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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Slipping Away

What would you guess is your ratio for the number of friends you've let slip away vs. the number who have let you slip away? How much has that ratio shifted, if at all, over your adult life? 

For a number of reasons, I've been reflecting on friendship quite a bit lately. After reading an article on friendship in yesterday's NY Times, my reflections got a little darker. I decided to wait to blog about this subject until I had a little more distance. Late today I settled on asking myself the questions above.

I estimate my overall ratio stands at about 2:3. Early in adulthood, I'd put it at 3:1 or so and then during my 30's & 40's it was probably fairly stable (1:1). I attribute most of that stability to my wife, who is better than I at maintaining contact. Over the last 12-15 years, the shift moved the other way; 1:2 is my guess. And in the recent past it seems like I'm being let go quite a bit more than I'm letting go. A few of the people who've let me slip away recently were important enough to me that their loss feels disproportionate - it's possible my overall estimate is off.  Or, it could be my karma given the inattention I gave others in those 3:1 years.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Dirty Little Food Secret

Jalapeno or Russian Raisin bagel anyone? Some flavored coffee to go with it? How about a white pizza with eggplant?

Any of the above are good with me; I'm no purist when it comes to bagels, coffee, or pizza or many other foods. But I do firmly believe everyone has at least one food we don't want adulterated in any way from it's original, pure iteration.

Now we all know people who are purists or have lots rules about foods. I have one friend who won't eat a cheeseburger unless it's American cheese, another who has had pizza for dinner every Friday for the past 40 years. Others are picky beyond reason; some eat the same thing day-in, day-out; some eschew any ethnic foods, except Italian. But even the most catholic eaters have a dirty little secret - one food they will not tolerate if tampered with. What is yours? Come on, own up. What, you're waiting for my confession?

Ok, that's fair. Don't mess with my pancakes - I don't want fruit in them, chocolate on them, hell I don't even want syrup. Happy now? 

Paying Attention

I've got a challenge for you. Try to top the number of diversions I observed in just the car I was in the last time I was on the NYC subway. You'll need eight (8) totally unique activities to meet this challenge. In my car at least one person was:

* Doing nothing I could discern aside from being awake sitting or standing
* Sleeping
* Texting on a cellphone
* Working on a crossword puzzle
* Reading
* Having a live conversation (i.e. not on a cellphone)
* Listening to something via ear pods

Among the many useful by-products I've uncovered related to blogging is how much more I'm paying attention. As I looked around that subway car, I jotted down in my blog log the seven diversionary activities I observed. How do you ensure you're paying attention? What price might you be paying when you're not?  

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Gift To Acknowledge

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/12/gift-of-music.html

Although my December 8 post (above) got just one online comment, as has been the case many times, the offline comments & conversations have been rich. Recently a good friend dug so deep for answers to the questions I asked in that particular post that I began reflecting on other important gifts I've received.

I can't imagine my life without books. If you've read even a few of my posts since last March you know that. Who was the first person in your life whose love of books was a gift to you? Unquestionably for me it was my older sister. I clearly recall how she would devour book after book when we were young. I didn't get the bug as early as she did; music got me first. But when I started college, I remembered her example and wasn't at all surprised when my freshman English professor (Mr. Larsen, Kean College, 1967) described his rapture when he was in a library touching the books. Some of my fellow students probably thought he was deranged; I was inspired - I had my sister in my head. Gift giver #2: Thanks, Mr. Larsen.

Who else gave you this gift? I'll never forget the first apartment I walked into (I'm now a young adult) where  several full bookshelves were about the only furniture. As I browsed, many author names were unfamiliar to me. I asked my friend (happened to be the other guitar player in my band at the time) how many he'd read. When he said "...almost all of them...", I was intimidated a little but energized more. I asked him for a list of titles and authors he'd recommend. I remember many I subsequently finished including Peter Matthiessen's "At Play In The Fields of the Lord" which remains a favorite almost 40 years later. Thanks, Kenny.

I've got others who have since given me this gift but I want to hear your stories. Online, offline, e-mail, snail mail, phone calls, smoke signals, Pony Express, doesn't matter. Can you imagine your life without books?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Finally! A Payoff

After all my years of movie watching, I finally got a payoff that heretofore will justify my past (or future) lack of discrimination. No longer do I need bemoan how much time I waste/have wasted watching films.

