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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Music of Language: 1930s, '40s, '50s . . .

I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.

As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!

For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media. Read More 
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Creatures of a Day

Renowned existential therapist and one of the most distinguished and popular authors writing about psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom took the title of his new book, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Basic Books, February 24, 2015) from Meditations, the private scribblings of second-century Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on how best to live:

All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.

Recently I was stunned to hear public radio's Radiolab show The Bitter End about the dramatic difference in doctors' and lay peoples' wishes for medical interventions in order to be kept alive no matter how badly injured they are. After my mother died on a respirator—having neglected to (or chosen not to) transfer her living will from one doctor to another—I did my own living will. However, until hearing the Radiolab piece, I was not fully aware of the torture (something akin to waterboarding and being raped) of being put on a respirator, and now I feel even more strongly about my living will. I have no death wish, but, since death is inevitable, I'm curious: I want to know from people who are dying whatever they want to share: how they feel, what they want—any wisdom they might offer. Yalom's book is a font of that wisdom. Read More 

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Monk with a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland

I am sitting in the Good Stuff Diner on West 14th Street across from Nicky Vreeland, a maroon-robed Buddhist monk with deep smile lines. A gifted photographer with an exquisite W Magazine-sponsored exhibit at ABC Carpet & Home to benefit the Tibet Center, Vreeland has mentioned that he finds harmony in his pictures. “Did that train you for life as a monk?” I ask.

“I think that recognizing that [finding harmony is] what I’m doing is something that has happened recently,” he says thoughtfully. “I used to feel that there was some essential quality that I was searching for in composing my photographs, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not a question of there being something there that I have to find. It’s a question of a relationship between the subject, the object, the elements within the frame of the subject, and that I, as the photographer, in my placement and my feeling about the situation, am an integral part of the creation of this harmonious whole. Where you place that lens—the height, the angle, the settings—is an integral part of what you capture. Where I place myself determines my shot. All of these things change everything!” Read More 

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Creativity and Depression: Signe Baumane’s Balancing Act

I interviewed the magnificent artist/animator Signe Baumane for RewireMe.com. Here’s the beginning of the article:

Is it possible to have a tolerable relationship with chronic depression? How does a Latvian artist and animator, working in New York with no funding, realize a unique, noncommercial stop-motion, hand-drawn “funny movie about madness and depression” (in both English and Latvian) and have that movie receive enough worldwide enthusiasm to end up as Latvia’s entry in the best foreign-language category for the Oscars? And how does this artist/animator, who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia—modified to bipolar disorder after her parents paid Latvian psychiatrists a bribe—function and create at such a high level without medication? Read More 

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Piece of My Heart: The Epidemic Craving to Be Known

“My children will know me through my music.” These are the dying words scribbled on a piece of paper by one of the most successful, yet unknown, songwriters of our time, Bert Berns, in the wonderful new musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. Over the course of seven years in the 1960s, Berns wrote fifty-one songs, including “Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and the title song, “Piece of My Heart.” But when he died at age thirty-eight, he died with a craving—to be known, not only by his children but by the public.

According to the play, he never achieved his deserved notoriety because a wronged partner somehow managed to blackball him. But through Piece of My Heart, Berns's children, Brett and Cassandra Berns, producers of this rousing, beautifully performed production, are rectifying that error in rock 'n' roll history. In fact, both offspring have dedicated their lives to this cause. From Brett's Playbill bio:

Brett has devoted himself to championing his late father. In tandem with his sister Cassandra [performer, songwriter, and music executive], he has led efforts to document his father's canon and remarkable life story. Through these revelations, he has succeeded in establishing the enormity of his dad's legacy. Brett is also producing and directing a documentary film about Bert Berns.

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Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us is the story of a patchworked family: two sisters (by different mothers), their “blithe, inscrutable, crooked father,” and their various acquaintances who become new patchworked families — all manipulating and scheming their way through the 1940s US of A.

This is voluptuous American writing. Like the family, the story is patchworked — the pieces, not necessarily linear, but when put together, they tell a more perfect story than tales that are forced into a tight chronological narrative. Events are revealed through a simultaneous tide-in and undertow-out flow of action and letters from the future; the writing voice changes from third person to various different first persons and yet it is never confusing. Why? Because Amy Bloom writes at the pleasure of a muse that is uniquely her own — a truly authentic and organic voice and structure. Bloom’s voice and structure are so naturally honest that they seem easy. But I’ve read writers who I’ve suspected have tried to copy her, and, in their copycat hands, you realize this level of honesty is anything but easy. Amy Bloom copies no one. She writes at the pleasure of her Original Voice. And so few writers find, let alone express themselves in or from their original voices that it seems rare. Maybe that’s just the way it is. An Original Voice is treasure. This book is treasure. Read More 

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street . . . Rocks!

