Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Life (page 1 of 8)

What’s your number?

Not sure when I learned about the Enneagram, but almost immediately after I did I knew I was a Five.  However flawed and subjective it is, I’ve found it to be a good model for understanding human nature as an individual and in relationship with others. Plus it’s easier to remember than the Myers-Briggs.

Discovering the Enneagram podcast Typology reignited my interest in it. (I’ve liked the episodes with Rob Bell, Shauna & Aaron Niequist, and the panel of Fives especially.)

It was through the podcast I learned Ryan O’Neal of the band Sleeping At Last is writing a song about every Enneagram number, as part of his ambitious Atlas project. He’s done One and Two thus far, and they are exceptionally beautiful.

In praise of wedding reception air drumming

I didn’t realize I had a reputation. At a wedding recently, the bride and groom told me one of the things they were looking forward to the most was my air drumming. They had seen it in action at a previous wedding and had enjoyed it so much that they decided they would make time at their own wedding reception to watch me perform and even participate themselves.

Humbled though I was, I didn’t set out to be a beloved wedding reception air drummer. Out on those shiny faux wooden dance floors, air music is all I can do. Because I can’t really dance—aside from the slow-dance swaying that hasn’t improved much since middle school—my strategy for participating in reception dancing is to pretend to play the music well enough to appear united with the exuberant, sweaty throng of guests who are actually dancing.

This doesn’t happen at every reception. The right combination of people I know, complete strangers, and alcohol have to be in place for this very particular set of skills to be unleashed.

Without:

  • people I know, I wouldn’t have the comfort of a supportive home base in which to air-boogie;
  • complete strangers I know I’ll never see again, I wouldn’t be OK with making a fool of myself;
  • and alcohol and the liquid courage it provides, I wouldn’t be dancing in front of strangers and people I know at all.

Until I learn one day how to go beyond the simple side-to-side two-stepping many tall, lanky, self-conscious white dudes like myself resort to under dance duress, air drumming will have to do.

And you know what? I enjoy it. I’m good at it. Though I tend to stick to drumming because I was a drummer before anything else, my air talents aren’t limited to the percussive arts. I’ll thrown down a mean air rhythm guitar, string, horn, or bass line too, and make it look good. Any palooka can flail around pretending to play “Don’t Stop Believin'”; it takes a true air instrument craftsman to accurately mime the crunchy guitars in “Party in the USA” or the synth solo in “Shut Up and Dance”.

There are at least two weddings on the docket for me next summer, so I have a few months to get back into air shape. Once I am, you’ll find me out there again, planted in my air power stance—knees bent, left foot forward, leaning back slightly, and doing my part to keep the party going.

Life, light, and typing at the bliss station

This is the view of my typing station. It is currently manned by my Smith-Corona Electra, flanked by Life from a succulent and Light from an owl lamp, buttressed by a Jackalope typewriter pad I highly recommend, and supported by a typing desk I inherited from my typist grandmother, and it is quickly becoming my bliss station.

It’s fall: what music are you listening to?

Here’s an incomplete, totally subjective playlist of music that reminds me of fall. Let me know in the comments what music reminds you of autumn.

“October” by Eric Whitacre. Played the orchestral version of this in high school, but the choral version is just as good and beautifully evocative of the season.

“Oh Shenandoah” folk song. Sang the choral version in high school, though really any version of it is bound to be good.

Keep It Together by Guster. Not really sure why. I don’t like any other Guster music, but this is the first of three indie-pop-rock albums I discovered in college that have clung to my consciousness in a specific seasonal way.

You Are My Sunshine by Copeland. Have a distinct memory of listening to this while walking through downtown Chicago at night in late November on my way back to my suburban college campus. “On the Safest Ledge” still gives me goosebumps. Eat, Sleep, Repeat is also a great autumnal album.

Everything In Transit by Jack’s Mannequin. Like Guster, I don’t listen to any of their other music, and again mostly the first half of the album resonates for some reason. Usually play this only once a year on a brisk overcast late November day, all the better if I’m in an emo mood.

