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Friday, December 30, 2011

Thanks Bruce!

How many times has a song lyric or another piece of musical magic lifted you from a funk?

Early this morning I was driving and feeling a little low; fortunately, I had my I-pod cranking. With over 500 songs on there, I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised at a song coming on that I haven't listened to in a while. When "Better Days" from Bruce Springsteen's 1992  recording called "Lucky Town" played, I picked up on this lyric - "Every fool's got a reason for feeling sorry for himself...". Although I've always loved the lyrics to "Better Days", somehow that particular phrase had escaped me until this listening. But it was just what I needed to hear at that moment. What was the last piece of music that had a similar effect on you?

I've often read and heard it said that popular music (like Springsteen's) is, by definition, fleeting. I suppose there's some truth in that and it's possible not many people will be listening to "Better Days" 50 or 100 years from now. No matter - I get this kind of lift all the time from music and remain grateful this is so. Today it was a lyric; a few weeks ago it was listening to the musical telepathy between trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his father Ellis on piano playing "The Very Thought of You"; next week it will be something else. Fleeting? Maybe, but isn't a lot of life about fleeting moments we need to be paying more attention to?      

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Empathy Gauge

Sometimes my empathy wears me out.

Although I don't believe it's possible to be too empathic, there are times when I tire of walking in other people's shoes. I'm not claiming to be an unselfish person; I have at least one good friend who fits that description and I'm not at all like her. But I often feel the pain of other people enough that I become emotional. Consequently, I've embarrassed myself more than once as well as making others uncomfortable. I guess I'm searching for some middle ground and looking for help.

I've also fantasized it would be neat if I could have an empathy gauge that others could easily see. If my gauge read "full" (like the gas gauge on a car dashboard) then others would know they might be in for an emotional reaction if they shared a story of hardship, discrimination, or loss with me. If my gauge was closer to "empty" then there could be less chance for tears from me. Or, I can check the imaginary gauge myself whenever anyone starts that type of story and then issue a warning, when appropriate. Actually, the idea of  people having a visible empathy gauge might be pretty cool all the way around. Those of us looking for  empathic responses might have a better shot getting what we need from others during difficult times.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quiet Doppelganger Vs. Admitted Wonk

Given the limited reach of my blog, I doubt few have noticed (or will remember), but my doppelganger Mr. Id has made only about half a dozen appearances here since I introduced him in early May. And I have yet to post any of my evil twin's missives via Facebook. However, over the same 7 months, I've routinely referred to myself as a geek or nerd in several different contexts. A few of those postings have gone to my Facebook network. So, what gives? And, who cares?

Well, I guess I care. As I near the finish of an excellent 2003 book called "How To Read Literature Like A  Professor" by Thomas Foster, I thought about blogging about my enjoyment of it. Then I stopped. Wait a minute. Blog about how I enjoy reading books about reading books? I mean, how geeky, nerdy, wonkish can I be? Will anyone care to read about me reading about reading?

So today's decision was not easy- whether I would be public (send to Facebook network) about my geek cup running over again. Or, remain semi-public (as I have with Mr. Id), just post and let the chips fall as they may. Now that I've made that decision, I'll  begin the harder work, i.e. the "what gives?" part - that's where I need your help. What do you suppose prevents me (you) from being more public about the Mr/Ms. Id many of us have bottled up? Put another way, how come it's easier to sometimes characterize ourselves in an unflattering way (me - geek, nerd, wonk; you - fill in the blanks) vs. sharing things that get under our skin?    

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The First Noel Blog

For many years, Christmas day has been among my favorite days of the year. I'm guessing I'm not alone and curious, as always, to hear why this might be so for you. For me?

No work? Cool. The family time? Nice. Giving gifts? Satisfying. Receiving? Also satisfying, especially any unexpected books or music. Charity extended to commemorate the true spirit of the season? Need some improvement there but terrific when I get to it as I did this year, thanks to my wife. Religious rituals? Sorry,  secular blogger here. Food and drink? No-brainer.

But #1 for me? No one, most significantly Pat Barton, has any expectation that I will accomplish a single thing. I can sleep late, stay in my pajamas, nap on & off, continue eating all the leftovers from yesterday when we entertained my family. I feel no need to practice my guitar, exercise, meditate, journal, attend to any other discipline, or even necessarily to read. The phone will not ring, there will be little e-mail to look at, no snail mail delivered, no recycling or garbage to take to the curb. All day, without guilt, I ignore my "to do" list, along with all my other lists. And the final bonus? Outside it is quieter than any day of the year.

On my next Noel, I think I'll extend my Christmas "do nothing" pledge and also skip blogging. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

New Worlds And Words

Some months ago I was describing the volume of my recent reading to an old friend. He asked me "What's that doing for you?"  I  recall being taken aback by his provocative question but don't recall exactly how I responded. How would you answer? Then a little while following that conversation, I met Little Bee.

"I do not know if you have a word for this kind of singing".

That sentence is from "Little Bee", a 2008 novel by Chris Cleave. The context: The eponymous narrator, a refugee from Nigeria, is trying to describe to readers the sound of a woman singing. The singing woman is attempting to console a mother who lost her daughter during an escape from the chaos that ensued in Nigeria after huge oil reserves were discovered by the multi-national oil companies. Little Bee has a word for the singing from her native language (Ibo) and she also speaks perfect English, the official language of Nigeria. But she can't find a parallel word in English to describe the singing she is hearing.

The passage in "Little Bee" that included that sentence helped me formulate a partial answer to my friend's provocative question. Reading introduces me to worlds and words I might not have otherwise encountered. And to paraphrase Little Bee, I do not know if there is a word for this kind of magic. What would you call it?         

Thursday, December 22, 2011

For My Future Reference

Has anyone out there ever known a person whose life has not been touched in some way by alcoholism or substance abuse?

To me, the near universality of this human experience is notable. Family members, friends, work colleagues & neighbors of mine have struggled. As often as not, I've been uncertain of the approach to take with these people in my life. Talk about what I've observed? Avoid the person and issue? Offer help? What kind of help? A support group? A counselor or therapist? Stage an intervention? Though I've studied this a bit and even briefly taught courses on alcoholism & substance abuse, having someone in your life is altogether different than teaching about some vague "others". Even knowing that an addict needs to hit their own bottom before they're ready to climb out feels like a platitude when it is someone I care about.  

In my experience, even though most of us have had to deal with this issue, few of us agree what action to take; often we strongly disagree. Some of us believe alcoholism is a disease; some do not. Some of us believe stopping is a matter of will for the alcoholic or addict; some of us believe stopping is about more than will. But these disagreements or discussions of different beliefs are of no use to the person who is struggling. So, how best can I be of use? Because I don't need it right this moment, this is a good time to ask for your help.


  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Blur Of Time

The blur of time going by gets to me some days. What patterns (if any) have you detected relating to this condition many of us experience?

This particular time, the thought crept up on me as I was writing little notes to some family & friends on our holiday letter. Another year coming to an end; this probably happens to many people around now. Being as introspective as I am also contributes, no doubt. And a conversation I had last weekend with my daughter about defining success probably got me started on this path, though I didn't know it at the time.

For my almost 23 year old daughter what success means is front and center right now. It's possible this is related to the fact that her chosen field is more about passion than it is about security; that puts her at odds with some of her peers. But since we spoke, our conversation has gotten all tangled up in my head. Today it's mixed in with the blur of time. I'm remembering my almost 23 year old self thinking about success and struggling to land on that concept. 39 years have gone by - I'm still working on it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Out Of It On Africa

Though I'm a geography nerd, I'm continually surprised how little I know about most of Africa. And my sister, one of the smarter people I know, struggles trying to match up country names given a map of the continent. So I suspect my shortcoming is not that unusual.  

A few weeks ago, I asked a NYC cabdriver where he was from. When he answered Ghana, I realized I knew nothing about his birthplace, except that it is in Africa. I could not name one city, the name of any country bordering it, wasn't even sure if Ghana is landlocked or not. Eddie was friendly & willing to educate me a bit but my ignorance annoyed me. How did I get to be 62 and know so little about the 2nd largest continent?

A few years ago I watched a really good, little-seen film called "The Visitor", starring the always reliable Richard Jenkins. I recall at the time laughing at a minor character in that film when she showed her ignorance of Africa, mistaking Senegal for South Africa. My self-righteous laughs came back to haunt me following my recent encounter with Eddie from Ghana. Time to break out the Atlas.

 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tis The Season For Decisions

How do you decide when to discontinue sending a Holiday card to someone?

