Sunday, December 12, 2010

Little Voice & Kaleidoscope Heart

Even after several posts and several months of time, I'm still figuring out what I want this blog to be. 

One of the things I've decided is that outside of expressing my thoughts on life in general, I want to use this forum to celebrate my love of music. Music is one of my great passions. I studied voice in college, and though I rarely sing in public anymore, I consider it an integral part of who I am. I love listening to music, figuring out what works, what doesn't, and why. My taste is fairly eclectic, and I can see the value in something even if it's not my cup of tea.

To express this passion, I will periodically post on recordings that have made an impact on me. As with my last such post on Eric Hutchinson's 'Sounds Like This', such recommendations will likely not be recent releases by top-selling artists. There are hundreds of places to find such recommendations by critics far more astute than me. Instead, I will share thoughts about recordings that have touched me, impressed me, or both on a personal level over the years. Some of them may be several years old, but I feel they still hold up well. Great music truly is timeless.

Okay then. Now that I've gotten my expository explanation / justification out of the way, let's get to it!  

One of the real joys in listening to music for me is when I hit on a particular artist or recording that just knocks me over, that's so damned good I can't stop listening to it. On my rather loosely kept top ten list of favorite recordings, 'Little Voice' by Sara Bareilles is safely ensconced. This is quite impressive considering it was her  first high profile release (I believe she had a self-released recording a few years prior). 

She is best known for the single 'Love Song', a rather sardonic title in light of the opening lines of the chorus:

          I'm not gonna write you a love song
          'Cause you asked for it
          'Cause you need one, you see

The song was ostensibly written to her record company in defiance of their demand that she write a 'marketable love song', but it is nevertheless quite representative of her talent and style: Driving piano hooks and articulate, passionate lyrics delivered by a rich, bluesy, sexy voice.

There are many aspects of Ms. Bareilles and her music that I find incredibly appealing. For one thing, she's living proof that shockingly, a young female singer does not have to be a softcore porn star to be unequivocally sexy and feminine. Further, in this Lady Gaga age of consummate pretension (don't get me started; I could spend an entire post on Lady Gaga), Sara Bareilles has none. She can walk onstage in jeans and a t-shirt with nothing but her piano waiting there  and deliver an out-of-the-park listening experience.

As a vocalist, she has an excellent range with a clear, pure tone, and she delivers her lyrics with conviction and confidence. Next, her songs are not for stupid people. They are complex and intelligently written, but are nonetheless accessible and passionate. Many artists either sway into treacly, Hallmark vacuity or are so intensely insular they become inaccessible. Sara Bareilles confidently and capably utilizes the most positive aspects of both sides of that coin. Her music is catchy, sophisticated and appealing. The songs have some bite to them. They're very emotional, and there's a good distribution of those emotions. Listening to the CD, you get a sense that you're spending time with her, hearing about what she's been thinking and feeling over the course of the twelve tracks. Generally, when you listen to a CD, there are a few standout tracks, some good ones, and a couple of clunkers. There are no clunkers on 'Little Voice', which is surprising given the diversity of the songs. She effortlessly glides between catchy, infectious hooks ('Love Song', 'Bottle It Up', 'Morningside') to sultry sensuality ('Vegas', 'Come Round Soon'), to achingly beautiful ('City' and 'Gravity'), to passionate and playful ('Many the Miles', 'Fairytale').

This past September, Ms. Bareilles released her second recording, 'Kaleidoscope Heart', which I recently received as a Chanukah gift (Thank you Nancy and Jules! :) ). I find I have to live with a CD for a while before I really get a sophisticated sense of it, so I'm not going to comment at length, but it's well worth picking up as well. I found myself thinking of Ann Wilson of Heart on a few of the tracks, which is a very favorable comparison in my book. The first single, 'King of Anything', has been getting a lot of airplay, and deservedly so. It's an excellent song, and as with 'Love Song', typifies the rest of the CD: infectious hook, pointed lyrics, more ambitious arrangements and use of syncopation, and an overall greater sense of assurance. Standout tracks for me are the title track, which is brief, but contains beautiful acapella harmony, 'Uncharted', with its infectious hook and trademark introspective, sophisticated lyrics, 'Let the Rain', with its sophisticated structure, driving chorus, and honest, passionate lyrics, and 'Bluebird', with its simple, beautiful melody and exquisite, bluesy vocals.

My initial impression is that 'Kaleidoscope Heart' is not quite as consistent as 'Little Voice', but in my mind, this fact does absolutely nothing to diminish Ms. Bareilles's talent and potential. One of my favorite quotes about the music business is one I heard attributed to Elvis Costello, who said something like, "You've got your whole life to make your first record. You've got eighteen months to make your second one." Given this harsh reality, I believe artists should be given the opportunity to misstep and even fail on occasion. It is in the process of creating that artistic refinement and evolution occurs. The end result, while obviously extremely important in terms of the nuts & bolts of marketing, is not quite as essential to the artist's individual creative process as one might think.  Ms. Bareilles could have easily phoned in 'Kaleidoscope Heart', delivered nothing but more of the same from her first CD and it probably would have been successful. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and clearly worked very hard to expand her horizons while still maintaining her core sound. She was quite successful in this endeavor, and it is my belief that ten or even twenty years from today, Sara Bareilles will still be out there conducting a successful musical career when many of her peers will have vanished from the scene.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Orkin’s Law of Realistic Romanticism

Well, that was quite the break, wasn't it? I wish I could tell you I've been overwhelmed returning phone calls to publishers banging on my voice mail or consulting financial planners on how to spend my lottery winnings, but alas, I've just been too damn busy at work to get to this thing.

