Friday, December 19, 2008

things that make me tear up

It may be the season, but I feel a little weepy these days. And since it seems to be the pervasive, I'm going to try to list these as they occur to me.

So here goes:
A Christmas Carol - at Civic Theater - but in a good way.

1. The music that plays in the background of Civic Theater's Christmas Carol. I don't know why but I actually tear up every single time that show begins. There's something quietly gorgeous about that single piano and harpsichord (?) - I guessing. I think it's a harpsichord. The songs are familiar but the arrangements bring a different, sophisticated and understated beauty to them

2. The waltz in Act 2 - the palpable sadness of what might have been touches something inside me as Ebenezer Scrooge and his long lost fiance Belle take one step then another together, in his heart and mind if no where else. Who doesn't live with a "what might have been" in their own life? The music is haunting and the dance steps are perfect but it's not what the actors are doing that brings on the tears. I have a feeling it's my own regrets about what I've chosen not to do or not to act on - without quite knowing if I've made the right choices. Trouble is, I don't get a chance - like Ebenezer - to have anyone point out the folly of at least some of my decisions.

3. And because I tend to bookend things in my life, I tear up at the end of the show, too. I simply can't watch the narrator - AKA Tiny Tim - walk up that aisle without getting overcome with emotion. It's a lovely little surprise, courtesy of the talented professionals at Civic who stage this production each year.

There's also -
Josh Groban hitting the high note at the end of Oh Holy Night. I'm not joking. I've heard it dozens of times and I still really do tear up when he hits it. One note. And my eyes fill.

The voiceover by Boris Karloff in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. When he explains, as the Grinch stood puzzling and puzzling, that "It came just the same. It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags!" I'm on my way and then he closes the deal with "the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day."

There's more. I take after my Dad that way. My sister and I would constantly marvel at how he could cry at almost anything at almost anytime and never understood it. Turns our sentiment is a gene you pass along to your children, or at least to one of your children.

I'll add to these from time to time but tonight it's all about Christmas. And what I need to do and how "far behind" I am on the tasks that "need" to be done for the holiday. Maybe I need to listen a little more closely to the stories that bring out so much emotion in me.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Why almost nothing makes sense to me.

I can't understand how something I read seems to explain the ways of the world in a way that is so sensible, so inherently true, so logical and reasonable...and then, just when I'm settling into my comfort zone of my new-found wisdom, I witness the exact opposite thing happening.

Case in point: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, my favorite journalist on the planet. I can't begin to explain the entire book here but will summarize by saying he takes a surprising look at "success" and what makes people successful, and in his typical way, gives his readers plenty to think over and ponder along the way.

One of his more provocative passages discusses the sheer energy and amount of time truly successful people invest in learning their skills or their art to become experts at what they do. He discusses the idea of "10,000 hours" as the amount of time that continually comes up in discussions of how people became experts: they've invested that much time into bettering their skills and consistently improving, working, dedicating themselves to getting it right.

Outliers has much more than this to it and I'd recommend it highly - pick it up if you want to read something more inspiring than the headlines about the next major collapse of a giant in business or the media.

But here's where nothing makes sense. Just as I finished Outliers, I read a profile of National Book Award winner, Annette Gordon-Reed. Ms. Gordon-Reed won her award in November for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In it, she discusses the Hemings family tree, and the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

In the short profile I read, I found exactly the sort of person of 'success' that Gladwell profiles in his book, plus a lot more. When discussing her work, Gordon-Reed reveals that in addition to the years she spent writing about Jefferson, she spent 10 or 11 hours a day, 7 days a week, for about 8 years researching and writing her award-winning book.

Think about that investment in time and effort. Even on the low end, she spent 70 hours a week 52 weeks a year, for about 8 years. In other words: more than 29,000 hours went into this book. That is commitment and dedication and single-minded purpose. This is a woman with a message she feels absolutely compelled to share, in the most perfect way she can.

Then, just when I think Gladwell and Gordon-Reed are the success model come-to-life, I read a story about author Alec Greven. He has written a new advice book, titled How to Talk to Girls. In it, he gives the male species terrific, succinct bits of wisdom, that he claims he picked up by watching his friends interact with girls. One of the more straightforward suggestions include 'comb your hair and don't wear sweats.' What could be wrong with that? He gets a little more interpretive when he cautions that 'pretty girls are like cars that need a lot of oil.'

I'm not sure how much time Alec put into pursuing his publishing dream. But given that he's only been on the planet for about 79,000 hours total, and I'm guessing that for about 35,000 of those he was illiterate, he's going to have to convince he me spent 10,000 hours becoming a writer, one who is excellent enough to have landed a publishing deal. (Alec is nine years old.)

