A Blue’s Melody for the January Blues

Please note: This piece was also published in OnBeing.

Following the sparkling glimmer of a light-infused season, the month of January can sometimes feel as if a heavy, wet blanket of snow is descending upon us. It’s a time when the body can feel overindulged and earthbound, a time when we dispiritedly plod through the weight of winter days.

January Blues

Sliding from the high notes of the holidays to the low notes of mid-January, nature’s force ushers us unwittingly from the warm cheer of family and friends to a still and penetrating solitude. Even our music changes tune, as the festive good tidings of December songs give way to introspective, tranquilizing melodies that help carry us away from the sluggish, gray days of January.

As American pianist George Winston – whose instrumental music has been likened to “flakes of falling snow” – once said, “Every song I’ve ever heard, that has gone in and stayed in me, has always reminded me of a season. A picture and a place, maybe, but always a season.”

It might seem unfitting, then, to turn to the music of legendary blues icon Buddy Guy in the midst of a season known for plunging tired souls into the depths of “January blues.” But his song “Flesh & Bone” has done just the opposite, propelling my spirit onward and upward into a brighter sky of possibilities.

famous blues artists

Featuring rock & roll soul artist Van Morrison (an ATG favorite), Buddy Guy dedicated the song to the “King of Blues”, B.B. King, upon his passing last May – an apt choice for the hopeful message it offers:

It ain’t over the day you die
We all live on in the spirit by and by

With a poignant refrain that invites us to contemplate a life “more than” our fleshly existence – more than our human desires and temptations, frustrations and fears, tribulations and doubts – it simultaneously encourages us to transcend those very things; to “live higher”:

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

The message is a reflection of Guy’s religious upbringing: “‘My mamma used to say, ‘If you get slapped, turn the other cheek, so they can slap the other side,’’”, Guy recalls in an interview with the Rolling Stone. She ought to have been proud, then, when Guy took the high road after waking up one morning to an egged home. He explains: “‘[My neighbors] said, ‘A black man gets eggs thrown on his house, and he’s still plowing snow off everybody’s sidewalk, corner to corner?…we were the best of friends after that.’”

More than a religious ballad, however, “Flesh & Bone” also provides a welcome reminder of the importance of perspective – the perspective that we’re more than earthbound creatures of the here and now with long lists of “things to do.” During these cold days of January, days in which we feel so acutely our fleshly existence and so easily succumb to the instant gratification our flesh desires, we can find a more enduring kind of solace in embracing the perspective of a “higher” world of mystery and spirit that this song evokes.

Buddy Guy Flesh and Bone

So, perhaps it is fitting to turn to Buddy Guy after all. Considered the last of the blues legends, he is representative of a genre of music, which although has become rather marginalized in our culture, is known for eliciting heartfelt and soulful emotion – music that reminds us that this life is, indeed, more than flesh and bone.

Recalling what he told his producer while working on his 2015 album, Born to Play Guitar, which features the “Flesh & Bone” track, Guy says in a Billboard article: “Let’s play some funky blues like these older guys, the ones that taught me, and hopefully we can hit a note that will get people to pay attention.”

Well, he sure hit a note. And he certainly got my attention.

Listen to “Flesh & Bone” here and read the full lyrics below.

Daddy read the good book through and through
Said the Lord’s word is the only truth
It ain’t over the day you die
We all live on in the spirit by and by

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

Now I know my daddy was right
I read that good book and I’ve seen the light
Mama and daddy have passed and gone
They’re still with me ‘cause love lives on

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

The God I feed on is real as rain
More than words can ever explain
We’ll meet again some sweet day
Far beyond this world of pain

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit goes on
This life is more than flesh and bone

In keeping with the “Flesh & Bone” theme, check out our piece in Around the Table on “Bone Broth.”

Adele: More Than Words

Please note: this piece was also published in On Being.

Adele news articlesWhen it comes to Adele, it’s difficult to find something new to say. She has broken nearly every music record imaginable, received close to 100 music awards and has proven with her latest album, 25, that she is not just a one-hit wonder – that her talent runs exceedingly deep, touching something poignant in the hearts and souls of a fan base that increasingly defies categorization.

Yet, for all the interviews and articles on her music, approach, style and personality, capturing the essence of Adele and her music is surprisingly difficult. To string together a list of adjectives, to make comparisons and analogies, to use memes, gifs, videos or quotes somehow seems inadequate.

