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

Responding to Anger

Anger

Anger

Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Of Love and Loss

It is a special mind that can take a sliver of historical fact and spin out an imaginative and totally unexpected tale of love and loss as intriguing and captivating as George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever.  It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.  They are the primary narrators of Lincoln’s visit, which in Saunders’ telling occurs all in one night.  In the first half of the book, the supernatural narration goes on a bit too much, and some of it is superfluous to the story.  However, Lincoln’s grief, as seen by the spirits (especially those who inhabit him on occasion), is very real and brings the loss of his son…and all the other sons and daughters being killed as a result of the Civil War…into perspective.  Both President Lincoln and Willie, as well as the spirits, grapple with questions of love lost and how to move past that pain.

One of the things that makes this novel work are the intriguing characters. An elderly cleric plays a primary role as an observer — and explainer — of what is happening in the Bardo and why it matters to the souls of all involved. The New York Times reviewer noted:

“…(the voices of the supernatural) gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.

The ghosts are a motley lot, reminiscent of the dispossessed and disenfranchised characters in Saunders’s short stories. They include a soldier, a murderer, a disgraced clerk, a rape victim, a hunter who’s killed more than 30 bears and hundreds of deer, an aggrieved scholar, a mother of three girls, a young man who tried to kill himself after the man he loved spurned his affections, and an older man who was struck in the head by a falling ceiling beam and died before he could consummate his marriage to his pretty young wife.  Together, these voices create a kind of portrait of an American community — not unlike the one in Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 classic, “Spoon River Anthology,” which was set in a fictionalized version of a small Illinois town.”

The perspectives of these spirits and of President Lincoln shine through in Saunders’ hands.  This is an introspective work that I found well worth the reading.  Recommended.

More to come…
DJB

I’m Afraid Every Day…and I Jump Anyway

A friend sent out a recent Tedx Pasadena Talk by a friend of hers entitled Making the Jump:  The Year of No Fear.  The speaker, Grace Killelea, begins with a very funny story of how — at age 52 and weighing 247 pounds — she decided to go skydiving to begin a “Year of No Fear.”  In spite of the fact that she was a Senior VP for a Fortune 50 company, she had decided she needed to undertake a personal “Year of No Fear” because she was “afraid she would always feel afraid.”  Research shows that she is not alone.

Killelea goes on to ask, “What would a jump look like for you?”  Based on the comments to the video, fears range from personal relationships, to job and work satisfaction, to the current political climate.  Killelea’s point is that we all have our fears.  Facing our fears “doesn’t have to be big and bold, like jumping out of a plane.”  What’s important is that you “identify (your jump), and then decide what’s keeping you from doing it.”  As she notes, she hasn’t always succeeded, but her “superpower is that I’m afraid every day…and I jump anyway.”  She plans her actions — she didn’t jump out of the plane without a parachute, for instance — but continues on to say, “What matters is that you take action.  Jumping requires that you do something.”

The talk ends with her lessons learned from the year of no fear.  “It’s okay to be afraid…jump anyway” is the first lesson learned.  The next two would be spoilers for her talk, so I’ll skip over those.  But her last lesson learned is that “You only regret the jumps that you don’t make.”

“So remember,” she ends, “good things come to those who jump.”

Could 2018 be your year of no fear?

No Fear

A Year of No Fear

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Resolutions

Several years ago I stopped making New Years’ resolutions.  A recent New York Times article on making and keeping resolutions noted that one-third of our resolutions don’t make it to the end of January, while another Times article suggested that only 10% of resolutions are fully met by year’s end.  I’m proud to say I’ve kept my particular resolution since 2014!

What I did in 2014 was to set seven rules for how I wanted to live for the next third of my life, and I recently added an eighth.  Because they are part of my computer wallpaper, I look at them every day.  The one that generates the most comment is the last one, which is basically “Don’t be a grumpy old man.”  That may be a hard one for setting metrics (laughs per day?) but I basically know when I’m following this rule or when my crotchety index is on the rise.

Computer Wallpaper

My computer wallpaper with David’s Rules

Many of us make resolutions or set rules for our lives, counting on our willpower to reinforce good habits or to change bad habits we’ve allowed to fester over time.  I’ve written before about how habits are not destiny, and suggested the work of Charles Duhigg if you are interested in changing them.  However, an excellent New York Times op-ed reminds us that willpower isn’t the only path to success.  In fact, author David DeSento suggests that willpower is the wrong way to keep resolutions.  He asks why, after decades of a self-help industry that promotes willpower, little has changed in many of our lives.

 “The answer, I contend, is that this view of self-control is wrong. In choosing to rely on rational analysis and willpower to stick to our goals, we’re disadvantaging ourselves. We’re using tools that aren’t only weak; they’re also potentially harmful. If using willpower to keep your nose to the grindstone feels like a struggle, that’s because it is. Your mind is fighting against itself. It’s trying to convince, cajole and, if that fails, suppress a desire for immediate pleasure. Given self-control’s importance for success, it seems as if evolution should have provided us with a tool for it that was less excruciating to use.

