Month: September 2016

An Interview With American Mussar Innovator Greg Marcus

 

 

greg-m-headshot_v2 Greg Marcus is a facilitator and innovator of American Mussar; here is a link to his website:

 

http://americanmussar.com/

 

Q: What is Mussar?

 

A: Mussar is a 1000 year old Jewish spiritual practice that teaches how to find those things inside that cause us to get stuck in the same place and offers a path to balance and healing. Or put another way, Mussar is a Jewish path of mindfulness that helps us live our aspirational values in everyday life.

 

Mussar teaches that we all share the same soul traits, such as Humility, Patience, Honor and Trust. Our goal is to balance each trait. Too much of a soul trait is just as bad as not enough. For example, too little patience leads to anger and frustration, and too much patience leads to complacency in the face of a bad job or a bad relationship.

 

In a Mussar practice, we focus on a single soul trait for two weeks at a time. We have a mantra we say in the morning to frame our day, look for one small change we can make in our daily habits, and then we journal at night. All in all, it takes about 5 minutes a day. But as Malcolm Gladwell showed us in The Tipping Point, small changes can have very large impacts.

 

Q: How is American Mussar different than the traditional Mussar?

 

A: American Mussar is different only in areas of emphasis, to make Mussar accessible to the broad the 21st century American Jewish community. American Mussar is informed by a distinct Jewish American experience, and resides in conversation with Jewish teachings that go back thousands of years. The three defining principles of American Mussar are:

  • Jewish Values through mindful living.
  • Alternatives to “God talk.”
  • No Hebrew, except for the word Mussar.

 

Q: Isn’t learning Hebrew a major part of Judaism?

 

Hebrew is an amazing language, and captures spiritual concepts better than any I know of. But the reality is that 50% of American Jews don’t even know the Hebrew alphabet. When we translate from Hebrew into English, something is lost. But most is retained, and for people getting started there is more than enough meat with the English translations.

 

In talking to many American Jews, I learned that Hebrew is a barrier to further participation. They feel uncomfortable with Hebrew terms, and even shame. I realized that I also felt ashamed that I didn’t know Hebrew, and I have had enough of those feelings. Mussar teaches that it is incumbent on the speaker not to cause discomfort, and not on the listener to “get over it.”

 

For some, Hebrew has become a kind of litmus test – if you don’t know the terms, or are not willing to drop everything to learn them, you aren’t a “real Jew.” I reject that kind of reasoning. Judaism is about lifelong learning. If someone finds it easier to get back on the ladder of learning without Hebrew – great! Hebrew will still be there if and when they are ready for it.

 

Q: How does your book use the teachings of Mussar?

 

A: The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions grew out of a class I created at my synagogue.

 

The class was called “Work Life Balance Through the Practice of Mussar.” I picked soul traits and Mussar teachings that I thought were particularly relevant to our community today. Let’s face it, we are a stressed-out, overworked bunch.

 

And our community fabric is nowhere near where it needs to be to give us the support we need to get through.

 

Q: How did you become interested in Mussar?

 

A: I learned about Mussar in a family education program at my synagogue. Rabbi Jennifer Clayman picked Mussar as the theme for the year. I was fascinated, because Mussar calls for making small incremental steps to bring ourselves into balance. I was in the process of writing my first book, in which I shared how I cut my hours by a third without changing jobs. The key was small incremental steps, based on my internal values. For example, I decided that my health was more important than work, so I stopped working at 9:30 to get a good night’s sleep. Then I decided that my wife was important, so I stopped working at 9. Then I stopped at 8 to spend time with the kids, and so on. Mussar works the same way.

 

Two years later, I went to a different Rabbi and said, “I want to teach Mussar.” She said, “Great.” Then I said, “I need to learn Mussar.” She said, “Great” and paid for me to take an online class called Everyday Holiness from The Mussar Institute. The reality is that I was two months ahead of the rest of the class, and was combing the web and reading everything I could get my hands on up until a few hours before each class. It was perfect.