Her music is soulful, heartfelt, rare and real – and is undoubtedly “once in a generation” material – but it is also so much more, forcing us to reckon with an unattainable, mysterious quality that only adds to its allure.

In a world where mystery is quickly dispelled by access to a portal of answers at our fingertips (“Google it!”) – where life’s pace is nothing short of hurried – Adele invites us to do something rare: to stop and think, reflect and recall, question and feel.

Speaking to the fragility and resiliency of human existence, her music propels us into the realm of consciousness, compelling us to connect (and reckon) with our innermost selves. She proclaims in “Turning Tables” from 21:

“Next time I’ll be braver
I’ll be my own savior
When the thunder calls for me
Next time I’ll be braver
I’ll be my own savior
Standing on my own two feet”

And in a “Million Years Ago” on 25, she laments:

“I know I’m not the only one
who regrets the things I’ve done
sometimes I just feel it’s only me
who never became who they thought they’d be
I wish I could live a little more
look up to the sky not just the floor
I feel like my life is flashing by
and all I can do is just watch and cry”

Adele sings of love and heartbreak, regret and nostalgia, fear and desire, insecurity and hope – universal feelings and experiences that have long defined man’s tumultuous journey in life – but she does so with a conviction and legitimacy that only comes from having turned inward to grapple with those very things.

And that takes time – and effort.

In fact, Adele’s latest album evolved after discarding a series of songs she brought to record producer Rick Rubin who told her, “I don’t believe you.”

“It was clear she wasn’t the primary writer — many of the songs sounded like they might be on a different pop artist’s album,” said Rubin in a Rolling Stone article.*

Having tried to write songs about motherhood, “it wasn’t until Adele turned the lens back on herself that she was able to make progress,” writes Sam Lansky in a recent article for TIME magazine.*

“That’s when I decided to write about myself and how I make myself feel, rather than how other people make me feel,” Adele says in the interview.

Adele certainly isn’t the only artist to sing her feelings – or touch upon the universal aspects of human existence – but there is something to be said for her not rushing an album. After all, as Rubin has said, “it’s not just her voice singing any song that makes it special.”

Adele 25 reviewThat Adele chose to slow down, take her time and remain true to herself – and her voice – proves that she is as real as the songs she sings.

That she recognizes the ephemeral, vacuous nature of social media only confirms her commitment to authenticity:

“How am I supposed to write a real record if I’m waiting for half a million likes on a photo? That ain’t real,” she says.

Indeed, it is only after making a diligent effort to reflect on ourselves – to quiet our own souls – that the most profound truths and insights are revealed; or, in this case, a song with meaning and depth is born.

Anyone can sing about love and heartbreak, regret and nostalgia, fear and desire, insecurity and hope, but what makes Adele an artist of enduring greatness is the conviction with which she sings.

“I’m not saying my album [25] is incredible, but there’s conviction in it,” she says. “And I believe the f*** out of myself on this album.”

I believe her, too.

And yet, there still remains a mysterious quality about her – an inkling that she could be an “old soul” born anew, someone too affecting for words. But, this somehow seems fitting for an artist whose songs have touched the very depths of millions of people across the globe, of various backgrounds and ethnicities, of generations old and new.

*Read the full Rolling Stone article, “Adele: Inside Her Private Life and Triumphant Return“, and the TIME article, “Adele Is Music’s Past, Present and Future.”

“He’ll be coming and going…[o]ne day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (British novelist, 1898-1963)

C.S. Lewis Quotes
The South Bank Lion, cast in 1837; Westminster Bridge, London

Opening The Mind for a Greater Understanding

The Closing of the American Mind“What each generation is can be best discovered in its relation to the permanent concerns of mankind. This in turn can best be discovered in each generation’s tastes, amusements, and especially angers.” –  Allan Bloom (1930-1992)

When the present times are in a state of chaos and upheaval, as they currently are with the student protests on college campuses, and seem to be lacking in reason and understanding it never fails to consult the past in search for clues that may shed some light on how we got here in the first place.

Allan Bloom’s book, subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students”, offers some clues that are indeed very enlightening.

The Closing of the American Mind is that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book, born of a long and patient meditation on questions that may be said to determine who we are, both as individuals and as a society”, wrote Roger Kimball in a 1987 article about Bloom’s book for the New York Times.