This book is magnificent. Susan Jane Gilman is a master story weaver with perfect pitch—for dialogue, narrative, curlicued paradoxical human responses, and everything that contributes to a literary symphony.

The time structure of this book is inspired—weaving from both the past, forward and the future, back to finally sync up in a central present.

The story of the evolution of Russian Jewish immigrant child Malka Treynovsky into a Jewish Italian American Marie Antoinette/Leona Helmsley/Martha Stewart/Joan Rivers ice cream diva named Lillian Dunkle is both an only-in-the-USA story and a transcendently human tour-de-force of hurt, humiliation,  Read More 

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Wizard of the Desert: Milton H. Erickson, M.D.—What a Guy!

How do you get the most out of being severely color blind, tone deaf, dyslexic, paralyzed, in chronic excruciating pain from polio, and periodically near-death? If you are Milton H. Erickson, M.D. (1901–1980), founder of modern hypnotherapy and healer to people the medical profession has given up on, you develop your powers of observation. You become “the Mozart of Communication.” You reframe your and other’s so-called problems and disabilities into gifts and then milk them for all their worth—a practice known in psycho-lingo as "utilization"—in order to change and enjoy your brief time on this planet.

In the new documentary Wizard of the Desert, Austrian director (and grandson of Viktor Frankl) Alexander Vesely weaves remembrances from Erickson's legion of admirers—students, colleagues, family, and even patients—together with footage of Erickson teaching. Vesely also gives voice to some critics, which effectively humanizes Erickson and foils our wish to idealize him out of the possibility of being a real role model for change that we, too, might experience. Read More 

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Voices of Elders

“We dance round in a ring and suppose / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem “The Secret Sits.”

“Let me tell that one again,” spoke actor Gordon Clapp in his mesmerizing performance of A. M. Dolan’s play Robert Frost: This Verse Business, and he told it again. I’m glad, because I needed an instant replay to really hear it. And I needed to see Gordon as Frost a second time; I’d seen the play once before as a workshop. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing and hearing it several more times, because like a great teacher or a great story or a great voice, the “stuff” of this play and performance is simply too rich to absorb in one sitting.

Two years ago I wrote my little book Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother. When you’re young, you imagine that when you get older—or old—you will no longer need elders, mentors, and teachers. Our culture tells you that old people are supposed to be those characters and, as such, nurture the young’uns. Unfortunately, this is not my experience; in my experience, as youthful hubris diminishes, you need elders more than ever. And even though I wrote my little book and gave myself an imagined elder, I still need wise, old rascally men and patient, compassionate, funny women to nurture me as I sometimes float like a lost blob through this thing called life. Read More 

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David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and I’ve not been disappointed.

David and Goliath is a book of both hope and experiential instruction for everybody who has ever felt like an outsider. Like Gladwell’s other work, it attempts to shatter assumptions and therefore expectations about who will succeed and why. However, taken in a context that includes some of the revelations of Outliers, this new book expands rather than shatters our notions. Because my primary interest is people rather than assumptions about class sizes and more amounts of anything being better than less (there’s plenty of that in this book), I’d like to focus on the outsider people aspect of the book:

Through copious footnotes Gladwell takes pains to clarify that his misfit and underdog success stories are not always the rule: lots of illiterate people with dead parents and lousy childhoods end up in jail rather than lawyering or doctoring.

Outliers illuminated the fact that when highly intelligent children who have been given guidance and nurturing are compared in adulthood to those who were not guided and nurtured, the non-nurtured adults are akin to a different “species.” Where the nurtured children become thriving successful adults, the equally intelligent non-nurtured ones can barely navigate life and live on the edges of society. (And I use “non-nurtured” to include people who were not only neglected but who were hurt and invalidated.)  Read More 

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Mother Daughter Me

What Eat Pray Love did for educated women with unhappy love lives who plunge into spiritual abysses, journalist Katie Hafner’s memoir Mother Daughter Me does for rootless educated women with abysmal, possibly alcoholic, mothers. As adults, these women—these daughters of abysmal mothers—can be sandwiched between being mothers themselves and repairing the damage wrought by formerly nightmarish mothers whom they now want to care for.

