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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Ghost Of Pat Past

When was the last time you saw your long ago self in contemporary form?

A few months ago waiting for a train to NYC, I noticed a man about my age struggling to use a credit card  with the ticket kiosk. After he thanked me for helping him get his ticket, I took a much closer look at him.

His gray hair was shoulder length; his jeans had holes in both knees and a tattered backpack carried his stuff; he wore a tie-dyed shirt. Except for the Grateful Dead logo on that shirt, he was Pat, circa 1969. I've since thought of this brief encounter many times. Each time I do, unable to fully process my feelings, I seem to come up with new questions. Decided it was time to put the ghost of Pat past away by posting some of the most recent ones and then scratch this expanding entry from my blog log for good.  

How much does peer pressure influence how I look now vs. how I looked then? Aside from peer pressure, what have been the other factors driving me to conform to contemporary standards? If not for meeting my wife in 1978, how closely would I today resemble this man? How much did her moderating influence help me to be successful in the ensuing years? How am I defining success?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Art Of Eavesdropping

If you could ask one question of a favorite author or playwright what would it be?

I'm pretty good at tuning out public conversations, unless the volume is excessive. On the other hand, eavesdropping, either intentional or unavoidable, has distinct advantages. This has become more apparent to me after almost two years of daily blogging. While engaged in this clandestine art at my local coffee shop today I began wondering: What % of the conversations found in books and plays contain at least snips of things overheard by authors?

From there it was a short distance to other wonderings. How many of my conversations have ended up in a book or play or blog post? How about yours? What's our legal recourse when an author, playwright or blogger uses our scintillating words or lucid opinions in their work? Is there a market for conversation analysts, i.e. someone who gets paid to eavesdrop and then cross references books, plays and blogs to alert conversationalists when they've been plagiarized? What's the name of the crime? Plagiarsation? Converize? Just asking.

My days as a loud talker are over. Never know who might be waiting to steal my bon mots.      

Monday, February 25, 2013

Battle Of The Book Clubs

Four books, four meetings. The undisputed winner in this month's battle of the book clubs? "Room" (2010) by Emma Donoghue.

It's not overstatement calling this book unique. How many five year old narrators have you encountered? How many books have you read that largely take place in a space eleven feet by eleven feet? After the first 40 or so pages, the author had created such a convincingly claustrophobic world, my breathing was actually a little shallow.

If this is a work of pure imagination, it's a stunning one.  But with no evidence to support my conjecture, I'm guessing some parts of it were based on real events. If any of you have read it and have an opinion about my theory, I'd like to hear it. I'm quite sure this book will never leave me.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Announcing: The First Olga Awards

Mark the date - February 24, 2014 -  so you'll remember to check back in as winners are announced. Bookmark this post to ensure you'll submit nominations as they occur to you. Forward this to family & friends to help judge have ample selections from which to choose winners. The occasion? The first Olga awards.

Categories:
1 & 2 & 3) Best movie, book (novel or non-fiction), and song that did not win an Oscar, Pulitzer, Grammy, or other comparable industry prize

4) Best ethnic restaurant in NYC metropolitan area

5 & 6) Best website and blog

Additional points earned for # 1,2,3 if judge has not yet seen, read, or heard nominations giving newer movies, books & songs a slight advantage. Additional points earned for restaurants (#4) featuring ethnic cuisine not yet sampled by judge and spouse. Additional points earned for #5 or 6 if URL includes the words "reflections" "bell" or "curve".  Additional points earned for all categories when nomination is made via comment box on blog site. In cases where only one nomination is made for a category (online or off), judge will punt. Otherwise, decisions of judge are final; bribes accepted. Open for business.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Resilience

Resilience: Ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity or the like; buoyancy.

How would you grade yourself so far on this attribute? In this dictionary definition, the word "readily" gives me a little pause. And I've been fortunate in escaping serious illness in my life, so I'm unable to say how well I'd do recovering in those circumstances. 

My ability to recover (readily) from depression and adversity? Been a while since I've faced any significant degree of either but so far, I'd give myself a "B" or maybe a "B-" for my resilience under those conditions. How about you? How quickly do you bounce back?

Bottom line: My resilience is probably over due for a test. I'm holding onto my "B/B-" and hoping my skills haven't dulled from lack of use.           

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Herman's Story

Along with his wife, whose name I don't recall, Herman ran the neighborhood grocery store two blocks from my childhood home. Buying milk or bread there one day with my mother, I remember how angry she was with me when I asked him what the numbers tattooed onto his forearm meant.

