Thursday, August 30, 2018

John McCain

This is just going to be a small little note. Recently, as you know, John McCain died. Now I’m not immune to feeling a bit of sadness when famous people die. But lately, with the Internet and all, it seems like every five minutes we're learning that someone well known has passed away. All the information can have a numbing effect.

But I have to admit I felt a little something in my soul when I learned that John McCain had died. I really can’t say why. It just seems like he was a guy who was always there. During the last 20 years, as I have matured as a person and have become more and more interested in journalism and politics, John McCain was just always around. He was always in the news, always up to something.

And he was always a guy you couldn't help but root for. He had an amazing backstory, and he just seemed like the embodiment of American ideals.

In the paper today I read that John McCain had wanted “Danny Boy” played at his funeral. Here is my favorite rendition of the song.

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go, and I must bide

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so

But when ye come, and all the roses falling
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
Go out and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me

And I will hear, tho' soft your tread above me
And then my grave will warm and sweeter be
For you shall bend and tell me that you love me
And I will sleep in peace until you come to me

Saturday, August 25, 2018


The other day I wrote a blog entry about how the words “perspective” and “context” are sometimes used interchangeably but do of course have separate meanings.  In the entry, I defined both words and then gave clear examples of them in action so the differences could be understood.

Well, life recently handed me a great example to help illustrate the meaning of "perspective."

Someone that I know -- let’s call this person a “good” friend -- was recently due to fly back to Germany. Before this person went on the plane ride, however, she and I had had a telephone conversation in which she had expressed her slight fear of flying. She said that she wished she didn’t have to fly and wouldn't it be great if she could just take a train back?

Basically, the upcoming flight was making her think a little bit about mortality. After all, when we fly, we do test the gods.

At any rate, I reassured her that everything would be fine. Still, she was upset and spoke of how nervous she often feels before flying.

When her plane landed, I was supposed to pick her up from the airport, at "Arrivals." However, I was five minutes late in getting there. When I finally came face to face with this person, who had happened to land early and had wound up waiting for me, she was super upset.

Why was I late? Couldn’t I get things right for once? She was super disappointed.

Gone, however, were the thoughts of mortality, of arriving safely, of perhaps never seeing the ones she loved again. All she could focus on was that I had been five minutes late.

That, my friends, is a loss of perspective.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bloody Mary

Remember that myth about Bloody Mary? Supposedly, if you stood in front of a darkened mirror and repeated the name “Bloody Mary” 13 times, an evil spirit would be called up. 

This myth, which I had learned about as a kid, always freaked me out, and I was never able to bring myself to say "Bloody Mary" more than a few times in front of a darkened mirror. 

Which makes me think that I must have been feeling especially brave in a dream I had last night.

When it opened, I was standing in the bedroom of my childhood home, looking into one of the two large mirrors hanging on one of the walls. For some reason, I was annoyed and felt like just testing the gods. I looked in the mirror and started saying, “Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!”

Suddenly, the room  became a little darker and a wind started to whip a curtain that was behind me, but the strangest thing was that I started to feel a squeezing sensation on my hand.

"Oh no," I  thought to myself, "a squeezing sensation on my hand after I just changed Bloody Mary?! That can't be good."

Then I woke up. It was pitch black in my bedroom and the sensation that I had felt in my dream was actually my girlfriend. She had been squeezing my hand, trying to coax me out the dream. I don't remember much else, but I remember that she had also mumbled something in a soothing way as she gripped my hand. Phew.

The funny thing is, this morning I asked her if she remembered waking me up last night and she said she didn’t.

Nowhere Man

You know, it’s funny how the mind works. Let me explain. Today when I was out walking my dog in the park, I just started daydreaming. For some reason, my mind shot back about six years, to the time when my mom and I were on a winding, two-lane road driving to Jim Thorpe. If you don’t know, Jim Thorpe is this cozy little northeastern-Pennsylvania town nestled in the Lehigh Gorge. The place looks like something out of the 1800s and it has even been called the Switzerland of the U.S.