As the person in my family responsible for cards, this has been left up to me. But each year as I pull out our low tech address book and stamps, I'm faced with numerous choices. To cite just one example, our current home is the third my wife and I have owned. In each of our two previous neighborhoods, we were friendly enough with several of our neighbors that we had dinner at some of their homes, they came to parties we hosted, our children played together. So when do I stop sending a holiday card to neighbors from our first home that we left in 1999? Is there a statute of limitations? It costs so little and it's a nice gesture, I know. And sending cards to only those who send to us is way too Scrooge-like. But at this point I'm not sure why I'm doing this with ex-neighbors (and many others) aside from habit.

I recall my Mother being very proud of how many Holiday cards she sent and received. She would tape them all around the door frames in our home. I also remember being impressed how many there were. Am I perhaps channeling my Mother's generous spirit? Or... her need for approval? Over the years, I've tried to invent logical systems for deciding who to send to. This year I began by thinking I'd send cards to people either my wife or I had seen over the previous year. I got as far as the "B's" in our address book before abandoning that system. So, any ideas for next year will be appreciated.            

The Future Of Privacy

How long will it be before privacy is an antiquated concept? I understand anyone thinking a blogger asking this is a little suspect. But after finishing Gary Shteyngart's prescient 2010 novel  "Super Sad True Love Story", I'm having a little trouble escaping this question.

Shteyngart's book is not for every taste. It is smart, imaginative & romantic. In equal measure it is also profane, relentless & depressing. Released more than a year before Occupy Wall Street became news, this NYC-based novel anticipates that civil unrest in an uncanny fashion. In "Super Sad..." the tents and protesters are in Tomkins Park but the economic issues OWS is trying to highlight are eerily similar to those depicted in the book. Because the author was so spot-on there, I wondered how far off he is in his dystopian view of the future of privacy. I mean, does it make anyone else nervous how much information about all of us is readily available?

I'm a blogger so I'm obviously not real secretive. But I have been genuinely surprised how easy it is to find someone and get information, lots of it, about them. "Super Sad True Love Story" has me re-thinking where this might all lead.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Non-Caffeinated Recipe For Energy

My abundant energy is a trait people seem to notice. That energy is a gift, especially when I'm able to point it in positive directions. But there are still times when my energy flags. I've noticed it usually has little to do with how much sleep I've gotten or how much I've exerted myself.  What do you do when you feel out of gas?

I've used many tried and true methods like more exercise, better diet, positive self-talk, etc. Lately, I've also observed how just being around young people gives me a jolt. Without being a creepy old man, I try to engage these folks and learn about them - what they do for a living, what they're reading, listening to, the recent films they've enjoyed. My young adult daughter is a helpful but not critical entree into this world. Because I invariably walk away from these encounters more juiced, I just try everywhere I go. What's the worst that can happen? The person won't talk to me? So? To me, the potential benefit outweighs the risk.

In addition to the infusion of energy I get, the possibility of making a genuine human connection is always present. As recently as yesterday, a short interaction with a college student in a local coffee shop gave me a boost, several nuggets I might use in a future blog post, and reminded me of how much I love the word "savor". Small pleasures, no doubt. Where did your last boost come from?   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mr. Id, Food Ethnocentrist

Mr. Id is unafraid of being called an ethnocentrist for this narrow circumstance: Don't ask him to patronize an ethnic restaurant when those preparing the meals have no trace of the ethnicity in question.

Although Mr. Id doesn't necessarily need to hear Italian spoken by the cooks in an Italian restaurant, it is preferable to Russian or German. Because Mr. Id speaks only English (giving him added credibility as an ethnocentrist) he might have difficulty differentiating some languages from others. However, Polish or Slav cooks working in Mexican, Thai, or Lebanese restaurants are advised to remain silent; even a mono-linguist can usually pick out auditory clues that blatant.

The ethnicity of cooks in a diner remains an open issue. Given the number of choices on diner menus, a United Nations contingent would be necessary in those kitchens to fully satisfy Mr. Id's requirement. But just for the record, Mr. Id usually bypasses any diner that doesn't feature Spanikopita. And he also pays careful attention to the name of the proprietor when advertised, looking for first names like Stavros or Eleni. Last names for women proprietors in diners - not real reliable. Try instead asking for the pronunciation of "gyro" and if a man or woman proprietor says "jiro" (hard "J" and long "I") instead of something close to "yiddo" (rhymes with "kiddo"), run the other way. Guaranteed the Spanikopita will stink and much else will be sub-par.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Adding To The Bookends

Of the questions I was asked when I was young, the one I recall giving me the most difficulty was "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Despite my own discomfort, I've probably repeated the mistake and asked a few young folks the same thing. When you were young, how prepared were you to answer this? How many people have you met in your life who later "became" what they said they wanted to be?

During the lead up to my retirement celebration in March 2010 and since, the most common question I've been asked has been some variation on "What will you do/are you doing with your time?" For a number of reasons, I've had less trouble here. I've begun thinking of the questions from these first two paragraphs like bookends of a work life.

For me it was 40+ years between these bookends. And that has me reflecting on questions to begin asking others in between, questions I would have welcomed, questions asked much less frequently.  Like..."What kind of work are you going to/might you do next?" Or, "What are you passionate about ? How can you turn that passion into an alternative career?"  Your ideas?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Exploring A Tension

Tradition plays an important part in my life; I suspect this is true for many people. I enjoy most traditional American holidays and I look forward to traditions my family of origin has, some of which are related to those holidays. And I like the silly traditions my wife and I have developed over our years together.

Since preserving tradition is one important element of conservatism, I'm beginning an exploration of my longheld resistance to that word. To those out there who share my resistance, I'd like to hear how you deal with the tension between these concepts. To those out there who identify with the word conservative, which tradition(s) have you willfully abandoned and how difficult was it to do so?

In the nearly 200 blog posts I've written, I estimate less than 5% have had anything even remotely political and I plan to keep it that way; I've been largely apolitical since 1972 and I usually find the public discourse on politics much too shrill. But as I reflected yesterday on this tension between my enjoyment of tradition and resistance to conservatism, I realized I needed help from others on the bell curve. I hope you'll share your thoughts. It's safer here than on talk radio.

 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Gift Of Music

What is your first memory of music that made a lasting impression? What musical memories do you closely associate with certain family members? What place did music have in your home or neighborhood? Much of the research I've been exposed to says lasting musical memories begin building when we're between 12-15 years old. Based on my own life, this rings true. How about for you?

I was fortunate to have two parents who enjoyed music. My father played the ukulele and my mother had a nice singing voice and good ear for harmony. When Dad would play something from the 1930's (when he and Mom were in that 12-15 year old range) and my Mother would sing, the songs would be unfamiliar to me. But songs like "Embraceable You" or "I Get a Kick Out of You", and others written years before I was born, occupied as much of my early musical landscape as "Where Did Our Love Go" or "Surfin USA", songs popular when I was 12-15 years old.

Now? A good deal of my 2011 guitar repertoire includes songs Dad played on the uke while Mom sang all those years ago. When Mom died in 1977 I was still singing rock n' roll in the bars. Dad lived almost another 20 years and by then I had switched to playing some of those early standards in a jazz style so he got to appreciate this turn in my music. And though both of them always loved and supported my rock n' roll ambitions, there's something comforting about my current life taking me back to music from my parents impressionable years. To those of you who still have your parents: Why not ask them to share with you the music that made an early impression on them? Then go on I-tunes, spend $15-$20 and make a CD for them; what a gift.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

(Semi-Public) Pontificating Re Public (vs. Private) Pontificators

pontificate (v): to speak in a pompous or dogmatic manner.

I like to hear myself talk as much as the next person. I have noticed, however, that my patience for public pontificating is beginning to wear a little thin. I'm not talking here about our ubiquitous political pontificators, although I'm confident some of you may be getting tired of those people as well.

Instead, I'm talking about restaurant, coffee shop, movie line, book club public pontificators; you know this type. You're trying to have a nice meal or cup of coffee; maybe you're with others, maybe alone. Nearby is someone who speaks not in sentences but pronouncements. What they say is not their opinion - it's the Truth or a Fact. Does this person ask questions of the others they're with? Not on your life. The book club variety pontificator shares similar features with an added annoyance - this person is also clueless that they're monopolizing what is supposed to be a discussion. And beware extraverted English majors in the book club scenario - pontificating run amok!

As someone with a voice so loud I've been accused of shouting when I thought I was speaking sotto voce, I suspect I've annoyed a fair share of people - maybe they even thought I was pontificating (GASP!). So it's possible my increased impatience about others' public pontificating will help me restrict mine to the private variety in the future. I hope so. Because I don't ever want to be humiliated like that guy in the Woody Allen movie "Annie Hall". Remember that scene? This public pontificator is prattling on about Marshall McLuhan and Woody (Alvie Singer) is nearby getting impatient and annoyed. Then Woody magically produces McLuhan himself who tells the pontificator - "You have no idea what my theories are about". Ouch!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Not That Story Again!