Published in 1987 after thirty years of teaching politics and philosophy at Chicago, Cornell and Yale, Bloom wrote in the introduction:

“From the teacher’s standpoint…I have for more than thirty years, with the most intense interest, watched and listened to students. What they bring to their higher education, in passions, curiosities, longings, and especially previous experience, has changed…”

And for Bloom, whose book quickly and surprisingly became a bestseller and was regarded as “essential reading for anyone concerned with the state of liberal education in this society” (Roger Kimball, New York Times, 1987), the change he was witnessing and experiencing was not a change that was healthy and good for the soul of America’s young citizens.

Bloom felt that the contemporary universities had substituted the Great Books of civilization in which could be found timeless truths about life and humankind with the eroding force of relativism, the result of which is conforming, closed and incurious minds. As Anthony DePalma wrote in a New York Times article in 1992:

“The book – a long, sometimes dense account of two decades in higher education, as seen through his own experience teaching at Chicago, Cornell and Yale – attributed many university problems to administrators’ having acquiesced to student demands in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He criticized the passing of such traditional university ideas as the reliance on the so-called great books of Western culture, and lamented that even students at the nation’s most elite universities seemed to have “lost the practice of and the taste for reading.” ‘Essential Reading’.”

“Mr. Bloom argued that universities’ increasing reliance on “relevance,” and their turning away from what he saw as constant or universal truths had the unintended effect of actually closing the American mind.”

Below are a few enlightening quotes from the book to ponder:

  • “Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being. This intention is more or less explicit, more or less a result of reflection; but even the neutral subjects, like reading and writing and arithmetic, take their place in a vision of the educated person. In some nations the goal was the pious person, in others the warlike, in others the industrious. Always important is the political regime, which needs citizens who are in accord with its fundamental principle.”
  • “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.”
  • “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.”
  • “In short, there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. The question has disappeared, for to pose it would be a threat to the peace. There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge. Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice. Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career. On the way the student can pick up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”
  • “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”
  • “Education is the movement from darkness to light.”

Also for consideration a few relevant quotes about history, human nature and the past:

  • “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.” — Robert Penn Warren, American Novelist (1905-1989)
  • “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” — Machiavelli, Italian Renaissance Historian, Philosopher, Politician (1469-1527)
  • “Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.” — Abraham Lincoln
  • “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” — Winston Churchill

Warning: Some Of This Material May Lead to Feelings of Discomfort

microaggressions atlantic“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

So begins an article in the September issue of The Atlantic Magazine, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt entitled, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, in which they provide an in-depth look into the “trigger warnings”* and “microaggressions”* movement that is becoming institutionalized across U.S. college campuses, subsequently “affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion.”

From the works of classic literature and paintings by renowned artists (such as the painting of Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship in which there were topless mermaids that Mr. Haidt used in one of his classes for a lesson on the weakness of the will, only to receive a formal complaint) to seemingly innocuous statements, such as “America is the land of opportunity,” Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt describe an uncomfortable and disturbing environment where professors, threatened with formal punishments or the loss of their jobs, are left teaching in classrooms where their every word is policed by students who are dictating what academic resources are acceptable.

Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt cite an article written by seven humanities professors who noted that the trigger warning movement was “already having a chilling effect on their teaching and pedagogy.”

Even popular comedians, such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher, are refusing to perform on campuses and have “publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.”

In a rather telling statement, Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt cite an essay published in Vox by a professor entitled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.”

“The dangers that these trends pose to scholarship and to the quality of American universities are significant,” they write, “and sometimes seem ‘surreal.’”

Surreal they certainly are. But, it becomes all too clear in reading their article that this trend – where students’ emotional well-being in essence trumps reality – is no joking matter.

The mentality perpetuating such a movement is one of “intellectual homogeneity,” where students rarely “encounter diverse viewpoints” and maintain the attitude that there is nothing to learn from “people they dislike or from those with whom they disagree.”

“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” writes Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt.

In the section, “How Did We Get Here,” they explain the importance of understanding the difference between the Socratic method of teaching, in which students are taught how to think, and the “emotional reasoning” that is being embraced by this movement, in which students are taught to “think in a very different way,” and which is perhaps leading to pathological thinking.

“The Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.”

Socratic method of teaching
“School of Athens”, 1509 by Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael; Plato and Aristotle in center, Socrates seated on bottom left

“On the way to understanding” is a key phrase for its implication of a journey undertaken; learning, scholarship and the attainment of wisdom is almost always a rigorous journey that involves discomfort, pain and sometimes even anger.

