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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2038: In A Galaxy Nearby

"The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen 24 hours a day all his life means either that democracy must fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves."

From a recent news story? A sharp blogger? A TV or Internet pundit? Nope - That prescient statement is from a 1951 series published by Encyclopedia Brittanica called "Great Books of the Western World".

A friend recently suggested we read that series and get together each time we both finish one of the 54 volumes to discuss what we've learned. And though immediately intrigued by his idea, I was also intimidated looking at the authors featured. After uncovering that sentence above in the preface of Volume I, for now, my excitement has overcome my doubt. I'm on board - thinking about a schedule and an approach for tackling such a massive project. Volume I has a suggested ten year syllabus; twenty five years looks more realistic, unless I give up extravagances like sleeping.

If I'm right, we'll both be in our late-80's as we approach the finish. Hope his children or grandchildren remind him. To my nieces & nephews, daughter, future grandchildren: Make a hard copy of this post and put it somewhere where you'll see it in 2038 to remind Uncle Pat, Dad, or Pop-Pop (?). Here's hoping the series doesn't get updated before then to include great thinkers from the 20th century; the last volume ends with the early work of Freud. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Perpetual (Albeit Thrifty) Student

What are some reliable methods you use to help ensure you stay a student?

Aside from reading and making it a priority to be around others who love learning, tennis lessons have helped me both as a learner and as a teacher. Each time my teacher points out bad habits I developed due to lack of lessons earlier in life or when he explains how I'm relying on a strength like speed to over-compensate for not spending the necessary time drilling fundamentals, it makes me a better guitar teacher. And the transfer of learning is immediate. A tennis lesson Monday reminds me Tuesday how critical it is I pay close attention to the habits of my guitar students as well as taking note of any strength that could be masking shortcomings. It's very cool.

I suspect the more time spent as a student, no matter the subject, the more effective I'll be as a teacher, no matter the subject. This insight has helped erase doubt I may have ever had about the value of being a perpetual student. Next: Getting past some reluctance to spending money on lessons for other stuff. Stay tuned.        

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More Sensitivity; Less Fascination

This past weekend, while entertaining out-of-state friends, my wife and I revisited a discussion we've had since Hurricane Sandy wrought its devastation three months ago: How do any of us know when our curiosity has devolved into something less benign?

Encountering a police roadblock barring entry into one of the most hard hit NJ shore communities, one of our friends seemed relieved our plan to drive around and look had been foiled. He said something like "...I was feeling a little weird anyway..." That queasy sensation was familiar. When just the two of us took a walk around the day after the hurricane, downed trees, standing water, piles of debris were everywhere. Though many people were out and about on our local streets, it was difficult deciding who to talk to and what to say. Yet just looking without speaking felt creepy. My mind flashed to news stories about human vultures  organizing bus sightseeing tours through post-Katrina New Orleans.

But many of the people my wife and I met on those walks, even those who appeared to have lost a great deal, seemed anxious to talk. So we both listened. I suppose the decision to drive our friends around this past weekend and look at Sandy's destruction could be partially explained by the German word schadenfreude - a human tendency to be fascinated by the misfortunes of others. But had we run into anyone, I hope my sensitivity would have superseded my fascination.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Payoff Project, Continued

About a year ago, I solicited help on my daughter's behalf when she'd asked her geeky Dad about great actress performances on film; I knew there would be some I'd missed. Throughout 2012, I spaced out 40 recommendations (so she could keep up) and also wrote something about each performance in my e-mails to her. So, since several movies suggested came from your responses to my earlier post...

"Please Sir (or Madam), may I have some more?"  I hope my observations about the first 40 will help you to help me to help her.

* I was too heavy on drama. Not sure if that's my own somber propensities or the fact that it's harder to recognize good comic performances. In either case, I need your help.
* 40 films - Two African American women (Whoopi Goldberg in "Corrina, Corrina" & Oprah Winfrey in "The Color Purple "), one Latina (Penelope Cruz in "Elegy"), and one Asian (Sandra Oh in "Sideways"). Not bad, but more help needed. 
* Using my film book collection to ensure I recalled award winning performances I felt were worthy (e.g. Bette Davis in "All About Eve") might have led me to err a bit on the mainstream side. So, any offbeat suggestions are welcome.

Extra points if you make a suggestion and identify the film quoted in bold italics. Ready? Go! And thanks again.    