Big sigh of relief that my busy season has just about passed. All of my aforementioned MSPE's have been transmitted, my email in-box at work has become relatively sedate, and for the first time in six years, I'm actually getting to enjoy some of October, my favorite month.

Okay then. On to business!


I'm no self-help guru, and I'm a far cry from perfect, but having recently passed my 14 year anniversary, I feel at least relatively qualified to discourse on relationships.

Despite my largely reserved demeanor, I consider myself a pretty passionate guy.  I'm a strong believer in the power of monogamous relationships. I think love is a rare and remarkable thing that you only catch onto a few precious times in your life. I think that when you find it, love can be life-changing. It can overcome many obstacles, make you more than you are.

But it's not enough.

Life, like love, is beautiful. It is awe-inspiring, fascinating, filled with wonder and possibility. That these things are true does not preclude the fact that Life is nonetheless formidable. It can be challenging, vexing, unjust, even merciless. Though there are times when all the pieces click into place with the elegant simplicity of a final jigsaw puzzle piece, most times, like that stalwart cognitive and perceptual challenge, it requires tenacity, patience, and planning, with healthy doses of audacity and instinct tossed into the mix.

As hard as Life is for one person to get right, aligning two souls on the same path is, as you might imagine, vastly more difficult. Given this, telling someone you love them, regardless of the passion and sincerity with which you do so, is not sufficient. At the end of the day, those marvelous words are only that. It is through action that love is truly expressed. It means having the wherewithal to determine what you want your life together to be and to come up with at least a basic plan on how you're going to get there. It means having a vision for the future, a willingness and understanding that it's going to take a great deal of effort, maintenance, compromise, negotiation, and sacrifice to get there.

Here's a newsflash, my friends: Relationships are not for the meek. They can be hard. Really, really hard. Once the honeymoon phase is over, the pragmatic aspects of life settle in. If kids enter the picture, it gets even tougher. You get caught up in the maintenance of life, paying the bills, taking care of the house or apartment, being a parent. You become more of a team than a couple. The fireworks die down (to varying degrees), the endorphins run lower (and you'd better have something to talk about when they do).

If we make up a pie chart of a successful long-term relationship, around 70% will be good or great, 10% or so will be absolutely amazing, another 10% or so will be quite difficult, and the remaining 10% or so will suck so badly that no matter how much you love the person, you'll wonder why you bothered hooking up with them in the first place.

Every now and then you have to go through your relationship ledger and determine: are the pluses outnumbering the negatives by a good margin? If the answer is no, is there anything you and your significant other (aka SO) as individuals and/or as a couple are able and/or willing to do to address all those negatives? If the answer to that question is no, where do you go from there? The answer may well be that you shake hands and part as equitably as you can. If the answer is yes, you may have some hard miles to travel to make things right again, but I believe ultimately, it will be worth the effort.

Well, that doesn't sound like much fun, does it? In fact, reading this over, a lot of it sounds like top shelf, grade A buzzkill.

But that's just the half-full glass. It's an unfortunate proclivity of the human psyche to veer toward the negative. You have to consciously focus on the good stuff, and there's plenty of it there if you look for it. So, while you probably don't have sex on the kitchen floor as often as you used to, what you get in return is something richer and more meaningful.

There is a profound sense of security in being with someone who knows your quirks, idiosyncrasies , and flaws, and is willing to deal with them (to a point), someone who is going to be there when you need them, someone you want to be there for when they need you. (In the case of marriage, there's a certain security in knowing your SO is for all intents and purposes, legally required to be there :) ). There is inherent value in knowing you can trust that person and they can trust you. It can bring enormous peace of mind to know you don't have to explain or define yourself to someone. They get it. Or can effectively anticipate it.

I think love remains beyond true understanding. It is possessed of near countless facets and shades. And though I believe it is essential to the continuity of any long term relationship, the fact remains...

Orkin’s Law of Realistic Romanticism: Love is not enough.

Thanks for reading.*

*Note: I sense I have more to say on this matter (maybe a lot more) but it's been far too long since I've posted. You may safely consider this topic 'To be continued...'

Monday, August 16, 2010

Orkin’s Law of Supplemental Intrepidity

"Fortune Favors the Bold"

This phrase has appeared in various permutations for centuries, beginning with Second Century BC Roman playwright Terence in his play, 'Phormio'.  I'm quite fond of it. It brings to mind one of my favorite words: 'audacity'. It's a resounding call to action, a declaration that doing something is better than doing nothing.

But it seems somehow incomplete to me.

For quite some time, I've felt there was an Orkin's Law in it somewhere, but it just wouldn't take hold in my mind, so I placed it on the back burner to simmer for a while.

In my capacity working for St. George's University, I compose a document for medical students known as a Medical Student Performance Evaluation, or MSPE. The MSPE is critical to the students' applications for residency after they graduate, and is fairly complex, containing a great deal of statistical and evaluative information from various sources. Further, using the students' resumes, I incorporate some of their professional and educational history into the mix as well.