What is a reasonable number of stories any partner in a relationship should be able to re-tell, no matter how many times their partner has heard them? How about one story for each year the partnership has existed?

I'm guessing my wife will object to me having 33 stories I could re-tell indefinitely. Come to think of it, I'm tired of several of hers as well and 33 is a big number. So how about one story that can be told in perpetuity for each decade a partnership has been together? That would limit each of us to 3 stories apiece. Not bad, even if I do think my stories are better. Since I'm 4+ years older I think I also deserve at least one more for seniority. But.. How about for partnerships under 10 years in duration? I need your help there.

Next questions: Who gets to choose which stories get told - teller or pained listener? In our case, maybe I pick 2 of mine (+ 1 more for my seniority) and she gets to pick my fourth. Then she picks 2 of her own and I pick #3. That seems fair, right? Do all the stories have to be from the time period since we've been together or do we each get 1 or more that pre-dates the partnership?

Last: Should there be such a thing as an expiration date on any story? How old must that story be? For my wife and I this is not a major problem; some of our stories are now so old we have trouble remembering them anyway. And the really old ones have changed so much, they're new now.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fridays With Mom & Dad

I've now been a volunteer farm hand every Friday for about 6 months. Although my tasks vary, most involve manual labor of some type with a recent heavy emphasis on manure.

Much as I'd like to validate the oft-repeated notion about this being honest, ennobling work, I'm afraid that's not what usually runs through my mind. Instead, I find myself recalling what my Dad, a talented carpenter, many times said to me:  "Patrick, you're going to get an education so you can use your brain to make a living, instead of doing what I do".  I was proud of my Dad; his work was easy to describe to my friends; and when he finished, there was frequently an end product you could touch. But he wanted more from his work life and often told me so.

And when the tedium of my volunteer work sneaks up on me, I better understand what my Dad felt, notwithstanding the romance some people have with a "working class hero" archetype. It's not as though I was never bored in my work life; I'm confident my sisters and my brother, all college-educated like me, would say the same. Still, I'm grateful for the education my parents made sure all four of us got, giving us more choices about the kind of work we could do. My parents didn't have that same range of choices and I'm now reminded of that each Friday. I'd like to claim this was my original "plan" but it was not. But it is a great reason to hang in there - Mom & Dad are right there beside me once a week.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Atlas Riffing

As a kid in school, I really liked geography (in those days a piece of "Social Studies") but did not let on - it wasn't then considered a very "cool" subject. But it's possible that early enjoyment of geography contributed to my strong adult interest in other cultures, travel, perhaps even my enjoyment of ethnic foods.

Now that my time is more flexible, my continuing interest in geography gives me the latitude to do a fair amount of what I've termed "Atlas riffing". When I'm reading at home my Atlas is close by. If a locale described is unfamiliar to me, a fairly routine occurrence, I will often locate it in my Atlas. But once I step inside that book, all bets are off. I begin bouncing from place to place like a deranged but happy pinball.

To wit: Early last night I finished a novel called "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell. The book takes place in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Florida Everglades, a part of that state I've never seen. After locating it on my Atlas and reading the page of text, I flashed to another novel I'd finished earlier this year called "In The Lake of The Woods" by Tim O'Brien (See the connection? Water). So...my Atlas now took me to Northern Minnesota to find the Lake of the Woods. And so on.

Bottom line: When I finished this particular round of Atlas riffing, 4 glorious hours had gone by. My travels had taken me to Ghana, the Solomon Islands & the Yukon territory to name just a few. And this Atlas has so much more than just maps. Now that I'm old enough to not care about peer pressure as much, I'm unafraid to say this - it's a very cool book. Call me a nerd if you must; geography makes me happy.  

 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time Alone

How important is it to you to have regular time alone? What happens if you have difficulty finding that time?

My daughter has been on the road working since early October. She and five other young adults have driven from New Hampshire to New Orleans to St. Louis doing a small theater production.  Though she's enjoying her work immensely and the six get along very well, she misses her alone time. They work together (often 2 shows a day), room together (to save $$), eat together & spend lots of time in the van together. Difficult for an only child. Would it be difficult for you? 

I did my own share of tight quarters, close to the vest, rock n' roll roadwork as a young adult; I don't recall it being hard. Could be that coming from a family of four kids all born in a 49+ month timespan, I didn't have a high expectation then about having much time alone. But I sure need that time now and get cranky when I don't get it. Like many people, I occasionally struggle with balance but I feel pretty good about the amount of alone time vs. people time in my life. How is your balance in this important domain? What do you do when you feel out of balance?

Of course, it's very possible my need for alone time will shift yet again as I get older. And I also fully realize how fortunate I am at present. When I don't want to be alone these days, I have a rich network of family & friends who are close by. It's quite a gift; I hope I don't ever take it for granted.          

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Dinner With George Bailey

When I wrote the below back on March 21, I was disappointed it got no comments. I thought many people would be willing to share which people in their life had made a real difference to them.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/george-bailey-list.html
I realize not many people may have read it. But after the post came up in a recent conversation, I re-read it and then pulled out my own George Bailey List. And I noticed something I'd previously missed.

Aside from my family, there is only one other "group" on my list that has a clear identifiable link: the four men who were my guitar teachers from 1978-2010. There is no doubt my world would be greatly diminished if these men had not been in my life. As far as I know, three of the four are still alive. I'm having dinner with my most recent guitar teacher (1997-2010) this weekend. I plan to tell him that he's on my George Bailey List if I haven't already. Then I'm going to contact teachers #2 and #3 (circa 1983-1996) and tell them as well. Practicing what I blog, you know?

My first guitar teacher, who my most recent guitar teacher also studied with, died some years ago.  I'm sorry to say I didn't have a George Bailey List back then so I might not have ever told him how positively his life affected mine. I hope one person who reads this might consider that a cue. Even if you don't have a George Bailey List, surely there are George Baileys in your life who would appreciate knowing they are.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Surprise Me, Owen

What movie, TV, or stage role have you seen an established actor or actress take on that you felt was contrary to their "normal" persona?

It's possible the range of some actors precludes this happening that often. As much as I think I'd like to see Owen Wilson play a serial killer, I don't know if he has the acting chops to make it convincing. Or does he? Maybe his agent or manager talks him out of roles that are against type. Maybe the choice of what role to take is largely a function of the timing in an acting career. Maybe Owen hasn't been offered a good serial killer script. I've been getting a slow but steady education about all this via my adult daughter - it's her chosen field. She often points out things I'd have otherwise missed and nuances about acting as a craft.

But even with added education, I still long to be surprised. Several years ago I was blown away when Cameron Diaz convincingly played the frumpy (!!!) wife of John Cusack in "Being John Malkovitch". And though the movie itself was uneven, Tom Cruise was profane, un-heroic, bald (!!!) and fantastic in the recent "Tropic Thunder". So, when I watched the predictable "Knight and Day" a few nights ago with Diaz & Cruise playing Diaz & Cruise, I was diverted but un-moved and un-surprised.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pre-Empting A Creative Tune-Up

When your creative engine begins stalling, how do you tune yourself up?

Since beginning this blog, I've discovered or re-discovered several reliable techniques for creative tune-ups. However, the single thing that has been most useful is not letting my engine stall in the first place. Instead, I've developed the habit of always having a little notebook with me to jot down any idea that later may be useful, no matter how unformed or "un-creative" the idea seems at the time. To use just one example, snippets of conversations often find their way into this notebook.   

What I've noticed doing this is how frequently creative synergy occurs, i.e. several "blog droppings" from my notebook coalesce and become one. I've also noticed some of my tune-up techniques (a long drive or walk, reading, meditating, vigorous exercise, writing in my journal, a change of scenery) have been more productive now that the notebook is always nearby. When I return from tuning up (or sometimes in the midst of a tune-up) a germ of an idea is there. I capture the germ in the notebook. The notebook fills. I'm happy and I'm tuned up.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thankful For A Tradition

On Thanksgiving, one of our family traditions is to have each person say the things they are thankful for. I don't remember when we started this or whose idea it was but I realized yesterday I'm thankful for the tradition itself. It reminds me how fortunate I am to be part of a family that acknowledges our love and appreciation for each other out loud. If we have guests on Thanksgiving, a fairly common occurrence, we also ask them to join in.  

18 of us spoke yesterday, from age 7 to 63. Although four family members were missing, including my daughter, all of them were later brought in by phone when our words of thanks were temporarily upstaged by a marriage proposal. More for everyone in the family to be thankful  for - the young man who proposed to my niece/Godchild is someone we've all loved since the first family gathering he spent with us; now it's official - he'll be a part of this wonderful family of mine.

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".  If the Count was right (I have my doubts), I particularly hope those happy families are alike in this way: Be as thankful for each other as the members of my family are.  
  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Key Learnings: Year 62

I'm 62 years young today. I've learned a lot over the last year, but in order to maintain my practice of keeping my blog posts short, here are a few of my key learnings from year 62.