In a riveting therapy session in a chapter called “Dam Break,” after Katie’s mother tells the therapist a simplistic version of how she lost custody of her children, Katie finally bursts:

When we were first taken away from her . . . it was a full two years before she officially lost custody . . . How could she have allowed precious years with her children to slip straight through her memory bank? . . . Resting my gaze on my lap, I start to tell the entire story . . . The entire time I’m talking, I am thinking that I don’t want my words to hurt her, that I want to protect my mother, to let her know it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, there’s no stopping me, because another part of me wants her to hear every word of this. To make her understand.


When Katie finishes her corrected version of the story, she looks at her mother.

Her face is a terrible crumple, her mouth forming the small breathless “O” people sometimes wear when hit with bad news.

“Katie,” she says. “I am so sorry.”

And with that she is telling me something else: She doesn’t remember.

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If a Heart Breaks and Almost Nobody Hears It . . .

If a musician composes music that he never sells, because he prefers “not to sell his baskets,” but instead he becomes an insurance salesman, resulting in nobody in his lifetime ever hearing his brilliance, can he still feel fulfilled and successful?

If actors perform a brilliant play about the essence of life, if they give their all, if the production is incontestably a work of great art, but only ten people come to see it, is it still worth doing?

If lungs breathe, if bodies throb, if a heart breaks, and there are only ten witnesses, does it even matter?

These are some of the questions playing ping pong in my cranium this morning after yesterday’s remarkable experience watching playwright Jessica Dickey’s remarkable 75-minute masterpiece Charles Ives Take Me Home. Oh, how I want to insert a comma after Ives, but I’ll respect her work. How could I not? This tour de force about a father and daughter, about music and basketball, about life and death and everything in between demands respect.  Read More 

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Quiet, Cain, Cohen—a Restorative Niche—Hallelujah!

I just know there are connections here. If I write about this week’s activity—or Quiet—perhaps they’ll come.

You see, I can’t stop being quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that I am contemplating Susan Cain’s magnificent exploration of my private experience in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After a thorough analysis of the introvert’s talents and essential nature, which includes the ability to act like an extrovert sometimes, she explains the necessity for “restorative niches” following events of vibrant social behavior. I think I’m in such a niche now. Usually I consider my niches of doing nothing while lying on the couch in complete silence a private matter. But Cain says it’s not only normal, it’s healthy! It’s a physiological need of people who happen to process stimulation via big-time amygdala (brain) activity, which apparently is different from the way extroverts process the same stimulation. So don’t call me! I’m in a restorative niche. In fact I might stay in this niche indefinitely because I’ve been talking so extrovertly about QuietRead More 

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The Fog of the Phone War


Lowest jerry-rigged phone/Internet/TV bundle ever:

Basic get-a-clear-picture TV..............................................$35.55/mo.

MagicJack DSL-line unlimited calling to
anywhere in the USA @ $20.00/yr....................................$ 1.66/mo.

Prepaid cell phone for emergencies @ $10/yr...................... $ .83/mo.

Basic Budget (for incoming calls only)
phone + Internet.............................................................$58.54/mo.

Total..............................................................................$96.58/mo.


* * *

“All associates are currently helping other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

Tick-tock, tick-tock, lost count of minutes waited.

“Hello, thank you for using Verizon. How can I help you?”

“Hi, I can hardly hear you. Could you possibly talk into your microphone?”

“Hello, thank you for using Verizon. How can I help you?” Read More 
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Why I Prefer an $8 Paperback to a First Edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

After watching the wonderful PBS American Masters documentary Harper Lee: Hey Boo, I pulled down my old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with the intention of rereading it. I believed I’d read it in high school. I knew the story, and I thought the book had just faded from memory.

Perhaps I was certain I’d read it because it’s been sitting on my shelf for so many decades since I rescued it from my mother’s damp garage. She’d loved it and had written her name and declaration of possession in careful script on the front endpaper. Wondering what the value of such a book might be, I searched the Internet and was floored to see less battered versions of my “true first edition” selling for anywhere from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. Torn between my desire to read and preserve, I decided to buy the cheapest paperback I could find. And as I sank into it and under Ms. Lee’s spell, I instantly realized I was reading this book for the first time and had created a memory of reading it due to the book’s physical presence on my shelf as well as its place in our collective consciousness. Read More 

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