 

Now I need to work harder to keep learning. It is easy to learn when you don’t know anything. Now that I know a little bit, I need to work a bit harder.

 

Q: What kind of income source or day job do you have?

 

Six years ago, I walked away from a healthy six figure salary as a product manager at a top genomics company. I didn’t like the direction the company was going, some of the people I was working with, and I was on a tough project. It was going to be for two months, to figure out what to do next. Then it became a year, and then indefinite. My day job has been stay-at-home dad for my two daughters, who are now teenagers.

 

I feel very fortunate that my wife has been so supportive, to let me pursue my dream.

 

I’ve done some consulting and speaking to earn some money. I am now a solopreneur building a business at AmericanMussar.com. Eventually I will have speaking, products like mantra cards, my book, and some online educational classes.

 

What I enjoy most is live events, seeing the reactions of people as their eyes open to Mussar, and evolve into the people they want to be. It happens every time.

 

Q: How was the soul traits quiz developed?

 

A: For each soul trait, I developed a spectrum graph that illustrates the consequences of having too much or two little of each soul trait. For example, too little Patience results in being angry and frustrated all the time, and too much Patience results in being complacent, prone to stay in bad jobs or bad relationships when one should be taking action.

 

I created a spider graph, where 1 is in the middle and 10 is on the outside, and then created the quiz where people could rate themselves for each soul trait. What you get in the end is a snapshot of your balance across 13 soul traits. The very act of looking within is transformation, and will start you on the path towards balance and harmony.

 

Q:  If every soul was perfectly balanced wouldn’t the world be kind of boring? What would we all talk about?

 

A: I love that question! It reminds me of one of those Matrix movies, where the agent reveals that the first versions of the Matrix created a perfect world, but people rejected it. We were created in a certain way, and our task is to strive for balance, to strive for an ideal world, but not to experience it.

 

I am also reminded of a conversation that I share in the book about God. I asked people if they wanted to live in a world where God prevented the Holocaust, and other wars and human suffering. The answer we came to was “no” because we would lose our freedom and free will. Only the Divine is balanced in all soul traits. If you are unsure of the Divinity, think of it as a goal that we can all aspire to.

 

You’ve really got me going with this question, because I think it touches on a fear that many of us have that being good, or a mensch is somehow boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. We would go through life filled with Awe and curiosity, eager to dive in and engage with the people around us, never taking for granted the goodness in our lives, and getting the most out of life’s great joys, like eating, sex, and sleep.

 

Q: What does one get in your four week sampler?

 

A: The four week American Mussar Sampler is a great way to begin to experience Mussar. You’ll focus on one soul trait a week for a total of four weeks. Each week you’ll get access to a web page with a video, an introduction to the soul trait, and everything you need to start a practice. In addition, there is a private space to share your journey with the rest of the community.

 

Mussar is a practice, and the sampler will give you the elements you need to start practicing. You can:

 

  • Learn your morning mantra to frame the day for introspection
  • Recognize when you have too much or too little of the Soul Trait
  • Take a small action to bring yourself towards balance and healing

 

Plus, you’ll have access to online support to help you on your way.

 

Q: Who is a modern day example of a mensch?

 

A: In the opening of my book, I point to my late cousin Sandy Kaplan as a mensch. Sandy wasn’t a mensch because of his MIT degree or successful business. Sandy was a mensch because he came to every family event, never had a bad word to say about anyone, and carried a sunny, positive disposition.

 

If you’d like a more famous example, I wrote on Tikkun.org that Congressman John Lewis is a mensch, because he has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of people in need. And if you hear Lewis speak, he is so humble, so full of concern for other people that he just radiates menchiness.

 

If we are lucky we have someone in our life who is a mensch.

 

The good news is that we all have the capacity to be a mensch. All we need is a manual to help us walk the path. Mussar is that manual, and I’ve done my best to write The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions to make it accessible and relevant to you. You are heartily invited to join me on the Path of the Mensch. No background is needed – wherever you are, there is one small step you can take towards balance.

 

 

 

 

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.