1.) From Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac", I learned to use the phrase "it's possible that..." in place of  "I think" or "in my opinion". This has been helpful in my writing but even more so in conversation. I find using this phrase assists me to not take my own opinion (and by extension, myself) as seriously.

2.) Via her memoir called "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair", Nina Sankovitch taught me that calling a book "foolish" that a friend or relative has recommended to you is tantamount to calling the person foolish. Being the recovering judgaholic I am, this was akin to a 13th step. It's a powerful insight.

3.) From an act of inexcusable public behavior that I can term a fiasco without any exaggeration, I learned that my grade school teachers were astute observers when they said I sometimes lacked self-control. Lesson #2 from same source:  To truly learn and grow, from now on I will resist any temptation to turn this incident (or any future bad behavior of mine) into stories with self-serving "morals".

How about you? What have been your key learnings over the last year? You surely don't need to be celebrating a birthday to consider this.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Goal For Year 63

I'm usually in the dark about how many people read any one post on this blog; the stats I get only tell me of the number who've read the "top ten" posts and those change frequently. But for those who read this and then later actually remember what I'm committing to here, you can hold me accountable.

Between tomorrow (my 62nd birthday) and December 31 2012, I am going to build my solo jazz guitar repertoire to equal the size of my solo repertoire of 1978, the year I stopped playing for a living. The number of songs I'll need to fully know (i.e. melody, changes, & form for each, at minimum) to realize this goal is 300.  For the past 20+ months I've spent a lot more time reading than I have with my guitar; time to change that ratio. And, I've been inspired by similar projects I've been exposed to over the past few years, beginning with the cooking endeavor that was depicted in the popular film "Julie & Julia" and most recently Nina Sankovitch reading a book every day for a year, the subject of her 2011 memoir called "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair". 

Being the borderline obsessive I am, I spent some time earlier this morning drawing up my guidelines for this project. Drum roll, please: Here I go.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Word, Mr. Id

Mr. Id is not a fan of rap music. On more than one occasion he has been heard saying that by definition, music is comprised of melody, rhythm, and harmony; rap is absent one (sometimes two) of those three elements.

That said, Mr. Id often finds himself at odds with the view of people his own age who call rap worthless, offensive, dangerous. Clearly, those individual words can describe some rap, some of the time, just as they can describe some music from any genre. Mr. Id has been offended by some rap but for him that term of derision has more applicability to Muzak. Harsh, you say? Ok, but Mr. Id feels strongly that the phrase  "background music" is itself an oxymoron. And don't get him started on Kenny G., who Mr.Id  is convinced gets paid by the note the way Charles Dickens did by the word. 

Mr. Id is also not fond of the misogyny or violence in some rap. But he and his contemporaries surely recall when Little Richard was thought to be "dangerous", Elvis was shown only from the waist up on TV, the Stones had to change their lyric to "Let's Spend Some Time (vs. "the Night") Together". Some of Mr. Id's contemporaries no doubt felt those things were not unreasonable back then, perhaps in the name of public morality. For the men in that group of Mr. Id's contemporaries - Tipper Gore is now available and Mr. Id will not stand in your way.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Little Blog - Big Question

Here's a big question for this little blog of mine: Do people ever change in fundamental ways?

Last night I watched the very funny Kristen Wiig/Maya Rudolph comedy "Bridesmaids". Although it was played for laughs, there was a good scene when the "Annie" character (Wiig) and her nemesis in the film ("Helen" - played by Rose Byrne) are asking this same big question about their mutual friend, the soon-to-be-married "Lillian" (Rudolph). I smiled as Annie & Helen bicker, each holding fast to their opposing positions. The scene itself remains funny in my mind, but while driving earlier today the central question it posed moved me to a whole different, not funny, place.  

Where? To George Wallace, of all people. Toward the end of his colorful and controversial life, the Governor of Alabama and once rabid segregationist claimed he had seen the error of his earlier ways. And I clearly recall how skeptical I was back then regarding Wallace's purported about-face. In my self-righteous mind (not one of my better qualities), I refused to accept he could change in this fundamental way. Yet, I have many times expected, if not demanded, people accept that I've changed in fundamental ways. Did Wallace change? Have I? Can I? Have you? Can you? What do you think are the chances the screenwriters of "Bridesmaids" had this on their minds when they wrote that scene?     

Friday, November 18, 2011

Synaptic Sparks, Part 2 (With Prediction)

Anyone have Quentin Tarantino's phone number or e-mail? If so, send it to me so I can tell him he has to read Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squadbefore HBO adapts it to film. And while Quentin is reading Egan's book, he'd be wise to listen to any Tom Waits recording, although "Swordfish & Trombones" would be optimum.

Although I already blogged about "Goon Squad" just last Friday, while discussing it with my wife the other night, I kept seeing scenes from Quentantino's "Pulp Fiction" in my head. And then I heard Waits singing as I described Egan's book cum roller coaster. I'm convinced these synaptic sparks need to be ignited.

You read it here first (well... at least my wife & daughter read it here first): When Quentantino makes the film, he will divide Egan's "A" & "B" sections (the two sides of an LP) into 2 major parts in his film. Then he will use each of Egan's 13 chapters (the number of songs many recordings have) to create the smaller sections of his film. Maybe a fade to black between each? Each of the 13 sections will have a song playing in the background sometime as the action unfolds. The singer for at least one of those 13? The vocal gravel of Tom Waits. Then for the other twelve, someone else (not Michael Bolton) will sing one of Waits' lopsided compositions so that each section is in a different voice, just as Egan does with each of her 13 chapters.    

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

King & Successor - Really?

I've tried; really. But the success of Larry King and his successor Piers Morgan (as interviewers, not as TV personalities) mystified, and continues to mystify me. When I listen to their questions, presumably ones they've developed themselves or paid someone to develop, I shake my head in disbelief; really.

Maybe Terry Gross from NPR has spoiled me but how hard is it to prepare questions that are open ended?  And when referring to a passage in a book, how about prefacing a question by reading a sentence or two so the audience gets a little context? The interviewer's craft is about effective non-leading questions just as a prosecuting attorney's craft is about questions that usually will elicit a "yes" or "no". The prosecutor's guideline is "Never ask a question you don't already know the answer to". An interviewer's guideline, cute bow tie & suspenders or quaint English accent aside, is the exact opposite.

With guests as intelligent and accomplished as Condoleeza Rice (Democrats - forget the politics, have you heard this woman play the piano?), Terry Gross belongs on the job, telegenics be damned. At least I won't be crying "Uncle" at my TV as I did when Morgan tried interviewing Rice. Really.          

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Parental "Do-Over"

Let me get the cliche out of the way first: Being a parent has been simultaneously one of the hardest and most satisfying things in my life.

I had a good Dad so, while raising my daughter, I rarely worried about the things I'd often heard other men say, i.e. "I don't want to be at all like my Father" - I figured I'd be doing pretty well following most of my Dad's example. And, because my only child is a girl, I also escaped having to worry about the father-son dynamic that can reinforce those nasty male stereotypes. I got to enjoy my daughter without the same gender rivalry stuff. That was my wife's worry.

But like all thinking people I know, my doubts about being a good parent were usually on the front of my radar. Now that my daughter is an adult and I sometimes see in her some of me, there are a few reasons I'd like a "do-over". Foremost is I'd like to show her less of my impatient side. How about you? If you could do a parental "do-over" what would you change? For any parent having no ready answer to this question, when next I see you please remind me - I'd like to throw down some water and watch you walk on it.         

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Post The Post-Mortem

Recently my wife and I spent time with another couple for the first time. As is often the case, our first conversation afterwards was discussing our reaction to the person from that couple neither of us had previously met. When you're in this situation what comes up first for you in a socializing post-mortem?

Without saying it out loud, my wife and I then moved toward the inevitable question: Do we want to see these people again? I'm guessing the other couple was doing a similar thing regarding us - I mean, don't you? There are only a few basic variables to deal with: Did we each enjoy the people as individuals? Did we each like the way the couple were together? Since I had already built a friendship with one of the partners here, in this situation it was down to two variables for me (one individual + one partnership) and three for my wife (2 + 1). And given our history of 33+ years, some of the guesswork about how my wife would react to the partner I knew was reduced beforehand. Both of us can reasonably predict how the other will react to someone one of us already enjoys. But there have been surprises so...

If all the variables come up positive, we're onto the harder questions: We initiated this first interaction, so what happens next? If nothing happens on their end for a while (how long?), do we risk vulnerability and reach out (again)? Or, do we invent a story? Which one? The insecure story: One or the other (or both) didn't enjoy one or the other (or both) of us or...the way we were as a couple. The rationalizing stories: They're very busy or... they lost our phone numbers, cell numbers, e-mail addresses, snail mail address, Pony Express station numbers, longitude/latitude coordinates, etc. What stories do you invent when in a similar situation? What excuses do you make to others who try to maintain contact you don't want?  