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sour Grapes

How do I become a nepot?

Every time I learn the young adult offspring or close relative of some celebrity has landed another plum role in a play, TV show or film, that question pops up unbidden. I realize nepotism has been around as long as the world's oldest profession and life is not fair. The title of this post is not meant to be ironic.

I guess perspective is in short supply for me when it comes to my daughter's life. If she reads this particular post, she might be unhappy with me. And she is resilient, determined, and reminds me regularly acting is her chosen field; no one coerced her. But I ask sincerely: What parent in my situation wouldn't be looking for the nepot application?

If anyone has any ideas for me, rest assured - there is very little I wouldn't consider. I'll take responses via comments here, e-mail or snail mail, phone calls, Pony Express, smoke signals, unannounced visits, etc.
          

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Reader To Rely On

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/11/parenting-book-clubs-democracy.html

Who do you rely on for book recommendations?

It's possible I've hit the jackpot on this. Since May 2010, I've been directed to 31 books by one person. All except two have been by authors new to me and all but three, including the one I just finished ("Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall - 2009) have been novels. Get ready for this scorecard, OK?

Out of the park winners: Thirteen, including "The Painted Drum " (Louise Erdrich) & "Brazzaville Beach" (William Boyd). 
Unqualified winners:  Six, including all three non-fiction and gems like "A Widower's Tale" (Julia Glass). I've gifted several of the 19 from these two groups to people I love.
Worthy of anyone's timeTwelve.

Left in the just OK/don't waste your time/loser categories? 0 . Now that's what I call a batting average. The post at the top was written in November 2011, when this fruitful relationship was about 18 months old.  Since then, I've expressed my gratitude several times to this new friend. After finishing "Born To Run", I decided a form of public tribute was in order. When did you last thank the reading gurus in your life?      

Monday, January 21, 2013

#7: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four novels that you've loved were later turned into films worthy of the original source? It took me quite a while to settle on my Mt. Rushmore for this category, noted below in order of the publication date of the novels. My monument emphasizes drama; feel free to have yours giggling.   

1.) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Even if I get no comments on this post, I'd wager many would enshrine this classic book, made into an equally memorable film, onto their Mt. Rushmore. And who else could have possibly played Atticus Finch other than Gregory Peck?

2.) Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux: Ally Fox is among the most infuriating fictional characters I've ever encountered. I loved both Harrison Ford's against-type portrayal of Fox and also how this big budget film closely adhered to Theroux's book, including the downbeat ending.

3.) The Reader by Bernard Schlink: Clearly not a book or film for everyone but this is my Mt. Rushmore, remember? Kate Winslet is a revelation in this film.

4.) The Human Stain by Philip Roth: The only one of these four I did in reverse order, i.e. film first, book second.  No matter - both are staggering. In July 2011, I devoted a blog post to the novel. Could easily have done the same for the film which featured Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, Nicole Kidman as his late-in-life lover Fiona, and Ed Harris as Lester, Fiona's menacing ex-husband.

Film junkie/bookworm that I am, you gotta know how much I want to hear your Mt. Rushmore for this category, right? Come on, give a guy a break.
 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dialing Down The Barton

Becoming part of any tight group can be daunting. Outsiders have to decide how hard they will try to fit in at about the same time the group is deciding, often without saying so aloud, how well the outsider conforms to group norms. Which role have you played most recently - outsider or member of a group?

I come from a reasonably close family of origin with individual and group neuroses placing us on the functional part of a bell curve. That context may or may not help explain why it feels like my ability to  welcome and accept others into that group has mellowed quite a bit lately. Evidence? I recently observed myself dialing down the Barton in me to put a non-Barton more at ease. Why is this decent behavior notable, you ask? Fair question. It is not notable. But, it does mark a break from my past, especially since no one had called me out about being unwelcoming. 

My reflections now have me wondering how it is for outsiders everywhere. And, in particular, how was it for the earlier outsiders to break into my family? How much did I contribute to any difficulty they might have experienced? What has been your experience? Harder to break in or allow others to break in? It's possible the memories of my wife's entry into the Barton cocoon 35 years ago have been partially responsible for my mellowing.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Patience

patience: the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, pain, etc. without complaint, loss of temper or irritation. 

