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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping One 11/22 Commitment

I first learned of author Cynthia Ozick via "The Shawl", among the most harrowing short stories I have ever read. If you run across this heavily anthologized nightmare, be forewarned. Largely because of my reaction to "The Shawl", I avoided reading more of Ozick's work. 

Though I don't regret avoiding her, after completing "Foreign Bodies" (2009), I realize I've got some catching up to do; Ozick is an author of immense gifts. The book jacket informed me "Foreign Bodies" is a mid-century homage to the esteemed Henry James novel "The Ambassadors". On the strength of Ozick's book, I now plan to tackle "The Ambassadors" despite my frequent difficulties with novels pre-dating the modern era. A few years ago, for similar reasons, I re-read "Great Expectations" right after finishing Lloyd Jones' "Mr. Pip" (2006); a good friend has called my recent reading habits "free-associative" - nice ring to that. What books have you read that led you organically to another?

Aside from one character who struck me as uni-dimensional, "Foreign Bodies" is rich with insights about human nature. But the author is skilled enough to leave me with almost as many questions as answers. In this case, I still haven't decided if the protagonist (Bea Nightingale) is a change agent or a cipher. Many books and people that remain fresh in my mind tend to have that element of mystery.    
       

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Economics Of Happiness

A few months ago I saw a documentary called "The Economics of Happiness". It's been a while since a film has lingered with me this long.

Though the movie covered a lot of territory, the persuasive case made for patronizing locally owned business resonated most strongly for me. Fortunately, the nearby town center makes doing this easier now than it was where I last lived. Except for the drugstore and a new Dunkin Donuts, which I've avoided, there are no chain stores. And though I've never been much of a mall devotee, the chips now are stacked heavily against me becoming one - I can walk to the places that satisfy most of my shopping needs. So "The Economics of Happiness"  has been a catalyst of sorts, helping solidify two commitments I'd previously made to myself:  Using my car as little as possible and shopping locally. Unlike years past, I'm feeling good about shopping for the holidays.

When was the last time the advocacy in a film had a noticeable effect on you?   

           

Monday, November 26, 2012

That Silly Fly On The Wall

What was the subject of the last argument you had with your spouse or partner? What do you suppose you'd think if, instead of being a participant, you could somehow eavesdrop on many of the past arguments you've had?

I do not know how the frequency, volume or intensity of our arguments compare with other couples. I also do not remember, though it was not long ago, what our last argument was about. But I'm pretty confident had I been a spectator, that argument would have seemed silly to me. And I'm guessing my wife would feel the same; had any of you been a fly on the wall, as likely as not, you'd also wonder why the fuss.

Few people would describe my wife or I as either mellow or passive so our dynamic can be charged. Also, I can sometimes be stubborn about being "right". But our personality traits and my foible aside, I'm guessing our partnership is not dissimilar to many others when it comes to the time we waste arguing about silly stuff. Your thoughts?        



Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Grade (So Far): Mindfulness

Mindfulness: The state of being attentive.

How would you grade yourself so far on this attribute? Some people might call this a no-brainer, wondering how someone could accomplish anything without paying attention. For me, this is another attribute where I've seen steady improvement over my adult life while fully recognizing I've got a long way to go. So I'll give myself a "C+" for mindfulness so far.

How often have you used the same parking space where you work? The same locker at the gym? Taken the same route to a familiar place? Had the same meal repeatedly either at home or in a favorite restaurant? These mundane rituals may have benefits but they are also often repeated with little or no mindfulness, as are other repetitive routines with much clearer benefits, like brushing your teeth. I brush my teeth every day and am just as inclined as the next person to engage in the mundane rituals noted.

But whenever I focus on either a mundane ritual or a benefit-producing routine, I feel more present, more attentive, more mindful. And every so often, breaking a ritual, even once, produces some small magic or new insight. More importantly, I've never been disappointed when I enter that mindful state. Which routines or rituals of yours can you envision shaking up a bit? What's the worst that can happen if you try? 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Key Learnings: Year 63

What did you learn between your last two birthdays? Birthdays tend to exacerbate the navel-gazer in me. And my experiences this past year gave me ample opportunity to look inward.

* "And so it's true, pride comes before a fall". My most profound learning this past year occurred when my pride allowed me to be blindsided by flattery. That phrase from Lennon/McCartney's "I'm A Loser" has replayed in my head ever since.

*  On the flip side, a powerful mantra someone shared with me this past summer has given me a new tool to help me forgive myself when I stumble: Begin...again.

* No matter how fragmentary, I learned this year to pay more attention to ideas that might later be useful in my creative life. Even when I've got a full sink, I leave the faucet on - helps ensure there's water when I need it.