My actress daughter has asked me to help her "catch up" on actress performances of note by recommending  films I think are worth her time. Aside from being pleased she values the opinion of her old fart/non acting father, this project means I can put to good use some of the notes I've made over the years about favorite movies. And the project also allows me to guiltlessly revel in the past; my daughter has already seen many of the great contemporary film performances by actresses.

The first two films I recommended to her were Michael Tolkin's singular vision "The Rapture" (1991) starring Mimi Rogers and Woody Allen's little seen "Another Woman" (1988) starring Gena Rowlands. If you've not seen them, you missed two towering performances. But the reason I'm blogging about this project is because maybe you've seen an actress performance this film geek missed. I'll need lots of titles; the project has no expiration date. Yippee!!

Monday, January 23, 2012

First Impressions: Books & Their People

How quickly do you form your first impression of a book? If that first impression is not favorable, how much time do you allow before giving up for good?

I'm a bit embarrassed to say I tend to give books that haven't impressed me initially more benefit of the doubt than I sometimes do people. Perhaps I trust my instincts about people more than I do my instincts about books. It's also possible I stick with some books that don't start strong because I've been sucker-punched by books that have great first sentences, paragraphs, or pages but subsequently fall short of that initial promise.

At present, for me, there's also the "apple polisher" syndrome. That is, I'm giving books assigned by my favorite book club moderator a lot of latitude. I hang in there with those even when my third or fourth impression is still not great. Mostly, I've been pleased I persisted because when I later hear the discussion, my appreciation for what I read deepens even if the book in question won't ever be on my list of favorites. But because I trust this moderator's discernment, I'm tenacious. The moderator also made a favorable first impression on me. Maybe that's no coincidence?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Too Much Vs. Not Enough

"What's become clearer to you since we last met?"

A few months ago I asked an old friend I hadn't seen in a while this question, one I'd read Emerson would ask people frequently. My friend said something like "I'm surrounded by too much 'stuff ' and not enough interaction with others". Though not his exact words, it's a fair representation; anyway, the gist of what he said landed with me. Ever since, I've been reflecting on this "too much vs. not enough" model.

What do you have too much of in your life vs. not enough? I share my friend's view, but more than that I feel like I have too much information about people who mean nothing to me, especially celebrities, and not enough live music in my life. Though one of my long standing goals has been to steadily wean myself from the celebrity diet, I've only been marginally successful. Any ideas you have to help me with this are welcome.

But the gift my friend gave to me in our conversation was helping me identify the "not enough" piece. Ever since that day, I've been searching out ways to get live music back into my life. And on that end, I'm succeeding in a big way. So even if you can't think of something you have "too much" of, spend a moment today thinking about the "not enough" part. I bet bringing whatever it is into your life will give you some joy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Second Chicken & Egg Question

Is a vivid imagination a by-product of innate curiosity? Or, does an insatiable curiosity flow from inhabiting the world of imagination from the start?

Since finishing "Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie a few weeks ago, I've had trouble escaping this chicken and egg question. It's not the first time an author's imagination has dazzled me but this time I also found myself wondering what Rushdie might have been like as a young child. Did he ask a lot of questions? Constantly explore his surroundings? Pick up lots of objects and try to figure out how they work? Then I  tried to remember myself at a young age with respect to these markers of curiosity. Do you recollect how curious you were?

Did you have many imaginary friends? Did you invent games to play with them? Did you build lots of "make believe" worlds? Your answers might easily be "yes" to these indicators of imagination as well as for the ones about curiosity above. Or, maybe one set of questions resonates more than the other for you.  But what's your recollection of which came first? That's the chicken and egg part.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Synergistic Insights

Aside from the obvious (i.e. human interaction), what is it about a good conversation that delivers such a lift?

One way I get that lift is if a fresh insight surfaces. In my experience, the richest insights don't necessarily spring from a single person. Instead, in conversations with a lot of give-and-take, I've observed a synergy occurring where several viewpoints contribute to create the insight. And though one person may articulate or summarize what has emerged, the credit is meant to be shared by all who unselfishly participated.