Though it's been years since I've thought of Herman or recalled that incident, reading "Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" (2000) by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer brought it all back. I'm reminded again why books bearing witness are so critical. Those interviewed for this book, most of whom were part of a British program that rescued mostly Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in late 1938, tell the harrowing story of how they survived. And they also tell the story of their parents who remained behind and did not.

I'd estimate Herman was around my parent's age; that would have made him about 18-20 years old in 1938. If I'm right, he would have been too old to qualify for the Kindertransport program. Anyway, the numbers on his forearm told a different story. All I really know for sure of Herman's story are those numbers and the fact that he survived.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

#8: The Mt. Rushmore Series (Special Edition)

Which four specific things would you have trouble living without? I don't mean the obvious like family or friends or generic stuff like your hobbies. You won't see books, music or film on my Mt. Rushmore even though imagining my life without them is difficult. I'm talking about stuff like...

1.) Indoor plumbing - There are some conveniences I could do without. Toilets and a shower? No thanks.

2.) Pizza - I genuinely like many foods but a world without pizza is my idea of food hell.

3.) National parks - For this legacy alone, Teddy Roosevelt earned his place on the real Mt. Rushmore.

4.) Public libraries - Being my most recent addition, this sacred public institution is my equivalent to Teddy Roosevelt's place on the mountainside.

OK, given the holiday, aside from sharing your four items on this iteration of Mt. Rushmore, the added bonus today is offering up your idea for a 5th president to join the other four out in South Dakota. Keep your nomination among the dead presidents, please; less potential for friction. But do offer the rationale for your choice; I'm curious about that.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Keeping My Groan Quotient Manageable

As annoying as it can be when my wife chastises me for speaking loudly in public places, more often than not I'm glad she does so. Otherwise, I suspect I could easily be the kind of "loud talker" who induces groans or worse in those forced to listen to me. Like the guy on our bus ride today to Washington DC.

Ironically, much of what this particular loud talker said I agreed with; no matter. He spoke so loudly it was difficult to tune him out. I shudder to think I've been guilty of the same thing, making me mostly appreciate my wife when she acts as my human volume control.

In addition, being unable to escape this person's diatribe reminded me how tiresome it can be to listen to such politically one sided rants, regardless which side of the aisle someone sits. Few nuances or subtleties, loads of slogans, and a few conspiracy theories for good measure; groan.

Who can you rely on to help you keep your groan quotient manageable?   

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Missing: Samuel, Antonin & Clarence

To anyone in our partisan age under the illusion the U.S. Supreme Court is non-partisan, please direct your attention to the three judges not present at President Obama's State of the Union address this past week. For those who did not watch, care to guess?  Alito, Scalia & Thomas.

No judges are ever required to attend this event and though I did not check, I have little doubt this kind of right-center-left display is not unique in modern times. For me, that does not make it any less regrettable. When did this stark split become so pronounced? How did we become so divided as a nation?  How can it be ameliorated?

I'm concerned what will happen if our one fairly reliable centrist on the court leaves before any of the others. More than that, I yearn for the days when our judicial branch could be counted on to rise above the sometimes fickle whims of we, the people. 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Humility On The Bell Curve

It began as I skimmed a book by the late George Carlin. When he began riffing on his annoyance with people who mispronounce words, I nodded my head and laughed. An unhealthy whiff of condescension accompanied my simpatico with Carlin.

But the laughs stuck in my throat when he got to the word "forte", the synonym for strength - one syllable, silent "e", does not end in long "a". This word, which I've mispronounced as long as I can remember, sounds identical to "fort" - where soldiers live. The two syllable forte that ends with a long "a" is Italian and usually applies to music; it means loud. Even my wife didn't believe me until I showed it to her in a dictionary. After all, words are my forte, right? But the saga & the humbling do not end there.

Still licking my hoity-toity wounds, I introduced forte into a conversation with my college educated family. More disbelief until a dictionary was produced. All were mildly chastened; none were yet humbled. What might bring all these smart asses, including yours truly, down to earth with other mere mortals you ask? A website with 100 commonly mispronounced words. Yes, the hits kept coming. I'll cite just two others, aside from forte, that no one in this esteemed group got right: mauve & diphtheria. Try them on for size and see how you do. Suggestion: Have a dictionary handy.

BTW, of the six undergraduate degrees represented by the aforementioned intelligentsia, two are from an Ivy League University. Oh yeah, there's also one Master's degree. And, although only forte, mauve & diphtheria are mentioned here, there were plenty of others from the hit parade that only one or two of us brainiacs got right. My processing of this sorry saga continues but one thing is clear; my blog is appropriately named.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Ides Of February: No Middling Matter

"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am - stuck in the middle with you".

