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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May 30,1920

On my low tech calendar, even though both of them are gone, I have for many years noted my parents' birthdays. When that calendar notation reminded me today is my Mother's birthday, other blog ideas I'd considered were dismissed. If you are lucky enough to have your parents still with you, I hope you honor them regularly, birthdays and otherwise.

My Mom would have been 92 today. My Father-in-law is around that age and I have at least one friend who cares for a Mother in her early 90's; both are doing quite well. That aside, I have few illusions about old age. If my Mother were still alive, things might not be as good as they are for my Father-in-law or my friend's Mom. But I still want her here.

I would like her to know my wife, who I met about 7 months after Mom died. I would like her to know her 7 grandchildren, and selfishly but especially, my 23 year old daughter. I would like her to have seen me get my Master's degree at 48 years old. I have many other landmarks I would have liked her to witness. Mostly, I would just like to hang out with her. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Living In The Question

Years ago, a work colleague talked a lot about "living in the question". It took me quite a while to understand what she meant and even longer to get at all comfortable not having answers all the time. How comfortable are you living in the question? When you encounter ambiguous situations how do you react?

It's possible our tolerance for ambiguity begins eroding soon after we become responsible adults. Part of what we're paid to do, no matter our line of work, is to have answers. I recall how my colleague would elicit smirks when she was brave enough to say "I'm not sure". Sometimes others would then quickly jump in with their answers. If those answers were rewarded in some way, those people could be smug when interacting later with my colleague. I was humbled by her uncertainty, but it took me years to get brave enough to emulate her. I've still got a long way to go.

While listening to a discussion about a very ambiguous ending to a novel the other day, I watched a similar dynamic at work. I resisted the temptation to offer an answer, stayed in the question, thought of my colleague and smiled.

Attention: Sports Fans

Which five working novelists would make up your current all star basketball team? Two should guard the traditional form, two should move the form forward, the fifth should straddle the center and move easily between both approaches.

My guards? John Irving & Richard Russo - traditional storytellers with an excellent ear for dialogue and affection for their characters. Forwards? Toni Morrison & Jennifer Egan - discursive, imaginative, contemporary, fearless. The center? Philip Roth - a startling mix of profane and tender, difficult and endearing, small "p" and large "p" political. I've spent a lot of time with four of these authors. Egan made the cut based on "A Visit From The Goon Squad" (2010) but that novel alone persuades me she's all star material.

Will I score points with sports fans using this all star model? Should I run further with it? Or did I already strike out with excessive puns?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Learning From My Wife ( & Bill Buckley)

Foremost among my wife's habits that I admire is how she stays well informed of the politics of people who do not share her views. She does this primarily by watching news shows featuring pundits from across the political spectrum. How do you stay up-to-date about what the "other side" is thinking?

I'm less disciplined about this than I was in the past. I used to routinely watch "Firing Line" with William Buckley; his intellect stimulated me even when his politics did not. And I always learned. I also looked forward to William Safire's regular column in the NY Times magazine. With Buckley & Safire gone, I now rely on the occasional op-ed by George Will, Andrew Sullivan, Tom Wolfe. Or, when I want to laugh and get a divergent view, I turn to PJ O'Rourke. But unlike my wife, who tunes in regularly, my approach these days is hit and miss.

Ideas for other people I should check out? I'd prefer someone working in print. The volume and frequent nastiness on TV are the main reasons I've avoided following my wife's example. Talk radio? Out of the question. If I get no suggestions of people working in print, I may start joining my wife periodically.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Tricky Business

What percentage of the books you read result from a recommendation made by someone you know? Aside from recommendations, what additional methods do you use frequently to help you decide?

Over my adult reading life, I'd estimate more than 75% of the novels I've read resulted from recommendations. In the last two years, a fair number of novels I've read have been book club selections; I also count those in the recommendation column. But on the non-fiction side, I'd guess the situation is almost reversed. I've always relied a great deal more on sources like the NY Times book review for non-fiction choices vs. recommendations from people I know. I'm not totally sure why this has evolved this way. If you read non-fiction, how similar is your experience? Aside from recommendations, what sources do you rely on? If you belong to any book clubs, how is the ratio of fiction to non-fiction? In my clubs, because there is a clear bias for fiction, my search leads me elsewhere.