Because of my extroverted personality and significant ego, traits that can lead to dominating conversations and claiming insights as "mine", I must remain mindful to help ensure these synergies have room to flourish. I found myself reflecting on this while at a meeting today. When I heard the insight that later emerged from real dialogue (an insight not articulated by me), I got so juiced. How about you? When in conversations, what can you do more of, less of, or differently to help create synergistic insights?
   

   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Today

"Writing is the act of self-discovery"  - David Hare

I cited the quote above in my first blog post on March 15 of last year. The key thing I've discovered about myself over the ten months writing this blog is how important public creative expression is to me. Needy, you say? Guilty as charged. Who can lay claim to not being needy in some way?

Many days I'm unsure who is paying attention. And I'm reasonably sure some of my posts have not been read by anyone. I could be glib and say that doesn't matter; that would be untrue - I care very much. But I can't let it get in the way of continuing or allow that fact to affect the attention I give to what I'm creating. I try to vary my subject matter, keep the posts brief, and avoid unduly repeating myself. Mostly, I attempt to stay true to my original objective - reflect on things those of us on the bell curve have on our mind.

Today? I'm in a pensive and vulnerable place. What do you do when you feel this way?

Crying Uncle On The Science Of Music

After finishing "Guitar Zero" by Gary Marcus, I've concluded no book is ever going to supply me with a satisfactory answer why music has always had such a hold on me.

Marcus' book is the 4th I've now read about the spell music casts. Each was a Christmas gift given to me by either my wife or one of my sisters; all 3 know how central music is to my life. I'm sure that's why these people who love me picked these books. All are well researched; the four authors are highly accomplished in their respective fields; each book uses the most up-to-date findings in neuroscience.

But how can words and science hope to explain such a magical mystery? The authors all deserve credit for trying and they obviously love music as much or more than I. Daniel Levitin, author of "This is Your Brain On Music" (2006) was a studio musician before becoming a neuroscientist. In my mind, this gives him a slight leg up on Marcus, Daniel Storr ("Music and the Mind" - 1992 ) & Oliver Sacks ("Musicophilia" - 2007). But in the end, even Levitin's musical bona fides are not enough. I'll never give up reading about music but I'm pretty sure I've given up on the "science of music" sub-genre. That is, unless one of you has read something you think is worth the effort.         
    

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Living History

I was an 18 year old college freshman on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

I remember the day clearly. Walking across campus, the first question I thought to ask my closest black friend was if he hated me. He answered by saying something about how angry he was at white people that day but that no, he did not hate me. I recall being relieved. I was so young, so naive and I so wanted to be liked. Where were you that day? Who in your life was hit hardest by King's death?  

Much later, when the talk started about establishing a holiday in King's honor, I have an even clearer recollection. I thought - How can this be? I was alive when King was. How is it possible his historic importance escaped me? Was it because I was young and so self-centered? Or, is it because his place in the grander scheme wouldn't have been part of the conversation in my white world?

Did you know you were living history if you were alive when Martin was? I did not. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Learning From A Sting

I have not ever...
* Been followed in a mall, harassed by a police officer, or asked to "speak for" others because of my race
* Been hounded by a boss for a date or looked over my shoulder in a parking garage because of my sex
* Struggled to get into a restaurant or had a server ask others "what will he have?" because of a disability
* Been hesitant to discuss my romantic relationships in any context because of my sexual orientation

Being a straight white man with no disabilities has allowed me to avoid many unpleasant, uncomfortable and ugly situations. But even us SWMs (w/no disability) have trouble avoiding the sting of stereotyping.

I was enjoying the give and take of a pleasant conversation with a new friend. After I spoke a bit about my work before I retired, suddenly I was  "...a State worker..." - exact words. Though I did not fully process this until I replayed the conversation later, the way those words were said made me feel my value had been somewhat diminished. That stung a little. My sting compared to the pain that can be inflicted by the examples listed above? Apples to dinosaurs. And in this case I didn't sense even a hint of malice in the stereotype. I like this person a great deal and don't plan on letting this interfere with the relationship. Still, it stung.

My takeaway? I'm renewing my own commitment to avoid stereotyping others. I've got a few groups I still struggle with; not "State workers" - I've known too many good ones. Suggested strategies to help me?