Thanks for the continuing encouragement re this blog. And happy birthday to you when yours comes around.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Goals For Year 64

First, a safe goal: I will devote 64 blog posts to books I complete over the next year, a little more than one post a week about a different book. That will be a higher percentage of posts about books than I've done to date, but it's a goal easily accomplished.

Next, a goal that will take more discipline: I will learn on guitar 64 jazz standards that are "new" to me. Based on how far I got with my musical goal for year 63, I know this is do-able but also know my planning and time management will have to improve.            

Finally, a stretch goal:  By next November 23, my wife and I will have sampled the cuisine of 64 different countries. Given our most recent country (Spain) is #17, we will clearly have to step up the pace and do a lot more at home cooking as we did for #14 (Ecuador) and #16 (Liberia). Trying to find, let alone afford, 47 additional restaurants featuring different country's cuisines will doom this goal from the start.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Collaboration and Creativity

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/04/creativity.html

The above April 2011 post about creativity was the first of several I've since written about this subject of limitless interest. My commitment to this blog has led me to periodically reflect on the effect interaction with others has on the creative process. How important is interaction with others to your creativity? How much does the way we each manifest our creativity determine how critical that interaction is?

Because music plays a large part in my creative life, these questions invariably lead me first to think about musical collaborations vs. those who go it alone. Playing compositions by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, both of whom worked alone, I wonder: How might their work have been enhanced if they'd collaborated with others? From there, my reflections move easily to my own erratic, and also solitary, songwriting. I further wonder: If I'd realized years ago the importance of more regular interaction with others, would I have been more open to seeking out a musical collaborator? These themes come front and center when I consider how much more consistent I've been with blogging vs. songwriting. The volume grows louder still when I recognize how many of my posts have had their genesis in my interactions with others.

Please pardon the wistful tone here; birthday coming up.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Silver Linings

It's been three weeks since Hurricane Sandy hammered New Jersey & New York. What have I learned?

* My wife and I were on the minds of a fair number of people - a very gratifying feeling.

* Though I've been cynical about it in the past, partisan politics does not automatically trump compassion and good sense. Thank you Governor Christie and President Obama. And Mayor Bloomberg - good call cancelling the NYC Marathon. 

* A regular break from technology, even one forced on me by a power failure, is a good thing.

What have you learned?



Saturday, November 17, 2012

#5: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Lest anyone accuse me of being too serious, I'm going lowbrow for this month's Mt. Rushmore entry. In your estimation, which four comedians deserve to be stoned with Washington et al? All puns, no matter how groanworthy, welcome here.

1.) Bill Cosby: Long before he was pepper to Robert Culp's salt, or that cuddly sitcom paterfamilias, Cosby's albums (remember those?) like "Why Is There Air" doubled me over with laughter. And he did it without ever swearing.

2.) Richard Pryor: On the other hand, Pryor had a foul mouth. But it was a very funny and trenchant foul mouth. His routines after recovering from near self-immolation are smoking.

3.) Robin Williams: I wouldn't want him as a friend; I'm sure he cares. But what a mind; can't think of a better comic improviser. He's the Charlie Parker of comedy, complete with the drug problems.

4.) Jerry Seinfeld: Not the TV guy, the standup. Like Cosby, and unlike Pryor or Williams, Seinfeld doesn't talk trash. Instead, his quirky observations about everyday stuff make me laugh and pay more attention.

I know, where are the women, right? Hey, this is my Mt. Rushmore; put women on yours and remember the separate restroom.          


Friday, November 16, 2012

A Milestone - Thanks!

Recently this blog was viewed for the 10,000th time. Since many D-list celebrities routinely reach 10,000 or more people each day with their 140 character tweets, I won't be getting measured for a new hat size anytime soon. If has beens like Victoria Jackson and Ted Nugent are read by 10,000 people per tweet, this never was, who has written over 400 posts in 20 months, could arguably qualify for institutionalization just for using the word "reach" in a sentence referring to this blog.  

So get the medication ready; I'm ecstatic having reached this milestone. The number of online conversations I'd hoped for has yet to hit my objective. But the few that have occurred have been wonderful. The number of members remains low. But the quality of those members is high. Some posts I was sure would light a spark fizzled without a trace. But others unexpectedly produced some very moving responses, many delivered to me offline. Most of the comments have been from people I know. The comments coming from those I don't know, whether they identify themselves or not, have reminded me of the remarkable reach of the Internet.

I appreciate everyone who continues to encourage me. If ever you think a post might be of interest to someone you know, please consider forwarding it using the e-mail icon at the bottom left of the screen, right under "posted by Pat Barton". And thank you for reading.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Confident I'm Not Alone

How often do you cross the line from confidence to arrogance? Who are you more likely to think of as over-confident - yourself or others? If a surgeon calls themselves the "best" in their field is that more likely to re-assure you or concern you?

