A Tour De Force
If you only read one book about the sad state of American public education, make it Amanda Ripley’s “the smartest kids in the world and how they got that way.” Read it even if you’re already steeped in the subject because it’s probably more insightful than anything else in your repertoire.
Movies with something to say often offer up the richest experiences, leaving us with a different way of thinking to ponder, a catalyst to assess our values and in some cases refine or alter them. “Whiplash” falls into this category squarely.
Damien Chazelle deserved his academy award for best adapted screenplay. To begin with, it’s a gripping story. And it’s told in the same fashion as many a good piece of music (SPOILER ALERT!): a long period of tension is followed by a climactic release at the end of the film when protagonist Andrew (played by Miles Teller) drum-solos on the stage of Carnegie Hall and wins the respect of Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), his equal-parts teacher nemesis and divine passer of objective judgment.
I Degrade Myself, and Exhaust Myself
I’ve always been insecure. I still am. I’m insecure about mentioning that I still am because perhaps you thought that was redundant. I’m insecure about your response to me mentioning my insecurity because you might think me nauseating. You’re probably right. I probably am. But how could I really know? I can’t know what’s going on in the heads of those I interact with or who read what I write. That makes me feel insecure. I’ve always been insecure. I still am.
Krista Tippet: A Beacon of Intelligence and Civility
I’m a big fan of Krista Tippet, host and executive producer of On Being, a radio show carried by National Public Radio on Sunday mornings. On Being is home to Civil Conversations Project, described by the organization as “a public forum providing ideas and tools for healing our fractured civil spaces.” That’s the kind of precise, sensitive and thoughtful language you hear from Ms. Tippet; it’s no exaggeration to call her a hero in an age plagued by with-us-or-against-us thinking that polarizes our society.
Ellen Langer: Not Your Average Mindfulness Guru
One of my favorite episodes of On Being is from May 29, 2014 (http://www.onbeing.org/program/ellen-langer-science-of-mindlessness-and-mindfulness/transcript/6335). It’s an interview with Ellen Langer (http://www.ellenlanger.com/home/), a social psychologist and professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her research centers on mindfulness, and she was delving deep into the subject long before it became a buzz word.
Oh What a Beautiful Morning
It was a typical Saturday morning, about an hour before nap time. I don’t recall anything remarkable about the events that preceded. A typical start to the weekend included either my lemon-cardamom pancakes or renowned steel-cut oatmeal. Something in the vein of Coleman Hawkins or Clifford Brown would be playing. I distinctly remember sunlight that had found its way through the skylights taking the form of two irregular geometric shapes on the high walls going up the staircase to the third floor of our row house in South Slope, Brooklyn.
I also remember a leisurely feeling to the morning. That was rare in those days. Jack was three years old and Pam and I were still in the stage of feeling like bad parents if he spent more than 10 minutes without being stimulated by something. Around six months old at the time, our daughter, Emma, would go on to be raised by parents who relished an empty calendar.
The Wrong Tofu
I remember, as a college student of 19 in a small town near Nagoya, Japan, how good it felt to be praised for my language skills. Cashiers and bank tellers would brace for a laborious conversation with an entitled English-speaking foreigner, and then giggle with relief after we spoke. I was occasionally mistaken for being half Japanese. I was selected to give a speech at a local community center to discuss my experiences in the country, and won a healthy applause. Full disclosure: the level of adoration was by no means commensurate with my ability; being able to put together a polite sentence or two, no matter how unsophisticated, wins the highest appreciation over there. And if you’ve met me in person, you know that any potential for charm I posses is comfortably warm under a coat of social anxiety.
Good foreigner aside, one of the most indelible moments I can recall from those days consisted of a middle-aged woman at the supermarket grabbing a block of tofu out of my hand, saying gruffly, “You don’t want this one, the quality’s no good. Get that one over there with the green label.” She nodded as if she had just relaxed the last tangle in a young girl’s hair, and before I could thank her, walked off muttering to herself about what vegetable to cook for dinner.
I first met Joe Monk when he and Connie came to visit me in Brooklyn, New York seven or eight years ago. Joining the party was my mom, Marge, and her sister, Lallie. All told: 250 square feet, five adults, eight fans. I grew up around older people at my mom’s elderly care facilities and thought I knew this breed of humans pretty well. I suppose it’s a good thing to be humbled from time to time so as to remind yourself there’s always more to learn. To this day, I’m not sure what exactly happens after people turn 65. Whatever it is, I know it requires fans. And it would seem that having two – even when traveling – is better than one.
Joe liked telling stories. Connie was adeptly skilled at moving him along as he told said stories so they didn’t miss anything. The net result was highly entertaining: I got to learn about Texas, the oil industry and my own family while putting speed-walking New Yorkers to shame as we reached the Empire State Building, Ellis Island and everything in between. The trip even included dinner at a German beer hall in which – and I say this without an hint of embellishment – a man stripped to his boxer shorts and danced atop the table to the cheers of his inebriated colleagues and nonchalant wait staff whose expressions suggested this wasn’t the first minimalist fashion show at the establishment. That was followed, the same evening, by an animated conversation with a sweet, young twenty-something woman who sobbed profusely and hugged liberally upon meeting some fellow Texans. You could say that where Joe and Connie went, fun followed; but, more precisely put, they brought it with them and welcomed anyone with an open heart to join.
The Great Escape
One of my favorite anecdotes about Jack, my now five-year-old son, comes from my wife, Pam. We were living on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, a perfect backdrop for this story given the stereotypes of New Yorkers fixing what ain’t broke. Pam was on maternity leave and took our boy of six months to a drop-in music class in the neighborhood. Parachute time came and with it a 20-pound clinical explanation of how the kids were learning gross motor skills. That was years ago but to this day my son’s reaction to the parachute pedant remains one source of my great respect for him: as much as a small human is capable of doing so on four little limbs, he bolted for the door. Good instincts, kid. You’re going to go far.
Proud Papa at the Five-year Check-up
It was my son, Jack’s, five-year checkup with the pediatrician. I love this guy. A Brooklyn Jew who moved to Philly early in his youth. He emanates warmth, compassion and a genuine curiosity about how children think and behave. He has a way of sharing his knowledge and wisdom such that you don’t feel lectured or condescended, but rather as if you were at a dinner party and someone mentioned something they’d read in a magazine, yet with an undertone of professional authority. I enjoy every visit to him with my son or daughter.
The check-up was fine, replete with percentiles and approvals that confirmed I had in all my parental brilliance and wisdom raised a boy who was the right height and weight and could draw a stick figure with arms protruding from the body and not the head (relevant to fine motor skills, apparently). In response to being asked whether he had any questions about his body or his health, Jack paused for a thoughtful and dramatic five seconds, and came out with: “What animals were on the earth before the dinosaurs?” We all chuckled, and finally, the doc said he thought there were smaller animals before the dinosaurs, even going into some detail about what they looked like. Smart AND funny, at five years old! So satisfying it was to see the manifestation of my genes in the next generation.