Lucky Seven

Who were some of your early same gender role models? How much influence did they have on how you evolved as a woman or man?

As my daughter's 23rd birthday approaches, I've been reflecting on how grateful I am for the women she had around her as she grew up. First and foremost is her mother - a strong, intelligent & independent woman. From the beginning, my two sisters have been a critical  part of her life - always encouraging, supportive and loving. Then there are her four older girl cousins, my nieces, each of whom has exerted a unique and subtle influence. Seven women - each contributed, modeled, & helped my daughter see women in a wholly positive light.

Because both of her Grandmothers were gone before she was born and my wife's family is geographically distant, my daughter was fortunate indeed. She still ended up surrounded by an entrepreneur, 3 teachers, a mother/part time business woman, a sports therapist, and a journalist - 9 college degrees altogether. As she finds her own way now, she still has her lucky seven whenever she needs them. It's a good number.              

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Calibrations Required?

My wife and I have been together almost 34 years and lived together about 32.  Early in a conversation I was having recently with a new friend, I casually mentioned how my wife and I shifted responsibility several years ago for which of us would be in charge of tracking our financial situation.

As the conversation continued I found myself reflecting on how many of these shifts my wife and I have made during our time together in order to keep things humming along. I remarked to my friend that these shifts are like the frequent calibration those old analog scales needed in order to accurately show your weight. When you think back on longstanding relationships, what are some tweaks you recall making to keep things purring? Which were the hardest for you? No fair saying "putting the toilet seat down".

Though I can think of shifts I've made with my brother and sisters to keep those relationships (mostly) humming for 58-60 years, I only lived with the 3 of them for the first 20. And, we had our parents to act as referees if things got out of hand. So it's possible more tweaking is needed when it's just two people in a (theoretically) equal partnership. Your thoughts? Now as far as the shifts/tweaks needed to keep a relationship with a parent purring? Major calibrations required there and I've got my list. But I think I'll save it for a professional; blogs need boundaries, don't you think?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Monday, Monday (etc.)

When you hear the names of the days of the week, what songs do you have trouble getting out of your head? I hear several for each but oddly, nothing for Thursday. What song do you hear with Thursday?

Easiest ones for me? Based on the title of this post, I'm sure you guessed one. I'm betting some of you  heard Papa John Philips' voice as you read that title. Even better, I hope you heard Mama Cass joining in with that wonderful harmony as the second verse starts. Tuesday? I hear Ira Gershwin's wonderful lyric to his brother George's beautiful melody in the middle section of "The Man I Love" ("...Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day..."). Sung by? You pick. With a song that great it hardly matters. Oh, OK, not Michael Bolton.

I've got multiple melodies in my head for Wednesday, Friday, & Saturday too but I'd rather hear about what you hear. Sunday? My head is clamoring. Just for Spanky & Our Gang alone there's "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" (try getting that hook out of your head!) & "Sunday Afternoon". Or, go back to Ira & George again; same song, different day - Sunday, which rhymes with....Monday. But wait...now Ira & George are competing with John & Cass. Oh man, see what I mean?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Only Fitting Word

Since early June I've spent nearly every Friday morning doing farmwork in Howell at a place called Celtic Charms. Celtic Charms specializes in therapeutic horseback riding for people with a wide range of disabilities. On occasion, I've also assisted the certified riding staff.

This past Friday a regular rider called to cancel his lesson because he was having a "...bad morning..."; I didn't give it much thought at the time. After I left the farm Friday, my wife and I spent the remainder of the day visiting a friend in a Philadelphia hospital. Saturday passed quietly; lots of reading, a little guitar, a visit to NYC to spend time with my daughter.

When I woke today, that rider's "...bad morning..." came back to me. Later in the a.m., I found myself recalling "...bad mornings..." my blind and visually impaired clients would describe to me during the years I worked at the Commission For The Blind. Soon after, I thought of my friend who has had several rough years and remains in the hospital until Tuesday. What I originally thought I'd blog about today now seems superficial. Perspective strikes me as the only word fitting today; a day that started with a good morning.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Guilty Of Naivete

I'm having quite a bit of trouble getting comfortable with the fairly common practice here at the NJ shore of tearing down old homes and building new ones, often twice as big, on the same lot. I can appreciate the need to build a new house when an old one is structurally unsound. If only that was the norm.   

