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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?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Requested Update From March 23

A few days ago, I was thrilled when a reader of my blog asked me which countries my wife and I had visited (via cuisine) since March 23. This reader recalled I'd said in that early posting I'd be giving "periodic" updates.  http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/world-traveling-via-food-to-be.html

The tally after six months? Four countries. Italy, of course, was easy and we've been there more than once. In April we went to Cuba & in August to Thailand - for both those we travelled with friends. Most recently, for our 28th wedding anniversary last week, we went to Vietnam via a place in Red Bank called Pho Le. That one has been our favorite of the three more "out of the way" countries. But, my wife correctly observed their outside sign needs adjusting. That sign reads more like "p-hole" - not nearly as appetizing as their delicious food.

At this rate, I estimate we will accomplish the March 23 goal in approximately 25-27 years, provided the number of countries in the world does not significantly increase. I will, however, need to begin planning a little better so that on the (ahem) back end of those years, we're eating the cuisine of countries easier on both the teeth and digestive system.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Perfect Together

Whenever I have a day like today discovering (or re-discovering) a part of New Jersey I treasure, I'm honestly grateful for all the jokes made at the expense of this State.

Why grateful? Because every time comics and others use NJ as the butt of their jokes, I'm guessing there are people who will believe the stereotypes. And as long as that continues to be so, those believers will likely not be tempted to move here. Perhaps, they'll even spread the word to family and friends. Great -more of NJ for me and mine.

My wife and I spent the afternoon today in the Pinelands National Reserve, a beautiful quiet expanse that includes five State forests and makes up 22% of the State. It took us an hour to get there from where we live - 1 mile from the Atlantic Ocean. There's a good reason people from New York travel to the fabulous NJ beaches, not to mention all those Pennsylvania residents who come here daily because they have no ocean at all. And Kansas (etc.)? Good luck with that ocean thing. Lakes? We passed several on the way to the Pinelands; lots more in North Jersey. Skiing? Check. Hiking? Double check. Ethnic food and diversity? Well, yeah. Easy proximity to at least a half dozen great cities, including the greatest of all? No brainer. 

Though I was born in NJ and have lived here most of my life, I've been fortunate to have seen a good bit of 45 of the 49 other States; there are numerous things to recommend about many of those States. But for the forseeable future, I'm staying put. At the same time, I'm hoping every out-of-state comic gets stuck soon in a genuine Jersey traffic jam and that all the disc jockeys keep talking about ugly highways and corrupt politicians and the journalists continue to write articles about high property taxes. The less the merrier.      

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Men's Book Club, Anyone?

What do you think contributes to book clubs attracting more women than men? This is something that puzzles me because, in my experience, there is not a wide discrepancy vis-a-vis the amount of reading each gender does. Is that consistent with your experience?

In both of the clubs I currently belong to, I am one of two regular men that attends each; the first club (much larger than the other) on rare occasion has had a 3rd man. And, both of the "regular" men come with their wives. I am very welcomed at both clubs, my participation is sincerely solicited, and only once have I been asked to speak for my gender; I politely declined. Although I don't feel uncomfortable being in such a noticeable  minority, I leave each meeting wondering why this is so. In my case, it's even more puzzling because most of the books selected by both clubs have not been stereotypical "book club type" books like "The Help" or books that Oprah Winfrey might pick for her audience. I say this only to illustrate why the gender disparity for my clubs is odd to me not out of any disrespect or snobbery - I've read and greatly enjoyed many Oprah book club selections. 

My wife has continually suggested to me I should start my own book club for men. I (sort of) like the idea but wonder: Would anyone show up? 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who Gets You?

How many people in your life would you say really "get" you? Does your spouse or partner get you? Your brothers and sisters? Parents? Children? Good friends? Are the pieces of you others don't get the same for the different groups? 

Years ago when a good friend asked me how well I thought I knew my brother, I said I didn't think I knew him very well at all. My reason? I didn't feel then, and still don't, that I can know someone well unless I feel known well by that other person. There are significant parts of me I've chosen to conceal from my brother; I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn the same is true for him. Each of us has an incomplete picture. I love my brother, enjoy his company, & know I can rely on him unconditionally. He and my sisters are, along with my wife and daughter, my best friends.