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Goon Squad & The Bestseller

Like many of you, I've read books I did not like much. I suspect your reasons, like mine, have varied and perhaps one of those reasons was not enjoying the author's writing.

I recently read two novels back-to-back, finishing both fairly quickly. The first was a popular bestseller and the second was Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad ". Except for the story, I didn't like the first book at all. I found the writing pedestrian, the dialogue clunky, and the author used the words "irony" & "ironic" so many times I actually began to groan about halfway through.

Egan's book was stunning beginning to end. The novel is told by multiple narrators and zooms from 1973-2020 effortlessly. The author uses innovative techniques to tell her story (a story with as much sweep as the bestseller, albeit one with a less historically significant subject), including having a 12 year old narrator tell the penultimate chapter in the form of a Power Point presentation. Egan's dialogue and use of descriptive language are crisp. "A Visit From The Goon Squad" is thoroughly modern but refreshingly familiar.

For me, the contrast between the talent of these two authors was stark; I likely noticed this because I read them very closely in time. And then I got stuck. I'd originally thought I would blog about both books, making fun of the bad writing about an "important" subject vs. the excellent writing about a "less important" subject. I even thought up a facile blog title to help me make fun of the bad writing. But something shifted in me when I thought about how the author of that bestseller researched & finished the book, got it published, and people are reading it. That is more than I've done. And that bestseller is about an important subject, so at minimum, the author deserves credit for performing a public service, my opinion of the writing (far) aside.  
    

Thursday, November 10, 2011

At The 11th Hour.....

Tomorrow is 11/11/11.

Since I know in advance I will be working at Celtic Charms tomorrow a.m. (as I do every Friday), I'm going to pay close attention to what I'm up to at 11:11 and look for magic in my surroundings. What will you be doing at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/11?  Although I'm not 100% sure where I'll be at 11:11 p.m. tomorrow, I'll be paying close attention then as well. Maybe I'll blog at that time and see if inspiration strikes.

Any veteran celebrating a birthday tomorrow would surely be wise to pay attention when the date & time converge, especially those who were in the 1st airborne or 11th battalion or 111th anything. Or, if your birthday is tomorrow and you work on the 11th floor of a building, try looking out the window at the sky at 11:11 a.m. If 11/11 is your birthday and you're in the 11th grade....why are you reading an old man's blog?

These convergences of date & time tickle my imagination. What other magic is apparent to you as all these 11's come together?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parenting, Book Clubs & Democracy

Though it may surprise some, both my wife and I were reasonably strict while raising our daughter. Before having children, we'd agreed parenting was a place where a democratic process would be unlikely to produce good results. And though we're both proud of the adult our daughter has become, you'd have to ask her if she'd have preferred more democracy when she was growing up.

Aside from my upbringing (also not democratic), I'm also grateful for another un-democratic situation in my own life - one of the book clubs I belong to. The leader/moderator, who is a librarian, selects all the books; no voting & little discussion, although she will take book suggestions made by club members under advisement. Why does this wholly un-democratic process appeal to me? Because it produces good results.

The leader picks a theme and then groups 3-4 books under that theme. The titles selected are rarely the predictable ones other clubs choose; there's a nice mix of fiction vs. non-fiction; & although the fiction choices are sometimes challenging, they are just as often very straightforward. I have not enjoyed equally every book selected over the past 20 months but I have been exposed to many new authors I'm sure I'd have missed. And the % of winners for this club compared to the others I'm in is not even close.

In what circumstances has a democratic process let you down?

     

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Musical MVP

Who in your life do you rely on to turn you onto good music? Although I've always had a lot of sources, my brother clearly deserves the MVP (most valuable person) designation over the long run.

Without my brother purchasing a 1984 double LP called "That's The Way I Feel Now", I doubt I would have ever developed the appreciation I have for the compositions of Thelonious Monk. He was also the first person I knew who listened to guitarist Pat Metheny. And though we might have learned about Tom Waits around the same time (as the composer of the Eagles song "Ol' 55"), he was the one brave enough to buy Waits' exceedingly strange early recordings as well as introducing me to an early soulmate of Waits named Rickie Lee Jones. Although I might have started him on Santana and King Crimson and Steely Dan when I got each of their debut albums, he went in very deep with those three artists and has continued to keep me up-to-date with them whenever I get inattentive, lazy or cheap.

To this day, I rely on my brother more than anyone else. The CD mix he made for me last Christmas helped get me into the musical present almost as skillfully as the mix my 22 year old daughter made. Not bad for an old fart. Thanks bro.     

Monday, November 7, 2011

Questions From Geekland

As an extrovert, I fit the predictive profile of having a preference for knowing something about lots of subjects (i.e. breadth) vs. the profile of introverts who often prefer to know a great deal about a smaller number of subjects (i.e. depth). I'm usually comfortable with this element of the extroverted part of myself.

That said, when I listen to the scholars featured on the Teaching Company's "Great Courses" series, I am in awe as well as a bit jealous of the depth on display, whether the lecturer is an introvert or not. Most recently, I've been listening to a series called "Classics of  American Literature" with lectures by Dr. Arnold Weinstein from Brown University. When this man rhapsodizes about Herman Melville (for 6 CDs worth!), I am spellbound and amazed. Others who lecture in the "Great Courses" series, on a wide array of topics, are equally astounding; none of these people are household names.

I realize my mild envy of these academics puts me solidly into Geekland. Still, I hope that any of you who have been exposed to scholars like these, through the "Great Courses" or otherwise, could agree that they deserve at least as much attention as those who regularly populate the cover of "Us" magazine. And snarky comment aside, as always, I'm left with questions for all of you. To my fellow extroverts: What experiences or situations have left you with a longing for less breadth and more depth? Introverts: Same question - just reverse the words breadth and depth. For anyone uncomfortable self describing with either word or for those who do not accept the notion of any bi-polar construct, thanks for reading this far; no questions for you today.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An Exhausting Battle

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes"
 Walt Whitman

Montaigne, Emerson & Whitman have each taught me something about the folly of consistency. But even with great teachers like these, I repeatedly struggle with this. With Election Day approaching, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a thinking politician running for high office. I've established a position on an issue. Then, during the campaign, I'm exposed to information persuading me to change that position. I recall my teachers and outline for voters how I've now shifted my view. Would quoting Whitman save me from being labeled a "flip-flopper"? How would voters know what I stood for if I didn't stay consistent? When was the last time you reversed yourself on something? What was that like for you?

Even with something as prosaic as this blog, I struggle. Will I write something this week or month in direct opposition to something I wrote in March or July? On more than one occasion, I've begun writing my couple of paragraphs and then recall having said something different in an earlier post. Uh-oh; suppose someone remembers and catches an inconsistency? What an exhausting battle this is. Is anyone else tired? 
 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

And The Chorus Of Public Opinion Says...

Recently overheard: A discussion about the difference between transformative and transcendent experiences. And the chorus of public opinion says - Who cares?

But being the word geek I am, it took a lot of will power to resist jumping into this conversation. And the chorus of public opinion says - Get a life, Pat. Anyone still reading? If so, here is a sincere question: Where is the reasonable line separating useful distinctions between words from what is sometimes called splitting hairs? I'm unsure what the chorus of public opinion would answer. But for me that line exists even as it shifts frequently. For example, today I can more easily cite experiences from my life that helped me transcend earlier limitations vs. experiences that transformed me. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to join in that conversation. And the chorus of public opinion says - Stop eavesdropping, Bozo. 

Fair enough. But before I stop, what experiences from your life would you call transcendent (or transformative)? And equally important, what learning did you extract?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Honoring A Genuine Hero

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/being-tested.html

When I posted the above soon after starting this blog, I did not mention anyone by name. However, I clearly recall having several people in mind; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not one of them.

Earlier today, as I learned about Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran priest who actively resisted the Third Reich's ideology, I realized I'd stumbled onto a genuine hero. And as often happens to me when I'm exposed to people of such moral courage, I was simultaneously inspired and demoralized. How do you react when you learn about people like Bonhoeffer?

Right after posting this, I'm visiting the library to see if they have a biography about this remarkable man. If I'm unsuccessful finding that, I'll scour the Internet for articles etc. on him. No matter how meager my acts of bravery have been compared to his, I'll be a better person honoring his life by learning more about him.      

Carrying On (And...Two You Might Have Missed)

Being as goal-driven as I am, when I started this blog back in March, I had some measures of success in my head. But the discipline of posting most days has produced creative benefits in me I did not anticipate. Those benefits have led me to adjust my success measures and continue even when I'm feeling a little discouraged.