Anyway, I specifically thought back to a particular conversation that my mom and I had had during the car ride. We had been discussing the Beatles, and I was giving her some insight into the band and into what exactly made them great, as her knowledge of the Beatles is not as in depth as mine.

In particular, I was explaining to her one of the things that I thought made John Lennon amazing. I told her that, yes, of course John Lennon was a great songwriter, but what made him so good was his ability to meld his songwriting with another talent of his.

See, in addition to songwriting, John Lennon had been into, well, plain old creative writing. He especially liked to write nonsensical, pun-filled sketches of made-up characters. These wild writings of his -- to see what I mean, get a copy of “A Spaniard in the Works,” the 1965 book they were published in -- are good. But that’s it; they’re nothing more than good.

However, when John Lennon would apply these fiction-writing chops of his to his real craft, songwriting, the final product was often, just, amazing.

To illustrate my point, I cited the song “Nowhere Man.” See, on the one hand, “Nowhere Man” is a song about a person who is lost; on the other, it’s a song about an actual character named Nowhere Man, and Nowhere Man is a creation that could have come straight out of the kooky pages of “A Spaniard in the Works.”

So that was one place where my mind drifted to when I was daydreaming in the park. The other place seems a little less random considering the story I’ve just related, but I find the whole train of thought fascinating nonetheless.

I was transported back to my dorm room in Fitzgerald Hall.

Fitzgerald Hall was the red-bricked, two-story rectangular building where I lived for two years when I attended SUNY Cortland, my college. It’s also the place where I met my first love, as she had also lived in the dorm.

The moment that I thought back to was one from an afternoon in the spring of 2002. I had just nailed the solo to “Nowhere Man” on guitar, and after I did, had called this girlfriend of mine at the time into my room to have a listen.

And just like it was yesterday, I was able to recall the scene exactly. I was sitting at my roommate's desk and she was sitting on his bed, and when the song got up to the solo, I began playing along, note for note.

After I had finished and had shut the music, she told me she thought the whole thing was pretty cool. However, she didn’t give me any over-the-top praise. Still, I know she was a Beatles fan, so I’m pretty sure she had meant what she said.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Poetry in the everyday

You know, I’m a big believer that there is poetry in everyday things. Case in point, today I was working with one of my students and he was having trouble understanding the word “sympathy.” Which makes sense. For German learners of English, "sympathy" is a false friend. Germans often think that our word “sympathy” is the same as their word “sympathisch,” when it isn’t. “Sympathisch” means “likeable," "easy going.” So, for example, “Er ist ein sympathischer Typ” translates to, “He is a likeable guy.” Fine. The problem occurs when a German speaking English says, “Oh, Frank…? Frank is great. He’s a real sympathetic guy.” You see? It doesn’t work.

Anyway, so there I was trying to explain to my student how "sympathy" is a false friend. Doing so wasn't really all that hard, but then he decided to throw in the word "empathy," to ask what exactly that word meant. And then shortly thereafter, he was having questions about the word "compassion." Things were getting super tricky. So instead of trying to explain it all orally, which really would have been cumbersome, I decided to write out example sentences for him, so he could see the words in action.

It's funny, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I really feel as though an example is, at least in language teaching. At any rate, after I wrote all the example sentences for him, I noticed that the little chunk of text I had produced really had some poetry in it. I hope you think so, too.

sympathy = Her husband just died. That must be awful. I'm sorry for her. empathy = Sarah, I'm so sorry that your husband just died. My husband died two years ago, and I know exactly how that feels. Sarah, it's going to be hard, but you will be OK. I never thought that I was going to be OK, but I'm better. compassion = I'm so sorry that your husband died. You know what, you don't have to come into work today or next week. And you will still be paid. I want you to take this time for yourself. Don't worry. We'll find someone to do the work. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

chess game

So when it comes to chess, I’m usually my toughest critic.

