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Monday, October 29, 2012

Gift Vs. Label

What do you imagine would have been different if you were in grammar school now vs. when you actually attended?

Almost every time someone comments on my energy, I remember the restless boy who drove his teachers to distraction. Since all four of us attended the same schools from kindergarten through high school, my three younger siblings were often greeted with some caution by teachers who'd had me earlier. If any of them simply sat still, sighs of teacher relief followed.

Consequently, I suspect if attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) was as front and center in the mid-late 1950's as it sometimes seems to be now, I could have been an easy candidate for medication. Never mind that I've never had much trouble focusing on or finishing tasks. If anything, I get too focused to the exclusion of interacting with others. But I fear any label having the words "attention deficit" would have been easy to lay on me. I've always considered my energy, when aimed in positive directions, a real gift. How easily a gift can be misconstrued.

  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mirror Mirror

If things get as dire here at the NJ shore as predicted, could be a while between posts. So in case I'm out of business for a few days, here's a weighty question to consider: If George Clooney or Jennifer Anniston were friends of yours, would they be as good looking?

My wife and I were recently discussing who we considered the best looking people we know personally. Trying to picture the faces of friends, work colleagues, neighbors etc. in my mind's eye, I noticed how difficult it was to displace certain celebrity mugs. Though I'm loathe to admit it, seeing "The Sexiest Man Alive" next to George Clooney's puss while standing at the supermarket checkout line has an impact on me. It's possible that impact makes it a bit harder for me to equate the good looks of people I know with George or Jennifer or whomever People or Us has recently annointed.

After shaking off those unbidden mental images, I was able to return to our profound conversation. We agreed on some good looking folks from our own circle but my wife maintained Brad Pitt would stand out even if he was just our mailman. I'm not so sure.  

 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not A Facebook Post

What percentage of your conversations would you describe as routine? Satisfying? Stimulating? What would you say are some obstacles preventing your conversations from being more regularly stimulating?

Like many people, I engage in a fair share of idle chitchat. And I have no desire for all, or even most, of my conversations to be loaded down with Meaning. On the other hand, staying on the surface has less and less appeal to me. When conversations seem to be headed in that direction, I'll sometimes choose silence or escape, provided it's not obnoxiously obvious. Using this tactic with people who have known me longer is tricky. An extroverted persona like mine becomes a kind of prison in these situations.

"I want". Sometimes, like the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's "Henderson The Rain King", I find myself uttering his two word sentence when a conversation seems stuck. At other times outrageous or  provocative questions flood my brain. Then my social filter pushes those questions aside and I return. Sometimes I'm completely OK doing so. Other times, not so much. Any of this seem vaguely familiar?        

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Loyalty

loyalty: faithfulness to commitments or obligations.

At this point in your life, using the definition above, how would you grade yourself on loyalty? Of the nine attributes covered so far in this series, this is among my strongest: a solid "A" for Pat for loyalty. It's also very clear to me how I evolved this way - the influence of my Father. Who has been your biggest influence, for better or worse, when it comes to loyalty?

Faithfulness to commitments and obligations was central to my Father's core; I've proudly followed his model. I can't recall a single instance when my Dad was disloyal. Family, friends, neighbors, employers - everyone knew they could rely on him to be where he said he would be, when he said he would be there. I've always wanted people to feel the same about me; think I've largely succeeded.


p.s. For anyone paying close attention, I skipped both "J" and "K" in this series. "Kindness", with a definition too close to "generosity" (already covered), was the only attribute beginning with either of those two letters that struck me as worth exploring.  
              


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Postponed

Since flattering myself that I'd invented a clever metaphor months ago comparing the positions in basketball to the style of novelists, I've kicked around a follow up to that particular post. When I recently began writing it, using musicians this time instead of novelists, it dawned on me: I'm seriously out of touch vis-a-vis contemporary music.

Aside from my 23 year old daughter and my brother, who pays some attention to contemporary music, I know few people who help keep me tuned up in this regard. I seem to give more attention to newer novelists, filmmakers, and even visual artists than I do musicians. Very odd, given my passion for music. The youngest musician whose work I can speak of intelligently is over 50 years old - yikes. Came up with some strategies to assist myself - welcome others you might have:

* Put on college radio stations while driving; NPR goes on temporary hiatus
* Create more Pandora stations using contemporary artists - that's how I discovered Sara Bareilles
* Ask my daughter for future birthday and Christmas CD mixes featuring people she likes
* Engage more young adults (who are not Led Zeppelin or Eagles fans) about music they enjoy

That follow up? Postponed, until I'm more up-to-date.        