The creative benefits I mentioned have not been the only surprise. Although I post most days, I only share a post with my Facebook network about once a week.  Even so, two of my most viewed posts are ones I did not publicize via Facebook meaning they were otherwise "discovered" - cool.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/07/in-hands-of-master.html
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/06/blogging-away-blues.html
(Because this particular post is not going to my Facebook network, I figured it was low risk being so self-referential here - sorry if you already read either of the above)

And another reason I've continued despite not reaching some of my initial goals? It's possible being public about some of my own foibles might reach someone in a way I will never know. Like many people, I want to believe I'm making a difference, however small.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Choosy Mr. Id

How is it Mr. Id can choose from well over 50 different varieties of cereal but there are only two viable political parties at his disposal? And don't tell him about having more than two choices when he gets in the ballot box. When was the last time someone other than a Democrat or a Republican was elected to a significant public office? Put another way, when did anyone last see a color aside from red or blue on those TV maps? Imagine if there were just Rice Krispies and Cherrios on grocery shelves - mayhem would ensue. The consuming public would revolt! What about the voting public?

Who represents us in Government is arguably among the most critical choices we get to make as citizens. But instead of several options, we're essentially stuck with an odious either/or. How can something so important be relegated to this antiquated bi-polar construct? 

Mr. Id has been chastised for "wasting" his vote in the past on someone who has no chance of winning - that would be someone not a donkey or elephant. Mr. Id pleads guilty by reason of sanity. In his further defense he offers the following: Red & blue are not alone on the spectrum; that ark had more than donkeys & elephants on it; Captain Crunch is still available at a store near you.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Cocktail & A Conundrum

Having a good memory has come in handy a lot for me. In several domains of my life, e.g. with music, in relationships, for learning, I've been grateful for this trait.

Here's the rub. I'm a little thin skinned. So when someone says something that hurts my feelings, which is not hard to do, I tend to remember it for a long time. A friend of mine used to refer to this tendency as part of my "Irish discourse". But I'm the 6th generation on my Father's side (the Irish part of my heritage) to be born in the U.S., so I'm not inclined to accept ethnic explanations. To me it just seems like I remember too much. Which two traits of yours when combined add up to an unpleasant cocktail like these two of mine do? What are your strategies for working around your cocktail? What suggestions do you have for me?

Forgive & forget? I've gotten a bit better at the forgive part of that equation as I've gotten older. The forget part? Got myself a little conundrum there, don't I?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Over-Simplifying

In an animated conversation last night, I heard myself offering an over-simplified explanation to a complex issue being discussed. And even though I know better, sometimes the temptation to do this is hard to resist, isn't it?

Like most of us, I have some favorites. For example, when a conversation is about money and/or inequality in our economic system, my kneejerk simplification is that greed is the root of the problem. If I heard someone in the media making a pronouncement like this, I'd call them a dunce. If someone I was conversing with over-simplified to this degree, I'd try to point out some nuances the person was overlooking. I want others to do the same for me, including pointing out any over-simplifying detected on this blog.

It's possible we fall into this habit because the problems in our world can be overwhelming. I know at times I crave simple answers as a coping mechanism. It's harmless so long as I remember to re-visit the questions later when I can better handle complexity.
 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Jekyll & Hyde Day

Ever had a day where you felt a little like two different people? Without being glib about mental illness or trying to seem dramatic, today was one of those days for me. I'll begin with the part that put me in an empty glass frame of mind early this a.m.

According to Time magazine this week, since the dawn of man 50,000 years ago, an estimated 108 billion people have walked the face of the earth, including the almost 7 billion alive today. For whatever reason, those incomprehensibly vast numbers had a pronounced negative effect on me. I almost blogged right then but what came to me was way too somber. I took a walk and wrote in my journal instead and then busied myself with other stuff, recalling a pertinent line of dialogue from the movie "The Human Stain":  "Action is the enemy of thought".

Later in the day I was reviewing my notes from Nina Sankovitch's book "Tolstoy & The Purple Chair" for an upcoming book club discussion. In those notes I re-read a question I promised myself I'd remember & use in the future. My question was inspired by something the author of "Tolstoy..." said early in her book:  "How can I use my memories of times when I was filled with peace or overflowing with love or suffused with gratitude to sustain me when I'm low?" I summoned one of those memories and the glass filled to the brim. After shaking off the mental whiplash, I thought about what I might write later here. And I wondered - Have you had Jekyll & Hyde days like this?         

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blogging & Blah, Blah, Blah

Though the online conversation I envisioned this blog might inspire has not been as robust as I'd hoped, I have noticed how much more satisfied I've been with my offline conversations since I started blogging. And though I'm selfishly pleased when a conversation is connected to one of my postings, I've tried to not initiate those conversations. Even so, several times since March, people have begun conversations with me by saying something like "..You know that blog you wrote about blah, blah, blah, well, blah, blah, blah..."

Though I can be just as self-centered as the next person, I do try to then move these conversations away from whatever I wrote and elicit answers to any questions I posed online. I'm interested to hear what others think about the subjects of my postings - that's why I wrote about the subject to begin with. And though I'm not above conversations about people or events, I now prefer conversations exploring the realm of ideas. I've detected an increase in those types of conversations in my life lately; it's possible my blog is helping that.

You? What kinds of conversations most appeal to you? How much is dependent on the mood and/or others involved? How inclined are you to dive below the surface? And what do you think about the causal link I'm suggesting between blogging and more satisfying blah-blah-blahing?

Friday, October 21, 2011

A 45 RPM Version Of Constructivism

"We don't see the world as it is but as we are".

Because of the work I began doing in the early 90's, I've spent the last 20 years paying a lot more attention to the way my language shapes my world. Thanks to Albert Ellis I learned of the effect of "shoulding" on myself and others and "musterbation". Via Deborah Tannen and other linguists I became more aware of the folly of speaking in absolutes like always/never and everybody/nobody. And Fernando Flores helped me shed some weak and/or insincere expressions like "I'll try" and also to begin to speak more powerfully.

My newest challenge in this world of cognitive restructuring is to begin reducing language that helps send a message of certainty. You've all heard many of these - "I'm sure (positive, certain) of it".  Or.. "I know this for a fact". Language that says to others - "This is the Capital T Truth". Which expressions of certainty do you use that help shut down inquiry or meaningful dialogue with others? Ever been trapped in a certainty loop like I was today? 

I was driving with a friend. Although the GPS was directing us, I said more than once I was sure we were going the wrong direction. My patient friend did not react. When I realized I'd been incorrect, I recognized how my certainty had temporarily blinded me. Was my word of certainty ("sure") before or after the thought of being "sure"? Doesn't matter. My language had let me down. We create our worlds with words. In this instance, I tried in vain to make my world fit my words and was reminded - there is work to be done here. I'll begin with some of my language of certainty. That approach has worked for me before.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Dance

What are some things you do when you've decided you'd like to know a work colleague or acquaintance better? How likely are you to make the "first move" in an attempt to get a relationship to a new level? How much does your spouse or partner come into your thinking as you begin this dance with someone?

I've found myself re-learning the steps to this dance a lot in my life. Like most people, I'm initially drawn to people with whom I have something in common. Early in my adult life, that often meant being drawn to musicians. But I found the element of competition sometimes got in the way there. Some of my friends in academia have told me competition in their world can have a similar effect, i.e. relationships remaining superficial despite many common interests. Do any of your competitive instincts interfere with this dance?

Being in a new location for over 18 months, both my wife and I have had a fair amount of practice with this dance lately. Although we're doing OK, I'm interested in strategies that may have worked for you. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Soundtrack For A Life

I just conceived a new music project. And being that this is the first music project of its kind I've kicked off since beginning this blog, I've decided to enlist your help.

If you had to choose 12-18 songs (i.e. the length of the average CD) for the soundtrack of a life, what would they be?  My first criteria, which doesn't have to be one of yours if you decide to do your own soundtrack, is to make sure I have an original song from each decade I've been around; I was born in 1949. I've already got some ideas for each of those eight decades but I'm very open to your suggestions.

Some additional criteria: I don't want to duplicate any one artist; I want a mixture of tempos, especially since I'm pre-disposed to ballads; for songs with lyrics, I'd prefer to transcend "love" as the central subject (Full disclosure: "There's No Easy Way",  a James Ingram ballad from 1985, is a tune already strongly in the running and it is a quintessential heartbreak/love song - but it fits my soundtrack). Last: No genre is ruled out - the more musical variety, the better.

Ready? Set? Go!    

Monday, October 17, 2011

Over-Rated Virtues

What are some of your choices for over-rated virtues? My top choice = maturity.