Let me back up a minute. I love chess. It has been a passion -- an obsession -- of mine since 2001. If I could do anything straight for an entire day it would be play chess. As it is, I play every single day, but only for about 45 minutes.

OK, so that's the backstory. Back to my being my toughest critic.

Usually, after I play a game of chess, I think to myself, "That was not that great." And that's even if I win. I know where I have made errors, and if an error was made, I don’t feel fully satisfied. Only rarely do I play a game and think, “Yes, that was awesome...that’s what it’s all about.”

Well, today I played such a game. Click on this link and you'll be taken to the game, which I've annotated, so you can see what I was thinking throughout.  Enjoy.

Sunday, August 05, 2018


Here is a story:

Yesterday as I was lying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, I heard a noise coming from a lamp I had on at the far end of my room. Upon closer look, I saw a small shadow knocking around inside the shade. I thought that a moth was in there, as moths are attracted to light.  But it was actually a wasp.

This revelation didn’t bother me. I don’t mind wasps. On my balcony there is a wasps' nest and I often find myself marveling at the industriousness of these little creatures, which all day long fly in and out of an opening that leads to their domicile. I figured I would just leave the wasp alone and let it find its way out of its predicament.

And then I heard a droning noise by my head. Inside the shade of the lamp on the nightstand next to me was another wasp. I was a little more concerned here. I mean, I like wasps, but it’s a little disconcerting to have one right by your head when you want to sleep.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Could I possibly help the winged insects out somehow? Usually, when a spider is in my apartment, I just trap it with a cup and throw it outside. But these were wasps.

And then I had an idea.

I got up and shut the lamp on the far end of my room and then shut the lamp on my nightstand. My room now was completely dark. For a few moments I heard droning but not after long it was silent.

Friday, August 03, 2018

A good point

You know, German people can be a doozy. What I mean is, in addition to being very precise, it doesn't take much for a German person to take issue with a point you make or anything else you might say. For example, ask a German person if he likes chocolate -- a question most people in America would answer with a simple yes -- he is likely to respond, “It depends.” Ask a German person if he did anything interesting over the weekend, it is not unlikely that he will respond with a flat no. Reason being: he truly doesn't believe that anything he did on Saturday or Sunday would interest anyone. One time, for an article I was writing, I asked a guy who was a major antique collector if he had any other “hobbies.” Instead of answering my question, he stopped dead and said, “This here” -- pointing around to his antiques -- “is not a hobby.” He had taken issue with my having used the adjective “other.”

Bottom line: Germans don’t liked to be pinned down and are very aware of the train of logic in any given argument. Perhaps this sensitivity has to do with their culture. Germany is known for its philosophers, and arguments and language are very important in philosophy. Perhaps it has to do with WWII and how language was very much manipulated by the Nazis. I don’t know. What I do know is many Germany people at least in my experience like to argue, to verbally spar, to ask, “What exactly do you mean by that?” to raise counterarguments to your argument.

One of the best counterarguments that I've heard from a German recently was in a Letter to the Editor in a local newspaper. The writer of the letter was responding to an article about an animal-rights group having protested the pony rides at the local fair. The writer's argument was so sharp and was such a good illustration of what I mean when I talk about the German argumentative spirit, it needs no introduction. Enjoy.


What exactly is animal cruelty? 

July 30: Another protest against the pony rides at the fair. 

Why are animal-rights protesters making so much noise about the pony ride at the fair? Sport horses often have to spend 22 hours a day in a box because they are not allowed to go out to pasture due to risk of injury. Furthermore, horses are transported in stuffy hangers and are exposed to a lot of uncomfortable noise at tournaments. Then they are locked away again.

The ponies, on the other hand, get to move throughout the day, don’t spend their day in a box and get plenty of attention from children. Maybe it's time to rethink what we mean when we talk about "animal cruelty."