An Interview With Author Shawn Rohrbach

shawnr

 

 

Shawn Rohrbach  is the author of the novel “Rogue Scion”; here is a link to his website:

 

http://www.shawnrohrbach.com/

 

Q:  What is “Rogue Scion” about?

 

A: A young man, Peter, who is tired of the wealth surrounding him in one of the richest families in the country conspires with an MIT computer science drop out, Melyssa, to take down the computing systems supporting the New York Stock Exchange.  She is bright enough and he has inside connections to get her into the server rooms that they almost succeed.  My character Grady Marcs, however, is a bit brighter and stops the process, but not before Peter’s family pays to eliminate Melyssa for trying to destroy their money and hide their son Peter from the law.  No one should doubt the power the 1% have.

Q: What inspired you to write it?

A: I worked for a very wealthy family, part of the 1% for sure, as their general business manager.  While the family I worked for were generous, fair, supportive and in every way good people, the people they had to deal with were not.  I wanted to work through the idea that one of their own would go rogue on them and try to take them out financially.

 

Q:  What kind of research did you do?

 

A: My research for this have been pretty much life long as an MBA graduate, finance manager, general manager of several businesses and now as an Information technology consultant.  This story has been developing for the past thirty years in my daily work.

 

Q: What interests you about the Catholic Church?

 

A: I was a life long Catholic until my late 20’s and even earned my BA in medieval Philosophy in a Catholic seminary.  The priest in the book who serves as the hit man for a very wealthy German family is a fictional character based on several priests I have known.  None of them were murderers but they had a penchant for glorifying the violence they felt was righteous violence, such as the murder of abortion doctors.  Some of these priests even saw the gulf wars and the war in Afghanistan as holy wars to curtail the spread of the Muslim religion.

Q: What makes Grady Marcs worth reading about?

A: Grady is not a perfect person, but he works hard to do the right thing.  If he comes off as a hero, he would not want anyone to say that.  He just has skills, as a former Ranger and then as a computer programmer, that enable him to break down and thwart certain types of crimes others might not be able to.   His imperfections and his quiet commitment to do the right thing, not necessarily the righteous thing as defined by some church, makes him an interesting study.

Q: What is your writing process?

A: Roque Scion took over two years to write as I work slowly through each chapter to make sure it is a building block toward the end.  I am not a novelist who must have an ending where all the loose ends are tied up and the hero goes home for dinner.  Life is not that way.  There are plenty of loose ends, unfulfilled promises and that wort of thing and that gives life fabric. I hand write a general story line for the novel and then hand write ideas for the first five or so chapters, and then type them out.  Once I have those first chapters I read them over several times and work out any kinks, then move on to five or six more chapters, and repeat the editing process.  By the time I have 200 or m ore pages, I have a pretty good idea on how I want to end it.  Using the motorhome toward the end of the novel was written long before the famous television program ‘Breaking Bad’ but people who read those parts claim I borrowed the idea of a motorhome from that and that is not the case. I just like from the beginning the idea a super wealthy kid who could afford any home he wanted chose to live in a motorhome.  For me, a novel is much like the houses my father built/  Once the house is framed with windows, roofing, siding, doors and those basics that is 25% of the work. For me, even when I have slowly written thirty chapters and I have and ending, I still have so much editing to do to get it where I like it.

Q: Of all the day jobs you have ever had in your life, which one has had the greatest impact on your writing?

A: As General Manager for the family I worked for.  I met and worked with people from every economic and social strata. I even had to monitor the cleaning of a two hundred thousand gallon community septic tank with a city official to get an occupancy permit.  I ate lunch with billionaires as I tried to put financing together for projects.  It was the experience of being around everyt type of person one could imagine that informed my character development.

Q: What kind of educational background do you have?

A: I have a BA in Medieval Philosophy from a Catholic seminary, a year of Systematic Theology in the same seminary, most of my MBA in Information Systems and I completed my MFA in Writing at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Q: What is the strangest thing any critic has ever said about your writing?

A: When reading my book “Open Your Heart with Bicycling…” one anonymous critic said all my references to food distracted her/him and took her/him off their diet.