As someone who has been called arrogant more than a few times, I've knocked around questions like these quite a bit. The surgeon question, though it may seem out of place at first, is really of a piece with the others. When a friend recently spoke admiringly of a surgeon who said exactly this, I was caught off guard and wondered if that kind of uber-confidence would reassure me. I do know I would not want a surgeon or an electrician or a builder who was at all wishy-washy about their skills. Where is the line? How do you come across speaking of your skills? Is it acceptable for select professions to exude confidence bordering on arrogance? Which ones? Mine? Yours?

In the attribute series, several months ago I used charm for an attribute beginning with the letter "c". Had I thought of it at the time, grading myself on confidence might have been even more rich. I'm confident I'm not alone in my struggle to recognize where confidence ends and arrogance begins.   



Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Colliding

In an odd coincidence, Nancy Milford's 1970 biography of F Scott Fitzgerald's wife ("Zelda") is this month's selection for one of my book clubs and Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby" is the choice for another club I attend. Reading the two back-to-back was interesting and a bit eerie.

According to Milford, Fitzgerald borrowed heavily from Zelda's letters for his own writing. Knowing this helped make this reading of "Gatsby" a very different experience from my first. I wondered: How many other esteemed authors have had such un-credited assists? And since Milford thoroughly details the often dysfunctional co-dependency of the Fitzgeralds in "Zelda", it didn't take much imagination on my part to detect parallels among the principals in "Gatsby". Novelists frequently use significant pieces of their lives for their fiction. Anyone doubting this should try reading these two books as I did. Much of the secondary biographical information I'd just learned about Scott Fitzgerald from "Zelda" seemed to leap right into parts of "Gatsby".

I enjoyed "The Great Gatsby" far more this second time. Though I'm not sure why, reading "Zelda" just prior must have contributed. What similar experiences have you had when non-fiction and fiction collided?  

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Late Bloomer

This past summer I spent a week at Kripalu, a resort that specializes in yoga. One of the lectures I attended was taught by a dynamic instructor, wise well beyond her 35 years. After using her mantra (Begin...Again) as the title of a recent post, I knew I'd be returning to her soon in some fashion.

About a week ago, I came across the phrase "late bloomer" in a book. There it is, I thought. Although I'd been a bit troubled how this young woman had it more together at 35 than I did, that phrase somehow put me at ease; I'm a late bloomer. It's possible I could have avoided some heartache if I'd arrived a bit younger. But I don't regret fighting against being old before my time. Maturity always struck me as over-rated; I accept the consequences of that attitude, which probably includes a significant delay in blooming.

I'm guessing this young woman sought out more early mentors than I; that seems to be a consistent thread  in sharp younger people. Evidence to support my theory of late blooming? I'm getting pretty good at seeking out and paying more attention to others these days. What are you getting better at now that you suspect would have been really useful to be good at many years ago? When you run across precociously wise people much younger than you (like my Kripalu instructor), what runs through your mind?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stories Worth Hearing

Working alongside a group of high school boys trying to re-claim what used to be the beach community of Belmar New Jersey, my mind wandered to the adolescent boy I once was.

Most of those I talked to came from nearby towns that had not been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Like many adolescents, they didn't speak until spoken to or smile unless smiled at. They worked silently, occasionally competing with one another as we dismantled a mangled boardwalk. When I made a suggestion about handling boards with jutting nails, they followed it without comment. When I remarked on their strength or their facility using a crowbar or sledge hammer, my compliments were politely deflected. I learned one name, though only after offering mine first to a boy I worked with side-by-side the first hour.

Though I tried, I could not recall a single instance from my young life where I did a service like these boys. I hope this is just my memory failing me. Thinking of the alternative, that I was too self-absorbed to do anything like this when I was the same age, is too difficult. After resting my older-than-adolescent body for a day or so, I'll return to the work. And though I won't embarrass any of them by speaking of my admiration for their selfless volunteering, I will learn more names and draw a few of them out a bit more. They're young, but like most people I've met, they'll have stories they want to share. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Old News On Tuesday

It's pretty spooky how accurate the non-partisan polls were predicting the outcomes of Tuesday's election. Given how often poll results are reported as elections approach, I wonder what the effect is on voter habits.

For example, New Jersey was not considered to be in play for this election. Indeed, in recent memory the polls have consistently (and correctly) indicated NJ would go Democratic in Presidential elections. How many NJ Democrats get complacent and don't vote? How many NJ Republicans get discouraged and don't? Putting aside party affiliation, how much does the barrage of information about polling contribute to low turnouts all across the US?

