their physical environment. They find external sources to blame for their behavior. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance, and they blame the weather. All of these external forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.” (emphasis added)

February

February

Yesterday’s weather in the DC region captured February perfectly for me.  Dark, cold and damp with a wintery mix that lasted all day. But instead of hunkering down, I chose to brave the elements to go see Lady Bird, in the annual quest Candice and I have to watch as many of the best picture nominees as possible.  I chose not to watch the Super Bowl.  We all have choices, and I have to remember — all 28 days of the month — that I have the freedom to be able to respond to outside stimuli or conditions. That’s the key to responsibility. There is much more in our lives that we control than perhaps we’ll admit to ourselves.  A recent blog entitled You Are In Control of Most Things in Your Life, So Start Acting Like It got much of this right.

“When you start really thinking about what you do control, you start to realize that the circumstances aren’t the question. The question is: what are you going to do now?

Because you control what you read. You control what you put into your body. You control how you respond to the people around you, and you control who you allow into your life. You control how you respond to injustice. You control the job applications you do or don’t send. You control how much time you spend online.

You control your hygiene and style and whether or not you exercise. You control what kind of treatment you will tolerate. You control what you’ll do at work today. You control whether or not you try. You control whether or not you try again. You control when you decide it’s time to “give up.” You control whether or not you learn from your mistakes, you control whether you see breakups as punishments or opportunities to find someone better. You control what you post online. You control who you follow. You control what you write down. You control not what you think, but what you believe.

You control how you treat the people closest to you. You control whether or not you schedule your time and set reminders. You control the tidiness of your home. You control whether you learn to cook. You control not always how much money you have, but whether or not you manage it….You control whether or not you become the person you always wanted to be.

You control what you say. You control what you do with feedback – and everything is feedback. You control the big picture, even if you don’t control the road bumps along the way. You control whether or not you go get help, even if you don’t heal overnight. You control your self-image, even if you disagree with how others see you. You control what you think is possible, by virtue of going out and seeing what is. You control your sphere of influence.

What you don’t control is other people, but you don’t need to. All of the things that build real meaning, and true happiness, like purpose, and community, and self-image, and grit, and resilience, and love? That’s self-generated. That’s all on you.”

Recognizing that you are in control of most things in your life seems to be a good thing to remember as we start into February…the longest month.

Have a good week.

DJB

Super Bowl Rant IV

NFL Brain Diagram via SportsPickle.com

If it is the first Sunday in February, it must be time for my annual Super Bowl rant.  Let’s call it Rant IV, given that Rants I, II, and III have already played out here on the virtual pages of More to Come….

In past posts, I’ve given you 13 reasons why I won’t be watching the Super Bowl. (And yes, reason #10 is these stupid and pretentious Roman numerals.) Of course, #11 from last year holds true-to-form again this year (and most years):

“11.  It’s the damn Patriots.  Again.  Is there anyone more insufferable in sports than Bill Belichick/Tom Brady? (Wait, I’ll answer that.  Maybe Coach K. But that’s another post. And I know that Belichick and Brady are actually two people, but I’ve grouped them as one because they synch their grating to perfection.)  They push rules up to the line and over, and then act like their sainthood has been challenged when they are caught.  I hate Roger Goodell – he of the $40 million+ salary as a nonprofit executive (seriously) – but even I don’t wish for a Patriots victory so he has to eat crow and give them the trophy the year two years in a row after Deflategate.”

I will say that at least the game isn’t on FOX this year, as I’m not sure the world would survive the Adulation of Donald Trump that would be sure to overwhelm the pregame festivities.  I notice that the president is turning down the opportunity for the traditional interview in the pregame show.  Just as well.  We can use 8 hours away from alternative facts and fake news.

So let’s add another reason I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year:

“14. Brett Favre:  “When I see little children playing football I cringe.”  In a Washington Post story two days ago, football legend Brett Favre said:

“I cringe…when I see video, or I’m driving and I see little kids out playing, and they’re all decked out in their football gear and the helmet looks like it’s three times bigger than they are. It’s kind of funny, but it’s not as funny now as it was years ago, because of what we know now. I just cringe seeing a fragile little boy get tackled and the people ooh and ahh and they just don’t know. Or they don’t care. It’s just so scary.”

Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

The only good thing about the Super Bowl?  It means that pitchers and catchers report in ten days.

Winter bad. Baseball good.

More to come…

DJB

Read When It Is Inconvenient

For the past week I’ve been carting around the new Ron Chernow biography of Ulysses Grant.  Chernow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) and Grant were companions on my cross-country trip last week and they will be companions on my Metro ride for at least another week or two.  (Did I mention that it was 900+ pages?)

As the son and brother of librarians, reading has been a large part of my life for more than sixty years.  However, when I returned from sabbatical in 2016 I made a renewed commitment to drop some of the things that had begun taking up large portions of my life (like television) and replace those time-wasters with reading.  (This is one reason I’m pretty clueless when it comes to pop cultural references.)  The most frequent question I get about these Monday blog posts is “how do you find time to read so much.”  Well, I read almost any chance I get.  I read when it is convenient, and perhaps when it isn’t.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

I recently came across a blog post by a 20-something about the importance of reading for her generation, and much of what she said rang true to me even though I have 40 years on her.  (Since the title includes a word not appropriate for work or family blog posts, I’ll just include the link.)  She builds the post off a Mastin Kipp quote:  “Be willing to live as other people won’t, so you can live as other people can’t.”

The blog’s author then adds:

“I think of this most days, but mostly I feel this way about reading. Reading has shaped me, unshaped me, bothered me, and taught me. I healed because I learned to think as other people wrote.

If you want to make the most of your 20s, you need to exit the rat race that is trying to prove that you are having the most fun, or becoming the most settled, or whatever. Right now, your psyche is still malleable. You’re relatively unattached. You always have the potential to actualize yourself, but now you have the most opportunity.

When you have a spare hour, when you get stood up, when you get dumped, fired, when you’re falling in love, when you’re falling out of love, when you’re feeling lost, when you’re panicking for no reason, read. Read articles, books, Twitter feeds of smart people.”

. . .

“Most people aren’t willing to read when it’s inconvenient.”

“But a book you read this weekend could change the way you think for the next five decades. It could have an irrevocable impact on your entire quality of life. There is a quote that goes something like, ‘I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten or every book I’ve read, but they are all still a part of me.’”

No matter your age, words and books have the power to change your mind and life.  Figure out what is unproductive that’s eating up your time, then consider replacing that activity with reading.  Maybe like me, you’ll start reading books about science for the first time since high school, or you’ll find a new fascination for fiction, if you are a non-fiction type.  (Lincoln in the Bardo and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing are two works of fiction I’ve read recently that are worth the time and effort simply in the way they expand the mind.)

Yes, if you are analog in nature and you get hooked on reading, you’ll quickly run out of book shelves.  But there are worse problems in the world.

Have a good week reading…even when it is inconvenient.

 

More to come…

DJB

Practicing

Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB