Monday, December 26, 2016

Refusing to Give Up This Time?

I recently posted an entry about feeling demoralized over an Op-Ed piece I was preparing to submit to a leading newspaper. I wrote that I used an online website to analyze the piece for readability, and it indicated that my Op-Ed used too many big words and long, complex sentences to be read easily by anyone with less than a college graduate or post-graduate education. I also wrote that other pieces of mine that I had analyzed on that website scored largely the same, and that I didn't know what to do about this, because I felt uneasy about trying to write any simpler than I thought I did already. But I said I would do my best to "overhaul my writing style" without losing my voice in the process.

Well, as I indicated later, I polished the Op-Ed piece and submitted it, and I've been waiting several days to see if the newspaper accepted it. But they haven't, so I don't think they will. And this leaves me wondering what I should do. Should I just give up? I tried, they didn't take it, and so now it's time to admit defeat and move on to something else? Or is the message of my piece important enough that I should rewrite and resubmit it? That way, even if they don't publish it, I'll have made a nobler effort than I have in a long time to accomplish something important to me. What's more, I will have worked on improving the readability, and, thus, marketability of my writing.

I think I should go for it. It won't be easy, and I've spent much of my life avoiding what's difficult. But not this time?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Judging One's Own Judgment

Something happened yesterday while I was bowling in my league that has never happened before in my nearly fifty years of league bowling. I threw my strike ball, it hit the pins a little farther to the left (I bowl right-handed) than I wanted it to, and a pin remained standing. But not for long. Because another pin rolled across the pin deck from left to right and knocked it over just as the pinsetter raced down to grab it.

Bowling league rules say that after a ball is thrown, if the pinsetter knocks a pin over while it's standing or touches it while it's falling, that pin has to be reset on the deck. But it looked to me like the pin fell over without the pinsetter touching it, and one of my teammates, who was watching at the time, said it looked that way to him too. But members of the other team and some spectators in back of us said that the pinsetter touched the pin as it was falling, while a bowler on the next pair of lanes agreed with me and my teammate that the pin fell untouched by the pinsetter.

What to do? As I said, I've never dealt with this situation before. That is, I've seen pinsetters knock over pins while they were falling, but it was obvious that this is what happened. But yesterday's instance was not nearly so clear-cut. There was a difference of opinion between those of us who saw it happen.

I ended up taking a strike instead of having to reset the pin and shoot at it for a spare. But I think the haggling that occurred over it disrupted my concentration so much that on my next ball, I did something I haven't done in league for decades. I threw my strike ball in the gutter. I followed that up by leaving a pocket 10-pin on my spare ball and going nine-out for the frame, which was very costly to our team at a vital moment in our second-quarter position round match against the opposing team. The other team ended up narrowly winning the second quarter and making it into the league roll-offs at the end of the season, while my team finished second for the second consecutive quarter.

I'm writing about this because it touches upon something that has long been an issue with me. I've always lacked faith in my own opinions and powers of observation.

I've heard of psychology experiments where test subjects were placed in a room with confederates of the researchers, and they ended up concurring with the obviously false opinions of the confederates in response to questions about, say, which line in a series of lines was the longest. And it's not that the test-subjects necessarily lied just so that they wouldn't catch flack from the others. In some cases, they actually believed that their response was correct because, even if it didn't really look correct to them, it must be because it agreed with everybody else's.

I have little doubt that if I were a test-subject in such an experiment, I'd do the same thing. I'd figure that since everybody else said a certain line appeared to be the longest, it must be even if it didn't look that way to me. Well, actually, given the fact that I was a psychology major in college and know about these experiments, maybe I wouldn't do this. But otherwise, I think I very well might.

Yet, I'm glad that I stood up for my perspective of what actually happened to that falling pin yesterday instead of silently submitting to the protests of those who had a different perspective. I didn't insist that my perspective was correct, because I know that human perception and eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable and that my own perceptions may be more unreliable still.  But I continued to insist that it looked to me as though the pinsetter didn't touch the pin until the issue was finally resolved by the opposing team agreeing to credit me with a strike.

But this raises a broader issue of how much I can trust my own judgments about anything, especially when it's about myself. In my previous two blogposts, I questioned my longstanding judgment that I was a good enough writer to potentially earn money from writing. I wondered whether my dream and goal of writing professionally might be akin to a wretched or mediocre singer aspiring to become the next "American Idol." I wrote that in the unsettling wake of a linguistic analysis of some of even my simplest writing that rated it as too complex in its syntax to appeal to most readers, I was feeling very disheartened at the prospect of being able to turn even the one thing I thought I was pretty good at into a profitable activity.

Well, I discovered something today that gave me a little hope. I read a New York Times column by Ross Douthat that scored even higher on unreadibility than my writings did when I subjected it to the same online analysis. And I honestly believe that my writings are clearer and, arguably, better stylistically at least. So, if Ross Douthat can write a regular column for one of the world's most respected newspapers with a style possibly even more opaque than mine, maybe there's a smidgen of hope for me after all.

And to place an exclamation point on that hope, I submitted an aforementioned Op Ed piece to a newspaper this morning. I spent a couple of weeks writing and polishing it meticulously until I could see no additions, subtractions, or corrections to make with it, and then I pulled the trigger and sent it.

All I can say is that getting that piece published in such a prestigious medium would be the crowning achievement of my writing hobby thus far, and perhaps the doorway to writing as more than just a hobby. I won't hold my breath waiting to receive word that my piece is being considered or has been approved for publication. I'm realistic enough to know that the odds are very much against it. But I still have a shred of hope in me. We shall see what happens.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Midnight Musings

I'm usually in bed this late. But this hasn't been a usual day. As I posted previously, I'm feeling lost. I thought I was a good writer. I hoped to spend my remaining years writing professionally. But now I don't think I'm very good. And I doubt that I'll ever be good enough. And if I won't, where does that leave me? What should I do?

I say to myself that the test I took yesterday doesn't tell the whole story. That my writing is special. Yes, I tend to write big words and long, complex sentences that inflate my "reading difficulty" scores. But I do it in a way that is much clearer and easier to understand than those scores suggest.

I tell myself this, and I believe it. A little bit. But not enough to feel much comfort or hope.

I need to go to bed. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow with a clearer head and more hope and determination to pursue my dream of being a writer no matter what.

When I say this, I think of those contestants on American Idol who thought they were the bee's knees as singers. They seemed to believe that they were headed for superstardom. Or that they would at least have a decent paying singing career. And, yet, as soon as they opened their mouths, it was obvious that they were mediocre at best or awful at worst. There was no way they'd ever earn a dime singing. Yet, even as they were firmly ushered out the door, they said they'd be back and that, next time, they'd succeed.

Am I like them?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Overhauling My Writing Style

I’ve been shaken to my core this afternoon. It began with my reading an article by a journalist named Shane Snow about how the best writing is as simple as possible without oversimplifying. Then I made the mistake of using an online utility to analyze a piece I was hoping to get published in a major newspaper. I thought I’d managed to craft a pretty good Op Ed article that had a decent chance of making the grade.

Yet, the resulting analysis all but destroyed that hope. By every widely accepted measure of the complexity of a document’s language, my document scored outrageously far above the parameters that Snow recommends in his article. I reeled in despair.

But I didn’t stop there. I took several posts from this blog that I thought featured some of my simplest, clearest, and best writing and subjected it to the same analysis. And the complexity scores weren’t much lower than they were for the newspaper piece I’ve been working on.

I’ve prided myself on my writing ever since I was a kid. In fact, writing is about the only thing I’ve thought I do reasonably well. Almost everything else has been an uncommon struggle for me. But at least I believed I could write better than most people. Maybe even well enough to earn some money from it. But if Snow’s article is correct, I can hardly expect to earn a living writing any more than I could from repairing cars.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There’s no way my NLD could allow me to be an auto mechanic. But perhaps I’m fluent enough in English that I could learn to write more simply and clearly than I do now. Maybe then people would want to read what I write and even pay for the privilege. Yet, it looks like I’ll need to radically overhaul my writing style to have any chance of that, and I don’t know if I’m up to it.

There is an old story about Sonny Rollins that gives me some hope. Sonny Rollins recorded some of the most celebrated saxophone music ever in the 1950’s, but he was unhappy with his own playing. And so he stopped recording and performing in public and retreated to a bridge where he played only to himself for a couple of years until he had reinvented his approach. Only then did he reappear in the music world and go on to continue building his legacy as a “saxophone colossus.”

Of course, Sonny Rollins was tremendously successful before he did that, whereas I’m a nobody in the writing world. And Rollins had immense musical talent with which to effect his transformation while my writing talent is a giant question mark.

I think or thought I write well, and others have told me I do. But some have also told me I should write more simply and clearly so I’m easier to understand. And now I have an objective analysis that backs them up. Moreover, even if I can make my style more readable and appealing, do I have anything to say that people want to read about?

I worry that if I change my writing as much as it looks like I need to, I’ll lose my unique voice and any appeal I might have as an author worth reading about anything. And I don’t know what to do about this. I grant that if I’m too wordy and “sophisticated” now, few people will want to read me and that nobody will probably pay to do it. But if I don’t stand out in a good way, how will I attract any more readers than I do now? And how can I stand out if I stop writing in a way that comes as naturally as my previous writing has? I haven’t a clue. I feel hopeless except for the hope that “this too shall pass.” And in the meantime, I’m going to keep refining and eventually submit that article I’ve been working on and see what happens. What's more, I’m publishing this blogpost which I’ve tried to make as simple and clear as I can without overdoing it. What do you think of it?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Another Jackass and We Who Encourage Him

I really don't know what to make of people who do things like this. I'm assuming that what's depicted in the video--a shirtless, morbidly obese young man lighting a so-called "suicide vest" of firecrackers wrapped around his torso and then crying out in pain as the exploding firecrackers burn his body and he frantically jumps into the snow seeking relief--is real.

I say this because it seems that CGI has now become so sophisticated that it's capable of making the wildest video illusions look stunningly realistic. Yet, I can't help but doubt that the young man in the video, his off-camera accomplice who lights the firecrackers, or anyone else connected with such a ridiculous stunt possesses the skill to pull off such an impressive feat of video prestidigitation.

So, I return to the vexing question of why someone would subject himself to such a searingly painful exercise in self-debasement. Will he earn enough pleasurable attention, much less money, from it to justify the lingering suffering and self-inflicted humiliation?

And do those of us who watch the video and share it on social media the way I did on Facebook and Twitter and now here this morning encourage him and others to perform these kinds of dangerously reckless and even potentially deadly stunts to receive whatever rewards they hope to receive from them?

Moreover, what does it say about me that I simultaneously feel something akin to condemnation and disgust on the one hand for what this guy did and find it uproariously funny on the other? And what does it say about homo "sapiens" that a good many of us seem to spend our time watching and enjoying this kind of foolishness more than we do far more uplifting and ennobling material?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Correct Gently, Listen Deeply

I woke up early this morning and listened to James Hoggan speak before the Commonwealth Club. I would have liked his presentation to be more focused, but I agreed with his central point that the “public square” has become so “polluted” by adversarial tribalism and personal attacks that “we the people” can’t come together to accomplish anything worthwhile and that we wallow in self-defeating intolerance, anger, and despair.

One particularly salient point of Hoggan’s talk is when he said that during his interview with Thich Nhat Hanh he was gently admonished to correct others gently, if necessary, but to listen to them deeply. I don’t recall if those were Thich Nhat Hanh’s exact words, but they were to that effect. And I thought, How often do I do this when I disagree with someone? How often do I listen deeply to what they have to say and then, if I think they’re mistaken about something, correct them gently instead of pouncing on them for their perceived mistake, especially if the subject of our disagreement is political or religious?

This was a rhetorical question because the fact is, if someone has disagreed with me, especially about something political or religious, I’ve been ready to let ‘em have it more often than not. I recount two recent examples of this in a previous blogpost concerning my disagreement with people who thought very poorly of anyone who burned the American flag.

But ever since listening to Mr. Hoggan this morning, I’ve felt like following through with Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice. Moreover, I’ve felt a lot more lighthearted about myself, my beliefs, and life in general, and more good-hearted toward people I disagree with and in general. And, for the time being at least, I want to see the best in everyone and to relate to them accordingly, with kindness in my heart.

I think it’s fair to say that I won’t always feel as inspired to do this as I have so far today. Yet, I’ve increasingly become convinced that one of the surest avenues to feeling a certain way is to act as though I feel that way even when I don’t, and I hope that I can at least sustain this online and off.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

A Better Kind of Sex Education?