This past weekend, a friend's son told me he'd long ago heard me say one of my aims in life was to be called immature forever. Aside from being pleased he remembered something I'd said, I soon realized this remains true. I'm no Peter Pan. I have no interest in dressing like people much younger than me; I've always been involved with women close to my own age; I don't pretend to get the SNL jokes that are meant to exclude the old farts (me). At the same time, I have little tolerance when I hear "act your age" or worse, when people suggest I consider not doing things they deem "age-inappropriate". What does that mean anyway?

When I want to be silly, maturity be damned. If I want to go somewhere to dance, I refuse to be intimidated or self-conscious doing what Billy Crystal called "the white man's over-bite" even if most everyone else on the dance floor is the same age as my daughter. Frankly, being mature has often struck me as a bit...boring.

Maybe I should have saved this to use as a Mr. Id post? Anyway, which virtues strike you as being over-rated? 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Would George Say?

"The problem with communication is the illusion it has been accomplished" - George Bernard Shaw

What would Shaw have said if he'd lived long enough to experience what passes for communication in the age of the Internet, talk radio, and the yapping of pundits in a 24 hour news cycle?

I doubt that I'm alone in my dismay over the dismal state of communication in the early 21st century. A few days ago this was brought into stark relief when I was surprised listening to a radio conversation about illegal immigration. The source of my surprise? The two speakers, representing opposing viewpoints, were civil, did not raise their voices or interrupt, and acknowledged the valid points made by the other side. Later I realized my surprise at this normal exchange of ideas was itself profoundly sad.

When did saying it louder & uglier become the norm? Shaw may have been talking more about private (vs. public) communication. And maybe the 19th century was just as bad in both arenas. Unfortunately, most of us live today in a world where it's much harder to escape the screaming than it was in George's day.     

Friday, October 14, 2011

Edgy Vs. Everyday

At the conclusion of the short stories of James Joyce, a character often experiences what literary scholars later termed an epiphany. In educational settings, teachers long for times when they induce something similar in their students - an "aha" moment. Whatever these moments are called, they are magical.

For years I've kept a little notebook to record my own. When I recently re-read some of my notebook entries, I noticed the number of entries I recorded were more spread out during periods when my life was going along routinely. During rough patches, but especially following an edgy experience of any kind, the number of insights I captured increased, sometimes significantly. Is this consistent with your experience of "aha" moments? In other words, does the edgy yield more insight than the everyday?            
     
I'm avoiding giving this particular observation any more attention than writing about it here. And I'm clearly not anxious to repeat some of the behaviors that helped make those experiences edgy just so I can have more in my notebook. But I am going to try to tune in a little more to the everyday for future insights. Why not try that with me? Then we can let each other know how it goes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 5: Risk

I've resisted writing this post because for me, the word risk is fraught with so much baggage. Playing it safe (aka being risk averse) has never been part of the life story I've constructed. Yet when I look at some of my biggest life choices, it's hard to square my story with the facts.

It's not that I've taken no risks in my life. However, my choices when it comes to taking any risk with money have been negligible. And after age 35, the same thing applies about risk I took vis-a-vis work or what can only loosely be called my "career". In those domains, I played it very safe indeed.

Risk in my relationships? I'd call that a mixed bag. But I'm afraid saying I've taken a lot of risk in that area would be stretching it. How about you? What has been your relationship to this tricky word? Equally important, what stories have you created around the word? And what impact have those stories had on your choices?     

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Against The Current

Being contrary for a good portion of my life has often cost me dearly. I can think of only one instance in my life when being contrary has paid a dividend: my resistance to ever getting involved with drugs - any drugs.

I realize many people besides myself have resisted drugs so calling this decision contrary might seem ill-named. But during the impressionable years of my late adolescence and then into college & young adulthood, drugs played an outsize role in the musical culture I was immersed in. Nearly all my important relationships were with other musicians - drugs were everywhere. Although I had the de rigeur look of a musician (no contrary impulses there), somehow the drugs didn't entice me. To this day, I can offer no reasonable explanation for my resistance aside from being contrary. But, I remain grateful I did resist.

When in your life did you swim against the current? How do you explain your resistance? What is your present day perspective on that resistance - grateful? regretful? proud? confused? 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Words That Count

When in your life have the kind words of others really meant something to you? How often have you acknowledged aloud how much someone means or meant to you?

I've recently been tuning in more and noticing how much kind words can mean to others. And though I've always been proud of my willingness to tell those I care about how I feel about them, my growth edges in this area are to be more specific and more concise. I'm working on ensuring my words of love, esteem, or condolence count.

My awareness about this was renewed when I watched the video made at my March 2010 retirement celebration. The kind words said about me that night later helped me in my words of condolence to a friend just a few weeks after watching the video. The two situations had nothing in common except those words that count.             

Sunday, October 9, 2011

John Brown Day

While I understand the thinking behind having a holiday to honor Columbus, there are so many historical figures worthy of being so remembered. Who are your nominations?

I'm starting with figures that history has shown to be ahead of the curve. So I hereby declare October 9 John Brown day in honor of the 19th century abolitionist. His name and legacy have been on my mind (along with Columbus) for a few months based on reading James Loewen's 1995 book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong". Although I've always been suspicious of much of the history I was taught, this book is so scrupulously researched I now know I was foolishly naive for years.

Although we appropriately honor Columbus as a great explorer, tomorrow I will also reflect on the dark side of his legacy: an exploiter of native people. And today I celebrate John Brown, who deserved to pay the ultimate price for taking the law into his own hands but also a man on the right side of history.     

Friday, October 7, 2011

Remembering Old Friends

Taking notes - writing on the back page and margins - making an entry in a book journal - discussing with others (in a group or otherwise) - blogging

Using a combination of all these techniques helps me to recall a little more of what I read. What do you do? If you don't do anything, how many times have you re-read a book almost all the way through only to realize you'd read it before? On July 6, 1999 I finished Anne Tyler's 1998 novel "Patchwork Planet". At that time my main technique, aside from discussions with my wife, was writing a brief note on the last page. My note on 7/6/99 said: "Of Tyler's work I've read, this is one of her 'smallest', although some nice turns of phrase." On July 31, 2001, until I saw my note on that last page, I didn't know I'd finished the book just 2 years before. I decided right then to begin combining several techniques. To me books are cherished friends; I no more want to forget one than the other. My misanthropic conjecture? I've probably learned more from some OK books than I have from some people I've encountered. How about you?

I admit using all of the techniques above might strike some as obsessive. (Uh-oh, I just realized I also often "cast" books but only novels that haven't yet been made into a film). But based on the meager readership of this blog, my secret is reasonably safe.   

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My First Chicken Or Egg Question

For you, which comes first more often, the tendency to judge yourself or to judge others?
Although I know the Zen tradition would say these tendencies are one and the same, I'm not evolved enough to fully get that. The whole judging thing has been a lifelong struggle for me - Buddhist monks are not easy to come by. I have met a few people who have assisted me with this struggle; I'm grateful for that. And I try to stay mindful using techniques I've picked up from books as well as what I've learned from helpful folks.

I have also wondered if some of us are simply hard-wired to judge more. I've largely resisted that notion because it would give me a neat rationalization; like most of us, I've already got plenty of those to help me excuse my bad behaviors. The numerous psychometric assessments I've taken that purport to measure tendencies or preferences or personality traits just muddy the waters more. Do I accept the results of those assessments at face value? Can a leopard change its spots? Etc.

So, I'm back to the chicken and egg: Which judging usually comes first for you? Or, are you a cyber-Buddhist that can help me add to my bag of tricks?        

    

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Always Searching

As you get older, is it harder for you to find new music that really juices you? I can always go back and find new covers of great tunes by Gershwin, Smokey Robinson, Lennon & McCartney etc. But I have to admit, curmudgeonly as it sounds, I'm having more trouble these days finding new stuff that grabs me by the throat. I'd be very curious to hear any recommendations you have.

Having a 22 year old definitely helps. At my request, not long ago she filled up a CD for me with stuff from a variety of contemporary artists. Of all those she picked, the artist whose original material has grabbed me the most is the Black Keys. Recently, I've also noticed that when I ask who is doing the unfamiliar tune I'm listening to in a public space (like a coffee shop), the answer has been "the Black Keys" more than a few times. Happened to me yesterday; the tune - "Have Love, Will Travel". Heard it yet? No? Get it in your I-tunes library, now. (At least I'm not such an old fart that I'd say "buy the album" (sic).

But I'm always searching for more so please, send me your ideas. If you share it with me via a public comment (much easier to do now that I changed a default setting on this site), others will benefit. Win-win.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My Germ Or Yours?

Though I don't remember what originally motivated me, years ago I got started on a quirky project. I researched to find the names of people who had died the day I was born in the city of my birth. After choosing one (I'll spare you how I made that choice), I then went back to that person's birthdate to find people who'd died that day and chose one. I got as far back as a 16th century birth/death convergence before stopping. I said it was quirky, didn't I?