A few weeks ago, I heard someone say on November 6 the country was electing the President of the United States of Ohio. And in the weeks leading up to the election, most of the other chatter centered on five or six additional "battleground" States. That leaves around 44 more States, including my own, where the election news on Tuesday night was a foregone conclusion of sorts. Anyone else bothered by this?  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A 3:00 Short Story

I genuinely enjoy good song lyrics about love. A world without "If I Fell" would feel like a smaller place. But I get a huge buzz when more offbeat subjects are turned into lyrics. Some of these offbeat lyrics have been transformative for me.

I clearly recall the first time I heard John Prine's "Hello in There". For many years after, I went out of my way to greet elderly people who crossed my path. Now that I'm quite a bit older myself, it's not implausible that some young person hearing Prine's poignant lyric may say hello to me unprompted. The lyric to "What Shall We Do With The Child?" , by Nicholas Holmes & Kate Horsey, has haunted me since 1969. If anyone else has ever written about how newborn children are affected when a couple splits up, I haven't come across it.  More recently, Joe Jackson's lyric on "The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy" inspired me to begin building a creative legacy. Which offbeat lyrics have similarly transformed you?

Many songwriters have captivated me this way. Arguably, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were among the earliest to do this well with lyrics like "Positively 4th St." and "Dangling Conversation". Just like the three songs mentioned above, these lyrics strike me as popular music's version of a 3:00 short story.    

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Back In Dodge (Until The Power Goes Out)

After an unplanned road trip of five days thanks to Hurricane Sandy, my wife and I just got back to Dodge a few hours ago. And now? Predictions of another storm arriving tomorrow and additional power outages. If the coming days are like the past seven, I can expect the following:

* Erratic posting of my blog and playing of my acoustic guitar
* Lots of driving, bad food, and Scrabble with my wife winning two of every three games
* Fewer showers than usual but more sleep; less reading, listening to music & exercising but more 1x1 conversations with my wife; fewer conversations with others but more texting and e-mail.

Well, at least we got to vote.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Deepening The Experience of Living

Recently I heard someone quote a critic who said novels that don't "...deepen the experience of living..." are not worth reading. Snobbish as it may be, that statement rings true for me. Parts of Jaimy Gordon's 2010 novel "The Lord of Misrule" disturbed me and I struggled a bit to understand the milieu depicted, i.e. claims horse racing. But the book did deepen my experience of living. What was the last thing you read that did the same for you?

Although I don't know a single person who faintly resembles the half dozen main characters here, they were vividly drawn, making even repulsive actions wholly plausible. And having finished another novel around the same time with atrocious dialogue, I was also struck by Gordon's near perfect pitch. An unexpected bonus was my recent rudimentary knowledge of horse terminology. Words like "paddock" or "mucking", unfamiliar to me less than two years ago, are now a part of my world as well as the world Gordon skillfully constructs. Finally, building her book on individual horse races struck me as masterful.

Several months ago, based on the cast, I tuned in to a few episodes of the defunct HBO series "Luck". I was hopelessly lost trying to follow the arcane dialogue or understand the character's motivations on that short-lived show, also about claims horse racing. I suspect had I read "The Lord of Misrule" first, I might not have been as quick to harshly judge "Luck".  More deepening of the experience of living, no?







Friday, November 2, 2012

This Moment

We survive until we don't. We cope until we can't. In between, events like Hurricane Sandy happen.

Although I escaped unscathed, this felt up close and personal. Yesterday I was grateful; today I'm confused. If the past is predictive, in the coming tomorrows I will send money, feel hopeless, forget the suffering others are experiencing, feel guilty, go to sleep when these thoughts fill my head, get up again.

The images of devastation horrify me while in the same moment I look at them, my life goes on. I think about how silly and self-centered blogging is but this moment, until I do more, this is what I'm doing because it's what I do. I hope my meager words mean something, anything to someone, anyone.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dodging Another One

How many bullets will I dodge in my life before gratitude for good fortune becomes my default mode?

Several weeks ago I was about three cars back at a traffic light on a busy highway when the light turned green. As a car whipped through the opposing red light and narrowly avoided ramming into the first car in my line, my thoughts turned to how many times I've dodged that bullet. How many times have you?

Not long after, I listened as a friend described attending the funeral of a young adult who died of a drug overdose. My friend was unable to find words to console the parents and I thought - there's another bullet I've dodged. Yes, my wife and I raised a solid daughter who has made good choices but so much was never in our control; like a car speeding through a light.

I am grateful for every car accident I've averted. I'm more grateful for the good choices my daughter has made. Tonight I'm grateful for the latest bullet I've dodged - a storm that just destroyed the lives of many people who live less than a mile from me. And I long for the day when no bullets are necessary to remind me to be grateful.