A few weeks ago as my wife and I were walking we saw signs for a yard sale. When we got to the house we were both charmed. It was close in size, age & condition to ours. Then we noticed everything was being sold - railings, fixtures, the slab of slate in the entry foyer. When we asked, we were not surprised to learn the house would soon be demolished but our good mood was dampened. When did bigger become de facto better? Some call this progress; I'm not convinced. How about you?

Any developer stumbling across this blog would likely call me naive and have a good laugh reading this. I wonder how that developer would feel watching a home they'd once lived in being torn down just so a bigger one could be built? I'm probably naive for wondering that as well. Oh well; I've been called worse.    

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Discerning Reader's Dilemma

I have what I'll call a discerning reader's dilemma. I'd like your help if you've had an experience like mine.

To avoid being unduly influenced, when choosing contemporary (i.e. non-"classic") novels I try to avoid reading what critics have said or paying attention to which books have won awards or made "Top 10" lists. Instead, I often rely on recommendations from a small group of discerning readers - my wife, my sisters, my oldest niece, the moderator of my favorite book club. When I love a book like Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad" or Patti Smith's "Just Kids" or Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and later learn they are prizewinners, I'm gratified that I detected quality writing. So far, so good.

I recently finished a novel recommended to me by someone not on my usual list. I found it dull in the extreme and I'm not someone who is big on ACTION kinds of books. I love Richard Russo and very little ever "happens" in many of his books. OK, lesson learned, I thought; I'll skip future recommendations this particular person makes. Then, I learned the book I'd recently completed won the National Book Award in the late 90's. And there's the dilemma for this discerning reader - What did I miss?

Saying it's just a matter of taste is inadequate. The judges for the Pulitzer, the Booker, the National Book Award are, by definition, highly discerning readers; you don't get selected for a panel like that if you're not. This book had no overt literary ambitions like Joyce, was not at all experimental like David Foster Wallace, & had no dense language like Faulkner. It had a straightforward narrative line with just a few characters. What did I miss that the judges for the National Book Award did not? Help from other discerning readers?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Seeing Other People

One of the few bumper stickers I've ever been tempted to put on my car said the following: "I love my country but I think we should start seeing other people". Now to prevent the patriot police from coming to my door, I offer the following benign examples for why this bumper sticker resonates with this particular American blogger.

In a bagel store I patronize, I heard the grill man referred to as Charley, so I began using that name whenever I addressed him. One day, after over-hearing him speak Spanish, I asked him how he got the name Charley. I'll paraphrase his good natured response: "My real name is Carlos but the boss and customers liked Charley better so I answer to that".  Both names are two syllables, about the same number of letters, easy to pronounce. Why not the man's given name? I surely don't want anyone calling me "Patty" or "Pasquale" just because they "...like it better..." than Pat or Patrick.

Same sport, different ballpark: At a recent job I had an Indian colleague whose given name is Ashwin, pronounced exactly like the two English words "ash" and "win". What moniker do you suppose this professional ended up with to pacify those who found his name too exotic? Max! I'm not making this up. Neither Carlos nor Ashwin appeared to be put out about being re-named. So, what is Pasquale/Patty the blogger getting at here?

Back to the bumper sticker - seeing other people. Isn't trying to use someone's given name a respectful way to demonstrate you see them? What do you think?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Stop-Start-Continue

One of the most useful learning models I've ever come across is called stop-start-continue. The idea is to ask yourself - what will I stop doing as a result of what I've learned? Then repeat the question substituting the words start & continue for the word stop. When you're done you'll have three action steps you can take to apply what you've learned. Added bonus: Most of the research I've been exposed to says three actions is something many of us can remember and a small enough number that our chances of success are enhanced.

Because I'm not a big believer in new year resolutions, I've decided to begin 2012 using the stop-start-continue model instead. Why not join me? I'd love to know what you will stop, start and continue this year.

* This year I will stop driving in ways that scare my wife.
* This year I will start recording my original songs, using my daughter as the vocalist.
* This year I will continue my project of completing a non-fiction book alongside every novel I finish.

Welcome to 2012!