Even as twenty-somethings, their backgrounds are often impressive, with multiple degrees, research publication credits, diverse community service experiences, etc. Consequently, most of them have it together. They're organized, motivated, and professional.

Some of them - not a lot, but some - not so much. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they're kind of clueless, which is a little unsettling considering their intended vocation. They don't read the memos I send them. They miss deadlines. They don't respond if I contact them for information. And it's not just marginal students that do this. Sometimes, they're 4.0 students.

Though I do all I can to help them regardless, the simple truth is that the 3.0 student who's got all his or her ducks in a row has a better chance of getting a job than the 4.0 student who doesn't.

Many years ago, I was talking to the mother of my girlfriend at the time, and she was expressing a sort of resigned exasperation about her daughter, who was a brilliant musician. She said something like, "She'll pick the perfect music, find herself a perfect accompanist, practice three hours a day for four months straight until the piece is note-perfect, but forget to send in the application form."

What's the lesson? Talent and skill will only get you so far. True success lies in having command of the fundamental techniques to maximize your potential in any given situation.

Being bold is essential to success in this life. So yes, absolutely, Fortune does indeed favor the bold. But that's not the only tool in the toolbox. Hence:

Orkin’s Law of Supplemental Intrepidity: While it’s true that Fortune favors the bold, it also favors the well-informed and well-prepared.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury Part 2

Part II: On Freddie

Though my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson comes through pretty clearly, those who know me well know of my even greater affinity for the late, great Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen. There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. For starters, both had unsurpassed vocal instruments with incredible ranges, and even outside of that, both had the interpretive skill to put across songs with incredible power and conviction (I keep a running list in my head of what I call ‘Phonebook Singers’, i.e. singers who could sing the phone book and move you to tears, and those two are at the top of the list). Both were larger than life (Freddie was as flamboyant as Michael was eccentric). Both were consummate showmen with uncompromisingly intense stage personas, and though both had rather colorful personal lives, they were both nevertheless private and soft-spoken, even shy off-stage. Both were possessed of an eerie premonition they would die before their time, and unfortunately, both turned out to be right. I’m sure there are lots more similarities, but I’ll leave the ‘same number of letters in their names’ stuff to the celebrobsessives.

Based on things I've read, the two knew each other and had a good deal of mutual respect. In fact, it was apparently only conflicting schedules that prevented Freddie from appearing on a duet with Michael on 'Thriller', a fact Freddie commented on more than once with rueful regret. One of the songs, a track called 'State of Shock' was eventually recorded by Michael with Mick Jagger, and it's a pretty good tune (which can be found on The Jacksons' 'Victory' album). Demo tracks of the Mercury-Jackson version and two or three other tracks they recorded together can be found online, though being demos, the quality isn't particularly good. Perhaps in the years to come, someone on Michael's team will slide them off the shelf and remix them into something remarkable.

My affinity for Freddie Mercury came about in a very different way than that of Michael Jackson. I knew who he was during Queen's heyday in the late seventies and early Eighties, but I didn't own any Queen records, and had little if any interest in doing so. Though Queen's popularity marched on quite strongly all over the world, America pretty much lost interest in them as the Eighties continued. Outside of a burst of popularity after pretty much stealing Live Aid with a showstopping medley of their best-known songs, by 1990, outside of the enduring classic rock radio standards of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'We Will Rock You/We are the Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', and a couple of others, the band had largely faded from the scene.

Somewhere around Spring of 1991, however, I clicked my radio to WBAB, and heard Roger Luce saying, "This is the new single from Queen, and it - is - great!". And he was right. The single was 'I Can't Live With You', and while I can't deny the opening line, 'I can't live with you, but I can't live without you' twanged a rather sharp personal chord for me at the time, the fact remained the single was quintessential Queen, with playfully sardonic lyrics, excellent harmonies, Freddie's powerhouse vocals, and Brian May's muscular guitar work. It really got my attention, and the album, 'Innuendo' (which was to be the last Queen record released during Freddie's lifetime) was the first CD I ever purchased. To this day, I consider it among the most well-produced and diverse albums I've ever heard (Perhaps I'll add it to my growing list of recordings to recommend, as I did Eric Hutchinson's 'Sounds Like This').

Anyway, the artistry of Queen was unmistakable. I listened to 'Innuendo' constantly, all the while becoming more and more fascinated and intrigued by the flashy, passionate, and ferociously talented, but strangely enigmatic Mr. Mercury. I started reading about him, and learned certain details of the band's history: How the reel-to-reel recording of Bohemian Rhapsody had been overdubbed so many times, you could actually see through the tape, how their video for the song was one of the first and most influential music videos ever made, how they'd brought the house down at Live Aid, how they'd taken on the challenge of recording soundtracks for 'Flash Gordon' and 'Highlander', how they'd been all but blacklisted for deciding to play a concert for the people of South Africa, which was still overrun by Apartheid. At that time, the internet was still something of a novelty, and the integrity and accessibility of information was sometimes questionable (some things never change). I learned that it had been two years since the band's previous release, 'The Miracle' (also an excellent recording), and I assumed they would hit the streets with some appearances in support of 'Innuendo', make some buzz, maybe even come to the states for a Tonight Show appearance or something. But there was nothing.