“Adagio-Andante con moto” by George Gershwin. My friend Tim and I made a lot of live action and stop-motion movies together in middle school and high school. One (that was ultimately aborted) was a sort of impressionistic music video of our hometown, which at the time (and after) ranked among the Best Places to Live in America. We went to extreme lengths to try to align the footage with the music, including Tim sprinting through his house to turn out lights in time with the end notes of the song.

Meet Joe Black soundtrack by Thomas Newman. Tim had this on CD. We’d listen to it all the time and use it in our movies. I still have never seen Meet Joe Black and I’d like to keep it that way. (Runner-up Thomas Newman soundtrack: Little Women.)

Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Though appropriate for listening any time, this was another album (along with the Lord of the Rings soundtracks) Tim and I kept in heavy rotation when hanging out. Have you figured out yet that we weren’t cool in high school?

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader

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I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

This is my alarm clock

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This is my alarm clock. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

As I was adjusting it last night for daylight saving time, it dawned on me that I’ve been using it for at least fifteen years. Most people probably use their smartphone alarm, but I don’t unless I’m away from home. I don’t even keep it in my room.

This alarm clock is one of many objects I’ve had for a long time and have kept using despite the availability of more modern options. There’s also my orange jacket, acquired at a Salvation Army in Missouri about fifteen years ago as well, which if you’ve seen me in the fall or winter you have most likely seen.

These objects started as mere tools, but they are good and simple enough to go on dependably doing their jobs, so they gradually became the architecture of my life. They are nearly invisible to me, assumed and expected, until a dead battery or a frayed stitch alert me anew to their existence and need for care.

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up asks us to thank our stuff before we dispose of it. I don’t want to wait until my alarm clock dies or my jacket disintegrates or gets lost to appreciate their small but abiding roles in what is now half of my life.

So thanks, jacket. Thanks, alarm clock. There are many like you, but you two are mine.

Rhythm Sand Booms

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We stayed at a beach community in Michigan for the Fourth of July extended weekend and went to the chapel service they had on Sunday. One of the pastors began with a quote from Erma Bombeck:

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.

I get nervous in churches around the Fourth of July. Celebrating a secular holiday within a religious environment can lead to grotesque displays of nationalistic idolatry, or it can produce something more appropriate for a church that celebrates its country while respecting the benefits of separating church and state. Luckily this was the latter. We sang hymns, heard a good message, and that was that.

What was more powerful to me happened the next evening, when the whole community gathered on the beach to watch a fireworks display, as they do every year. We brought beach chairs and set up facing southward along the beach, where the fireworks would be. Slowly more people congregated and added to the festival-like atmosphere. Families took pictures against the amber sunset, teens tossed a frisbee, kids twirled sparklers, and I read The Iliad until it got too dark to read.

Then we all sat and waited for the twilight to fade to black enough to allow the fireworks to be that much vibranter. When they began, I remembered once again what it was like to share something with a group of people that wasn’t on a screen. I didn’t notice many if any devices out. The rows of heads I saw when I looked behind me were only tilted upward, not downward as they would be with a smartphone in hand.

Many of these families had been partaking in this tradition for decades. I only recently married into it, yet it still impressed upon me the power of ritual, and how, when combined with the spirit of a place, it can foster an acute state of grace. I was grateful for Lake Michigan. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at the stars and contemplate my place in the universe and my nation while watching the fireworks burst before me. I was grateful to lie back with my fellow Americans and enjoy a celebration that didn’t involve guns, tanks, and soldiers.

The scene, like the fireworks themselves, dissipated as quickly as it materialized. We folded chairs, shook off sand, filed off the beach en masse, and trundled to our beds to begin another American year.

Image: the view from the beach at sunset.

The Family Stone

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The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus of The Family Stone is that “This family holiday dramedy features fine performances but awkward shifts of tone.” Which, yeah. That’s why it’s so good.