I'm usually careful about what I recommend to others, fiction or non-fiction; tricky business, that. Lately I often add a caveat  if a book has moved me - acts as an escape clause if the person ends up hating it. And I've also established a new policy about books I don't like. Except for my wife and daughter, I keep my mouth shut. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Shift Deepens

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/07/reconsidering-patriotism.html

Last July I wrote the post above because of a shift I detected then in my longheld resistance to patriotism, based on two books I read around that time. Last night I felt that shift deepen watching an HBO movie called "Taking Chance". If you haven't seen it, I promise you it's worth 80 minutes of your time.

Based on actual events from 2004, Kevin Bacon portrays a Marine colonel who travels from Delaware to  Montana accompanying the body of 21 year old Marine private Chance Phelps, killed in action in Iraq. After arriving in Montana, the Colonel attends the funeral service Private Phelps' family has been waiting to have. Then he returns home to his family. The film is totally matter of fact; nothing happens aside from what I described; there is no dramatic arc. But the simple story, based on a journal the Colonel kept to document his experience, is powerful and moving. All day today I've remained haunted by it.

Despite having a Father who was a proud WWII vet, films and books about the military, especially those extolling patriotism, have had limited appeal for me in the past. Clearly, that is shifting. "Taking Chance" reminded me, without manipulating me, of the debt I owe to the men & women in our military and has me reconsidering patriotism, again.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Talking To A Younger Self

This year's presidential election will be the first my daughter participates in since leaving home. Reflecting on that, I recalled clearly my parallel experience in the presidential election year 1972. The path from there led me to wonder: What one thing would be useful to say if we were able to speak to ourselves at half our current age?

First thought: Would my 31 year old self pay any attention to a 62 year old, even though it's me speaking? Remembering myself at 31, I give it 50-50 odds. Maybe your odds are better. Second thought: The 62 year old will have to keep it short if he wants the 31 year old to listen. I recall how little patience I had at 31  for my Father's stories. But for this fantasy, 62 year old Pat gives himself the benefit of the doubt; 31 year old Pat will pay attention and be patient.

"Pat, to increase the likelihood of being happy as you get older, be sure to savor moments as you are living them; having goals is important, provided you remember to celebrate achieving them in a big way."

Don't bust my chops about this being two things instead of one the 62 year old is telling the 31 year old, OK? They are closely related and this is a fantasy. What would you say to your younger by half self?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Determination

Determination: The act of coming to a decision or of fixing or setting a purpose.

Based on the definition above, I'm comfortable saying I deserve a B+ for determination at this point in my life. How would you grade yourself currently on this attribute?

In my experience, the challenge with any strength is being careful about over-using it. My determination has sometimes led me to act impulsively, leading to a few decisions that later proved unwise. That part of the definition about fixing or setting a purpose has also had occasional downsides - seeming inflexible and forgetting to be present tense focused.

Those things aside, I'm quite happy with my determination. It's possible starting this blog was a positive by-product of that particular attribute. Since a few people have suggested I've been too harsh with my self-grades for ambition, bravery, charm, the first three attributes in this series, I'm curious to hear reactions to my self-grade here. But even more, I'm interested in the impact determination has had on your life.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Joe LaBracio?

Aside from my sisters, brother and one longtime musician friend, no one who I now see regularly knew me at all in 1976. That year I spent several months singing & playing guitar with a show band led by the former bass player of the Four Seasons, Joe Long, nee Joe LaBracio. The band was called LaBracio, an attempt to capitalize on Joe's notoriety.

My wife recently saw "Jersey Boys". According to her, Joe gets a small mention in the play. Though he was on all Four Seasons records beginning in 1965, including their 1975 comeback hit "Who Loves You?", much of the play is built around the years the Seasons first met and their very early hits. So dramatically, Joe's small mention probably makes sense. After all, the enduring appeal of the Four Seasons is mostly about Frankie Valli's falsetto singing those wonderful pop songs written by organist Bob Gaudio. However, since my wife told me about the play, Joe has been on my mind quite a bit.