A friend posted this to Facebook today. I shared it it with the caption "Today's sex-ed for the 21st Century prepubescent?" This is what I wrote as a comment on my friend's initial sharing of it:
The video reminds me of a German sex-ed book that came out decades ago titled "Show Me." It featured very explicit and controversial, at least in prudish domains such as ours, photos and descriptions of male and female anatomy of children and adults and of human sexual behavior. I think the book, which was available here when it came out, would probably now be regarded as kiddie porn and a person could possibly be imprisoned just for possessing it.
Speaking for myself, I think there's nothing inherently wrong with the video (and the book). In fact, I think it would be great if our society were open to such explicit and thoroughgoing sex-ed for kids, and I wish I'd had it when I was young. I think societies would be far better off if human sexuality were treated so matter-of-factly at an early age instead of being regarded as some magical mystery function and attached to profound and pathologizing feelings of shame and guilt.

But I don't think that's likely to happen anytime soon in our fucked-up country teeming with Orange Menace-worshiping Christian and other prudes."
Maybe I was a little harsh on "Christian[s] and other prudes," but sometimes I can scarcely help myself, especially in the wake of the recent presidential election whose results I blame, to no small degree, on the overwhelming support of religious fundamentalists and evangelicals for Donald Trump. But I do believe that we as adults would have healthier attitudes about sex and better sex lives if we gave children the kind of sex education depicted in the video, and I do wish I'd gotten it when I was an impressionable kid.

We, of course, did receive sex-ed in school, but I think it came later than it needed to, and it definitely left a lot more to our imagination than the video does. And the imagination can conjure up all kinds of crazy ideas. Moreover, the hushed and expurgated way sex education was rendered and the way sex was and is treated by society then and even now turned it into something not only alluringly mysterious to the point of arousing obsession, but it had connotations of nastiness, naughtiness, or worse that caused many of us to feel embarrassed and even ashamed about our bodies and our sexuality, and this creates, it seems to me, a breeding ground for the warping of sexuality into paraphillias--dangerously and even destructively abnormal sexual desires and behaviors--of all kinds and other sexual problems.

Yes I know that kids today can and do go online and see the full range of pornography. But if they could be given the kind of matter-of-fact presentation of basic sexual information when they're really young and before they see those porno videos, they might not even care that much about viewing pornos, and if they did view them anyway, they might be less adversely affected by them.

Contrary to what many adults might fear, I don't think kids would either be traumatized by the sex-ed video above or be prematurely sexualized by it, making them more vulnerable to sexual experimentation or to being molested by adults. On the contrary, I suspect that if they had good, solid sex education when young, they would be less likely to experiment in damaging ways and less vulnerable to exploitation by adults, and, if molested, I think they would be less damaged by it psychologically. It's arguably the kids irresistibly curious about the forbidden mystery of sexuality who are most likely to get into trouble having sex, and those who are taught to regard it as nasty, embarrassing, and shameful who are most likely to be emotionally scarred by having it forced upon them by adults, although I suspect that fewer adults would be forcing it upon children if they had seen videos like the one above when they were young.

I realize that I'm not citing scientific research to corroborate my opinions about all of this but am largely just talking off the top of my head because I want to finish this blog and eat dinner and watch a bowling tournament coming up in a few minutes. Yet, I hope to research all of this over time and possibly have more to say about it and more to back up what I say later on.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Hiromi's Sparks of Genius

George Gershwin, Mozart, Bach, Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. If that were the line up the whole world would turn out to see and hear some of the greatest music artist in the history of the world, the history of classical music, the history of jazz. Every TV station, every jazz radio station, every music and movie celebrity, film makers, broadcasters, play write, composers, musicians and just plain music lovers would fill the venue along with the streets outside. Living among us today is a music artist that embodies the skills of all those artist put together. Meet Hiromi Uehara!! A Modern Musical Genius! One of The Greatest Piano Players The World Has Ever Seen! Blending jazz and classical and fusion, weaving in and out of the stride techniques of Monk and Waller, implementing boogie-woogie techniques, swinging into bebop, rising from from her seat at the piano like a phoenix, arms stretched to reach inside the piano to play the strings as if they were a second instrument, injecting the composition with Weather Report/Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea fusion before floating effortlessly back to her seat. She lures you in with piano notes touched by the fingers of Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart as she
resumes a position of perfect posture at the keys. Folks, I am sorry but watching Hiromi play is complete insanity. It’s hard to get your mind around what this young lady is doing on the piano. She is redefining the words prodigy and virtuoso. Honestly there are no word to describe the musical experience you will be treated to when she sits down at the keys. I am at a loss, and I earn a living broadcasting, talking and writing.” ~ Asian Jazz Radio

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, once again, I give you Hiromi, from a recent performance on Japanese television of some of her compositions from her most recent album Spark.