Then, in late November of 1991, I understood why: Freddie Mercury had succumbed to complications from the AIDS virus. He had been battling it the previous few years, but had become substantively debilitated over the course of the two years leading up to the release of 'Innuendo'. I later learned the band had relocated to Switzerland to record 'Innuendo', and despite Freddie's spectacular performance on it, he had been so weak, he could often only record a few bars at a time.

I found myself profoundly taken by the courage he exhibited during this final year or so of his life, forcing himself to record not only the 'Innuendo' tracks, but tracks for the posthumous release, 'Made in Heaven' (yet another excellent recording). What must it have been like, singing into a microphone, committing his voice to tape, knowing he would not live to hear the notes reach the light of day?

I began purchasing some of the band's back-catalog, and they didn't disappoint. The music of Queen is well-produced, theatrical, passionate, intelligent, amusing, and inspiring. All four members of the band are excellent musicians and song-writers (they're the only band in which all members wrote a top 10 hit while together, a feat not even the Beatles matched), and though Freddie's bombastic stage persona inevitably put him way out front, the contributions of Brian May, who is one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, Roger Taylor (drums), and John Deacon (bass) cannot be underestimated.

I tend to like the later stuff better than the earlier, more hard rock stuff, but even there, I found plenty of incredible songs. Further, Freddie stepped out on his own with two solo CD's. The first was 'Mr. Bad Guy', which was eventually remixed with other assorted solo tracks into 'The Great Pretender' (containing his scintillating cover of that old standard, one of the best covers of any song I've ever heard). The second was a distinctive and innovative release called 'Barcelona', recorded with world-renowned Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe, which successfully mixed opera and pop sensibilities into something remarkable, and served as a precursor to artists like Sarah Brightman and Josh Groban, who have made careers out of doing largely the same thing.

Even back then, I was aware of the fascinating similarities between Freddie and Michael, and after Michael's death, as a sort of personal tribute, I mixed a Mercury-Jackson CD, a virtual sing-off with alternating tracks. I tried to focus on representative songs rather than greatest hits type stuff (I only ended up with one Thriller track, and only a couple of Queen tracks that anyone would know), and though when you mix a CD, you have a pretty good sense of what it's going to sound like, there's nothing like hearing the whole thing beginning to end. The result was remarkable. Hearing these two titans spend close on an hour and a half trying to vocally outdo each other over the course of sixteen tracks, and to do so with a sort of thematic arc to the whole thing, turned out to be damn near close to thrilling.

(On a brief digression into my thoughts on creativity, I realize those last two lines could be interpreted that I'm a little full of myself, but I'm really not. In any creative endeavor, even just mixing a CD, the creator can take a certain degree of responsibility for their creation, but I really believe any artist or creator is a sort of channel for something beyond themselves.)

Having listened to the mix several times over the course of the last year, I found it impossible to resist a more direct comparison of the two artists, and though it's a nearly neck and neck call, the simple truth is Freddie Mercury is a better singer than Michael Jackson. He puts across songs with a little more bite and conviction, and I think his instrument is a little more versatile than Michael's.

Though both men took their craft very seriously, I think Freddie took himself a lot less seriously than Michael. He was willing to be silly and self-deprecating, something Michael rarely did, and many of Queen's lyrics often have a level of sophistication and humor that Michael never reached (though granted, with track names like 'Fat-Bottomed Girls' and 'I'm in Love with my Car', Queen proved quite enthusiastic in aiming a little lower at times :) ).

Sitting here at this moment, I realized Freddie was the same age as I am now when he died, and surely had a lot more to do both creatively and personally. In fact, I would go so far as to say he would have been one of the grand statesmen of Rock & Roll, and would have really come into his own as a solo artist as well as continuing to create great music with Queen. I think he had a acute awareness of the power of collaboration, and I think his willingness (as well as that of the other members of Queen) to do some solo stuff and then come back to together to record as a band is to be highly commended; it's an exceedingly rare thing these days. Most artists get too full of themselves and break away because they want more of the spotlight.

Though he was lesser known here in America, and not as overtly influential as Michael Jackson, the fact remains the loss of Freddie Mercury was a huge one to the world of music. His talent, creativity, charm, style, intelligence, humor, and charisma have few equals and no superiors, and though it has been nearly twenty years since he died, he remains sorely missed.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury Part I

I posted a version of this essay a year ago on Facebook, but I wanted to update/expand on it slightly here as the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's death arrives. Further, though I touched on it in the original essay, I find I have further thoughts, some of them related to Michael, pertaining to another icon of mine: Freddie Mercury, one of the most indomitable showmen in entertainment history.

Part I: On Michael
At the risk of adding a 'Who cares?' footnote to the vast volume of material already written about this fallen star, I've decided to add some thoughts.

I followed Michael Jackson's career for most of my life. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by his talent and charisma, and though it might seem incongruous to a rather reserved-demeanor type like me, who is musically a lot more Michael Buble’ than Michael Jackson, he has remained an indelible creative touchstone for me.