Q: If you could let Grady assist any famous detective from literature with a mystery, who would it be and with what mystery would he assist this detective?

A: I would have him assist Smile in John LeCarres “Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.  He would be on the inside in Communist East Berlin to catch the mole.

 

 

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.

An Interview With Artist And Dancer Oliver-Paul Adams

 

oliver

Oliver-Paul Adams is a professional dancer and an aspiring artist; here is a link to his website:
http://www.oliverpauladams.com/

 

Q: How did you originally get into ballet?

 

A:  I was three years old and my older sister was taking weekly ballet classes. I would stand outside the full length windows with my nose pressed up against them peering into the studio. It made more sense for me to be in the studio than outside of the studio making the windows dirty! So before I knew it I was in the studio with a tiny pair of black leather ballet shoes on every Saturday morning practicing my good toes, naughty toes exercises…. little did I know that ballet would define me!

 

Q: Where you a featured dancer or were you in the core group of dancers?

 

A:  When I was at my vocational ballet school in England I would work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in all the company’s large scale productions including The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. Whilst still training with my school my teacher and former ballet icon Irek Mukhamedov would tell the guys in my class that you don’t join a ballet company to be a Corps De Ballet (group ensemble), so I took that advice on board and took my first contract at 18 as a Demi-Soloist dancer in the Slovakian National Ballet. After dancing there I did some traveling through my dancing and settled in California where I danced many Soloist and Principal roles.

 

Q: How many hours a day did you exercise when you were a dancer?

 

A: The last ballet company that I danced with was 9.30am to 6.30pm five or six days a week. As a student it was very similar so you never realize how much work you are doing until you take a moment to step back and understand how grueling your job is! Ballet dancers are some of the fittest and hardest working human beings that walk this earth, and the fact that they are doing it to create this beautifully amazing art is something that I will always respect.

 

Q: What is the main reason aspiring dancers fail?

 

 

 

 

 

A: Although there can be many reasons why aspiring ballet dancers may fail I do believe that if the dancer works hard and dedicates every drop of sweat to this art then they can make it to become a professional dancer.

 

Q: .When did you start painting?

 

A: I would enjoy sketching when I was a child, every school book would have my sketches on pages meant for math or science. I would get home from school to my grandmas house and spend hours drawing cartoons until my mum would pick me up. My dancing then took over and became the passion that I dedicated my time to. A few years ago I was injured and took time off of ballet, during this time I need to find my creativity so I headed to the art store and picked up the paints! That was enough to relight the fire!

 

Q: Who are some of your artistic influences?

 

A: Most of my artistic influences were my art teachers at school! They were always the teachers that I felt understood me and wanted to explore my creativity. I always looked forward to art classes and saw them as a sanctuary, somewhere where I could be expressive and creative. I remember thinking how cool it was being able to listen to a radio during class, the art teachers were the coolest!

 

Q: What kind of day job do you have and how does it influence your art?

 

 

A:  I dance, I teach dance and I paint. I would consider all of them my day job. The best thing is that none of them feel like a day job because its not a chore. I’m blessed being able to do the things that I love for a living. Most of the time when I am dancing I am dancing other peoples choreography, I am the paint! When I’m painting I am the choreographer, I choreograph the paint! This gives me the full freedom of expression!

 

Q: You paint a lot of celebrities, what interests you about them?

 

A:  I’ve always been attracted to icons, I would say I paint icons as oppose to celebrities. It’s interesting to me why these people became massive icons. They are people that changed industries, if not the world.

 

Q: What is the biggest misconception we Americans have about Europeans?

 

A: Europeans not sure, British, we drink all our beer warm.

 

 

Q: What famous painter would you most like to teach to dance?

 

A: Good question. I would say a Post Impressionist painter like Van Gogh. His brush strokes were highly expressive, bold and dramatic. As a dancer its important to show the technique but to also interpret the steps in your own way. He dedicated his life to his art and although dying young he left a huge footprint of more than 2100 artworks. Dedication and hard work makes the dancer and the artist.

 

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.