Now this is an attribute that screams for grading on a curve, no? Seems my grade for patience gets worse the better I know someone. And when I consider patience with myself, especially given the definition above, I'm in "D" territory fairly often.  

What accounts for my impatience with loved ones? What makes it easier for me to be patient with a new guitar student than I sometimes am with my wife, daughter, sisters, brother? Here's one convenient rationalization: I have higher expectations for my family than for strangers, colleagues, or neighbors. Or how about this? I see loved ones far more regularly so my chances for impatience are simply more frequent. Regardless of the relative merit of these rational lies, the most generous grade I deserve for patience with those close to me, at least so far, is a  "C".

Patience with all others? Depends on the kind of day I'm having. How about you? What challenges your patience? Read that dictionary definition carefully and note the etc. in the middle. Provocation, annoyance, misfortune and pain are not enough to bear? Yikes. I'll need several lifetimes to earn my "A" for this attribute.      

   

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Book To Savor

It's possible the movie "Witness" has stayed with me for many years because of the way it seamlessly blended three disparate elements; it was a convincing love story, an intense police thriller, and a non-patronizing examination of a unique culture. If I'm right, Junot Diaz' 2007 novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" will remain with me even longer.

This book has so many ingredients, I savored it like a good meal. Here's my incomplete recipe:
* Take one teenage misfit, searching for love;
* Add a significant taste of the brutal modern day history of the Dominican Republic;
* Mix in believable elements of a complex sibling relationship, including a dash of assimilation and feminism;
* Let it all simmer in a multi-generational immigrant sauce, made of equal parts romance, race, violence and sex;
* Be sure to mix up the ingredients and feel no obligation to follow the recipe in order.

A sure test of this author's skill? Though telegraphed in the title, the eponymous character's undoing still packed a wallop. I suppose a small measure of my enjoyment was related to the familiar New Jersey locales and a modern sensibility, but what Diaz concocted here is a story for anywhere, anytime.  
 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Whole Chicken Coop Vs. An IHOP Omelette

I'm quite invested in hearing responses to today's chicken and egg question. In your experience, is lasting change a result of shifting your language or does your language shift after you've initiated a change?

When first beginning to teach adults in the early 90's, one of my favorite mantras was "change your language, change your life." Based on reading the work of Albert Ellis, among others, I thought I'd seen evidence of how shifting my own language produced lasting change in my world. To cite just one example, I noticed back then how limiting my use of the word "should", when directed inward, helped me not beat myself up as much. Also: Limiting use of that same word when talking to others seemed to reduce the defensiveness I'd often engendered, particularly in loved ones. This one variety of cognitive restructuring Ellis calls "shoulding on yourself or others". This and the other language-driven changes I observed seemed dramatic to me.

Now, with 20 years of perspective, I'm wondering: Was it instead all that reading that first changed me in some fundamental way and perhaps my language shifted after I'd begun changing? A conversation with one of my wife's colleagues who shares an interest in neuro-linguistic programming started me down this latest chicken and egg path. After watching him wrestle with the question posed in the first paragraph above, I thought others on the bell curve might be interested in weighing in. Come on; it's a good 'un.             

Monday, January 14, 2013

Everyday Inspiration

What are your most reliable sources of everyday inspiration?

It's easy to get roped into the notion that inspiration is somehow reserved for artists. I've heard more than one claim made by someone in the public eye about "larger than life" inspirations. Mine are invariably less grandiose.

* I'm inspired looking at my books.

* I'm inspired when someone I know uses a fitting metaphor.

* I'm inspired when a guitar student has a learning breakthrough.

My life is not real glamorous; sometimes that makes me low. But inspiration is around me all the time; it's up to me to make something out of the everyday.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

AMWAYED, Again

Many people know AMWAY as the company that widely popularized multi-level marketing. Although embarrassing to admit, early in adult life I was duped more than once into attending AMWAY meetings. The intentional obfuscation surrounding the invitations to attend those meetings partially explains how I was hoodwinked, but my motivation to attend was less sullied than the disingenuous people who'd invited me - I wanted to connect. Selling cleaning product was not in my future, however.  

It's been a long time since I've been manipulated by an AMWAY rep. But my need to connect with others has not abated. When sensing a connection is possible, I barrel ahead, trust others, accept invitations. My assumption? We're on a similar page. I've been wrong and have scar tissue to show for it. After a recent disappointment, naive was among the kinder words I was called. It's possible my radar will always need more calibration than most.