I think it’s unfortunate that for many of his final years, Michael’s music took not just a back seat, but a back bumper to his personal travails. Though there is purported to be a great volume of unreleased music ‘in the vault’, some of it pretty recent, his official, public output was virtually zero since 2001’s ‘Invincible’. There’s a case to be made for the idea that this shift in focus from creative to personal/business matters was as much a product of Michael’s mind as it was the public’s; to some extent, the two sort of feed off one another (don’t get me started on the perils of celebrity). To a very good degree, this shift in his priorities was understandable given the nature of the crimes he was accused of, and the apparent magnitude of his financial and other personal difficulties. I doubt we’ll ever truly know whether he was guilty of those crimes or not, but I for one would like to believe he was innocent.

As a bit of a side note, I can’t help but wonder whether Michael was a little intimidated by his own legacy. When you step up to the plate and not only knock it out of the park, but across the state line, as he did with ‘Thriller’, even a grand slam home run isn’t such a big deal. My feeling is that the success of ‘Thriller’ was not only a matter of talent, but timing. For all we know, had it been released a year later or a year earlier, it would have disappeared with little more than a ripple to mark its passing, despite the brilliance of the recording. Something about that unique point in history enabled Michael Jackson to ride a massive wave of success, and it often seemed in recent years as though he spent more time trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle than just using his remarkable gifts to make excellent music, even if it didn’t change the musical landscape the way ‘Thriller’ did.

Regardless, with his anticipated UK concerts (all 50 of which I believe were sold out; a feat any performer on the planet would kill to accomplish at a single venue) he seemed primed and ready to get back to business and put the public’s attention where it belonged: On the Music. To an extent, there was a  bittersweet poetry in the timing of his death. Like any great showman, Michael left us with one final trick up his sleeve. We can only wonder now, how well, or even if he would have been able to pull it off.

Say what you want about him, but once you got past the third-world country-sized mountain of weirdness that was Michael Jackson, you were left with an electrifying performer, musical innovator, dancer, and songwriter. In the year since his death, it has been gratifying to see that much of the focus has been on the magnificence of his talent and the loss his death has brought to the world of popular music and entertainment.

If you haven't seen the film documentary, 'This Is It', it's very much worth watching. Certainly, the film provides some fascinating insight into Michael's creative process, and it quickly becomes clear he was not a 'show up and do his thing' type of guy. He had been interested and involved in every aspect of production of the O2 concerts. If anything, I would have like to seen a little more about the man than the music, but that's more my thing than an objective criticism of the film. Vocally, he sounded as good as he ever sounded, and the performance sequences are quite excellent.

Even after a year has passed, it seems difficult to accept we now live in a world where Michael Jackson doesn’t. Icons like him come along a scant handful of times in a generation (arguably, only Madonna is of comparable power, though I’m not sure she has the same level of raw, musical talent). I have missed watching that slender form undulate like a python, move in a way no one ever has or will again. I’ve missed that fantastic, irreplaceable voice, equal parts silky seducer, heartbreaking poet, feel-good ambassador, and keening banshee. I’ve missed the fire in those eyes when he was onstage, doing what he loved. Mostly, I’ve missed knowing he was out there in the world, his very existence a promise of wonderful things to come. He has flashed across our cultural horizon like a comet, and we will not see his like again. He has been missed.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Banning the Parents

Over the last three years (grades K-2), at some point during the school year, I've visited my daughter Julianna's class to read a story to her and her classmates. I love doing it. It's a lot of fun, it's an opportunity for Jules to feel special, it's a means of reaching out and making a connection with the other kids in the class, and thereby the community (i.e. their parents), to her teacher, and even to the school staff and faculty.

What's the message I'm conveying? That I care enough to take time out of my day to make an appearance at my daughter's school and do something for her and her class. I see no discernible downside to this activity.

However, it's extremely unlikely I will be visiting my daughter's school for this purpose this year.

Back in December, Nancy and I did get the opportunity to visit during Chanukah to teach the kids about the holiday. It was an excellent visit. The kids had a lot of fun, and so did we.

Further, there have been a couple of occasions over the course of the year in which parents were invited to the classroom to observe the kids reading essays or poetry, but nothing else individual or interactive.

Before I continue on, I feel it prudent to point out that I think Paul Spinella, Julianna's teacher, is an excellent educator. He's great with the kids, seems very creative and open to new ideas, and has the perfect combination of firmness and compassion in dealing with his students. With regard to my topic of the day, I think if it were up to him, there wouldn't be an issue. Further, Nancy and I have been very happy with the school as a whole. They have proven supportive and helpful on many occasions, and I have a good deal of respect for the principal, John Mullins. I just want to be clear that my intent here is not to bash the school, but rather use it to illustrate a profound issue which I believe is symptomatic of many schools across the country.

Okay then. Back to our story. During my visit in December, I mentioned to Mr. Spinella that I wanted to come in, and he seemed sincerely amenable to the idea. However, when I contacted him a few weeks ago to set a date, he indicated that at a recent grade-level meeting, it was determined that class time for the 'middle' grades (3-5) was too valuable, and therefore, parents were not permitted to visit the class for such purposes.

Being of a rather philosophical bent, I have concerns about this that go any personal disappointment at not being able to visit the class. I'm a grown-up (most of the time, anyway), and I'll get over it. So will my daughter, albeit a little more reluctantly. Further, I completely understand that class time is valuable, but value is a rather subjective thing, isn't it? To my way of thinking, the inherent value of cultivating rapport between the class and a parent outweighs the 'lost' time.