An Interview With Writer Ivanka Di Felice

zany-life-final-cover

 

Ivanka Di Felice co-authored the book My Zany Life with her mother Anica Blažanin; here is a link to the book’s Amazon page:

 

https://www.amazon.com/My-Zany-Life-Growing-Rooming-ebook/dp/B01ERZFHQA#nav-subnav

 

Q: What is My Zany Life about?

 

My memories of growing up in my family’s rooming house in a swanky Toronto neighborhood, surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters.

 

Many people think it’s tragic to grow up in a poor neighborhood, but I can assure you it is equally tragic growing up in a rich neighborhood, when you are poor.

 

Together, my mother and I gather our memories of a life full of happiness, sadness, and many hilarious moments, proving that hindsight not only is 20/20, but can also turn calamity into comedy.
The book takes us back in history to a small village in Croatia where my mom is introduced to a 1964 Ford Galaxy XL that has followers, stalkers, and even worshippers. Then she meets the man behind the wheel, and what follows proves that reality actually is stranger than fiction.

 

 

Q: What made you and your mother decide to write it?

 

A: I knew that I had a very unusual childhood living amongst wacky tenants. We had dealings with these unusual characters right up until a few months ago. I thought people may enjoy our life story of being poor in a rich neighbourhood. Then I pretty much conned my mom into helping me write it.

 

 

Q: Why did your Mom and Dad open up a rooming house in the first place?

 

A: My parents fell in love with a beautiful Victorian home close to High Park, in Toronto. It was three stories, with a huge cultivated backyard. They had to borrow money for the down payment, and in order to afford it, they never had the option of just our family living there. The only way they could keep it would be to rent out most of the house, in the most profitable manner. Thus was born “The Rooming House,” which sat among, but apart from, other stately family-owned homes.

 

 

 

Q: Who was your most memorable tenant?

 

A: There were many. I don’t want to do a spoiler but let’s just say the majority of the tenants were the sort who would have been voted least likely to succeed and had exceeded expectations. And if there was a skill in renting out rooms, knowing how to read people, and letting only the good ones in, then my parents did not possess it.

 

Q: What did you do when you wanted to have a private family argument?

 

A: Nothing was private in the rooming house; we all knew each others business but no one seemed to care.

 

Q:  Were you embarrassed or proud to tell your friends how your family made a living?

 

A: Because we lived in a swanky, rich neighbourhood all my classmates were wealthy and lived in stately family dwellings. I tried to keep up appearances as best as I could and tried to hide the fact that our house and the people in it were anything but swanky.

 

Q: What sort of work do you do now?

 

A: We own a rental property (not a rooming house – a triplex) and I also write books and manage to make somewhat of a living from it.

 

Q:  How did you and your mom settle disagreements about what to leave in and out of your book?

A: We did not disagree on anything however according to my mom the book is complete “thanks to my daughter who nagged me persistently to remember and to write what I have. ”

It is written in chronological order so my mom wrote the chapters in the beginning and then makes a guest appearance in the middle and writes her conclusion on life at the end. The actual experience of writing with my mom can be summed up by my acknowledgments:

Congratulations are also in order to me, for the patience I mustered up while trying to decipher my mother’s notes and for partnering with probably the last known author to still use pen and paper and write in a painful scribble. My mother, well aware that English is not phonetic, applied her “more is more” theory and, just in case, added an extra vowel or consonant to each word. She demonstrated her creativity with each draft she sent me, and she challenged my math. Sentences were written vertically and horizontally, and pages were randomly numbered, rarely in order. Celebrate the completion of this book with us, for it is nothing short of a miracle!

 

 

Q: What is the most effective thing you have done to promote your writing?

 

A: Advertising. I put my book on sale for either 99 cents of 1.99 and then advertise with several different sites that promote daily e-book deals. I really notice sales peak when I do this. Also I have a card printed out that I hand out to people I meet who ask what I do for a living!

 

Q: What characteristics should someone opening a rooming house look for in the house itself and the guests in it?