A coddled environment of “vindictive protectiveness” that punishes anyone who makes people feel uncomfortable and where feelings guide one’s interpretation of reality – “emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence,” writes Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt – is a manufactured environment of suppression that fosters a distorted view of reality.

Such distortion, augmented by our hopes and fears, is something that the ancient philosophers understood well; Buddha once said, “Our life is the creation of our mind” and Marcus Aurelius, “Life itself is but what you deem it.”

But the life that an unfettered mind deems can often lead to an inaccurate reading of the world and reality, not to mention mental instability and illness. Messrs Lukianoff and Haidt remind us that “subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong.”

In fact, many mental health professionals are seeking to help patients by utilizing “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” – a “modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom,” with a goal, similar to that of the Socratic method of teaching, to “minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately.”

“[C]ognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart,” Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt write. “By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis.”

As we write, protests are – and have been – taking place on college campuses with students’ pleas for safer and more sensitive environments. So far, one university president (Timothy Wolf of the University of Missouri) has resigned and it will be no surprise to see others follow suit. Where it will all lead is anyone’s best guess.

But, this much is clear: Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt have shed light – with evidence, accuracy and an undistorted view – on the reality of a movement that has been percolating for years and is just now beginning to unfold.

There is, however, a silver lining.

*Microaggressions are defined as “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless”; trigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”

*Greg Lukianofff is a constitutional lawyer and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends free speech and academic freedom on campus. He is the author of Unlearning Liberty.

*Jonathan Haiadt is a social psychologist who studies the American culture wars and is a professor in the Business and Society Program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis.

For a similar piece, see also: “Bonfire of the Academy“, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 2015

Trick or Treat or Curmudgeon?

What is a curmudgeon and how do you know if you are one? Perhaps a good place to start would be with Charles Murray‘s book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead (2014), a brief read about the “Do’s and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.”

Filled with “tricks” – i.e. tips and suggestions – with a particular focus on young people as they navigate the treacherous waters from college to adult life, The Curmudgeon’s Guide is an “indispensable sourcebook for living an adult life” and a lasting treat that deserves a special place on the bookshelf as a timeless reference, of course, only if you ARE a curmudgeon.

Murray goes beyond the technical definition of a curmudgeon as an “ill-tempered man,” and offers a more broad description that encompasses “highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired.”

Curmudgeons, Murray writes, “usually don’t give off many clues that they’re doing these things…because they want to be polite, but also because they don’t want to sound like geezers, old and out of touch.”

Curmudgeon definition

While Murray might be a curmudgeon – and yes, he is older – he is certainly not out of touch. As a lifelong social historian, he started supplementing his colleagues’ online tips for interns and entry-level staff on grammar and English usage with a “series on proper behavior in the workplace.” Murray was responding to what he saw as a decline in the deterioration of manners. His book evolved from this and is a polite curmudgeonly gesture towards rectifying the current landscape.

In his introduction, he writes: “As The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead moves from success in the workplace into the deeper waters of success in living, you will find the occasional bromide, because some of the clichés you’ve been hearing all your life are actually true and need to be considered afresh.”

From “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace” (Don’t Suck Up) to “On Thinking and Writing Well” (Putting together your basic writing toolkit) and “On the Pursuit of Happiness” (Take religion seriously even if you’ve been socialized not to), Murray delivers plenty of things to consider afresh and does so with a tough, albeit polite, matter-of-fact and sometimes humorous manner, some of which you’ll find below.

Take, for instance, the commonplace use of the phrase “no problem” instead of “it is my pleasure” or “you’re welcome.” A seemingly benign phrase on the surface, Murray explores it in depth to show how its use signals a “retreat from graciousness.”

“When you unpack ‘No problem,’ what people are saying is: ‘I can do what you’ve asked because it will not unduly burden me,’” Murray writes. “Graciousness is good” and the phrase “No problem”, he explains, is not gracious – and “[i]t is much more pleasant to live in a world where people are gracious.”

Murray goes on to denounce a prevailing ethos of nonjudmentalism, writing: “Of the many precocious aspects of today’s academic culture, I think the worst is its celebration of nonjudgmentalism.” He continues: “The ability to make judgments is what distinguishes Homo sapiens from every other living creature…[b]ut the ability to make judgments carries with it the obligation to do so. You don’t have a choice.”