  



Monday, October 22, 2012

A Long Ago Takeaway

Which long ago conversation still seems fresh in your memory based on something you learned from it?

I realize "long ago" means different things to us all. In my case, the conversation happened 40 years ago. But over the past day, listening to tributes for the late Senator George McGovern, that 1972 conversation with a college friend seems very fresh indeed.

Following college graduation in 1971, I was predictably liberal. So as the 1972 presidential election took shape, the candidate getting my vote was not in doubt. And my youthful enthusiasm for McGovern exceeded my sense of America's role in the world. So when a liberal friend said that he too would vote for McGovern, even though he felt Nixon better suited to the job, I recall being indignant. Was he right? Even with the benefit of hindsight, I'm still not sure. But that conversation and my friend's more nuanced views stayed with me. No matter how imperfectly I'm recalling this, it was formative - I was learning of my responsibility to be more well informed.

What did you take away from your long ago conversation?








Saturday, October 20, 2012

Begin...Again

What do you take for granted too often?

When my wife and I reached Kittaniny Ridge today while on the Appalachian trail, I realized how frequently I overlook the natural beauty of New Jersey. As a lifelong resident of this remarkably diverse State, I suppose I'm not alone. Taking things for granted that we know well is common.

But standing on that ridge looking down at the full bloom of fall in the Delaware Water Gap, I was reminded how awestruck I was just a month ago with the beauty of Tuscany. Here, less than two hours from home, following a six mile hike, I was gazing at a sight of equal splendor. Shame on me.

Hiking down, my reflections turned to other things needing more of my attention. Foremost among those things? People I've taken for granted. My strategy? A sage piece of wisdom learned from a new friend this past summer: Begin again; always begin again. On a perfect autumn day in New Jersey, what could be easier?  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Warning: Weird Post Ahead

Some months back, I had an odd premonition about someone I'd just met. For some reason, an innocent remark made me think "Ooh, this person once had a torrid love affair." Have you ever had thoughts like this about someone you hardly knew?

Since I've never considered myself at all psychic, the incident stuck with me. And now I've recently noticed a side effect. During several otherwise routine interactions with others, both with people I know pretty well and some I don't, I've found myself wondering: "Has this person ever had a torrid love affair?" When this happens, I'm distracted. It's a little disconcerting, especially in the middle of a mundane conversation.

If I were bold, I guess I could start asking people. How do you imagine people would react? How would you? Everyone has a story but I'm pretty sure that part of their story most people would not share. I'm especially nervous about asking the person who first put me on this weird track months ago. If it turned out I was right, future interactions with many others could be really weird. Actually, this post is pretty weird.
         



       

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#4: The Mt. Rushmore Series

For those keeping track (right!), carved in stone so far in this series have been peak life experiences, memorable short stories & favorite places visited - four of each, i.e. like Mt. Rushmore. Today - Which four films are solidly lodged in your brain? Don't get clever and say "North By Northwest", OK? My list is  chronological.

1.) "I Never Sang For My Father": A mournful but powerfully acted film with Gene Hackman in one of his earliest starring roles. Melvyn Douglas plays the eponymous father.
2.)  "The In-Laws":  For my money, one of the funniest movies ever made, starring Peter Falk & Alan Arkin. "Serpentine!!" Avoid the Michael Douglas/Albert Brooks remake at all costs.
3.)  "Hannah & Her Sisters":  No Mt. Rushmore of film would be complete for me without a Woody Allen flick. This is one I cannot shake. It's funny, wise and moving - quite a hat trick.
4.) "You Can Count On Me": About the unconditional love a sister (Laura Linney) has for her lost brother (Mark Ruffalo); two of today's best actors at the peak of their powers; amazing script.

Anyone detect a theme? Though 100% unplanned as I began typing, I'm unsurprised how this turned out and see no reason to change it. Please share your Mt. Rushmore of films with me; I'm still collecting films for the project first referred to in the blog post below from January. Thanks.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/01/finally-payoff.html

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nap Time

How do you guard against letting the views of professional opinion makers exert undue influence on you?

Although this is fresh on my mind because of the non-stop yammering of political pundits as the presidential debates unfold, this question has long had me in its grip. Film experts like Roger Ebert or the late Pauline Kael, or omnivorous readers/reviewers like the late John Leonard have spent whole lives examining their respective art forms. So, they clearly possess distinctions about those art forms I do not. Political pundits on both sides can make a similar claim re their expertise vs. my (relatively) less informed views.