 

A: As the conclusion of my author bio says: “In her quest for sanity, she decided never to own a rooming house.” So in good conscience I cannot recommend this, even if the piping-hot real estate market has got one calculating tenants into their mortgage repayment plan. If you don’t believe me and still want to open up a rooming house then read our book, then decide!

 

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview With Musician Nounverber

Nounverber Logo

Nounverber is a New Orleans based musician; here is a link to his website:

http://www.nounverber.com/

Q: What made you interested in music?

A: Growing up in a musical family, being twelve years old and hearing an interesting guitar solo on the radio, then wanting to make people feel how that made me feel. Young angst and the prospect of creating works of art out of thin air. Maybe girls and money as well. Yes, all of those things in unspecified amounts. Over time, I learned to respect and appreciate the art of composing and it became its own reward.

Q: What kind of training have you had?

A: Formally, I was trained in the art of tenor saxophone in school. As I picked up on music theory, white and black piano keys made sense to me. That translated into harmony and tension and all of the other things that make music interesting. The neck of my guitar went from a puzzle to a map. It’s best to know what you’re doing on some level, but maybe not too much. Too much technique kills the soul.

Q: What is unique about your sound?

A: Just subtle structural things that I don’t realize that I’m doing. I’m too close to it to see it, but if I tried my hand at a waltz there would be something in it that people would recognize as one of my fingerprints. That’s what I’m told, but I don’t hear it. It’s like trying to analyze your own handwriting, I think.

Q: What kinds of things inspire you to write music?

A: The human condition, black and white films and mathematics and being someplace where there’s too much silence. In a crowded room, I’ll map out a busy horn section in my head and try to duplicate that level of dissonance. It’s a way of painting the world as you see it in a different dimension.

Q:  What has been the most effective thing you have done to promote yourself?

A: I took the final version of my Midnight Animal EP and dropped it in the lap of Shelby Cinca, the head of Swedish Columbia records. I hope every other artist on the label recognizes how hard he works to make us look good. Shelby is a wizard at promotion. It’s fun to see him come up with an idea and get so excited about it that you can’t follow his train of thought. Brilliant guy. Every artist needs a Shelby.

Q: Who are some of your musical influences?

A: Early electronic pioneers like Raymond Scott amaze me. Dave Brubeck was a master of time manipulation and Paul Desmond’s saxophone haunts my soul. Bowie was my musical father figure and I’m still in mourning. Pink Floyd, all day long. I bought the entire Tortoise catalog this year because I think their music is a necessity. The Misfits are always a part of what I do, in attitude if not in style. Every sound in Mr. Bungle’s album Disco Volante is programmed into my brain. John Frusciante’s solo guitar music inspires me. Flying Lotus is doing electronic jazz way better than I ever imagined it could be.

Q: What kind of day job do you have and how does it effect your ability to make music?

A: I have worked in the collision repair industry ever since I graduated high school. This was going to pay my bills until I became self-sufficient by writing music, but it seems to be taking a few decades longer than I anticipated. I keep a small keyboard in my office that I use to record melodies as they creep into my head. I also license out music to film, commercials, video games, and TV shows on the side. It’s strictly supplemental at this point, though…I’m not moving to Beverly Hills quite yet.

Q: How did you come up with the name?

A: When I was looking for an alias in 2005, everyone was coming up with these “noun plus a verb with ‘-er’ at the end” band names. Monkeythrower, Facemelter, Brainbuster, etc. I used their formula but found purpose in leaving the spaces blank. There’s no specific thing and no specific action being taken. It is a name in structure alone, and I think that lends itself to the androgynous nature of my music.

Q: What do you like about New Orleans?

A: I get a thrill from the polite madness and potential danger of fellow strangers. Find the weirdest looking person on the block and ask them for directions. You’ll never forget it. The whole city supports a certain kind of insanity that I feel very comfortable being around. It’s endearing to my eccentric nature.

Q: What would you change about it?

A: There are truths that people ignore while promoting false ideals as solutions to problems that are self-perpetuating. Elevation above sea level would be nice also. If someone could fix those things, that would be great.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.