But if I were listening to any of my siblings describe me to others, I'm not sure I would recognize the person they were talking about, aside from the many facts they could each recite about my life - my education, my work, my hobbies, etc. At the same time, I also would not be surprised if they were equally befuddled over-hearing me describe them to someone else. 

So, I guess the last question must be, how many people in your life do you think you really "get"? And, would they agree that you do?  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Missing David Foster Wallace

Have you ever missed someone you never knew personally? I miss the author David Foster Wallace.

Although probably best known for the novel "Infinite Jest" (a book I have yet to crack), I got a serious jones for Wallace reading two of his essay collections - "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" & "Consider the Lobster". Knowing there will never be another book of Wallace essays (a posthumous novel, "Pale King", was just released) makes me sincerely sad. He had a staggering intellect coupled with a real fondness for goofy colloquial language. Reading him feels like being in a world class library with funhouse mirrors.

There are many artists I've enjoyed in my life whose work I miss - John Lennon's and Laura Nyro's music; Robert Altman's films; John Updike's books. I'm not sure why in Wallace's case it feels more personal, but it does. Have you ever had an experience like this? If so, please share it with me and others. 

Counting To 60

What percentage of the time would you say you initially over-react to situations when you perceive you're being insulted? How about when you feel deceived? I estimate I over-react in situations like this about 50% of the time. There's a good reason that advice about waiting ten seconds before reacting has been around so long. In my case, I've now extended the time period to 60 seconds to help save me some future heartache.

Based on my coaching experience, I'm comfortable saying men and women view these types of perceived slights a little differently. I've often heard statements like "That person acted disrespectfully to me" from men. On occasion, I've said these words to myself despite coaching other men that disrespect might not be part of the equation. From women I've more commonly heard things like "That person hurt my feelings" or "That person violated my trust". What has been your experience? As a man or woman do you hear yourself in these statements?

It is possible that over-reacting is unavoidable under certain circumstances. Still, I'd like to hear from others on the bell curve about techniques you use to prevent yourself from over-reacting. Until then, I'll continue counting to 60.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Let's Bring Back Giggling

When was the last time you giggled in the uninhibited way children do? When I'm around that sound it fills me with joy but it doesn't seem to me that adults giggle very much. How come? I think it's high time to revive giggling. Why should any of us have to wait to be around kids to get the buzz giggling delivers?

So, what to giggle about? How about starting with some things that make kids giggle? The next time you unexpectedly pass gas in front of others, instead of being embarrassed, start giggling. I bet others will join you. I'll wager the giggling that ensues will trigger someone else to unexpectedly pass gas = more giggling. Or, pull out a book by Dr. Seuss, surely the patron saint of giggling. Or make up silly poems or songs, preferably using as many inappropriate names for the genitals as possible. What are your suggestions?

I think it could be genuinely liberating to have a little time in our adult lives for giggling to temporarily take the place of our pre-occupation with responsibilities. I welcomed responsibility as an adult but not to the exclusion of giggling. That was not a fair trade. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Request And Suggestion From Mr. Id

Although perhaps offered as a compliment, Mr. Id respectfully, if emphatically, requests anyone 20 years or more younger than he resists the urge to offer the following: "You're in good shape, for someone your age." The sentence can end, effective immediately, with the word "shape".

Additionally, Mr. Id suggests a moratorium on the word "spry" when referring to anyone over 60 who can play tennis for more than two hours, ride a bicycle 100 miles, ski black diamonds, etc.  Exception: If anyone under the age of 40 inclined to use that age-loaded word will heretofore accept as their descriptor the word "cute" when they themselves are observed completing any non-couch potato physical feat.

It's not over-sensitivity prompting Mr. Id's request and suggestion. Instead, it's the arrogance and magical thinking that those still in their "prime" years are displaying. Mr. Id is tested each time he hears either the ostensible compliment or the age-loaded adjective. His test: To resist uttering this sarcastic rejoinder to the "yut" (nod to Joe Pesci) in question:  "Come talk to me in 20-30-40 years and we'll see whether you had the discipline to keep up a lifelong exercise regimen". Mr. Id hopes everyone does maintain that discipline so he can say "You're in good shape!", without the insulting qualifier.    