I wonder if he's seen the play. If so, I wonder what he thinks about the mention he gets. I wonder how  much he thinks about that time of his life. I wonder how many people he now regularly sees know about those ten years. He's about ten years older than me so he's in his early 70's now. It would be fairly easy to re-initiate contact with Joe, but I won't. But I do wonder what music he listens to now and if he still plays his bass.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Debating Debuts

Recently, someone who enjoys reading as I do said she often decides whether to continue with an author based on the strength of their debut novel. How closely aligned are you with this view?

Her comment started me reflecting on debut novels. So far, aside from "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee and "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, both of which are debut but also the only novels released by these authors in their lifetimes, I haven't been able to think of another author whose debut novel knocked me down. Lots of very good first novels; from my perspective, not many astounding first novels. Most of my favorite authors, past & present, didn't grab me in a big way until a little later in their careers. How about you? I'd love to hear challenges to my view - could give me some newcomers to try.

Now if this person had made the same statement about debut recordings, I would have been more aligned with her view. With little effort I've come up with more than ten debut recordings that knocked me down even if subsequent recordings disappointed me. Again, how about you? Tell me about a debut recording that killed you. Or, tell me about a recording artist who, for you, more fits my author model, i.e. one you feel hit their stride with their sophomore (or later) efforts. Let the debate begin.      

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Take The Remote, Please

When was the last time you were genuinely inspired by a person you know or had contact with? What about that person inspired you? What action, if any, did they inspire you to take?

On my recent trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, there was an 86 year old gentleman from Ohio whose energy and dedication to our service task floored me. This man worked all day alongside people as young as 1/4 his age. He also joined several of us on a long hike at the end of one workday; was often the first one up to make coffee; did not, unlike others, take a nap before dinner; was up until every campfire was extinguished. And, he slept in his own tent (i.e. on the ground) instead of in the group dorm.

About 25-30 years ago, on another Sierra Club trip, I came across a 70 year old woman just as fit as this man. She so impressed me that I vowed right then to continue doing these trips in order to be around people this vital as I moved into my 40's and beyond. That woman cycled with us 50-60 miles a day; hiked mountains; rowed across lakes - on some days we did all three. Now all these years later, this 86 year young man renewed my resolve not to age holding a TV remote.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Musing State of Mind

Having been at this blogging thing for a while, I recently realized my process usually involves one of four states of mind: mulling, musing, milling, or moping.

Posts on mulling days often pertain to something I've written in my blog log - a phrase/sentence, observation, part of a conversation, etc. - later expanded into a post, provided I think someone will find it worthwhile. Musing days generate posts similar in tone to mulling except they frequently spring from a spontaneous place vs. something previously written down. Posts involving books, music & film often flow from musing. I'm pleased when anyone reacts to any post but some musing posts are as much about me sorting out something that's inspired me, or making sure to capture my own muse as they are about getting a reaction. In a mulling or musing state of mind, my outcomes tend to be upbeat, or at least neutral, and I usually ask questions.

On my milling days, the tone of posts seems to be more erratic; sometimes self-critical, sometimes caustic. When in a milling state of mind, not surprisingly, my restlessness shows up in the post. Mr. Id is more likely to show up on these days. In that state of mind, questions are a 50-50 proposition. 

Although I've largely avoided posting on days when moping is front and center, I've slipped a couple of times. Detected any posts where Pat was feeling sorry for himself? Please excuse the dope, er... mope.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Getting Off Conversational Auto-Pilot

I haven't kept track but I'm guessing conversation has been one of my most popular blog subjects to date. I'm usually social and more extrovert than introvert so I suppose this isn't surprising. 