Given that, how can you/I separate what we say is "our" view from the influence exerted by the experts?  How much is ours vs. theirs? How much does that matter? For me, this is more than an academic exercise. For example, the art form closest to my heart is music. But it's often difficult for me to tease apart where what I've read about a musician or a piece of music begins and my opinion of that same musician or piece of music ends. So as I get older and try to get wiser, I've begun withholding musical criticism unless I'm reasonably sure I arrived at "my" critical opinion largely on my own. But, I'm rarely as sure as I used to think I was. And I know quite a bit about music. I know less about film or books, even less about politics, and next to nothing about many other subjects. Is that the main reason professional opinion makers are needed? I need a nap.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Back In School

"I don't take notes on books I read; it makes me feel like I'm back in school."

The above statement, made at a recent meeting I attended, was playing in my head today as I took notes at a "One Day University" event in NYC. I couldn't help wondering - What's wrong with being back in school?

Since 2007, my wife and I have participated in five full day events sponsored by this organization.  At each event we've heard between five to seven lectures, about one hour long, usually followed by Q&A. The lecturers are largely from Ivy League schools, many are published authors, all are top notch public speakers. To get an idea of the breadth of subject matter just go on the website. End of commercial.

I've kept my notes from all five events in one notebook to re-read each time I return. Doing so during a break today I was struck by how much I've been exposed to being back in school this way. I'm not that concerned about how much I've retained; I can open that notebook randomly any time and find a gem without fail. To wit:

From 10/4/09: What Can We Learn From The Ancient Philosophers? Dr. Tamar Gendler (Yale) quoting Cicero: "Friends half our suffering and double our joy".  Now remind me again - What's wrong with being back in school?

    

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Reading Connection

A decision some years ago to maintain a 1:1 ratio of fiction to non-fiction books has had its challenges, especially when non-fiction subject matter is far removed from my experience. Yet the longer I stick with the practice, the more committed I am to continuing due to a noticeable by-product of my learning: An increased ability to connect with others I might have struggled to engage before.

Just within recent months, "The Wave" (Susan Casey), "The Big Short" (Michael Lewis), & "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (Barbara Kingsolver), brought me into the world of surfing, finance, gardening. My previous background in those subjects? Zero. I readily admit only "The Wave" had me enough in its grip that I finished it straight through without reading either a novel or a different non-fiction book at the same time. My difficulties had little to do with the skill of the other two authors. Each time I put off finishing those books, I asked myself: What are you resisting? My consistent answer? Unfamiliarity.

So when I finished both, I was energized by my persistence and eager to engage people who know more than I about finance & gardening. I'd already had excellent results doing exactly that (with surfing) right after I'd finished "The Wave".   




  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Geek! Dork! Nerd!

Of the benefits I've derived joining several book clubs over the last few years, being around people with great vocabularies is near the top. Call me a geek, but people who easily use the word "deft" are just...deft.

It's no surprise people who like to read are good with words. And though I like the 50 cent variety as much as the next showoff, recently someone used the short gem "oeuvre" at a meeting. Hearing that said aloud, a word I'd seen in print many times but was always unsure how to pronounce (and never took the time to look up), was such a gift; now it's mine to use as well. How about "farcical"? Heard that at the same meeting as "omniscient"; two good words - different people. But, both were used with enough context that anyone who was paying attention could understand what was being said even if the word itself was unfamiliar. What a blast!

Growing up in a family that sometimes discussed words at dinner probably set me up to be a bit dorky in this regard. And I clearly remember my mother calling me an "instigator" long before I had any idea what the word meant. But it sounded so good. To this day, when hanging out with my sisters and brother, we still get lost in this stuff. My younger sister often singles out words used in my blog posts that she "loves" - her exact phrase. How can I resist loving someone like that? Between my book clubs and my siblings, I'm destined to remain a word nerd. Guess there are worse things, right?        




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My New Penpals

Instead of being cranky about how impersonal it can sometimes be, I've decided to begin thinking of e-mail communication as a modern day version of penpals. Remember those?

I never resisted e-mail. At the time of its inception, I was supervising eight people who sat in three different locations. It struck me then as a useful and practical way to communicate with a team. But I did fight the urge to use the tool communicating with just one person. I held onto a belief that face-to-face communication was preferable in those circumstances even as e-mail became ubiquitous over the ensuing years. By the time I stopped working full time in 2010, my view was a distinctly minority one as my inbox  filled with notes sent to me alone even while my phone frequently sat silent all day.