How many times in your life have you heard the expression "stuck (or caught or trapped) in the middle"? Ever heard a complimentary reverse sentiment like "thrilled to be in the middle"? Me neither. So, what could be more appropriate, if superficial, to reflect on in the middle of the week in the middle of a month other than how the muddle in the middle can get short shrift? And, added justification - the Ides of February occur in today's middle muddle. OK, frivolity first.

Anyone else noticed how Wednesday figures in fewer songs over the course of music history than any other day of the week? In my extensive music collection I uncovered just one early Simon & Garfunkel song - Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.  Didn't research this so Google it and correct me if you must. Thursday is the only contender for 1st place in this dubious sweepstake.  While on music, how many of your favorite songs fall in the middle of any recording you own? (I'm talking pre I-tunes so don't get sassy). I'll take even money the majority of your favorites, like mine, were at the beginning or the end. Stuck in the middle again.

Then there's middle children. My two younger sisters might weigh in on this more sensitive middle subject. My brother, the youngest in the family, is also least likely to read my blog so this wacky rambling  might escape additional family scrutiny from the other one of us four not in the middle.

Though not inclined to wax political, I could mention the frequent invisibility of the middle class. At 63 do I still qualify as middle aged? Oh well, you get the idea. But I've saved the best for last. This middlebrow wants to know who, without Googling it, can name the band who recorded the one hit wonder cited at the beginning (not the middle) of this post. Aren't you glad you got through the middle paragraphs now?      

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Adding To A Body Of Knowledge

Of the non-fiction I've read since stopping full time work, "Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" (2010) by Siddharta Mukherjee is in a class all its own.

It took Mukherjee six years to complete the book - twice as long wouldn't have surprised me; the end notes alone are 60 pages. But staggering research aside, what set this apart for me was how the author made his sober subject accessible & interesting and his message hopeful yet measured. His techniques for doing that included keeping his sections a manageable length, repeating important medical and technical information, and interspersing case histories to illustrate the human side in this biography. Finally, the author resists taking potshots or turning anyone in the long history of cancer research into a villain. Even the often attacked pharmaceutical industry gets fair treatment.  

Reading several other books over the weeks I took to complete this was wise. Like most people, cancer has closely touched my life so frequent breaks were welcome. However, knowing there are oncologists like Mukherjee adding to a collective body of knowledge kept filling me with hope.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Three Of Us

How does the way you relate to your young adult children differ from the way you related to your parents when you were a young adult?

Apologies to anyone feeling excluded by today's reflection but after spending the weekend with my daughter I'm having difficulty escaping myself as a 24 year old. I cannot envision the last three days - a high school play, a movie, many hours spent just hanging out, cooking a full Sunday dinner - just Mom & Dad and I?

I loved my parents deeply; perhaps my memory is failing. However, a similar scenario of one day in length, never mind three, is just not coming to me. I wish one or the other were still around; maybe they'd differ. But if my recollections are more right than wrong, I'm left wondering: What is different? Do parenting norms from the differing eras help explain it? "Children should be seen and not heard" was common parlance as I grew up, as it was for many baby boomers. How much did that conventional wisdom work its way into my young adult psyche and prevent a deeper, more relaxed relationship with my parents?

Or is this relationship with my daughter more about her 24 year old maturity vs. me at that age? I'm so grateful for what my daughter and I share. And I'm a bit wistful my parents and I didn't find our way to a similar place. All three of us would have benefited.     

Friday, February 8, 2013

Is The Opposite Of Bad-Mouthing Good-Mouthing?

An attentive reader of my blog recently asked me "Do you ever read a book you don't like?" Fair question; of course, the answer is yes.

What purpose would it serve to post about one of those books?  From the outset, my objective has been to start a dialogue, online or otherwise. Since I post only about books that have moved me, any ensuing dialogue begins from a positive space. If someone reads the book and finds my assessment lacking, I look forward to hearing a differing view. I realize most books that have left me cold likely have something redeeming. And perhaps, a persuasive person who enjoyed something I did not might even be able to get me to take a second look. 

But I believe my energy is better spent writing about what juices me and having others push back to help me keep my reading saw sharp. In addition, until I finish a book of my own, it feels churlish to publicly bad mouth someone who has. I have one relative and several friends who have gotten to that finish line. Their kind of grit humbles me.

So look elsewhere for suggestions on books to avoid. And keep pushing back at me when any choice of mine strikes you as wrong-headed.

When Pleasure Trumps Guilt

What hobby or pastime of yours can evoke a bit of old fashioned guilt?