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Awful Lot About An Awful Lot

What contributes to the human propensity for recalling the names and gruesome deeds of notorious people from history? Though I'd like to claim differently, I can often recall as many details about human depravity as I can about bravery or goodness. How about you? 

For Christmas the last five years, my wife has given me a book from a series called "the Intellectual Devotional". This year's edition, like all four previous, has a one page entry each day of the year. This year each page contains a "mini-biography" and each day of the week has a different heading. The Thursday heading is "Villains"; today's entry - Jack the Ripper. Tuesday's entry (heading - "Rebels & Reformers") was for Ida Wells. In this particular case I'd at least heard of Wells. But, as usual, I learned much more about Wells than I did about Jack the Ripper. Of the other 5 entries over the past week, Van Gogh (heading - "Authors & Artists") and Alexander Graham Bell ("Innovators") were the only ones where I knew a comparable amount vs. what I knew about the Ripper. The same rough percentage applies to most of the past weeks I've finished to date. Regularly, there are people I've never heard of but, that has occurred rarely for the villains category. I seem to know and retain an awful lot about a lot of awful people.

Does this make me a "glass half empty" person? I hope not. My only consolation: I once had a good friend whose hobby was serial killers - that struck me as creepy then and still does. I've now resolved to restrict my future reading of any book length biography to those who would fall into the other six categories from the "Intellectual Devotional". Maybe I'll start with Ida Wells - a brave and important person.        

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back (Mostly) From Anagram Land

Over the past few weeks, I've had some trouble concentrating for extended periods of time. Even reading, which is normally a way I can spend many consecutive hours, hasn't been as effortless for me. So, being the word geek I am, I distracted myself for a while late Monday night by fooling around with anagrams and palindromes. Harmless, right? 

In very little time, I learned how excessive can change into obsessive and oppressive. When I tried to return to my reading after my visit to anagram/palindrome land, I found myself messing with many of the words on the page. If the author used the word dais, I saw the word "said". When a character mentioned his Mom my mind went to Dad (& Pop). I looked at my watch - 45 minutes had gone by and I'd read (dear) only two pages (gapes). I decided it was (saw) time (emit) for bed. I did (uh-oh) not (ton) blog (glob). See what I mean (name)? My lame attempts to be facile aside, I am fully aware how this can be a serious mental problem for some. I was honestly disturbed when I went to sleep Monday night.

Since my ability to be focused is one of my strengths, I was relieved when this mental chatter let up a little on Tuesday and a little more today; my reading concentration is returning. But I did get a brief glimpse of something that gave me real pause.      

Passenger Or Driver?

Other than sleep, our work will likely occupy most of us for the largest number of hours over a lifetime of any single activity. We don't have a choice about whether to sleep or not but we do have a choice about what work we'll do. That is, in theory we have that choice.

What percentage of people have you known who have made purposeful choices about the work they do? Try asking as many people as you can what motivated them to choose their work. In my experience, well over 50% of the people I've asked say things like "I drifted into it...." or "It's a good way to make money..." or "I don't know, it just kind of happened". Most of my jobs after I had to give up playing music as my main source of income related to human development. Why? It surely was not purposeful. The main motivation was likely the fact my mother often told me when I was young that I was "born to be a teacher". Was she right? I don't know. But, my Bachelor's Degree was in Education, and after all this was my mother. So...teaching/human development it was.

How about you? A purposeful choice? With maybe 2 years excepted, I had a very satisfying work life. And I still enjoy the part time work I do, including yes, teaching guitar (thanks Mom). But for someone who has been purposeful to the point of selfish in other domains of my life, when I review my life's work choices I sometimes feel like I was a passenger nearly as much as I was a driver.    

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Headed For The Hall Of Fame

How many of us are satisfied if one out of every three decisions we make turn out well and the other two are duds? What if one out of every three of our relationships is a winner and the other two don't go anywhere? If we start three projects and only one gets successfully completed, what goes through our heads?

If a baseball player bats .333 over a lifetime he gets into the Hall of Fame. So how come up til now going one for three has not felt so good? I'm going to start using the Hall of Fame guideline to help make some of my expectations more realistic. Why not join me? A few possibilities for me below - yours?