But giving up is not in the cards. I'll remain vulnerable because that's the surest way I know to meaningfully connect. I'll continue telling people how I feel about them even when my words are not reciprocated or even when I'm unsure of their feelings about me. And I'm pretty sure I'll get "AMWAYED" again in the future; I'm more sure I'll bounce back quickly and begin again.

Friday, January 11, 2013

K Through 63 And Counting

Aside from your family of origin, who do you have contact with that goes back farthest in your life? What impact has that relationship had on you, for better or worse?

I joined Facebook in March 2011 for a selfish reason. The website hosting my blog, started earlier that same month, suggested social networking as a potential means to reach more people. And though that strategy has worked, Facebook delivered a more noteworthy gift several months ago.

We were born a month apart, lived in the same neighborhood, started kindergarten the same year, then spent K-12 in the same three schools in Irvington. Choice of colleges were different, but as my college rock n' roll band formed, he was drafted on keyboards and vocals; during those years we were inseparable. Early adult life took hold; the musical connection remained. In the mid 80's, on a foray to check out a smoking 10 piece band, discovered to our mutual delight we lived less than a mile from each other in Scotch Plains. Dinners, getting re-acquainted with his wife and younger sister, singing at parties, more music, at least one New Year's Eve together. Later adult life; a slightly longer break. Facebook, dinner out last fall, tomorrow - dinner at his home; my guitar will be with me.

Please excuse the excessive exposition. But this longtime friend deserves so much more. His impact on my life? Beginning in grammar school, he was the musician in town. All state trumpet; played piano & guitar almost as well. When he was forming a high school rock n' roll band, I was drafted to play drums, although I'd never had a set of drumsticks in my 13 year old hands. That was 50 years ago. What would my life have been without this friend? George Bailey, aka Jimmy Stewart, hear any bells ringing?  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Synaptic Spark On Steroids

When you think of New York City what filmmaker comes to mind? I hear a nasal voiceover:

"That's how quickly New York City comes about - like a weather vane - or the head of a cobra. Time tells which".

"Rules of Civility" (2011), the debut novel of Amor Towles, is a New York City valentine waiting to be filmed by Woody Allen. Not only is New York City a main character, the story takes place in 1938 so imagine Woody's soundtrack. Unlike his past movies, when he has ignored the existence of rock n' roll, this time it will be historically accurate!

And, now that the Woodster's movies appear to have outgrown his sexual Peter Pan shtick, his casting of the three young principals from Towles' novel could be inspired. There's even a good bit part for Woody himself - "Nathaniel Parrish was a senior fiction editor at the Pembroke Press and something of a fixture". Even that name is perfect for him; can't you see the eyeglasses? I'm sincerely anxious to compare my casting choices from this wonderful book with anyone who reads it. Really.

"As we sat there, dusk was falling and the lights of the city were coming on one by one in ways even Edison hadn't imagined."  Who else could possibly do as much with that visual as Woody Allen? This is not just a synaptic spark; it's a forest fire. I may have to go to a Knicks game soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mongolia 47 - Iran 22

This hosting site provides me with lots of cool information, including countries that have stumbled across the blog. Being a semi-compulsive list maker and a geography freak, I've kept a list. As of the end of December, 47 countries have fallen onto my bell curve. And now, I've decided on a way to utilize this useless data. Drum roll, please...

Effective immediately, those keyword searching countries move to the top of the queue in the "Eat Around the World" project. Faithful (sic) readers will recall my wife and I began that culinary undertaking about a week after the inception of this blog. Really faithful readers (sick) will also recall a few project updates scattered across the ensuing 22 months.

Which brings me to the ingenious (very sic or sick) title of this post. Mongolia is the most recent and 47th unique country culled from my blog stats. On New Year's Eve, Iran became the latest and 22nd unique cuisine we've sampled since March 2011. Which countries from these two worthless lists already overlap you ask? Of those countries from the blog list not yet feasted on, which is next in the vittles queue you wonder? Another drum roll...          

 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Overcoooked Adjectives

I like adjectives as much as the next person, something even erratic readers of this blog already know. But, paraphrasing Albert Ellis, many people "over-awfulize". Ellis' examples usually referred to things people say to themselves that create cognitive traps and in turn, stress. My examples are instead things I've heard, out loud, way too often - overcooked adjectives. Please join my cranky rant and offer up your own.