Let's do a little Math. The average class size in Julianna's school is about 20 kids, which means a maximum of forty parents. Let's factor in the single parents and the second parents that aren't able to take time off.  We can also filter out a few parents just aren't comfortable being in front of the class or for whatever reason are disinclined to visit. I would guess the school year is around thirty weeks. The average illustrated story book takes 10-15 minutes to get through, so a 30 minute visit seems sound. When we put all the numbers together, what we come up with is that over the course of the school year, all parents would have an opportunity to visit the class at least once. Total loss of time: One half an hour a week. This does not seem to me to be an unduly extensive amount of time to devote to parental visits.

On the list of international education rankings, which encompasses thirty-one countries, US public schools have been coming up somewhere in the middle. There are legitimate contributing factors as to why this is the case, why places like Japan, Korea, and Finland come up near or at the top, and places like Luxembourg, Mexico, and Brazil are near or at the bottom. The rankings don't really address why each country meets whatever criteria they use. It just reports that they do. In addition, it doesn't address fallout factors associated with the rankings. For example, if it turned out that Japanese children have higher statistical rates of stress, depression, or even suicide than the other countries on the list, this would in my mind mitigate the significance of their ranking to some extent.

Though there are indeed many positive aspects of our education system, we're kidding ourselves if we think there aren't likewise profound problems that need to be addressed (we can start by cutting summer vacation in half.). However, given the more esoteric benefits of the parent to students relationship, of community-building in the classroom, I contend that banning the parents is not a viable solution to any those problems.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Orkin's Law of Onward & Upward

About eight weeks ago, I joined a gym.

Outside of a brief and ill-fated jaunt with Jack LaLanne about twenty years ago, it's the first time I've ever done it. I had a few motivations in making the decision.  My prime one was that I have to teach my daughter how to ride a two-wheeler this summer, and I simply haven't had the physical stamina to run up and down the block to keep her from killing herself.

Life in the 21st Century tends to... not encourage, exactly, but lend itself to a sedentary lifestyle. I work in an office, spending most of my day in front of a computer. Outside of an occasional 20-30 minute walk on my lunch break or with my daughter in the evening, occasional jaunts on my stationary bike, and minor concessions like taking the stairs and parking at the back of the lot, I've been guilty of this sedentarianism up until now. I do more than some people, I suppose, but it's not enough to make a substantive difference.

Another motivation was the idea that I'd just turned 45, and have been a little preoccupied by the idea that my life is very likely more than half over. Further, the latter half will eventually bring health issues that will ultimately deteriorate my quality of life. (I'm just a glowing ray of sunshine, aren't I?)

Those of you who have visited my Facebook page may have seen a quote I put there which reads as follows:

          "It's never too late to be who you might have been."
          - George Eliot (English novelist 1819-1880) 

I find myself quite taken by this thought, and have endeavored to do what I can to bring it about in whatever time I may have left on this Earth. Gloom and doom aside, I've still got a good chunk of time to use productively, and by taking control of my health, I can further maximize that time.

So, after hunting around for a suitable gym, I decided on a place in Babylon Village called Fitness Incentive. After taking the tour, I found they had a pretty low-key atmosphere, and appeared newbie-friendly. Since I was so ignorant of how to use the equipment, I decided to get a trainer for a few weeks.

I'm all set. Made the commitment. Took the tour. Paid the money. Set up a date with the trainer. Bought my first pair of sneakers in over five years, picked up some stuff I could wear while working out.

And yet...

The volume of anxiety I experienced in the days leading up to actually going was formidable. Anyone who's struggled with their weight knows it goes a hell of a lot deeper than getting a set of sixpack abs. In fact, to a good extent, it strikes to the very heart of your self-esteem and self-worth. It bothers me to say that, but I can't deny it.

Those of you who know me know I'm not a particularly vain person, and in terms of appearance, I'm a pretty far cry from looking like the Blueberry Girl from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, incidentally). This does not preclude me from struggling with the same self-doubts and self-criticism that so many others do in terms of weight and appearance. I mean, I'm not pathological about it; it's not like I shudder in revulsion at the sight of myself. There are times, (admittedly rare) that I can see a photo of myself or take a look in the mirror and acknowledge that I look pretty good in that moment.

Regardless, I felt nearly paralyzed with the self-doubt that often haunts us when we try something new, when we try to take ourselves to the next level, to change the way have been conducting our lives, to in fact, change ourselves:

"Dude, there's no way you're going to be able to do this. You're not the kind of guy who goes to a gym. You probably don't have the strength or flexibility to even use the equipment. It's too late for you. This is going to be a disaster. You've wasted an awful lot of money to do this, and all it's going to amount to is a big, black mark on your credit card bill. You are really pathetic to think you can change yourself this late in the game."

You get the idea. The brutality with which we sometimes (or oftentimes) treat ourselves would probably get us arrested if we channeled it onto someone else.

But I told myself to shut the hell up and went anyway, and as I got out of the car, the tickle of an Orkin's Law (my friend Christiana thinks I should call them Orkinisms, and I haven't taken the idea off the table) began to take shape in my mind. Slogans began swimming around in my head: 'Just do it', 'Live Strong'...

Onward & Upward?