See how this doesn't make sense? I know - people may say, "But he's not a national book award winner!! He's charming, quirky, here-today-gone-tomorrow gimmicky author. You can't compare him to someone like Annette Gordon-Reed."

To which I say: you're right. I can't. But it feels like I can (on my bad days) and it doesn't feel good.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

We are doomed. Well, our kids are anyway.

Think we've learned fiscal discipline? Think we've had our collectively irresponsible bottoms slapped and that we're through with the "buy now, pay never" mentality? That we've pledged to do much better in the years ahead?

You're wrong. And I didn't come to this conclusion after reading the latest pronouncements form economists, futurists, lawmakers and financial gurus. I figured it out by watching a commercial on television. A commercial for the latest edition of Monopoly. The "no cash needed" version of the game.

Remember Monopoly? I have vivid memories of playing the game during my childhood, where we would start a game of Monopoly on a small table in our dining room on a Monday morning and by the next Wednesday, we still weren't quite finished with it. We just kept winnowing each other out, and watch whoever bought Park Place and Boardwalk, plus the green and orange properties, wipe up the rest of us who bought the purple, violet and two railroads instead.

It's also interesting to recall the money we would count out and watch over so carefully as we could until we passed Go and collected another paycheck.

Well, all of that angst and strategizing may be something of a 20th century anachronism. The newest version of the game is a 'No Cash' needed edition. Here is some of the language from the copy on the website: "Wheel and deal your way to a fortune even faster using debit cards instead of cash! All it takes is a card swipe for money to change hands. Now you can collect rent, buy properties and pay fines - with the touch of a button." I can barely stand to think about it.

Maybe they have some new tokens that represent banks who go around the board reclaiming properties that have fallen into foreclosure. Maybe there are loan documents that replace the money the banks used to hand out. Maybe instead of Chance cards there are decks of overdue notices and credit cards.

Here's the thing. I realize plenty of people who played the old-fashioned Monopoly are the very same people who are losing homes, cars and any hope of reasonable credit because of poor financial choices they've made. Or because the people who pushed various financial instruments on them (who also played the old game)made some unscrupulous decisions that benefited themselves and their companies.

But do we have any hope of anyone who is prime Monopoly-playing age recognizing the dangers of buying without money in the bank, or spending beyond your means if its modeled for them in a venerable board game?

Sure, it's not Finance 101 but Monopoly was the closest any of us ever came to a course in money management. Whether or not it mattered in terms of our behavior in the long run is debatable. And it should take about twenty years or so to see if the latest version means anything in the real world or not.

Monday, December 01, 2008

And another thing...

This week's column in The Morning Call discussed an annoying little development in the world of women's lingerie - the fact that someone, somewhere has now figured out how to insert a GPS device into a bra or panties. The result of this breakthrough is that a women's location could be tracked and documented by a man who is inordinately interested in knowing it.

I won't belabor my incredulity about this technology that seems to have found a soft, satin home, but something else is troubling me. Without mincing words, I'll simply ask the following: Is this all we can say for ourselves? Is this really what some will recognize as achievement in the early 21st century? Aren't we better than this?

I read about the Christmas shopping tragedy in Valley Stream, NY and somehow these two things (GPS bras and killer crowds) co-exist in my mind. How could we expect more moderate, semi-civilized behavior from a unruly bargain-hunting mob when we live in a world that celebrates the wonders of GPS technology by placing it in women's underwear?

I know. It's a stretch. And for many people, there is no connection. I respect that.

It's just that events like this remind me of the sentiments expressed by the late Michael Crighton in his novel, Jurassic Park. He was talking about recreating an extinct species but the formula feels true to me in this circumstance as well. It feels like we tend to do things because we can - (we insert a GPS chip inside a bra; we stampede a department store at dawn and literally kill a man in the process ) - not because we should.

This is starting to feel like it will deteriorate into a "In my day..." rant and maybe it will. But if so, I'd have to pose the following: what's so wrong with people being trustworthy when it comes to their life partners and not feeling the need to track someone's every move to insure her faithfulness? What's wrong with holding the door for the shopper behind you and sharing some Christmas spirit, not elbowing them out of the your way as you race toward the electronics aisle?

Okay, we don't live in Bedford Falls and not one of us can go to the Building and Loan for some cash. The Santa working at Penney's is not likely to send a shopper to Macy's to buy just the right gift. Who could believe in that kind of world? No, instead we have to believe in this one. Some of us have literally killed someone who had the unfortunate timing of working at a store one morning and opening the door. Some men want to make sure their wife or girlfriend keeps her panties on all day.

Gives me a warm fuzzy feeling all over.