* I was devastated. Really? Not just disappointed? And the flip side...

* I was ecstatic.  Honestly? How about happy? Glad? Very happy? Very glad?

* It was amazing or...incredible...or my favorite...unbelievable. Not just noteworthy, perhaps?

Many years ago, during one of the periods State government was laying off employees, a colleague of mine referred to that regrettable state of affairs as a "travesty". And though that noun seemed a bit strong, she briskly moved onto "awful", "terrible" and "horrible". In the midst of her overcooking, I recall being unable to get Andre the Giant out of my mind. Remember that scene from "The Princess Bride" when Andre confronts Wallace Shawn about his misuse of the word "inconceivable?"  Ever since, with mixed success, I've tried to keep Andre in my head whenever I'm tempted to overcook.     

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Today's Blog In A Box

When does adhering to a format become a confining box?

It's difficult to escape cliches. At this point, hearing "think outside the box" to describe innovation or creativity makes me groan. But mentally reviewing my blog format while on a long drive yesterday I found myself uttering that dreaded cliche under my breath. How to get outside my box here? Forget the questions? An occasional post with less than three paragraphs? Eliminate punctuation? Stop using spellcheck? Wow, those notions would really push the envelope, right? Talk about flying without a net.

Shit.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Hard Book Can Be Good To Find

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it".

Those wise words of Flannery O'Connor are the fitting epigraph to "A Good Hard Look" (2011) by Ann Napolitano. Fitting because O'Connor herself is a central figure in this novel of power and beauty.

What was the last work of fiction you enjoyed a great deal that featured an actual person? Mine goes back 40 years - Gore Vidal's "Burr" (1973). Napolitano got me so involved in O'Connor's inner life as a writer and actual life in small town Georgia that her early death as the novel ends jarred me like a good O'Connor short story (are there any bad O'Connor short stories?). But this being a book with O'Connor as both subject and muse, a warning is in order: There is no shortage of sadness here; sometimes this can be a hard book to read. But there is also, as in O'Connor's bleakest work, redemption. And, there are plenty of luminous insights like this:

"He figured everyone had, at best, only one big story in his or her life; a story that rendered everything else a footnote".

That gem goes with Melvin Whiteson, the main fictional character, a man who ends up being O'Connor's friend in her final years. This book is full of wonderful sentences like that - it's a good find.             

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Huh?

Though loath to admit it, I have come to accept the fact that much modern poetry escapes my grasp. I also know penetrating "Finnegan's Wake" is not in my future. Even when forced to skim the more difficult sections of essays by Christopher Hitchens or David Foster Wallace, I remind myself that occasionally being out of my depth is good for me.

But being confused by a science fiction movie is deeply frustrating. Isn't this genre supposed to be mass entertainment? I'm not a modern poet, literary scholar or intellectual. But I'm fairly certain I am part of the "mass" that Hollywood is aiming to entertain with science fiction. Hell, I don't even care if a movie doesn't entertain, per se; I actually enjoyed "The Master" because I knew going in, based on the reviews, that movie wasn't supposed to necessarily add up. P.S. It also wasn't science fiction.

But in their own way, science fiction movies are supposed to at least add up, right? I'm ready to suspend my disbelief when that alien jumps out of a chest because I understand how it got there. I can throw logic out when HAL takes over or Richard Dreyfuss starts building a mud dome in his living room because later in those movies I don't feel dense.

Rocket scientists need not respond to offer any explanations for my current dilemma. Anyone else who saw "Prometheus", please do so discreetly. I'm feeling a bit insecure.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Stop & Continue, 2013 - Start, Again

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/01/stop-start-continue.html

Batted .666 from my first "stop-start-continue" post; I count that a success. If you joined me last January 1, how did you do this past year? And what will you stop, start and continue in 2013?

 * This year I will stop looking at e-mail more than twice a day. In my final years working full time, I found this an effective way to manage time. But I've fallen out of the habit; time to re-establish it.   

*  And I will continue working on having to be "right" so much. Several times this year, I embarrassed myself and hurt others based on this silly pre-occupation. 

The one I missed last year was to start recording my original songs, using my daughter as the vocalist. So rather than inventing a new "start" pledge for 2013, I'm renewing that.

Good luck to you & me.