Many of us think we're good at conversation, just as we think we have a good sense of humor. I'll suspend judgment on both of those common self-assessments, but I have been reflecting lately on the effort I put into recounting anecdotes I think will amuse others. That led me to wonder: How much richer would my conversations be if I put equal effort into recalling information about the people with whom I'm conversing? What if I concentrated as hard on what the other person just said to me as I do when trying to be clever or make a pun? It struck me that I'm often willing to work at being funny, while perhaps taking other important conversational skills for granted. In other words, aside from the funny bit, I'm on auto-pilot a lot.

How about you? How hard do you work at keeping your conversational saw sharp? How much do you let any wish you have to be amusing get in your way?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Open Letter: Thomas Pynchon

Dear Thomas; Given your total media silence, I have no illusion you will see or answer this, but I still have to ask: Which of your books would you suggest I try next? Or, any chance a short story is on the horizon?

Full disclosure: I first tried reading "V" as an undergraduate in 1968 and have since tried three more times - no luck yet. Based on their relatively shorter length and the hardcover jacket blurbs (Do you write these? Somehow I doubt it), I also recently attempted both "Crying of Lot 49" & "Inherent Vice" - same deal.

While otherwise devouring "Reading For My Life", a collection of pieces written by John Leonard, I struggled just following his review of your 1990 book "Vineland". I suspect my struggle had to do with how Leonard casually referenced "V", "Crying...." & "Gravity's Rainbow" in his review. Since Leonard is no longer with us, I can't ask if he thought his readers had understood those earlier books of yours well enough to follow him. But I can ask you: Based on his review, how closely did Leonard "get" you?

A few more questions: Although I think I recall reading somewhere you will not option any of your books for adaptation to film, if you ever changed your mind, which Director/Screenwriter would you consider up to the task? Please don't say Terence Malick - I can see some producer committing suicide trying to pull that off. An easier question, based on the role music plays in your books: Who to do a score? My guess would be Tom Waits. If I'm even close on that, please contact me - smoke signals accepted.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Revisionism With No Recriminations

Here's a musical fantasy I've been recently indulging; I want your help - What song do you wish could've been recorded by someone who'd already died by the time the song had been written?

With the easy access the Internet provides about the year great songs were written and the year a favorite performer of yours died, you're just minutes away from rewriting musical history. And it's harmless; no one can accuse you of revisionism, political correctness, bad breath.

Yes, of course I've got a list, need you ask? But today I break with my past model. I'm not giving away my songs and their too-soon-gone performers until I hear yours. I've suspected for a while that my opinionated views have been usurping some incipient creativity. This time I provide none of my (admittedly brilliant) nuggets before hearing yours. I promise I won't even check to make sure you got your dates straight.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fear Of Buying?

Browsing in a store today and seeing a rack of coats, each costing $1100, it occurred to me - I'm in one clothes store of many in just a medium sized city; there are many more coats like this hanging on racks all over the country.

I have no wish to spend anywhere near that kind of $$ for a coat. However, there must be many people who will buy a coat like this, otherwise why would just this one store have so much inventory? So, how do so many people come to buy something like this? If the people in my income bracket already own a few coats, as I do, how do so many of them come to want an additional $1100 coat? And if someone is not in my income bracket, what does that person decide to do without to buy this coat instead? 

Recognizing the judgmental side of myself in this series of questions about others now brought me to the nub of my reflecting. What is it that makes me not even consider buying things like this? My wife had one theory but I arrived at a different conclusion: I never wanted to work hard enough in my life to get to the point where I could afford things like this. So, now that I can afford it, what stops me? Since most things we don't do are about other things we're afraid of, what am I afraid of in this situation?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Not Another Glass House

Hiking with a big group recently, it was hard not to overhear a fair amount of the conversation going on directly behind me on the trail. It was just as difficult not to notice one of the people saying very little beyond "uh-um", "you don't say" etc. How often do you find yourself the passive partner in conversations? 

I also noticed whenever the person who said little asked the dominant talker a question, the talker invariably answered but I don't recall hearing a single question asked in return. I suppose this is not all that unusual, but I was still struck by it. I found myself wondering: Does the talker realize there is a one way flow of  information? How often have you found yourself on either end of that equation in a conversation?

