Monday, April 29, 2013

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes

I admit it: I have some geekly fanboy tendencies, with a real passion is for well-done crime and thriller stuff, especially if there is an espionage element involved.

I'm not alone. We spend countless dollars on action films and thriller novels. But here's the question: What do we get out of them besides entertainment?

Personally, I find fictional heroes to be good sources of inspiration. By serving as larger-than-life role models, they help me to focus on what aspects of the characters I like and want to in some way emulate.

Some people may dismiss looking to action heroes for personal inspiration hopelessly pathetic and dorky. These naysayers are all too willing to say "Who do you think you are? You'll never be like [fill-in the blank]." And I will partially concede their point: You never will be just like your favorite fictional character. (Nor should you want to be; you are you!) But how about if you were just a little bit like your favorite fictional character?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Two Books for Aspiring Classical Music Lovers

I have always enjoyed classical music. However, it wasn't until about 10 years ago that I started to get seriously into the genre. I started to accumulate more classical CDs and made an effort to learn more about music history.

Two books were of particular help to me. Both contain the letters "NPR" in their titles.

The first was The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music by Tim Smith. This was the first book about classical music I ever bought, and it remains one of my favorites. It's a great introduction, covering the history of classical music, descriptions of various subgenres, explanations of musical terms, and biographies of famous composers and musicians. Of particular use to classical newbies is the list of recommended recordings to help the novice build his or her own musical library. While I don't agree with Smith's recommendations across the board, in general his choices are very good.

If you want to go beyond the basics and start really expanding your classical collection, you couldn't do better than The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection: The 350 Essential Works by Ted Libbey. The book is divided into several categories: orchestral works, concertos, chamber pieces, keyboard works, sacred works, and operas. (FYI: The opera section is pretty skimpy. Really, opera probably needs its own book.) Libbey has an entertaining and witty writing style, and there are lots of amusing asides. As with Smith, I don't agree with all of Libbey's recommendations, but I agree with him far more often than not. You would not go wrong following his advice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Bathing Suit

It can be surprisingly difficult to find a decent gent's bathing suit. Let's examine some contenders.

Not a look to emulate.
Board shorts have been the rage seemingly forever, yet they don't really fit the bill. Don't get me wrong: Board shorts are great for working-out and surfing, but they aren't particularly good for swimming. They are far too loose and baggy for even a short swim. And their image as the swim suit of choice for frat boys on vacation doesn't speak in their favor.

The traditional American option of a volley-style short with elastic waistband and built-in liner doesn't work either. For one, no one really looks good wearing something with an elastic waistband. Also, this type of swimwear has an annoying tendency to balloon in the water in a very unflattering way.

Competition briefs (erroneously called Speedos by many) are best for just that: competition.

Jammers look too much like the bike shorts popular in the '80s.

So where does that leave us?

There are some companies making men's swimwear in a more traditional vein, such as Parke and Ronen or Baron Wells. The Baron Wells sea pant is quite nice looking, but is rather pricey.

Another option is the square cut or "budgie smuggler" style famously worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. These are perhaps the most classic of all men's swimwear styles, but one must have the right physique to pull it off. Speedo makes some very nice square cuts, especially the ones made for the European market. If you are in good enough shape, these are a great choice, and are perfect for actual swimming.

My choice? For some time I was a big fan of J. Crew's short, vintage-style board shorts. They are nothing like the oversized, overlong board shorts one finds in a surf shop. The fit is nicely snug without being tight, there is no unsightly elastic, and the leg length is good. I can go on a nice ocean swim without feeling unnecessary drag, and walk along the beach without feeling indecent. All in all, a good men's swimsuit with a classic, traditional appeal.

These were my go-to shorts until I went to a thrift store and found a couple of pairs of Birdwell Beach Britches 301s in my size. For the unaware, Birdwells are old-fashioned board shorts. They are to swimwear what Levis 501s are to jeans or Brooks Brothers shirts are to dress shirts, and have been written about in Men's Journal, Uncrate, and the New York Times. I particularly like Uncrate's description of the Birdwell 301s having "simple styling that would look totally natural next to 007's 1964 Aston Martin."

