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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.