A while back my wife pointed out to me how two good friends of ours, a couple, are much more likely to be passive in conversations, asking she and I questions about our work, our hobbies, our daughter, etc. Listening to that conversation (sic) on the trail reminded me about the need to be more reciprocal the next time we see these friends. After all, there could be someone like me listening and then blogging about how dense I am. Can't have that. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Call Me Inexplicable

When was the last time you had an emotional reaction that was inexplicable to you?

Early today, I was in The Tattered Cover here in Denver, possibly the coolest bookstore I've ever been in. While sitting in the music section in a really comfortable old chair, next to large windows, looking up at the tall ceiling, I noticed there was no background music playing. It was wonderfully quiet.

In my experience, this kind of quiet is unusual in a retail space so I sought out an employee to ask if this was a purposeful business choice. And I had other questions about the terrific store. But in the middle of what seemed like a mundane exchange with two employees, my eyes suddenly filled with tears. I might have been saying something about being a musician but still loving the quiet in the store. Or it may have been when the employee near my age answered a question about how long he worked there by saying he'd left a job he hated 12 years ago to find work where he'd have fun. I don't recall. Before I further embarrassed myself  (and scared  these two guys), I apologized for my water-filled eyes and quickly walked away.

Too much coffee for breakfast? A space filled with books & quiet? My 40 year long midlife crisis rearing its head, again? Like I said - inexplicable. I'm "saving" face: This post will not go to my Facebook network. But reliable or regular readers, please: Share with me (online or off) a similar experience of yours. I'll feel better knowing I'm not alone. Really.   

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Making It Mine

"You learn something new every day".

How many times have you heard yourself or others say that? How accurate is it? I'm inclined to think I'm re-learning as many things most days as I am learning brand new things. That's good - every time I re-learn something there's a better chance that learning will become mine.

Most of my post-graduate work was devoted to how adults learn. Over and over, especially in guitar teaching to adults, I have seen clear evidence to support a maxim I heard continually during my studies: Adults learn through spaced repetition. An illustration: How do you get a new word to take hold in your vocabulary? For me, it's the spaced repetition that does it. I rarely get comfortable with a new word before seeing it in print several times. For visual learners, that exposure and a handy dictionary may be enough to get started using a word. My preferred learning method is auditory so I also like to hear a couple people say it aloud - more repetition. Sometimes, I give new words a "test drive" by writing them privately, in my journal etc. This last approach is frequently used by those who prefer a kinesthetic method of learning. Regardless of preference, repetition is key. And repetition is a form of re-learning.

So, what did you re-learn today? Yesterday? What did you notice about the way you went about re-learning?  Did you read something, listen to someone, use your hands? Some combination of two or all three of those? How close is the learning to being yours now?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Disraeli, Hippies & Me

Sometimes, several years go by when I don't think of, hear or see in print the word "hippie". Then, all of a sudden, I have trouble escaping it. I seem to be in one of those cycles right now.

There were several people on my recent trip to Mammoth Cave around my age with common late 60s, early 70s experiences. Some had been in the Peace Corps; others had taken cross country hitchhiking trips; several chose non-traditional careers, at least to start. One of the 40-something participants began referring to this group of us as hippies. No one, including me, seemed to be offended. And people fond of labels still sometimes call me a hippie. I've called myself one, although the drug piece of that stereotype never had any appeal for me. I didn't have much use for "free love", either.

But right now, the word just keeps popping up. A few characters in Dan Chaon's 2012 collection of stories "Stay Awake" (just finished) were called hippies; this past Sunday an old friend said, apropos of  a news story, she was proud her "hippie days" brought her to where she is today politically; this morning I came across an entry written in my blog notebook many months ago. It reads - "The hippie I was".

In the end, I'm proud of the pieces I retained from my own hippie years. Though I came close to doing a few very stupid things back then, common sense and fear of punishment prevailed in the end, so what I'm left with are values that still work for me. Benjamin Disraeli famously said -  "A man who is not liberal when he is young has no heart; a man who is not conservative when he is old has no head". That leaves me a little lacking in the head department, at least according to Disraeli. How about you? How does Disraeli's view line up with or stand in opposition to the arc of your life?