Soon after stopping full time work, I discovered contact with my personal network was going to dry up if I didn't use e-mail as others did. But I started out cranky about it. Why didn't people just pick up the phone, darn it? It's possible starting this blog signalled a turning point for me. People who don't want to comment publicly have sent me moving e-mails about something a post awakened in them. As I began responding to those comments, I found myself increasingly using e-mail for non-blog related stuff, even when communicating with just one person. Then it dawned on me; it's like having penpals. Cool.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Guest Post

Are explanations needed? Ok, here goes.

It's an experiment. Author is family. What's the harm? Comments are welcome.


Oh, the words? "Must be nice!" I hate them. Are you jealous? Are you envious? What's the deal? I have something. I've accomplished something. You have not. That's too bad. Congratulate me soundly. Wish me well. But don't judge.


Want a shot? Forward your submission.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Where Is HG Wells When I Need Him?

Where in your life are you most likely to succumb to the easy seduction nostalgia offers?

I don't listen to oldies and studiously avoid "classic rock". I largely prefer contemporary novels over the masterpieces from the literary canon; most of the movies offered on Turner network don't appeal to me nearly as much as today's films. Modern homes draw me in more than Victorians. I don't yearn for any "good old days", politically or culturally.

All those disclaimers aside, nostalgia does have appeal for me in at least one domain - I miss the days when making connections with people was easier for me. Although my undergraduate years come first to mind, I also recall finding friends more readily as a young adult. A quick perusal of my blog titles reveals several posts referring to this subject - not surprising. Though my first post made mention of a wish to connect with others via cyberspace that thought now strikes me as naive and a little sad.

Was it really easier "back then"? Not sure, but for this one instance a time machine might be handy to have.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Keeping Joe Happy, Just Because

Can you recall a moment in your life when a word you commonly use took on brand new significance?

About 15 years ago, I was a witness in a Grand Jury proceeding. When the district attorney asked me to recount a purse snatching I'd observed, everything was fine until I uttered the word "because". He abruptly interrupted me mid-sentence and said "Please return to telling me what you observed, Mr. Barton, not your guesses as to the reasons".

How often do we use the word "because" without realizing we have moved into the story-telling realm? I can honestly say that moment was a true awakening for me. I'd never before considered how the word because can be roughly equivalent to "Once upon a time...." Nothing wrong with fairy tales, provided we know we're making them up. But when trying to be accurate describing something, best to remember Sargent Joe Friday's advice - "Just the facts, ma'am; just the facts." Mixing because with facts? Joe would not be pleased.   



Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mr. Id Is Not Going Quietly

"Still waters run deep."

Many years ago, Mr. Id heard the cliche above used to describe someone he knew. After some recent reflection, Mr. Id is inclined to think still waters are sometimes more stagnant than deep, at least with some people.

As an extrovert, Mr. Id has been justifiably called obnoxious, opinionated, arrogant on more than one occasion. However, it doesn't strike him as axiomatic that introverts are necessarily "deep" based on how little they speak, anymore than extroverts are necessarily glib or superficial for all their banter. Isn't it conceivable that some introverts or taciturn individuals are people of few words because, in fact, they don't have much to say?

Shoot the messenger if you choose, but Mr. Id advocates rethinking the strong & silent/still waters/person of few words archetype.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Challenging Myself

"Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you want to hang out with"
From "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" (2010) by David Lipsky

That quote, from Lipsky's book about the time he spent with the late David Foster Wallace, kept playing in my head as I rammed through "Mortality", a 2012 posthumous release by Christopher Hitchens. Capturing my reaction to Hitchens' final musings in my book journal, I reflected on two other favorite essayists I can't hang out with anymore: John Updike and recently, Gore Vidal. Since Wallace's suicide in 2008, I've lost four friends I never met. At present, Jonathan Lethem is the top living essayist on my dance card.

And though I'm a bit intimidated by the intellect of all five of these guys, reading them is very good for me. Reminds me how energized I (usually) feel playing guitar next to someone more accomplished than I or losing at tennis for a parallel reason. If I can just keep that nasty ego at bay, I learn and grow. How about you? In what domains of your life do you work at challenging yourself?    

Monday, October 1, 2012

Work To Do

How often do we learn how to improve by recognizing some of our own bad habits or behaviors in others?

The place I'm most likely to learn this lesson is when I closely observe my men friends interacting with their wives or partners. Whenever one of them interrupt their wives, finish a sentence or story, or steal a punchline, I'm reminded how rude it is, i.e. how rude I can sometimes be. And that's not the worst behavior I've observed in others that chastens me.

I think of myself as a good listener. When my wife and I are alone, I'm much less inclined to engage in some of the poor listening or disrespectful behaviors I find obnoxious in others. But clearly I've still got some work to do. I don't relish the idea of becoming an example to others of what not to do.