The first session went well. My trainer, Joe is a pretty cool guy with a wry sense of humor, and he really knows his stuff. If you've ever seen him, you know he's not some bulked up muscle-head, but the guy is solid, with a kind of old-school durability that makes you think he could be at ground zero of a nuclear bomb site and pretty much shake it off. He made me feel comfortable with the process and the equipment, and didn't talk down to me or make me feel self-conscious. I walked out of there thinking, 'Y'know what? Maybe I can do this.'  And that was a pretty good feeling.

As the weeks have progressed, going has become more of a routine, and I've managed about three times a week (which means I've probably gotten more exercise in the last eight weeks than in the last two or three years), and two interesting, related things have happened:
  1. I find I enjoy it. It's an hour of me-time, with little thought required. No responsibilities other than treating the equipment (and thereby myself) with respect. It's a good stress release, and seems to help me sleep a little better (more on Night Owl Syndrome in a future post, I suspect).
  2. I miss it when I don't go. To my way of thinking, the goal of any fitness program is to incorporate it into your life in a subtle, but enduring way. Kind of like brushing your teeth. You'll survive if you don't do it on a particular day, but it bugs you. You miss it. You want to go home, grab a brush and polish those beauties.
Keep Going.

I'll never be a gym rat with a Brad Pitt body. I'd love to tell you I've lost fifteen pounds and gained the afore-mentioned six-pack abs, but the truth is, although I feel different (better stamina and strength), outside of perhaps a slight narrowing in my face, I don't look any different yet, despite having lost about five pounds. But I'm good with that. The only person I really want to impress is myself, and I'm not in this for the quick fix. I'm sure I could do a hardcore routine that would melt off the pounds in two or three months, but after I got sick of it, I'd gain it all right back a lot faster than I lost it. To my way of thinking, even if it takes me a year to get rid of those twenty extra pounds, it's that much more likely I won't gain them back, because I will have developed a routine I can live with rather than endure.

That said, I can't say I don't get a little discouraged looking at all those sculpted guys and heavenly gals (though there are a fair number of 'normal' people as well), but every morning, as I'm starting my day, I tell myself that doesn't matter. What matters is that I keep going. Eventually, my efforts will start to add up. It's nothing more than mathematics, when you think about it.

Keep Going.

I had a revelation that this simple, two-word phrase doesn't simply apply to working out. It's really a mantra for Life. No matter how tough things get, no matter what life throws at you: Just. Keep. Going. You may not always make it to your destination, but you'll be a better, stronger person for having made the effort. 

Orkin's Law of Onward & Upward: Success in life pretty much boils down to one simple concept: Keep Going.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sounds Like This

Just to lighten up a little...

My wife Nancy listens to the radio fairly often as she's driving around town running errands or whatever. I don't have a lot of patience for the radio because of the commercials and the maddening repetition of the top 40 (If anyone knows of a station accessible via a standard radio on Long Island that plays NEW music, I'd be happy to know about it.)

Okay then. Two lines in and I've already parenthesized. I wonder if there are any 12 step programs for overindulging in grammatical characters?

Anyway, Nancy occasionally manages to catch new tunes on the radio, but almost invariably misses the title of the song and either all or part of the name of the artist, and will come home and say things like, "I heard this great song on the radio. It was a guy singing, and I think the song had the words 'rock and roll' in it. Can you find it?"

In that case (which occurred about a year ago), the answer was no, given the rather broad search criteria. I told her so, and we both pretty much forgot about it. Six months later, she heard the song again, and came home with a little more, part of a name: "Eric... something with an H. I think."

That narrowed the field quite nicely, and I soon found the artist: Eric Hutchinson. The song was called 'Rock & Roll' and it's on his CD, 'Sounds Like This'. I had never heard the song, but I knew Nancy loved it, so I ordered it, and I pretty much haven't stopped listening to it since.

I love music, and I consider myself a fairly astute listener, able to separate the wheat from the chaff as they say. In addition, I'm fairly broad-minded with regard to what I'll listen to, and even if something isn't to my taste, I can generally see the artistry in it. So please believe me when I tell you that if you're looking for some slickly produced, no real instruments-allowed techno-grunge, read no further. If, however, you're looking for some unpretentious, head-bopping, coffee house pop with splashes of funk and blues, Eric Hutchinson is definitely your guy. From the honky-tonk opening sounds of 'Alright With Me', to the Billy Joel-meets-Donald Fagen lilt of 'Food Chain' to the infectious road-trip feel of 'Rock & Roll', to the finger-snapping back-beat of 'Oh!', the CD is a breath of fresh air.

So, if you're looking for a something a little different, check out 'Sounds Like This', available at your friendly neighborhood for under ten bucks.

Happy listening!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Orkin's Law of Spiritual Perseverance

In Autumn 1993, I was walking up Rhoda Avenue toward Weeks Road in North Babylon, heading who knows where. I remember the day as being overcast and cool, but not especially so. I believe it was Autumn. I was contending with a lot of stuff at that time, still trying to burn through a near-crippling bout of depression following the death of my father the year before, reconcile some issues pertaining to the end of one relationship and the moving forward of another (the one that eventually became my marriage, incidentally), and find a decent job after being laid off the best one I'd ever had up to that point the year before. As my thoughts tumbled through my head trying to make sense of themselves, a peculiar phrase blinked in my mind: 'Hope is a raincoat.' It came through with absolute clarity, a steady candle clearing the fog in my beleaguered brain. There was no misinterpreting it: 'Hope is a raincoat'. However, though the words themselves came through clearly, the phrase seemed cryptic. I had a taste of what it might mean, but I couldn't get anything concrete out of it. I continued walking up the block, and a few minutes later, as I neared the end of the street, the rest of it came through: ' the storm of life.'