The time I spend with my principal hobbies - music, reading, film - is guilt-free, provided I'm not neglecting something or someone that needs my attention. Same thing for cycling and tennis, two of my main forms of exercise.

Now skiing can be a different story. I love nearly everything about it - being outdoors on crisp winter days, the way my legs burn as I plow downhill, the exhilarating speed. Yet the butchering of mountains at ski resorts has given my environmental side some pause. I've never considered quitting; the pleasure trumps the guilt. But I have fantasized more than once about being a confident and competent enough skiier to not need the resorts at all. My fantasy joins me with the people who get dropped into a virgin wilderness and simply ski down from there.

Not long ago, snide remarks about the despoiling effects of golf courses passed these snarky skiier lips. Looking at another carved up mountain recently, I had an image of a glass house and some golfers nearby - their white balls looked a lot like stones.            

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Words On A Page

How best to say this? Please read "A Lesson Before Dying" (1993) by Ernest J. Gaines. You might thank me or you might swear at me but I think this book will move you.  

Gaines' prose is spare and though plot is not the point, he grabs you by the throat and does not let go. When his people speak, what they say may not be nice but it will stay with you. The last thing I read that struck me this way was "Autobiography Of A Face" by Lucy Grealy. Gaines' book has the same ring of truth as that memoir.

When you're done, please let me know your thoughts. What were you left with? Who in the book is most like you? If you were Jefferson, who would you want at your side? If you were Grant, would you stay once Jefferson is gone? If you were Vivian, how would you show Grant your love? How far do we still have to go?         



      

Monday, February 4, 2013

Win, Win, Win

Who in your life brings out the best in you?

Just prior to stopping full time work, a colleague introduced me to a couple who were opening a stable specializing in therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. At the outset, my involvement in their venture was as a member of the Board of Trustees. But after visiting the farm and witnessing the work being done, I quickly became a regular volunteer. I've since written several posts about my experiences there.

A large part of my enjoyment at the stables is directly related to how the husband of this unselfish team brings out the best in me. Few Fridays go by without me recording something in my journal about this.
* Last week: Reminiscing about our childhoods in Chicago and Irvington, he helped remind me how stifling political correctness can sometimes be.
* A few weeks before that, when I fouled up a purchase of hay, he put me at ease by saying I probably "...saved money..." with my error. What a great way for me to stay mindful about blaming.
* He consistently makes fun of his own quirks. In my experience, modeling that behavior can never be reinforced enough.

In addition, I admire the way this gentle and generous man speaks and relates to his wife. That might be the best gift he's given me since my wife is the person who most often brings out the best in me. I watch and learn from his example, then I'm better with her, then she brings out more good stuff in me.            
         

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dropping By

Imagine you're at home enmeshed in your routine and...the doorbell rings. Surprise! Someone is dropping by. When was the last time this happened to you? When was the last time you dropped by on anyone? When was the last time you heard the expression "dropped by"?

Keep pretending. What would the people dropping by see? Bed made? Dishes in the sink? If it's not a work day and it's still a.m., have you showered yet? Are you still in your pajamas? Do you own pajamas? If you have a spouse or partner, how about them? Are they more, less or equally as presentable or unpresentable as you? How about the general state of your home? Neat? Clean? Both? Neither?
 
My Sunday morning routine has included reading the NY Times for many years. A short while ago I finished an article from the Styles section where the writer claimed she can glean a great deal about others by surveying what their home looks like when they're not expecting guests. Suddenly, I heard my doorbell - just kidding. But the article did cause me to briefly ponder what that writer might conclude about me. From there I fondly recalled how dropping by or having others drop by used to be, if not common, not an unheard of occurrence. And I wondered when that more spontaneous spirit began eroding in my life and how much of that erosion is connected to judging and being judged. Kind of like how that NY Times writer does.     

Friday, February 1, 2013

Well, Maybe A Little Superstitious

My parents were married today in 1947 so when Mom died in November 1977 they'd been married 30 years. My wife and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary September 17 of this year. And though I don't consider myself superstitious, glancing at the calendar this morning I was momentarily relieved the day ahead was an active one; gave me less chance to dwell on this odd fact. What was the last odd confluence of numbers or dates that you recall giving you any pause?

A few years ago Jim Carrey did a movie called "The Number 23". After seeing it on DVD, I understood why it had disappeared soon after its release. But despite its flaws, the central premise was plausible enough for the film to be memorable. I recall thinking at the time how the odd coincidences we all occasionally encounter with numbers can sometimes be unsettling; like how I felt this morning.

Once I got busy, the weirdness went away. At minimum, I'm glad Mom & Dad crossed my mind. When long stretches go by and I haven't thought of them, it can make me lonely.