I didn’t come away loving it when I saw it in the theater. Too mercurial, I thought. And that excruciating dinner scene… But upon further viewings, I’ve come to realize it’s one of the greater Christmas movies, precisely because of its mood swings. Perhaps your family was different, but “awkward shifts of tone” should be one of the definitions of family.

Not only does the film capture a particular kind of cozy, Hallmark-approved Christmastime—and one that’s distinctly New England—but it also captures what it’s like to go through any kind of Christmas with the people you love but who are also most adept at driving you crazy.

An immediate familiarity sets in as we’re dropped into this year’s Stone Family Christmas, which feels like it could be any of the many Christmases they have shared together. The family members gradually arrive at the Stone home and start chatting as if continuing an ongoing conversation. There’s hardly any backstory, no “remember last year when…” or other expository filler that can weigh down family dramas. As we meet each Stone, we can deduce at once their role in the family, though not yet what role they will play in the unfolding story.

Little things stuck out during my most recent Christmastime viewing. Like the random assemblage of characters piled into a car to go get pizzas, a reminder to me of how driving to places around the holidays with the people you don’t usually drive to places with feels a bit more special. Or Amy and Sybil pestering Everett about taking his tie off, which at once told us that was something Amy and Sybil cared enough about and that Everett was the kind of person to wear a tie at a family get-together.

Everyone starts out on a certain trajectory, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a great job of steering the key characters into unexpected directions. These trajectories are just as varied as the film’s tone. Sybil’s terminal breast cancer is alluded to but never exploited, and is the impetus for the brief but powerful moments of reconciliation she experiences with her adult children before the end of the movie. Amy’s prickliness, which bleeds into outright hostility at times, gives way to brief moments of vulnerability. And though the partner swap revealed in the one-year-later epilogue is borderline preposterous—Meredith’s totally cool with her sister dating her former fiancé? really?—the circumstances that led to each character’s moment of clarity were sold well.

I’ve found my opinion of The Family Stone is in the minority, but there are others out there who see what I see in it. I absolutely understand the counterpoints as well, but ultimately I don’t care whether you like it or not!

Helen Huhta: A Life

“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.

After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.

It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.

“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather).

Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:

I love you too.

’16 Going On ’17

Here at the end of all things 2016, let’s look back on the resolutions I made last year at this time, shall we?

Podcast less. I started the year with 21 podcasts in my feed, and currently have… 32. In my defense, I was much quicker to delete episodes this year, many of the podcasts publish infrequently, and some of them I’m on a trial run with. I also have been listening to more audiobooks. But the spirit of the goal was to have more time when I’m not listening to anything. So this one’s a work in progress, and probably a goal for 2017.

Reflect more. Though I have the free time to continue to plow through books and movies, I think I’ve done a better job writing about the ones that spark thoughts in me and allowing myself to not read or watch something.

Write more. My goal was to write 52 posts for the year, one for each week. Though I didn’t have at least one a week, I ended 2016 with 67 posts. I probably could have done more, but as this is a strictly At Whim enterprise, I’m not too concerned about quotas.

Overall I think I actually did pretty good! Keeping the goals simple, attainable, and somewhat measurable certainly helped.

2017 Goals

Complete a woodworking project. This is something I’ve been pondering for a while. I’ve yet to find the plans for something I want to make, but this is a big one for this year: to put my hands to use on a tangible and practical project. We need a new bookshelf, so I was thinking about that. Any suggestions?

Run a race. Like woodworking, running in an official race is something I’ve thought would be a nice thing to do but have never pulled the trigger. But I’ve come to realize if I ever plan on completing things, I need concrete deadlines to make them happen. A specific race of a specific length will help me in this, I hope.

Improve my Spanish. I’ve had a decent grasp of it at various points in my life—in high school when I was in classes, during a summer stay in Guatemala, during a post-college stay in Colombia—but I’ve never gotten close to fluent. Short of an immersion program or living in a Latin American country, don’t know if I’ll ever be, but I’d like to get closer. And since it’ll only get harder as I get older, there’s no day but today.

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