Hope is a raincoat in the storm of life.

Though I wouldn't identify it as such until many years later, this was my first Orkin's Law, and it remains my favorite. It typifies the definition at the top of this blog. It's simple, has a playful quality, yet it's got depth to it. It set the standard for the dozens that have followed.

It may sound a little strange, but I assume very little responsibility for these odd little maxims. They just seem to come to me, more delivered that created. I feel like I'm just the recorder.

Anyway, this simple message brightened my day immensely all those years ago. It seemed like a gift, a sign from somewhere that things would get better. It made my load a little lighter, and it continues to bring me comfort even today.

I remain a fervent proponent of Hope. One of my favorite movie titles (and a very fine movie, as well) is 'Hope Floats'(1). One of my favorite CD's is Matt Nathanson's 'Some Mad Hope'(2). Hope matters. Hope gets you through the day. Hope gives you something to hold onto when all else seems lost.

Hope is often misinterpreted by cynics or the literal-minded as an unwillingness to accept reality, but this is not the case. Hope is a desire for a positive outcome in the face of unknown or negative circumstances. If you're sitting at the bedside of a loved one with terminal cancer, you must accept the very real and likely possibility that they're going to die. This does not preclude you from hoping they don't. Hope does not refute reality. It carries on despite it. There is no harm in hope. There is always room for hope.

I think Hope is closely tied to Faith, though the latter is a more complex concept that I hope to address at some point in the future. For the most part, I think Hope is somewhat more realistic. In the context of this Orkin's Law (or OL, to save me some keystrokes), Hope has no grandiose arrogance. It does not prevent or solve anything; it protects, it shields. It enables one to cope with things as they are more effectively. Given the sometimes profoundly, even mercilessly unjust world we live in, I don't think we can ask for much more.

Orkin's Law of Spiritual Perseverance: Hope is a raincoat in the storm of Life.

Try that one on the next time you're feeling low and your plate is full. Is it going to change your life? Nope. Could it give you a step up to cope with everything just a little bit easier? You know, it just might...

1: 'Hope Floats' is a 1998 film starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr., both of whom are excellent. It's a simple film that's part romance, and part journey of self-discovery.

2: 'Some Mad Hope' is a 2007 release by Matt Nathanson, a soulful and skilled songwriter and guitarist. It's not flashy, but it is authentic. If you like artists like John Mayer, James Taylor, Shawn Colvin, Colbie Caillat, or Sara Bareilles, this will probably work for you.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I questioned whether 'Embarkation' was actually a word.

It is.

I looked it up.

Honestly, I'm a little ambivalent about blogging. It seems to require a level of self-voyeurism, perhaps even narcissism, I'm not comfortable with. Even outside of that, please excuse my slide into self-deprecation, but I'm not sure anyone cares what I have to say.

However, as a writer, I'm accustomed to expressing myself verbally, and as writing is both my vocation and my passion, I venture to say I'm pretty good at it. Further, I'm fairly intelligent, and pride myself on my ability to see things from various perspectives (even if I don't agree with all those perspectives), and to see beneath the surface of things. Whether my confidence is justified on either front is a matter you will have to determine for yourselves.

Despite my above-noted ambivalence, I've conducted a recurring debate about it, and have even taken a test drive or two just to see how it felt, but having recently joined the ever-expanding cult of Facebook, I've found my appetite has been whetted to get my word (such as it is) out to a somewhat broader audience. The matter of whether anyone cares seems to be giving way to the idea that that may not matter. Even if I'm talking to empty cyberspace, as long as no animals are being harmed, no hydrogenated vegetable oil is being used, no second-hand smoke is being inhaled, and it's providing an element of personal catharsis for me, it's all good. Further, though there are certainly vast numbers of people who are both more intelligent, and more skilled as writers than I am, I'm warming to the idea that, as with most endeavors, it's not a matter of 'Why Me?', but 'Why not Me?'.

One of the catalytic factors in taking the plunge was the suggestion of my friend Erin (and a few enthusiastic backup encouragements) in response to an essay I posted on FB last summer about Michael Jackson (which I'm toying with reprinting here with a few updates.), as well as positive feedback from some other odds and ends I've posted there.

(While I'm thinking of it (or as I sometimes say to my friend and office mate Christiana, WITOI), please be advised I have a near uncontrollable proclivity for parenthetical asides. Wow, a double; impressive!) Let it be known I considered parenthesizing the 'Wow, a double' statement, which would have made it a triple. Further, I could have inserted further parentheses around the 'Let it be known' sentence, creating a towering four parenthetical statements in one short paragraph. However, it's clear I must cease this parenthetical madness.

Anyway, I think the time is right. I think this may be the start of something enduring. I have a sense of standing before open country. My walking stick is firmly in hand. I've got plenty of water and supplies, and I am ready to trek forth into the wilderness. As I move through it, I shall endeavor to entertain, amuse, inspire, captivate, inform, and challenge you. Let's see where this journey takes us...

Thank you for reading.