Back on earth, circa mid-September 2011: I notice a movie called "Birth", starring Nicole Kidman, in the library DVD section and read the box. The central premise: A young boy, claiming to be a woman's deceased husband, begins trying to convince her of that. OK, now the weird part: The boy's age is identical to the number of years her husband has been dead. And, there's a murky scene early in the film that seems to suggest a connection between the husband's death and the boy's birth. Goosebumps, anybody?

After licking my wounds and discarding a ridiculous fantasy about an unsupportable claim of plagiarism against the screenwriter, I settled in to watch. I most enjoyed the matter-of-fact way this movie presented the intriguing premise; a little Gothic, perhaps, but I loved that I did not know where it was all going to land. (Hey, that's also kind of like my project!) There is one very disturbing sexual scene in the film so this posting is not a recommendation, per se. But the un-predictability was wonderful. What was the last film you saw that surprised you a lot?

More to the point: What were your private thoughts when you've had a similar experience to mine, i.e. a germ of an idea you've had later becomes reality, however altered?  I'm now dusting off my project. Though I liked this movie, there's more to my idea than what the movie used. When I finish they can come after me.

  

 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Ahas", "Uh-Ohs", & The Rest Of Us

In my experience working with large organizations, the outer edges of the bell curve are often elegantly demonstrated by two very small groups of people. I've named them the "aha" group and the "uh-oh" group. I am anxious to hear how this reflection matches up with your experiences in large organizations.

The "aha" group are those who are almost universally trusted, liked, & respected. Not coincidentally, they are usually very good at their work. Stephen Covey would say these people combine exceptional character with competence. It's difficult to find others with bad things to say, personal or professional, about them.

The "uh-oh" group are those who most others try to avoid. Though not necessarily incompetent, a reputation for being difficult or divisive can obscure their skills. When others speak of people from this group, the language is often guarded or tentative, at best. And you don't have to search far to hear much worse.

And the overwhelming majority of people in large organizations, in my experience? On the bell curve, just like me. If you're working now in a large organization (and you've been there long enough to be a "known quantity"), where would you fall in an informal, totally unscientific poll? On the edge of the bell curve as an "aha"? On the other edge as an "uh-oh"? Or, somewhere on the bell curve?

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Life Cut Short

We met just 18 months ago so I did not know him well. But I liked him immediately, as did my wife; her instincts about people are rarely off the mark.

We shared a passion for reading and a fondness for the films of Christopher Guest. Though he was 15 years younger, he too loved the Beatles and Jeff Beck. But on the one occasion when we broke bread, afterwards he listened attentively and appreciatively when a friend and I played jazz standards.

He was good at his work. I know this because he was the project manager when we had major renovations done on our home. And, he willingly took on the task of raising another man's children, along with their mother, a woman he obviously adored.

Taking the measure of any life cut short is folly. Instead, I will honor this good man's passing by reminding myself to be grateful for the riches of my almost 62 years. If my mindful gratitude extends beyond my sadness about his death, that state of grace will be his gift to me.

 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Perplexing Habit

Of the things I do regularly that waste time, the one I'm most perplexed by is my habit of reading about film. I also spend a fair amount of time actually watching films but I've got some neat rationalizations worked out for why that habit isn't wasting time. Which of your "wasting time" habits most perplexes you?

This particular habit is fresh on my mind because of a recent trip to the library. On this trip, I had with me two books I was reading as well as my journal. So far, so good - an afternoon of reading & writing. Then I made the mistake of walking by the reference section and noticed Leonard Maltin's 2011 edition of  "Movie & Video Guide". The first edition of this encyclopedic tome was published in 1969 and since 1988 it has been updated annually. Presto - 3 hours of my life disappeared.

OK, 3 hours is not so bad you say. But... I own the 1993 edition of Maltin's book and it is so marked up from perpetual re-reading (etc.) that the cover has fallen off - I'm not exaggerating. And, this is not the first instance when I've wasted time in a library or book store on a subsequent edition of his book. I have also read (and re-read) many other books on film, often convincing myself I do so for my "education". The only time I've been able to make any use of this silly habit is playing the Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit. Unfortunately, no one wants to waste time playing that - totally understandable.

Is there a support group that can help me with this?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Your Questions, Please

Anyone who has read this blog at least a few times has likely noticed I'm inclined to ask a lot of questions here. Getting better asking questions is one of the most important skills I've developed as an adult. And among those who know me personally, I'm confident a majority have noticed my growth in this area in face-to-face interactions as well.  

What questions have you discovered that get others talking? Although I've got a whole slew of my own (and yes, I have a list) one of my favorites is "What has become clearer to you since we last met?"; I recall reading somewhere that was a question Emerson asked others when he encountered them on the street. Though I like it, I have also discovered that one doesn't work quite as well with people who might be described as introverts. What differences have you noticed about questions more suited to introverts vs. more outgoing types?

A good friend recently told me she'd stopped reading my blog as regularly because "...I don't want to think so much...". Uh-oh; too many questions I fear. But right now, good questions are more interesting to me than what I sometimes hear offered as answers. Guess I'm getting a little suspicious of what passes for certainty these days. So, come on, help me add some more questions to my list and then hide when you next see me.    

Monday, September 26, 2011

Something Had To Give

How many books are on your current "want to read" list? Of those books, how many are by authors you've already read? How do you decide whether to return to an author, given the volume of titles available?

In 2010, for the first time in my life, the number of actual book titles on my "want to read" list went down. But, having been exposed to so many wonderful authors new to me over the last 18 months, I can easily replenish that list by either adding titles from back catalogs or paying attention to new releases; what a blast.

Some of the "new" authors I'm sure I'll be re-visiting for years to come are Lloyd Jones (based on reading "Mr. Pip"), Tom Franklin ("Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter"), Amy Bloom ("Away"), Martin Amis ("House of Meetings"), William Boyd ("Brazzaville Beach"). And since my first blog post in mid-March, I've mentioned several other authors whose work has grabbed me in a big way.

I'm now using just one question to help me decide if I'll return to an author: If I'd never read another book by this person, would I return to them based on the strength of this book alone? This question is helping me keep my list manageable and also reminding me to give someone I'd given up on earlier in life (for whatever reason) at least one more chance. Only downside: If I'd never before tried an author and the first book I now read by them doesn't grab me, I'm not returning. Too many books and authors - finite years ahead; something had to give.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Any "C" Students Out There?

The name of my blog was chosen thoughtfully. To reflect from the bell curve, by definition, one must be on the bell curve. If I thought of myself as someone exceptional (i.e. not on the bell curve), I would have chosen a different blog name. Maybe - " Looking At Others On The Bell Curve?"  I'm neither proud nor ashamed of being un-exceptional. As is often and sometimes annoyingly heard these days "it is what it is."

But, I did recently learn how unsettling it can be to someone who feels exceptional to be thought of as "average", that is, like me, to be on the bell curve. Using a 1-5 scale and greatly simplifying, being on the bell curve means not being the lowest (1) or highest (5) for a particular domain; a "3" on that scale represents average, kind of like getting a "C" in a class. Here's a short list demonstrating why I named my blog as I did:

a.) I believe I'm a "3" in physical attractiveness (this was the domain where I recently got in trouble with someone else).
b.) I know (empirically) I'm a "3" in general intelligence.
c.) In the U.S., I'm currently a "3" with respect to my economic station. There is a reason why the "middle" class is so named and is by far the largest - economics perfectly illustrate bell curve distribution with the broad center taking up the largest portion.

Using a 1-5 scale, where would you put yourself on a-c above? A much more ego-centric (if potentially unsettling for me) question: Do you agree with my assessment of myself for "a"? For any woman who would give me a "4" or above on that one, let's meet soon, provided my wife doesn't read this post.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Better Late Than Never

Over the past ten years I've begun to develop an appreciation for what I now recognize as my innate musical ability. The reasons why it took me almost forty years to get to this appreciation could keep several therapists gainfully employed but those reasons really don't matter. As Werner Erhard is credited saying: "Why is the booby prize".

But I have been reflecting lately about how many of us take our innate abilities for granted as long as I did. I think some of my earliest moments of appreciation occurred when I started teaching guitar regularly and noticed how some students just "get it" right away & others do not. In a parallel situation, I've many times watched people new to public speaking; some are naturals - others are not. It's not that my guitar students who don't get it right away never will or those who are not naturals cannot become effective public speakers. But the ones with an innate aptitude for either skill are readily apparent to me. Why? It's possible I see this because these are two of my own innate abilities. I can learn to be better with tools. But, that ability does not come naturally to me. I'm reasonably sure any competent carpenter would recognize this. Further, I'm almost as sure that same carpenter would have observed the same thing in me as a child.

What are your innate abilities? How have you manifested them in your life? Which of them have you perhaps taken for granted? How can you learn to appreciate them more?