In defining “judgmental,” he writes: “The negative connotations of judgmental – harsh, arbitrary, condemnatory moral judgments – have taken over so completely that I can’t recall the last time I heard judgmental used in a neutral sense. But historically (and still in some dictionaries), the first meaning of judgmental was simply ‘of, relating to, or involving judgment.’”

Another interesting change that Murray examines is the use of first names with people considerably older than oneself. “The use of first names has undergone a cultural transformation in the last three or four decades” (he again rightfully blames the baby boomers and their fear of being grown-ups), he writes, “so that by now the use of honorifics and last names is nearly extinct.”

Turning to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as an example, he writes: “Their friendship was deep and intimate. And yet the last letter from Jefferson to Madison, written less than a month before Jefferson’s death, begins not with ‘Dear Jemmy’ (Madison’s nickname), but with ‘Dear Sir.’”

what is a curmudgeon In our curmudgeonly opinion, Mr. Murray could have elaborated more on the ramifications of this transformation in regards to the blurring of generations (this is something that is now being written about) and the relationship to the notions of honor and respect.

But, we will be polite with our judgment of Mr. Murray’s book and say that there is something to glean in this guide – Curmudgeon or not – for anyone who is interested in self-improvement, which is most assuredly necessary for living a good and gracious life.

Of Interest: One of our most curmudgeonly irritations (from growing up with an English teacher as a mother/grandmother) was shared by Charlotte Hays, a reviewer of  Mr. Murray’s book who wrote:

“As much as I like Mr. Murray’s tips, I regret that he didn’t address what I regard as the most horrific (and revealing) grammatical error afoot in the land: ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘I’ for ‘him,’ ‘her,’ and ‘me.’ It isn’t the uneducated but graduates of good schools who nowadays say, ‘I gave it to Jim and he.’ This betrays a certain unfamiliarity with grammar – and thus with the process of thinking itself.”

This isn’t the first book of Murray’s we’ve reviewed. See our review of Charles Murray’s By The People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. 

Mistress America: So Much To Be, So Little Time

Mistress America Movie ReviewNoah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, is an unexpected delight first and foremost for the abundance of laugh-out-loud moments and the many quotable lines delivered in Woody Allan-esque, rapid-fire sequences.

A classic “coming of age” story set in New York City, it follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman and social outcast at New York City’s Barnard College who finds herself captivated by the seemingly glamorous life of her soon-to-be 30-year-old stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), only to become disillusioned by the fact that Brooke’s life isn’t as “together” as it appears.

What makes this film particularly brilliant, however, is its ability to capture – with a rare, authentic awareness – both the exhilaration and lamentation of the endless career possibilities available in today’s world of entrepreneurial pioneers.

Admittedly, part of my enthusiasm stems from having lived in New York City for the past three years – a city I have come to know well, where ambition is not just a prevailing attitude, but a means of survival.

It is Greta Gerwig’s character that embodies this so humorously (and with pointed relevance), as we learn that Brooke – who radiates an infectious energy and charisma inherent in the city itself – is a freelance interior designer, high school tutor, Soul Cycle instructor, all while attempting to secure investment for a restaurant she envisions as a “community shop, general store, bodega”-like place called “Moms” where “it will always feel like Fall inside” and where you can eat, take cooking classes, “but also where you cut hair.”

Brooke is, as Tracy narrates, “kind and fearless,” someone who “spent time purposefully”; “Being around her is like being in New York City…[making] you want to find life, not hide from it.”

Indeed, to say that she is the ultimate “go-getter” – not to mention a seemingly confident, independent and bold woman (“there’s nothing I don’t know about myself, that’s why I can’t do therapy,” she says) – would be an understatement.

Greta Gerwig Mistress AmericaWhat soon becomes clear, however, is that while she appears to be “doing it all,” she is barely doing anything, slowly becoming unraveled by all of her “creative and great ideas.”

“I think I’m sick and I don’t know if my ailment has a name,” Brooke says to Tracy toward the end of the film, explaining that she has been “staring at the internet and TV” for hours on end, followed by bouts of excitement for various ideas she has, but doesn’t know how to implement.

“I just can’t figure out how to work in the world,” Brooke finally states. “I wish we lived in feudal times, when your position couldn’t change…if you were a king or peasant, you had to be happy with just who you were.”