* I'm headed for the Hall of Fame if one out of every three of my blog posts gets a reaction of any kind (online or off) from anyone.
* I'm headed for the Hall of Fame if one out of every three new songs I learn on the guitar requires me to surmount some technical challenge.
* I'm headed for the Hall of Fame if one out of every three times I begin losing my patience or temper I talk myself out of it.          

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ten Years Ago

Since it's pretty safe to assume we'll be inundated with memories of 9/11 for the next few weeks, I've decided to pre-empt that onslaught. My reason? I'm concerned the things I'll read could unconsciously slip into what I write. Do you ever wonder if your thoughts or memories are getting blurred with something you've read or heard? With an event as traumatic as 9/11, I suspect that could happen to anyone.

Like many, I was at work when the planes struck. My first journal entry (from earlier that morning) was more like a diary - some details about a mundane September 10. Since 2001 to that point had not been a great professional year for me, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. By the time I made my second journal entry on 9/11, thinking or writing about anything except the horror felt beyond my grasp.

Then when I re-read my journal for the remainder of the fall of 2001 to help me construct this posting, I was struck by the following:

1.) How quickly my life resumed it's "normal" arc (including a quickly re-newed ability to start feeling sorry for myself) and the guilt I felt about being so self-centered.

2.) How each weekend the New York Times series called "The Lives They Led" reminded me to get over myself and grieve for all that had been lost.

What did you learn about yourself ten years ago? What are you still learning?  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Literature As Lifeline

Of the books I finished during my self-imposed exile from blogging, I'm compelled to write about and highly recommend one: Tolstoy & The Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch (2011). This memoir, itself about how literature can act as a lifeline, served exactly that purpose for me. When has this happened for you?

To help herself heal from the death of her beloved older sister, Sankovitch read a book every day for a full year. Just accomplishing the reading would have been impressive enough, but the author also posted a review online every day for each of the 365 books. Now, a few years after, comes this wise and wonderful book about her "year of magical reading". Putting aside the 365, the author's writing reveals a lifelong immersion in literature. Each chapter opens with a luminous epigraph, some lifted from the 365, others not. And she skillfully toggles between the past & present - moving stories about her sisters & parents next to the events of the year as it unfolds. Finally, the book is brimming with sentences, paragraphs, sections using the "power of three" to stunning effect - "Life had unleashed its unfairness, its random dispersal of pain, its uncaring lynching of certainty".

About midway through her book, Sankovitch speaks of "The Open Door" by Elizabeth Maguire, a fictional re-imagining of the life of a 19th century author named Constance Fenimore Woolson. When Sankovitch describes how Maguire's book & Woolson's work have created  for her "...a mountain, standing glorious for all time...", I found myself thinking the same thought about Sankovitch's book. I plan to write her and say this book was a lifeline for me - a mountain, standing glorious for all time.    

     

Thursday, September 1, 2011

He's Baaaack

I feel a little Sinatra-ish, having posted a retirement from blogging on August 16 and now returning 2 weeks later. The truth? I've missed doing this despite my off-the-bell-curve action the day before I said "Adios". Sorry if that sounds cryptic; I'll take a chance anyone reading this can accept a little ambiguity while waiting to see if I'm going to be sued.  

So, why is he baaaack? Although I'm not sure of the original source or its accuracy, I've often heard (and repeated) that if you want to establish a new discipline, the key is to practice that new discipline for 21 continuous days without fail. Many times in my life I've found that guideline accurate; a comment I received re my March 24 post ( "Making Changes") even cited the same 21 day guideline. My conclusion:  Because I blogged for 25 straight days at the outset, I've now got myself a new discipline and hanging up my blog cleats is not an option. Aside from the additional navel-gazing it sometimes induces in me, at worst, blogging is a benign discipline. Not as much long term benefit as exercise, good diet, meditation, but blogging provides more immediate gratification than any of those. Right now, I need a discipline providing immediate gratification, one with a small measure of creativity. My solitary hours with the guitar sometimes give me that but those hours can also yield a degree of frustration. And reading is an irreplaceable discipline, but one where I'm more the receptor vs. the actor. So... he's baaack. 

Best case? Starting up my blog again will continue to enhance my conversations with others.