I believe it did; we’re just ignoring it. That tool is our social emotions. These are the emotions — things like gratitude and compassion — that support the positive aspects of social life. For years I’ve been studying the effects of these emotions on decision-making and behavior, and I’ve found that unlike reason and willpower, they naturally incline us to be patient and persevere. When you are experiencing these emotions, self-control is no longer a battle, for they work not by squashing our desires for pleasure in the moment but by increasing how much we value the future.”

DeSento, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, wraps up his article by noting,

“Cultivating the social emotions maximizes both our “résumé virtues” (those that underlie professional success) and our “eulogy virtues” (those for which we want to be remembered). In nudging the mind to be more patient and more selfless, they benefit everyone whom our decisions impact, including our own future selves. In short, they give us not only grit but also grace.”

 

Journals

My journals, where I track progress against my life rules

Happy New Year with special wishes for progress against whatever resolutions or life rules you have set for yourself.

More to come…

DJB

Memories

Helen Roberts Brown

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom

For the past two decades, New Year’s Day has had memories of loss mixed in with the anticipation of the coming year.  Mother passed away on January 1, 1998, and while a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of her, the memories are especially poignant on New Year’s Day.

Thankfully, mother’s life left many legacies in her family, her church, and her community.  Mom’s love of family never changed and was unconditional. She loved each one of us as individuals who had unique gifts and ways to serve. The lives lived by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (who she never met) and in-laws are part of her legacy. Her commitment to her faith and her church was just as strong.  She was a life-long reader (as was my father) and she shared that love through her decades of service at church libraries in Tennessee.  She also believed in the power of women in the church, and became the first female deacon at First Baptist in Murfreesboro.  Mom served her communities in so many ways, from PTA president to her years as the children’s librarian for the city.  Mom’s commitment to reading and education was one reason the Helen Brown Scholarship Fund was established by her family at First Baptist Church.  For two decades now it has helped young people attend college.  Most of them never knew Mom, but they are blessed by her life and legacy.

As we look ahead to 2018, I’m reminded of a few of Mom’s many strengths which will help me face this new year with confidence in the future.

Treat everyone with respect.  This seems old-fashioned after the year of taunts, lies, and slander we’ve endured.  However, it still has meaning today, and Mom lived this value through good times and bad.  She was the PTA president the year our school in Cookeville was desegregated.  Very difficult times.  Mom went through that year with her values leading the way, but with an understanding of the challenges she faced.  I later heard her say that there were never any problems with the children in desegregating the schools, only with the parents.  I am often reminded of that when I speak about others who are different from me.

Be the person you were meant to be.  From their understanding of faith, Mother and Daddy gave us a blessing of unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, release to be the person God intends for us to be, and affirmation and support as we work out our understanding of who we are meant to be.  They both said it out loud, and through their lives.  Their unconditional acceptance also seems old-fashioned in a world where too many are frightened by those who are different, but to me it seems so necessary for our life as family and community.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad, with their “Helping Hands” aprons made by their grandchildren

Money can’t buy happiness.  Mother and Daddy were never rich in money, but as Mom phrased it, they were rich in love.  Mom would relate to a note from my Dad about money:

MONEY CAN BUY . . .

a bed, but not sleep

books, but not brains

food, but not appetite

finery, but not beauty

medicine, but not health

luxuries, but not culture

amusement, but not happiness

flattery, but not respect

a house, but not a home

companions, but not friends.

No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.  My mom never said this.  The line actually comes from Thomas Boswell’s Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?  But Mom lived this.  She would watch football and basketball, but she loved baseball.  She told stories of going to old Sulphur Dell park with her father to watch the Nashville Vols.  I’ve acquired her love of baseball and have passed it along to my daughter Claire (another woman of quality).  Looking ahead to 2018, she would join me in my optimism for the Nats!

Memories live on.  I once asked the singer-songwriter Claire Lynch if she ever played her tune These Flowers — about remembering a parent who has passed on — in concert.  It was during a mid-set break, and I was hoping to hear this tune, which meant so much to me, live.  She replied that she didn’t play it live because it was too emotional for her.  I told her I understood, and added that I would probably start crying out in the audience.  So when These Flowers came up on my playlist yesterday as I was driving home from dropping Claire (Brown) off at the airport, I — true to form — started crying.

We all gathered round, and stared in the ground,

While the heavens were weeping with rain.

We smiled. We cried. We said good-bye.

And the children made handsome bouquets,

From flowers that lay on your grave.

 

And on the long ride home, in their warm little hands.

The blossoms were withering fast.

So we wrapped them in paper and tucked them in books,

And prayed that the memory would last.

With these flowers.

 

Though time marches on and memories fade,

And flowers surrender their youth.

It’s funny how old pedals pressed on a page,

Brings everything back into view.

 

I still picture you there, in your favorite chair,

With grand-babies held on your knee.

And its hard to believe you’re really gone.

It’s as if we have all been asleep.

What we find when we wake from the dream…

Are these flowers. These flowers.

 

Twenty years later, the memories do fade.  But then something…like New Year’s Day…comes around and everything comes back into view.  Miss you mom. Love.  David

More to come…

DJB