Brooke’s momentary romantic reflection on the feudal past and the simplicity inherent in a concrete social hierarchy of kings and queens, princes, princesses and peasants – where one’s days are not spent on an arduous quest for self-definition – is one of the more poignant moments in the film. She becomes fully and painfully aware of her whirlwind quest of “how to work” in a world where anyone can invent, reinvent, define and redefine themselves on their own terms and in their own way.

“I’m going to be worse off now than before I started to accomplish stuff,” Brooke says at one point.

Such freedom for invention and reinvention is certainly liberating, but as Baumbach captures so astutely, it can also be severely, detrimentally paralyzing.

“The world was changing,” Tracy narrates at the tail end of the film. “And her kind had no where to go.”

Noah Baumbach Mistress America

Where should I go? What should I do? Who should I be? These are all questions that we confront in life, which is partly why this 84-minute journey with the character Brooke is highly entertaining and relatable.

Indeed, as a young woman in one of the biggest cities in the world, where I step out my apartment each morning energized by knowing I can do and be anything, it gave me a bit of solace to know that I might not be the only one trying to “figure out how to work in the world.”

Mistress America is currently playing in New York City’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Watch for its DVD release on December 1, 2015.

#Kindness4Colleen, Kindness For All

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”

The above quote, attributed to the Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) most well known for his book The Prophet, has always been one of my favorites. Serving as a counterpoint to a prevailing cultural ethos that too readily equates strength with acts of self-empowerment and self-aggrandizement, it is a reminder of a “quieter” strength, one that doesn’t seek the world’s attention and approval, but instead manifests itself in acts of humility, sacrifice and loving kindness when no one is looking.

While I did not know her, and was made aware of her only recently through a friend, I get the sense that Colleen Ritzer – a Massachusetts native and high school math teacher whose life was tragically and mercilessly stolen from her at the age of 24 – was one of these people.

Described in this Boston Globe article as “a paragon of caring” who was “lighthearted, kind, and genuinely nice” and in this CNN article as a “dynamic and brilliant ray of light”, a “young caring girl” who was “energetic and compassionate” and “extremely approachable”, and again in this Huffington Post piece as a “very, very respected, loved teacher” and “gentle, with a big smile,” the impact Colleen has had on her friends, family, students and strangers is certainly palpable.

Colleen Ritzer legacy
Colleen Ritzer and her best friend, Jennifer Berger; Summer 2013

“I really do believe the reason why so many have connected to Colleen since her passing is because she was simply good to people in an effortless way,” says Jennifer Berger, a close friend of Colleen’s since kindergarten. “For example, she’d always greet you with a big smile, or let you know she was thinking about you by sending a card when there was no occasion.”

She added: “Colleen was a genuine person who cared about people and was always thinking of others…she valued her family and friends to the utmost [and] was an amazing role model.”

On October 22nd, marking the two-year anniversary of Colleen’s death, Ms. Berger is organizing a “Kindness Campaign”, asking people to perform acts of kindness and share them online using the hashtag #Kindness4Colleen, to help honor her legacy and the values by which she lived.

“The goal of the #Kindness4Colleen campaign is to turn the day that will always be sad, the day we lost Colleen, and try to make it a little better,” she says. “I have always wanted to find a way to honor Colleen’s legacy and I couldn’t think of anything better than asking people to spread kindness in her name.”

While there are certainly many different ways of exhibiting kindness – from smiling at a stranger to helping an elderly person cross the street – Ms. Berger says that, to her, being kind is thinking beyond yourself and being considerate of others.

“Kindness can be big or small and sometimes it’s the little things that can have the greatest impact,” she says. “From a really young age, Colleen and I learned to treat others as you would like to be treated,” she continued. “Colleen was the epitome of that and more.”

In fact, a favorite quote of Colleen’s, attributed to Taylor Swift, comes from her teacher twitter account, which she regularly used to connect with her students, posting homework assignments along with inspirational messages: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

That Colleen practiced such goodness in her own life, thereby creating a lasting impression and “wonderful legacy”, is evident in the campaign that Ms. Berger is organizing – and serves as further proof that kindness carries with it a quiet strength and power that can trump all else.

As seekers of all things good, it is my hope you’ll join us on October 22nd in honoring Colleen’s legacy by spreading kindness and sharing it on the campaign’s Facebook and Twitter pages with the hashtag #Kindness4Colleen.

After all, as Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did. They will remember how you made them feel.”

You can read more about Colleen’s legacy and the #Kindness4Colleen campaign on the Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Scholarship Fund’s website.

This piece also appeared in The Huffington Post.