Normally 301s are at least $60 each. I picked up two pair-—one black, one sort of peach colored-—for under $6. Very comfortable; much shorter than today's trendy board shorts, and more fitted, too. They dry incredibly fast. Another plus: Not only are Birdwells known for durability, they are still made in the USA.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Being Gentle...

In an earlier post, I wrote about not being a bully. This post is about the flip side of that topic. It’s about being gentle.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was raised to be both a gentleman and a gentle man. Based on my memories of childhood, my mom had a head start on the latter of those two.

Even when I was little, I had a pretty gentle nature, even compared to other kids of my age. Please bear in mind that I’m not saying this in a self-congratulatory way. It’s simply an accurate description of my temperament. Consider these examples:
In preschool, I refused to play Red Rover Red Rover. If you are unfamiliar with the game, here are the rules, per Wikipedia:
The game is played between two lines of players, usually around thirty feet apart. The game starts when the first team (usually called the "East" or "West" team, although this does not relate to the actual relative location of the teams) calls out, "Red rover, red rover, send [name of player on opposite team] right over." or "Red Rover, Red Rover, let [name of player of opposing team] come over." or "Red rover, red rover, we call [name of player on opposite team] over."
The immediate goal for the person called is to run to the other line and break the "East" team's chain (formed by the linking of hands). If the person called fails to break the chain, this player joins the "East" team. However, if the player successfully breaks the chain, this player may select either of the two "links" broken by the successful run, and take them to join the "West" team. The "West" team then calls out "Red rover" for a player on the "East" team, and play continues.
Why did I refuse to play? The game seemed too violent and I was concerned that someone might get hurt. None of my classmates nor my teacher shared my concerns, so the game proceeded without me.

Another example... I had quite a collection of toy soldiers when I was a child. My father was heavily into military history and wargaming, so he made sure I had battalions of historically accurate toy troops to play with. Among my collection were a few cavalry units. However, I wouldn’t use these when playing war. Why? I didn’t even want to pretend that the horses were fighting since that would mean pretending they got hurt or killed.

(Some may wonder why I didn’t care about pretending the humans got hurt or killed. I think it’s because I had already figured out on some level that there was something wrong about animals being enlisted to fight human wars, a position I still hold.)

This gentle side did not mean I was (or am) an oversensitive wilting flower. After all, I was learning the basics of swordplay from my father before I was even in first grade. I loved peaceful books such as Winne-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, but also bloodier stuff like The Hobbit and Greek mythology.

Bourne side.
This basic dualism persists to this day. In many ways the same sensitive boy I always have been, enjoying such peaceful habits as listening to classical music, going to art museums, reading, and relaxing with my cats. Yet I also practice pretty brutal martial arts (despite hating violence) and enjoy watching a good action movie once in awhile.

Cat Lady side.
(Regarding the cats/martial arts thing... A friend of mine has referred to me as a cross between Jason Bourne and a Crazy Cat Lady. I can’t argue with that assessment.)

Is this duality paradoxical or inconsistent? I don’t necessarily think so. Take for instance my martial arts training. Despite the fact I am punching people, choking them, and hitting them with a stick two or three times I week, I still think of myself as essentially gentle. How so? Because I don’t do what I do simply for the sake of doing it. Martial arts without both a moral and defense aspect would have no appeal to me whatsoever. As I’ve written before, I train to hurt people because I hate to see people get hurt.

In a way, I feel that my martial arts and fitness training provides a sort of armor for my true sensitive side. It’s a bit hard to explain. Essentially, I feel the freedom to be as gentle as I want to be because I am capable of being NOT gentle if I have to be.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On Not Being A Bully

Philosopher Alan Watts once wrote that what we despise in others is often what we most fear in ourselves.

I despise bullies. I always have. Preying on those weaker than you is contemptible.

So does that mean I fear my own potential to be a bully? Maybe. After all, I am bigger than many people. But if I do have an inner bully, I keep him well in check.

To illustrate, here are a couple of examples...